Live: Google faces off with analysts

Co-founder Brin tells how a censored site helps China, why the feds are wrong, and what's up with Google's revenue.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
20 min read
Google hosted a four-hour meeting Thursday with analysts at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. The event, its second annual Analyst Day, was in the spotlight because of comments made by the company's CFO earlier this week that resulted in a sharp decline in Google shares.

What follows is a running commentary of the presentation, based on a Webcast. Google executives on hand included CEO Eric Schmidt and CFO George Reyes, along with company co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

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During Thursday's meeting with analysts, Google co-founder Sergey Brin speaks his mind on the China controversy in answer to an analyst's question.
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Also present were Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president of product management; Alan Eustace, responsible for engineering efforts; Kai-Fu Lee, heading up efforts in China; Marissa Mayer, product management; Jeff Huber, in ads and commerce; and Omid Kordestani, vice president of sales.

Other panelists included Nikesh Arora, vice president of European operations; Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, vice president of Asia-Pacific and Latin American operations; David Fischer, director of online sales and operations; Joan Braddi, vice president of search services; David Eun, vice president of content partnerships.

UPDATE: For your convenience, we have highlighted some of the key portions in colored text.

2:32 Conference ends.

2:30 Question: Can Google explain how to link search with traditional media and work with the ad industry in ways that media will not consider threatening? Brin: "Magazines are excited. This gives them a way to sell inventory that they couldn't sell before." Schmidt: "We're trying to bring our targeting and analytical technologies to industries that didn't have them before." That can be a significant revenue driver. Advertisers don't really want to just be on text ads and just on Google. All are amenable to higher targeting and better analytics.

2:29 Question: Thinking of becoming a domain name registry? Schmidt: "There are issues as to whether we'll become a primary domain registrar or work with others." Brin: "We'll continue to experiment."

2:26 Question: Competitive pressure on AdSense? Page: "The content-based advertising, Google's had great technology there to produce ads that are relevant. Other companies are behind Google...Google is also offering publishers greater choice about what they're promoting." Brin: "We've been able to offer publishers something new...Small publishers don't have an ad sales force. They may not want random flashy ads all over their site...That area, even more so than the search area, is very new, and there's room to do a much better job than we're doing today, and we will continue to invest heavily."

2:24 Question about Gmail performance: And does Google plan to do a thin client? Brin: "Gmail was born out of Larry's and my need to read e-mail...There are certainly other services that are on the Web and on the desktop that don't work as well as they could." Schmidt: "We're trying to solve the problem an end user has in a way that's not in their existing solution...People will need ways to store all their information in ways that are different from what they do today."

2:22 Question: Can Google be trusted with users' information? Page: "All the Internet companies, including us, have a great incentive to be trusted...There are tremendous economic reasons to make sure we are trusted. Whatever companies win in this space will be trusted by their users. We take this very seriously."

2:20 Question: Google's core business is linking people to other sites, but Google Video data is stored on its servers. In the future, is proprietary data like Google Video and Google Base going to be more important to the business? Brin: "With Google Video, the company still allows the content owner to control it, post it, describe it, charge a price, but at least the end user has a good experience. Same issue with Google Base."

2:14 Follow-up question about payment system plans. Schmidt: "We do not have a broader goal to solve the general payment problem, because it's not part of our mission."

2:10 Question concerning click fraud. Brin: "We believe that's a small fraction...We think we're doing a good job on that."

2:04 Question: Google payment has been expanded to Google Base. How will it be expanded to other advertisers, like click-per-call? Is it a threat to PayPal? Schmidt: "There's been a lot of speculation. We are on the record saying that we are not intending to compete with PayPal...It makes no sense to compete with what others are doing well...eBay and PayPal are very good partners to us. Google's payments approach is a tactic to solve an important problem--to have an ad turn into a purchase. The quicker we can automate that--including payment, fulfillment, etc.--the more sales there'll be."

