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Did Google Issue a Bear Call?

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Updated with correction: A few months ago, Sequoia Capital doused the ever-ebullient Silicon Valley with a bucket of ice cold reality when it laid “good times” to rest. Today, one of Sequoia’s all-time stars laid a big wreath on that grave in the pages of The Wall Street Journal: Google (s YHOO). And while it didn’t implicitly state that it might face tough times next year, comments by its CEO amount to a proverbial bear call, which could mean bad news not only for Google but also for the rest of the media and advertising sector.

“We have to behave as though we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal. It seems like a prudent move. But I see it as a big red flag and I think Schmidt is preparing us for what could be a terrible 2009. The WSJ says that Google executives have been preparing for slower growth for a year but that “the economic crisis is forcing them to step up their efforts.”

According to conventional wisdom (and investors), Google is the best-positioned company to survive and perhaps thrive in the current advertising slump. If the leader of the pack is feigning ignorance about its chances, what can one say about mere mortals?

I find it hard to believe that a company that keeps world-famous economist like Hal Varian (who muses on the economy and Google’s prospects often on the investor calls) doesn’t know. As a company, Google collects enough data on a daily basis that it can take a fair pulse of the broader economy. Remember, they could accurately track the spread of flu across America just based on searches, so why can’t they track economic sentiment? Additionally, it sells ads to everyone from mom-and-pop shops to consumer durable goods giants and as such it has a fair idea on the degree of tightness with which people are holding their billfolds. They have enough intellectual horsepower on campus to put two and two together.

Beyond Schmidt’s statement, one has to look at their other moves, such as plans to slash 10,000 or so of their contractors, slowing cap-ex investments and killing off projects. These point to tough times for the company that has lived a lush life so far.

Projects that are too pie-in-the-sky are going to be killed. Schmidt calls it the “dark matter.” Google Lively and Google SearchMash are two of the many projects which will soon not matter. Google is contemplating killing off Google Notebook and Google Audio Indexing as well. Google Page Creator has given way to Google Sites. In that vein, Google is going to prune overlapping products. No more the 20-percent time for pet projects for engineers, though it might come back once the economic wheel churns. These are smart and prudent moves even if they are prompted by desperate need to control costs and meet their numbers.Update: I totally misread the WSJ post and made an incorrect interpretation. In other words, I totally messed up about the 20 percent timing thing. A commenter from Google was quick to point out that the 20 percent rule still stands and I am just flat-out wrong. This is what Schmidt said, which I misread:

He says the company is “not going to give” an engineer 20 people to work with on certain experimental projects anymore. “When the cycle comes back,” he says, “we will be able to fund his brilliant vision.”

I know it might sound hokey, but the rich don’t stop driving their Aston Martins just because the price of gas is going up. They do so when they are not as rich! The same analogy holds for Google and its cost-cutting efforts. Just remember how much of PR they milked out of their 20-percent philosophy. They are essentially eating a cow-pie on that. (Now I am the fool for making the wrong assumption on the 20-percent philosophy, though the rest of my sentiment still stands.) They wouldn’t be doing this unless things are really really REALLY tough.

Google needs to keep its sales machine going at a time when it is facing the same malaise as that of the broader market – slowing spending on marketing and advertising. There is some argument that Google is going to win because of their performance-based advertising system.

While that is true to some extent, what happens when the economy goes into a deep freeze? If you don’t have the money to splurge on a large-screen plasma TV, there is little chance you are going to search for that, and thus there are fewer opportunities for Google to sell more ads against those searches. Of course, if there is no intent to buy amongst the searchers, then there is less inclination to click on those ads as well. And that is not good news for Google.

Google, of course, is going to try and meet its targets by taking more out of the pocket of its “adsense” partners and undercutting competitors. The WSJ points out that the company is focusing heavily on display, mobile and other ad opportunities, which can only mean bad news for their rivals.

Related: Why Silicon Valley Should be Worried

26 Responses to “Did Google Issue a Bear Call?”

  1. @ronald sort of. I’d say it is pro-active, not reactive. The idea is to lower expenses faster than the fall in revenue so you never become unprofitable. If you remain profitable all the way down in a down economy, you’re poised to take advantage of the opportunities the downturn creates and you’ll be the first, and most, profitable on the way back up.

    You can also find Manager Tool podcasts on itunes:

  2. @scott
    can’t find it on that side. But if I understand you correctly it’s not a race, two or more parts moving independently. It’s a action reaction relation, where you want to drive down the reaction time.

  3. @ronald racing revenue to the bottom means aligning expenses to falling revenue ahead of the fall to wherever it bottoms out. That may not have come through clearly. There are still companies out there maintaining profit but the market isn’t rational enough to reward them right now. There’s a good podcast on racing revenue to the bottom over on — no stock tips in there though, just better explanation of the concept.

