What if Google misses?

Jan 30, 2008

Tech stocks have had a wild ride so far in January, with the Nasdaq swooning dangerously close to bear-market territory. But it could get even wilder when Google weighs in on Thursday.

That’s because Google was a darling of the tech run-up that effectively ended in November. Like Apple , Google inspired hope that its strong brand and innovative technology can thrive in a downturn. So just as Apple’s disappointing earnings projections spooked Wall Street, if Google delivers a surprise -- negative or positive -- it could send shock waves across the industry.

Unlike Apple, Google will at least have a lower bar to clear when it reports earnings. Investors fear Google’s growth will be hindered by a global economic slowdown, so its valuation has already been punished along with Research in Motion , VMware emerging business team, have suggested that the shift toward performance-based advertising, which is Google’s strength, will continue through any economic slowdown. But it’s not clear that the trend will be strong enough to keep Google’s results as high as analysts would like to see them. When Google reported fourth-quarter results last year, management said that while cost-per-click prices had dropped during the quarter as its international business expanded and U.S. advertisers hunted for bargain search terms, a strong overall holiday season kept revenues and profits high.

It stands to reason that if Google faces the same scenario this year amid a weaker overall holiday season, it might be a challenge for the company to achieve Wall Street’s revenue and earnings targets.

Not that Google tends to lose sleep over such things. The company famously chooses not to give sales and profit guidance to analysts, so Wall Street has to figure out its targets with less insight from management. This way, Google top executives say, the company won’t be tempted to manipulate its results to conform with unrealistic numbers. (Of course, that temptation arguably exists anyway, since analysts publish their targets and everyone knows what they expect.)

What does it all mean? Anything short of blowout earnings from Google and steady confidence from executives could rattle not only Google but also the whole Internet sector -- though Yahoo has already done its part to put folks on edge. Tech investors are clearly in need of reassurance right now, and would love to get it from the big G.

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