2:02 Question: Seems like every time you launch a new product, it has to be taken off because of user demand. Where is the competitive advantage here? Brin: "The servers are very largely utilized. We haven't communicated as clearly about the servers (used for new products and tests) as we should have...Servers are not meant to be full production servers, but to be test servers."

1:57 Question about release of censored search in China. Brin: "We are currently not planning on conquering the world. (Be careful, Sergey, Schmidt said.) On the question of China, that was an issue dear to my heart. I was born in Moscow during the Communist era...(Google decided not to censor its search results and, as a result, users often couldn't reach it because of government control.) We gradually came to the realization, to the fact, that we were hurting not just ourselves but the Chinese people. Having spent time talking to people who were in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and human rights organizations...we eventually came to the conclusion that we were doing a greater disservice to the Chinese people. We'll see how that evolves.

Sergey Brin Sergey Brin

Brin: "In the (Department of Justice) case, we felt that the request was really overreaching on a variety of levels. One of them was privacy...Also, it's a question of, should we be doing homework for the government? I believe it is a slippery slope."

1:55 Question about working with AJAX. Brin: Company has had good experience with AJAX and JavaScript. There are important technical challenges to overcome with some technologies but no impediments that can't be overcome. Google tries to minimize its use of databases. For the performance-critical areas, the company uses its own internal solutions.

1:52 Question: What impacted fourth-quarter earnings? Reyes: "The biggest issue in the fourth quarter was all around the tax rate. That's an important item, and Google is focused on it, but that's not an operating item. It was a very solid quarter."

Question: Why was the tax rate higher, then? Reyes: "The tax rate was higher because more of Google's profits (outside the U.S.) became taxable in the U.S. at far higher rates."

1:50 Reyes is joined onstage by Schmidt and co-founders Page and Brin, who prepare to take questions from the audience.

1:49 Reyes: Google is showing phenomenal year over year--growth in revenue, operating income and free cash flow operation.

1:47 Reyes: 2006 priorities: improve search quality and increase end-user traffic, improve quality of ads as perceived by end users, build new products and services for publishers, grow overall partnerships, and build systems and infrastructure of a global $100 billion company.

1:45 Reyes: For distribution deals, Google sometimes offers a bounty-per-toolbar or revenue-share arrangement--looks for long-term strategic partners. Google evaluates merger and acquisition targets, and looks for ones that are consistent with Google's mission, have superior engineering talent and can help jump-start innovation. Examples: Keyhole (technology used in Google Earth) and Urchin (technology used for Google Analytics) met all criteria.

1:43 Reyes: Google is not experiencing increased pressure on traffic acquisition costs. Those costs, overall, have been declining. But there are heavily negotiated deals and smaller deals that get done more easily. TAC, as a percentage of total revenue, is declining.

1:41 Reyes: Google stock units are restricted stock units. Regulations have changed with regard to how they're disclosed and expensed.

1:40 Reyes: Revenue per employee is a key metric. Google's revenue per employee is double that of its competitors--$1.44 million per head versus $700,000 per head for rivals.

1:37 Reyes: Operating expense drivers are research and development. Sales and marketing growth is driven by head count, office locations and toolbar distribution deals. New hires are made to scale with the rest of the business. Most of the operating growth this year will be driven by head count. We grew to 5,680 employees at the end of 2005. Expect the head count internationally to grow faster than in the U.S. in 2006.

1:35 Chart shows that international revenue more than doubled for 2005 and for the most recent quarter. The U.K. contributed 14 percent of revenue globally. More than half of clicks now take place outside the U.S. Google made progress in China through resellers. The company recently launched Google.cn and made great strides in Japan and Korea. It opened offices in India and Israel, and has new offices in Brazil and Mexico. It's very strong in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. Japan, Canada and Australia also contribute meaningfully to international revenue.

1:32 Google Video and Gmail have high infrastructure needs. "Investments made to support core search and advertising business typically yield immediate results. Investments in new services are trickier. They invest conservatively and actively monitor the cost benefit, and payback goes through period of vetting."