  4. @Scott,
    not to nick pick here. But what’s their “direct path to any of the current, profitable revenue” is it “racing revenue to the bottom”?
    Sorry I don’t get it.
    And which companies are so smart, I started to take money out of the market 2 years ago, since I looked at companies in disgust. Maybe now is the time to reinvest, I really don’t know about any “smart” company. But I know a lot of clueless disoriented ones.

  5. The smartest, longest lived, most profitable companies make a habit of racing revenue to the bottom, not chasing it. Google’s moves actually improve its ability to remain more profitable than the competition. In turn, that improves odds of thriving and increases agility to go where the early opportunities are on the way back up. All good, perhaps even great, business moves.

    Your analogy and assumption that lead to your “They wouldn’t be doing this unless things are really really REALLY tough.” conclusion have no basis in good business strategy. The best strategy is to get ahead of the curve, preserve profitability no matter what and guarantee your ability to come out stronger while others are dying around you.

    I’d re-write your statement to “they wouldn’t be doing this unless their risk management analysis concluded that things could get really, really tough.” Note that nothing they’re shuddering is on the direct path to any of the current, profitable revenue.

  6. For 80% of businesses online marketing is and will continue to be the best option. Businesses still need to make sales to keeps the lights on. The alternative is to hire a $120k + commission sales people. Google will do very well!

    If I was Schmidt I’d also hint of slowing economy, blah, blah, blah. Why not? Everybody else out there is doing the same. Would it really matter if Google put out a GREAT report in these times. NO. The stock would rally for one day and then sell off even more the next.

    And speaking of Sequoia and other VC’s. Have any of them laid off any people? Have the GP’s taken pay cuts? What is it exactly VC’s are doing these days since they can’t invest and have no idea how to run a company?

  7. Ehhmm,
    knowing where the flu is and predicting where it will show up, are separated by a few levels of complexity.
    About economist, didn’t Krugman get a Noble prize for what boils down to a system of linear optimization. I just glanced at the equations, so correct me if I’m wrong. If I’m right, never ever put these equations to work in a complex (chaotic) system.
    In other words I assume Google has no clue, what’s going on and where it goes.

  8. @Ryan @Scott Lawton

    My bad and big mistake.

    “He says the company is “not going to give” an engineer 20 people to work with on certain experimental projects anymore. “When the cycle comes back,” he says, “we will be able to fund his brilliant vision.”

    is what he said and I totally messed up and misinterpreted it. Woke up in the morning and that is the first thing I realized.


    Thanks for clarifying. I apologize to you and all you Googlers for an obvious mistake.

  9. I would say a 65% stock drop is somewhat bearish.

    While everyone goes goo-goo ga-ga over Google, I think it’s time for a little push-back. After all, Google is turning into the Microsoft of the 80s/90s. Just ask Eric Schmidt: He was the CEO of Novell. He knows first-hand what a powerful company can do to a weaker competitor.

  10. In the interest of the economy, I think Silicon Valley needs to take a field trip to Main St. Seriously. Finding a way to Google frugal isn’t going to work. Wasn’t their old shopping thing actually called Froogle?

    It doesn’t even matter if you’re tech or “mommy blogger” as I see the unwillingness to give up the good times across the board, in these articles and in my own experience.

    In my brief membership in a blog group based in the SV, let’s just say my eyes were opened when I suggested we add a Toys for Tots drive to a launch party and was told no. Because? Someone had worked really hard on the swag bags. I wish this were a joke. Needless to say, I resigned my affiliation.

    So the 20% is more of an idea generation area?

  11. Hey Ryan, I can save you the trouble. :)

    I’m a Googler and familiar with many 20% projects across the company. I’m not aware of *any* changes in policies about 20% time. I know for a fact that my manager continues to encourage people on our team to start up or join 20% projects.

    And certainly there’s been no change in the guiding principles of 20% projects: They should be…
    – Something the engineer is excited about
    – Of reasonable potential (strong) benefit to Google and its users

    20% time isn’t just a perk, or something “just for fun,” and it’s certainly not frivolous. These projects often give engineers insights (and new contacts within Google) that help improve their main projects.

    Hope that helps clarify stuff.

  12. I’m wondering how you interpreted the 20% time is canceled… I mean just because random projects are being put on ice, doesn’t mean 20% time has been canceled. Google employees spend 20% time on things like testing system, build support, and random things that aren’t related to their job.

    I’m curious now, I’ll ask someone when I can.

  13. No more the 20-percent time for pet projects for engineers

    I have no inside info, so don’t know one way or another. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what the article says or implies, so I don’t think it’s something you can use to justify a dire conclusion. Here’s the quote and context:

    The company will curtail the “dark matter,” he says, projects that “haven’t really caught on” and “aren’t really that exciting.” He says the company is “not going to give” an engineer 20 people to work with on certain experimental projects anymore.