There’s a meme around Silicon Valley that Google is weak on mobile.
The argument is that the company’s money-printing machine, its search engine, isn’t as strong on mobile, because people search for things in apps more than Web browsers when they’re on smartphones. As users transition from desktop to mobile, Google won’t be inside every app to capture their “intent” to purchase things when they search.
Google is determined to change that narrative, and blockbuster third quarter earnings from parent company Alphabet (GOOG), released Thursday, will go a long way. The company announced $18.6 billion in third quarter revenue, a 13% increase over last year, with $4.7 billion in operating income, which is a 2% margin improvement over last year. In a statement, Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat touted “the strength of Google’s business, particularly in mobile search.”
In a call with analysts, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said more than half of Google search queries now come from mobile. That’s a profound shift from just a few years ago. (That includes searches on mobile browsers and in Google’s distinct search app.)
But Google won’t fully quiet the critics until it tells the world exactly how much search revenue it gets from mobile versus desktop. When asked to share that detail, Pichai demurred, saying only that mobile search “is as compelling, or even better, than desktop.” He noted that it will take Google a long time to “get there.”
It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when Facebook experienced similar criticisms about its slow move to mobile. The company quickly rearranged its entire ad sales strategy around mobile. Within two years, Facebook was able to report that a majority of its revenue came from mobile. Investors have rewarded the company for its transparency and speed, trading its stock at a rich 104x price-to-earnings ratio. By contrast, Google trades at a 34x P/E ratio.
There is hope for more transparency. In her short seven-month tenure as Alphabet CFO, Ruth Porat has already made big strides in making Alphabet more transparent. Porat has overseen the reorganization of Google to Alphabet, and starting next quarter, the company will break out revenue and earnings for Google, the advertising business which makes up the vast majority of revenue and profits, and a segment called “Other Bets.” The latter includes a disparate mix of hardware companies, investment arms, life sciences businesses, and X, the experimental lab for innovation. It will give investors a clearer idea of exactly how much money Google is investing in its “moonshot” projects. “The move to Alphabet gives us the opportunity to provide some greater insight, so you can see the investments we’re doing,” Porat said.
Beyond that, Alphabet announced its first-ever share buyback, a $5.1 billion purchase. Investors liked the move: Alphabet stock rose 10% in after hours trading. (Still, it is a tiny amount considering the $72 billion in cash on Alphabet’s balance sheet.)
Investors should not get too comfortable. Touting Google’s big plans and warning investors of future investments, Porat noted, “incrementalism in technology leads to irrelevance.” She also said that despite the investment and new structure, Google is still open to large acquisitions. Three of Google’s six products with more than a billion users have come via M&A, she said.