1:28 Reyes: The company has weekly meetings to monitor financial performance, weekly revenue forecast meetings, executive management meetings and others. Spending on capital expenditures has been rising. (A chart shows that the amount spent last year doubled.) Spending in 2006 is expected to be significantly higher than it was in 2005. Most of the capital spending is on machine components, networking equipment and data centers, followed by real estate.

1:25 Reyes shows a chart that outlines how Google measures performance. The metric is based on search quality, customer satisfaction, traffic growth, revenue per thousand searches and the number of advertisers and publishers. Financial metrics are revenue growth, operating margin and productivity per employee. He cannot release details for competitive reasons.

1:22 Reyes: Even with investments in business, Google generates lots of cash flow: $1.6 billion in cash flow last year, almost three times as much as the year before. In the beginning of 2006, the tax benefits associated with stock award activity, which was $434 million in 2005, will be reported as cash flow from financing activities, not operating activities. The company ended the year with more than $8 billion in cash. The company has consistently delivered very strong revenue growth.

"Investments made to support core search and advertising business typically yield immediate results. Investments in new services are trickier."
--George Reyes, CFO, Google

1:20 Conference resumes. Reyes shows a slide of Google's past eight quarters of revenue growth. It shows an 86 percent growth rate for 2005, to more than $1.9 billion in fourth-quarter revenue. Expect healthy growth in traffic level and advertising, he said. He shows a chart of revenue from ads on Google sites versus partner sites. In the fourth quarter, Google sites grew at 24 percent, and partner networks grew at 18 percent.

12:30 Lunch break.

12:26 Question: Enterprise product sales? Have you sized the market opportunity there? Kordestani: Enterprise business includes corporations, government and educational institutions, looking at how indexing can be deployed within the enterprise, how businesses can use products best.

12:23 Question: Elaborate on Dell deal. How will Google Video be syndicated? Braddi: We can't discuss specifics about the Dell deal. Past distribution deals like that have been successful in increasing traffic to Google. Kordestani: Google is trying to get its Google Video service right. It's important to be able to syndicate that content out. There are lots of rights issues. CBS has been an excellent partner.

12:21 Question about the German market. Arora: The challenge there is that large businesses still aren't embracing the Internet as a distribution channel. Google needs to evangelize in the market.

12:18 Question: Local has been a "huge opportunity" for years, but from a sales perspective, it's hard to reach a small pizza parlor or a laundrette. Is Google closer to cracking the code? Singh Cassidy: AdWords simplification is important, as is forging relationships with BellSouth and other channels to reach the businesses. Google is very encouraged by the number of its own online advertisers that choose local targeting to make campaigns available in certain geographies.

12:16 Question about importance of third parties to Google. Kordestani: Google wants to work with customers in any way they want to, resellers or ad agencies.

12:14 Singh Cassidy: In China, we see net new overall growth. The online markets are compelling enough that advertisers need to have online in the mix.

12:12 Q&A session. Question: How fast will the total ad market in China grow, and what will be the offline and online split there? Kordestani: Local targeting and print ads--some are ready to be launched in mature markets like the U.S., but they need the right relationships in other markets. Our overall philosophy is that Google needs to be everywhere with a direct sales force in priority markets.

12:11 Eun: Lots of people are uploading content to the Google Video site. The sheer volume of Google traffic, and the site's global audience, interests content partners. Google is committed to testing, learning and being flexible. The video market is nascent.

12:08 Eun: Content is important for providing the best-quality search experience. That includes expanding to reach a lot of content that's not online today and content that's not yet digitized. Google teams with content partners to provide them with tools like digitization, hosting and promotion. The company is enabling partners to promote, find an audience and monetize that audience.

12:06 Braddi: Google is in a trial program with Dell, which involves Dell's home page, Google Toolbar and Google Desktop Search. It will help Google distribute current and future products and services. Large network partners in AdSense are showing steady growth.

