Google's Brand New Appeal

Advertisers are finding more reasons to place ads on the Web-search leader; now they're using it to promote their brands

Are Google investors getting spoiled? Even though Google (GOOG) managed to blow away fourth-quarter earnings on Jan. 31, its shares fell by about 1% in extended trading. The sellers may have missed the real import of the search giant's report: More than ever, it's got the entire advertising world in its sights. And this year, Google will come out with guns blazing.

Investors, who had boosted the stock 1.5% before the report, may have hoped for a little stronger revenue growth vs. the third quarter than the 20% Google reported. "Expectations got ahead of themselves," says Scott Devitt, an analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus. But mostly, some investors decided to pocket some profits following a 10% rise in the stock so far this year.

A New Light

And Google had profits to spare. It earned $1.03 billion, nearly triple a year ago, on a 67% jump in revenues, to $3.2 billion. This was the ninth of 10 quarters as a public company that Google, which now accounts for about a quarter of all online advertising, outperformed expectations.

The big drivers this quarter: strong growth in traffic thanks to holiday shopping and improvement in the effectiveness of ads placed alongside Google's search results. In fact, according to Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, Google is showing fewer ads per search on average but is making more money because it's more carefully targeting ads to the most commercial sites. "The targeting and the technical work that we are doing is producing better return for advertisers, better revenue for us, with even fewer advertisements," he told analysts during a conference call.

Perhaps most interesting for Google's future, it's now apparent that advertisers are viewing search—and Google—in a new light. Up to this point, search ads have been almost solely considered a direct-response medium, where advertisers can measure how many people they reached by tracking the number of clicks and subsequent purchases or other activity.

Aiming Big

Now, many advertisers are starting to use search ads for branding, like more traditional ads. That means companies will place ads through Google to send a message or promote a product generally, and not necessarily to get customers to take an immediate action, such as going to the Web site or purchasing an item online. "Our advertisers are now placing more brand advertising," Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and president of technology, said in the analyst call. And it appears to be working, says John Aiken, managing director at Majestic Research. "They're benefiting from people searching online and purchasing offline," he says.

The trend among brick-and-mortar retailers and even consumer-packaged-goods giants to use Google search ads for branding has made search ads more expensive for small advertisers (see, 1/22/07, "The Small Fry Sour on Search Ads"). But it's a boon for Google. And ad agencies confirm that it's starting to take off. "Search can be a very good branding tool," says Jason Shulman, chief revenue officer for X+1, which helps companies refine their online marketing efforts.

Indeed, Google executives signaled in the clearest way yet their expansive intentions: The company aims to offer a "complete sales and marketing platform for all advertisers," Brin said. "We're talking to advertisers about using Google for all kinds of advertising," added Schmidt. For instance, Volvo, Procter & Gamble (PG), and OfficeMax (OMX) all placed image and video ads on Google's networks.

Ad Capture

Google is rapidly adding new places to advertise as well, with more to come this year. It bought the video phenom YouTube last October, and it has done deals with radio stations and newspaper groups to handle local ads. "Anything Google's selling, we're buying for clients," says Bill Wise, CEO of Did-It Search Marketing.

Schmidt even implied that television advertising was ripe for Google to handle. He said Google's targeting technology can "really apply well" to TV, and allow television stations to charge much higher rates for that targeting. He said there was an opportunity for Google to use data from TV set-top boxes, which have unique Internet addresses, to do that targeting.

Beyond its evident expansion into new territory, Google also simply continues to outmaneuver competitors such as Yahoo! (YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT)—on both search and accompanying ads. Despite those two companies' efforts to catch up—Yahoo with Project Panama, a new search ad ranking system that starts rolling out in February—Google is expected to capture two-thirds of the search ad market this year, according to the e-business research firm eMarketer. "When a company starts advertising, it tends to go one place, and that's Google," says John Aiken, managing director at Majestic Research.

Spending Spree

Google's fourth-quarter results raised a couple of concerns, though none major. The company's so-called traffic acquisition costs, or TAC, which it pays to partners, looks to rise this year. That's because Google will have to pay more to recent partners such as eBay (EBAY) and News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace, as well as new partners, as it moves further into radio and video advertising. "We may see additional pressure on TAC rates," said Chief Financial Officer George Reyes.

Google also spent heavily on some new initiatives. Google Checkout, its payment system, ran widespread promotions, offering consumers up to $20 off purchases to try it out and giving sites using it a price break on Google ads. The company said that this helped it get a quarter of the Web's top retailers to use it. Moreover, they found that Google Checkout logos prompted more people to click through on ads, benefiting those merchants. But Reyes said the promotions essentially cost the company 1 percentage point in revenue growth.

And Google's capital spending continued at a fast pace. It totaled $367 million in the quarter and $1.9 billion in 2006, mostly on data centers, servers, and networking gear. The company said it expects to continue making "significant" capital expenditures this year. Moreover, the company hired nearly 1,300 people in the fourth quarter alone, up 14%, and analysts expect that growth to continue.

Ultimately, analysts also want to see Google diversify its revenue stream, which remains 99% advertising. In coming weeks, for instance, Google is expected to introduce a paid version of its corporate office-productivity services, called Google Apps for Your Domain. But such initiatives will take a while to develop. For the time being, though, Google's opportunities appear to outweigh its challenges.

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