Google's set to report fourth-quarter earnings after market close. The search giant will be keen to avoid a repeat of last quarter's gaffe, when it released its earnings early. It will also be hoping to finally deliver mobile success, driving real earnings growth.
As people increasingly turn to smartphones and tablets for their Internet needs, Google has had a difficult time trying to make money from advertising on mobile, so cost-per-click (CPC) is an important metric to watch. If Google's CPC looks like it's bottoming out, or even rising, then the company's mobile initiative is working.
Investors, however, aren't placing much faith in the company, with shares underperforming the NASDAQ in the last three months. Since Oct. 18, when it reported its third-quarter results, Google shares have gained 4.34%, compared to 4.91% for the tech-heavy NASDAQ.
Last quarter, Google saw CPC fall 15 percent year-over-year and 3 percent quarter-over-quarter. Thus, earnings missed Wall Street consensus badly.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company's hoping to turn this around during the fourth quarter, and Deutsche Bank analyst Ross Sandler believes this may be the case. "Reported CPC growth is on the verge of improving, mostly as Google comps the downtick that started back in 4Q11. Some investors use this metric as a proxy for improving mobile monetization, hence any improvement would be a positive catalyst," Sandler wrote in a research note. He rates Google shares "buy" with an $850 price target.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect Google to earn $10.49 a share on $12.3 billion in revenue this quarter. That's up from a year ago, when Google earned $9.50 a share on $8.13 billion in sales, though those numbers excluded Motorola.
Raymond James analyst Aaron Kessler believes that CPCs improved in the fourth quarter, as year-over-year comparisons got easier, though he expects mobile to continue to weigh on growth. Given concerns about fourth-quarter holiday spending, Google's results will be a key indicator of the health of the economy.
Though Google has a dominant market share in search, competition is heating up, most notably from Facebook, which recently announced Graph Search, as it looks to enter the lucrative search business. Google's also up against Microsoft and Yahoo, but neither are serious competitors to the Google crown.
In Facebook's most recent quarter, earnings from mobile were far better than expected, so it's crucial that Google show a similar trajectory, or risk having more doubt placed on the company's efforts in this area.
There's also the matter of Google's Motorola acquisition. Last week Google put out an intriguing blog post discussing the sale of Motorola Home, which it announced in December. In the post, Google noted that results from Motorola Home "will be presented as a separate line item in our 2012 consolidated statements of income." Essentially, it's telling Wall Street not to bother with these results due to the sale. It remains to be seen whether they weigh on overall numbers.
As Google starts to drive meaningful revenue from hardware, including its Nexus line of smartphones and tablets, anything out of the Motorola division will be heavily scrutinized. Android is the leading mobile operating system in the world, but making money off it is another story.
We'll find out soon enough whether Google has proved its ability to make money from mobile, or whether the search result has "timed out."
—By TheStreet.com's Chris Ciaccia
TheStreet does not permit any employees on its editorial staff to individually hold positions in individual stocks, though they are permitted to own stock in TheStreet.