12:03 Fischer: Google offers tools to help small and large advertisers.

12:01 Singh Cassidy: In China, Google launched a reseller channel this summer. The company is going out and evangelizing AdWords, and creating a high level of service and support. That's created a standard in the marketplace. The company compensates resellers based on performance and customer service standards. It's an interesting way to reach the small- to medium-size business market.

Noon Singh Cassidy: In 2005, most of the time was spent building new operations in Asia-Pacific and Latin America. Search market share in Latin America is greater than 90 percent, despite not having had a physical presence there.

11:59 Arora: The ad industry in Europe is agency-driven. Google stopped giving discounts and started best-practice rewards for agencies. Google thinks there's tremendous growth in Europe.

11:58 New panel discussion kicks off. Panel includes: Kordestani, Arora, Singh Cassidy, Fischer, Braddi and Eun.

11:55 Kordestani: We're really scaling this business on a global basis...42 language interfaces and 48 currencies. He introduces some of the global management team from Latin America and Asia-Pacific.

11:53 Kordestani: Google has 3.9 million daily page views on hip-hop-related sites. Google is also selling hardware--enterprise search appliances and desktop search software for corporations. It has more than 3,000 active customers and grew 100 percent in sales from 2004 to 2005.

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Google CEO Eric Schmidt tells analysts he hopes the company ends up with "the biggest footprint."
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11:52 Kordestani: AdSense partners include PBS and CNET (publisher of News.com) and smaller companies, such as Cheapflights. The company reaches 69 percent of the global Internet audience, according to ComScore Networks.

11:50 Kordestani: The goal is to give advertisers more control and visibility into their online ad campaigns. New opportunities are radio, print, mobile and video.

11:49 He shows slides illustrating site-targeting and AdWords-editing products.

11:46 Kordestani shows video from Pontiac that is not visible on the Webcast. It's the TV ad that tells viewers to "Google Pontiac."

11:43 Kordestani: An "Ad Age" survey found that nearly half of chief marketing officers at Fortune 500 companies said they plan to increase their online ad budgets by 30 percent this year. Google's sales force is organized by industry.

11:40 Kordestani: AdWords customers include Sony, Fiat, Target and Tesco, as well as smaller companies like Forex.com and Caesars Pocono Resorts. Between 2003 and 2005, average online ad spending has tripled to $28.4 million.

11:38 Kordestani says ad revenue grew 113 percent on Google sites and 73 percent on partner sites in 2005 from 2004. A chart details this.

11:37 CFO Reyes comes back onstage to introduce Kordestani, vice president of sales.

11:33 An analyst mentions the notion of Google as an agent (for ad sales on other sites) versus principal (ads on Google sites). Huber: There is a Google network business, and then there's a business in which we work with partners. Both are important. Yes, Google-controlled networks will have better margins, but a combination of the two is important.

"Spam is at an all-time low in the Google index and probably at an industry low."
--Marissa Mayer, product management, Google

11:30 Question: Orkut has traction in Brazil. What's the hiccup in other parts of the world? Eustace: We hired the creator of Python but also use other programming languages. Mayer: Brazilians are just very community-oriented. We're looking at other geographies.

11:27 Question about growth in different product areas. Rosenberg: There's an enormous opportunity in click-through rate improvements. Traffic is basically traffic. As long as Google gains market share, traffic will improve. The most important thing is that Google's user experience continues to improve, and the company is targeting geographies with high growth rates. If the search experience is good, queries per user will increase, which will drive advertisers.

11:25 Analyst question: How does research feed into product development? Eustace: I spent 15 years at DEC, Compaq Computer and finally Hewlett-Packard. Google hires the smartest people into the entire organization, not just in research. Also, there is a research group looking at longer-term things like machine translation.

11:23 Q&A from analysts in audience: How much can Google increase click-through rates? Huber: Google's click-through rates are higher than the competition's. A potential growth area is with local search.

