tech

Google's ad prices are down. So what?

April 17, 2014: 8:26 AM ET

Despite alarmist coverage following its earnings miss, this tech giant is doing just fine.

Temple of tech.

"I think they have to stay the course when it comes to the mobile advertising," said Andrew Frank of Gartner Research.

FORTUNE -- Simmer down, folks. Google is doing just fine.

Judging from media coverage this Wednesday following Google's (GOOG) first-quarter results, you'd be forgiven for thinking the world's largest Internet search provider is in hot water. Google reported first-quarter revenues of $15.4 billion, up from $12.95 billion the same period last year, while earnings came in at $3.45 billion, also up slightly from last year.

But those numbers fell short of Wall Street's targets, based in part on the ongoing decline of Google's revenue from online ads, which account for the lion's share of company earnings. (The average "cost per click," or CPC, for instance, declined 9% this quarter.) That, in turn, caused Google's share price to fluctuate and set the media buzzing with talk of "disappointing" financial results, and more proof that Google is experiencing "growing pains," or is experiencing a "slump."

The culprit behind lower ad prices? The rapid, tumultuous shift from desktop to mobile. According to New York-based digital marketing research firm eMarketer, the number of smartphone users worldwide will grow 22% to 1.75 billion this year, rising to 2.03 billion in 2015 and 2.28 billion the year after.

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Businesses like Google that rely heavily on ad revenue already have desktop ads down to a science, but mobile advertising, which has cropped up in recent years, has remained tricky. They certainly see the potential in the rapidly growing mobile market, but haven't yet figured out the best way to use mobile to their advantage -- a reality Nikesh Arora, Google's chief business officer, acknowledged during Wednesday's earnings call.

Arora is bullish, arguing that mobile ad pricing will eventually surpass that of the desktop: "In the medium- to long-term, mobile pricing has to be better than desktop pricing," Arora said during the call, referring to mobile-unique tools, such as more accurate targeting of ads based on a user's location, thanks to GPS technology.

The reality for Google is that, despite a rocky transition, it more than any other company -- with the possible exception of Facebook (FB) -- stands to benefit from mobile advertising once everyone figures out the best way to engage with users on smaller screens. Besides, while Google's CPC pricing is suffering, so is everyone else's, and some are faring much worse. According to digital marketing company Ignition One, the average CPC for search advertising on mobile plunged 35% during the first quarter of this year, compared with Google's more modest 9% decline.

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As for Wednesday's wavering share price? Chalk it up to antsy investors. Between the stock's rise and fall during regular trading hours and after the market closed Wednesday, Google shares actually ended up almost 1% for the day and not down, as some outlets had suggested.

The transition to mobile might give Google reason to further develop other revenue streams. For instance, the company's "other" revenue source -- a business segment that includes YouTube, Android, and Chrome -- may account for just over 10% of current revenues, but it also climbed 48% year over year to $1.55 billion. The shift could also spur the company to duck out of investments that aren't panning out, as Google did when it agreed this January to sell the Motorola smartphone unit to Lenovo for $2.91 million after purchasing it for over $12 billion less than two years prior.

But for the foreseeable future, Google's massive revenue driver will remain advertising.

Given Google's already dominant position in the space, "I think they have to stay the course when it comes to the mobile advertising," explained Andrew Frank, vice president at Gartner Research. And like Arora, Frank predicts today's lower mobile ad prices are a temporary deal: "They can only go up," he added.

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