What The Hell Just Happened At Google?

The search giant was supposed to report earnings after the close of business today. Instead it jumped the gun and shocked Wall Street and Silicon Valley with a huge miss on both earnings and revenues. Then news broke that the announcement itself was a mistake. What the hell is going on in Mountain View?

There's only one thing worse than missing your numbers - and that is missing your numbers and not even being able to report that news correctly. That's what happened today at Google, and the snafu has created the impression, once again, of a powerful, dangerous company careening out of control.

Google Earnings Off, And Off Schedule

The fiasco began early Thursday morning Pacific time, when Google accidentally released its third-quarter earnings ahead of schedule. The results were supposed to come out at the end of the day.

Worse yet, the earnings were terrible - so bad that the stock plummeted 9% within 20 minutes after the release of a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Google's profit was $9.03 a share, far below analyst expectations of $10.65, according to a poll by Thomson Reuters. What is behind the profit miss is a $151 million adjusted operating loss from Motorola. The loss amounted to 6% of the unit's revenue. The reason for the operating loss at Motorola is not clear. That will likely be addressed at a conference call with financial analysts scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Pacific time.

Worse yet, revenues were also off - at $11.3 billion they were well below the $11.9 billion that Wall Street had been expecting.

The next shoe dropped a few minutes later when Google announced that the release itself had been a mistake.

The press release filed with the SEC contains the note "pending Larry quote." Apparently, "Larry" refers to Chief Executive Larry Page. In other words, Google was holding a spot in the release where it would pop in a quote from Page, but then someone, somehow, went ahead and hit "send," and put the release out before it was completed.

Sure, it's not the end of the world. But the combination of bad news and inept rollout of that bad news is not what Google needs right now. The $40 billion company is under pressure from antitrust regulators in the U.S. and Europe. Just last week reports surfaced that FTC investigators were moving closer to launching an antitrust case against Google.

Google Has Other Problems

Google faces lots of other huge, existential threats. The company was founded in 1998 for a version of the Internet and the Web as it existed back then. But things have changed dramatically in the past decade - as much Internet activity has shifted to walled gardens, like Facebook, and to mobile devices and apps - worlds that Google does not dominate.

Google - and other companies that were originally built for the Web - face a big challenge as users move to mobile devices. That's because ads on mobile devices are much less lucrative than on the Web.

Then there's Motorola, the ailing handset maker that Page bought for $12.5 billion last year. The deal was announced with much fanfare, but so far Google doesn't seem to know what to do with its new toy. Meanwhile, the unit is bleeding money and putting out ho-hum products based on Google's Android operating system.

In September Motorola announced three Droid Razr devices -- its first new handsets as a Google-owned company - that were found to be "nothing groundbreaking" by ReadWriteWeb.

The good news is that while Motorola is a mess, the rest of Google's business appears on track. Ad revenue, which accounts for the majority of the search engine's income, rose by 16% in the most recent quarter, as paid clicks soared by 33% from the same period last year and 6% from the previous quarter.

The accidental earnings release was not the only snafu of the day. Even as Google was botchiing its earnings release, the company also accidentally released news about a new Chromebook machine before completing the announcement press conference.

Whoops.

Not a great day for Google. No doubt there's a lot of shouting going on in Mountain View right now. And today's earnings call ought to be pretty darn entertaining.

 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.