11:21 Mayer: Google Base is derived from "database." It's attracted sequence genomes, to clinical trials, to products. Plan to allow people who upload stuff to be able to sell it to people who have a Google account.

11:19 Huber: Google's doing an effective job in dealing with click fraud. The effect on advertisers and business is "small." The company has advanced tools to deal with it. The goal is to recognize invalid clicks before they're monetized. Google does issue credits when an advertiser complains about click fraud.

11:16 Mayer: Google tries not to get too focused on external competition, but it's improved search quality with a bigger index and algorithm analysis to reduce index spam. "Spam is at an all-time low in the Google index and probably at an industry low." When you look at what Microsoft is doing, it's clear that search is a focus and a start on their ad network. The fact that AOL chose to go with Google rather than Microsoft (as a search partner) indicates that AOL thinks Google is better.

11:10 Huber: Multiple dimensions to monetization. One is better end-user quality, from better algorithms. The second area is around user interface. Google has made subtle improvements. The third area is better advertiser effectiveness. Example: AdWords Power Editor. The fourth area is more inventory. The fifth area is geographic expansion. The sixth area is general flow of advertising dollars to the Internet as a medium. Online offers greater efficiency and measurability or accountability. People are spending about 13 percent of their time on the Internet, but only 6 percent of ad dollars are being spent on the Net.

11:09 Eustace: The company has huge leverage over its revenue stream. It's hard for other big companies to increase revenue in any one day without increasing costs.

11:07 Huber talks about investments. AdSense for content seemed like a leap initially but has been successful. Google Earth monetization logic was in question initially. The combination of Google Local contributions and distribution of downloads of Google Earth has made it a success.

11:04 Mayer talks about staffing needs on different products. The company identified a need for maps and so it made an acquisition. It rolled out Google Transit in Portland, Ore. Google Ride Finder looked at GPS signals coming from taxis. It turned out to be not so useful. People can't get to the street in time to hail the cab.

11:02 Eustace: Google has built one of the largest computational infrastructures in the world. "The reason that's important is because we are incredibly cheap." Competitors can not deploy infrastructure faster, cheaper or at scale. This gives Google a two-, three- or five-year lead over competitors.

11:00 Lee: China has 110 million Internet users, and that's growing. Recently, Google has more than tripled its Chinese index size. User experience there is not as good as in the U.S. There are also four times as many computer scientists graduating from Chinese universities as there are from U.S. colleges. The quality is high as well. Users love Google. (Lee's speeches to university students there have been extrememly popular. There's even been some scalping of tickets.)

10:58 Eustace: Google has a challenge in engineering to distribute the site worldwide. It recently moved into Israel. That country has "tremendous technical talent." Coverage of Brazil came via an acquisition. The group is relatively small. The company improved search quality for Portuguese, a growing market for Google. Orkut is huge in Brazil. "This is not an outsourcing effort."

10:55 Rosenberg introduces panelists: Eustace, Lee, Mayer and Huber.

10:51 Rosenberg talks about Google Earth. The company's management told the team to build a great product and not worry about putting ads in it. The Keyhole acquisition paid off. The company is now getting ads into Google Earth, he says. Google Local is now the No. 3 site for classifieds. The company is experimenting with print ads. Google also acquired DMarc, which offers AdWords and AdSense for the radio industry.

"Hopefully Google will end up with the biggest footprint."
--Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google

10:48 Rosenberg: Google has defined the predicting of which ads will get the best click-throughs. Advertisers can pay 9 cents per ad in a magazine. But on Google, for 23 cents, they can get an ad that someone clicks on. It's a better return on investment with Google, he says. More can be done with even better personalization. Money is flowing from offline to online. All of this is in the very early stages, he says.

10:45 The company doubled its index to more than 8 billion pages, Rosenberg says. Google has improved personalization, in news and search, and on the home page. It's also added international languages.

10:44 A chart shows that core efforts are search and ads. Twenty percent spent on adjacent products includes Google Video, Google Talk, Gmail, Google Earth, Google Local, Google Enterprise Solutions, Google Book Search, AdSense, Google Desktop Search and Google Mobile. Ten percent includes AdSense offline (for print ads), Google Suggest, Orkut and Google Reader.

10:40 Rosenberg discusses approaches to products. Big innovations in technology have complementary effects, he says. "We build an ecosystem." Google's philosophy is to not be constrained by things like storage, bandwidth or CPU power, but to instead focus on the end user, and revenue will follow. He also mentions making money without being evil.

10:34 Rosenberg says there is a "serendipitous element to the Google economy." He talks about the company's international focus, and shows photos of him and others in India and Dubai. "Capitalizing on these big global opportunities is a predictable and respectable investment for Google," he says.

10:33 Rosenberg gets onstage for a panel discussion.

10:31 Today, click fraud "is not a material issue in the company," Schmidt says.

10:30 Schmidt: People wonder about keyword pricing and markets topping out. But the company has studied the situation carefully, and it doesn't look like any specific segment has topped out.

10:29 The company will focus more resources on the hottest properties. "We understand the impact that 10 million, 100 million users can have," Schmidt says. Google is primarily focused on Microsoft as a competitor because of the software giant's history as a company, but Google hasn't yet seen an impact from Microsoft's search products.

10:26 Priorities: Revenue mix will grow from Google.com and partners. International growth is "very strong and likely to remain so," Schmidt says. Eventually, there will be correlation with GDP so that even lower-GDP countries have so many people that monetization is very good. Many countries are still developing the infrastructure. "We are focused on the long term," Schmidt says.

10:25 Goals: comprehensive index, most relevant search results, innovative and useful services, hardware and software. "Hopefully, Google will end up with the biggest footprint," Schmidt says.

10:24 Schmidt shows a chart of the $283 billion market for advertising, including broadcast, radio, Internet, print, cable TV and direct mail. Google will be in all of those markets over time, either directly or with partners.

10:18 Schmidt says it's clear that the ad system is the "perfect system for midsize advertisers." But what about the largest advertisers? The company worked last year to call on them and offer a complete solution, Schmidt says.

10:16 The company says it cares about performance and was able to meet U.S. Securities and Exchange Commmission regulations. A slide outlining Google's strategic priorities for this year includes five items: search quality and end-user traffic; quality of advertisements, as perceived by end users; building new products and services for publishers of information; growing overall partnerships; and building the systems and infrastructure of a global $100 billion company. "I'll leave it to you to judge whether that is $100 billion in market capitalization or revenue," he said.

The presentation experiences some technical difficulties, and Schmidt comments, to laughter, "At some point, we're going to reboot the whole room."

People have missed the fact that improvements in the quality of search advertisements increase revenue, he says. The company says it's concerned with end users first and quality of ads second. That model drives the ultimate long-term goal, which is shareholder value.

10:15 The high point of the year is the partnership with America Online, Schmidt says. Text ads are one of the issues. AOL has assets "we can integrate as we run that deal through our systems," he says.

The company has a strong cash position after a secondary publich offering. "The company is end-user focused," he says.

China is important because there's more than a billion people there. "These people are doing amazing things, and the power of information or lack of information when the power goes out" is amazing, Schmidt says.

10:10 Schmidt talks about Google Analytics, Google Maps, Google Local and Google Earth. The tools are having a huge impact on the world today. Google Local will be big business, according to Schmidt. "We're learning how to exploit the platform we've invested in," he says.

"We're investing for the long term," he says. He shows a chart of the company's financial growth to more than $6 billion in revenue from $440 million in 2002.

10:06 Schmidt says that last night, he read the founder's letter from two years ago. They are operating the company under those same principles. They are part of the culture of Google.

He says the company is running on the 70-20-10 principle: 70 percent on core products, 20 percent on adjacent products and 10 percent on others.

10:04 Reyes opens the meeting by discussing the agenda for the day. "We are the largest single source of the world's information," he says. He then introduces Schmidt.