Google's reputation as the internet phenomenon that can do no wrong took a new and unprecedentedly severe battering yesterday as investors, stunned by a quarterly earnings report falling far short of expectations, wiped more than 12 per cent off the value of the search engine company's stock.
It was the second time in a week that Google shares - the hottest, most talked about company stock in the world - were plunged unexpectedly into a frigid bath. And although the latest disappointment was more about market expectations than profitability, which remains extremely robust, the shine has come off a company regarded not only as a business powerhouse but a thrilling key promising to unlock the secrets of the digital future.
The past few days have been an unrelenting stream of bad news for Google, from its controversial agreement to submit to Chinese government censorship, which prompted the first stock plunge a week ago, to new complaints and legal action from book and newspaper publishers accusing Google of " kleptomania"as it seeks to make more and more material freely available online.
The company that once famously promised to "do no evil" is now being accused of doing precisely that because its sheer size and power threatens to overwhelm traditional publishing businesses and raises any number of questions about the potential impact of its reach on everything from individual privacy to the safety of sensitive military secrets kept by the world's governments.
Yesterday's shock was, above all, a psychological one for Google's army of gung-ho investors. In the past, the company has always far exceeded analysts' expectations in its quarterly earnings reports, the principal factor behind the extraordinary quadrupling of its value since its launch on the New York stock exchange last summer.
But largely because of tax complications arising from its exponential growth rate, Google could promise earnings of only $1.54 per share in the fourth quarter of 2005, compared with about $1.76 anticipated by analysts.
By the time trading resumed yesterday morning, Google's stock price had plummeted from $432.66 to $388.66, erasing $16bn in market value. The price recovered, as traders realised Google was also announcing a doubled net profit for the fourth quarter and an 86 per cent hike in advertising revenue, stellar achievements by any standard.
But all talk of Google's unstoppable march toward a $600 share price by the end of the year has dried up. Instead, many analysts are talking about a holding pattern in the $350 to $400 range for the foreseeable future.
The market correction was inevitable. Exponential growth is rarely sustainable, and Google's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, made it clear they were much more interested in formulating a long-term strategy than they were in hitting their quarterly numbers time after time. But there are indications of more ominous storm clouds.
Google is under mounting pressure from many traditional industries: telecommunications companies do not like its plan for free internet phone calls, book publishers and newspapers have filed a lawsuit to try to prevent it from digitising library materials, governments are worried about its satellite-imaging service Google Earth and privacy advocates have a growing list of concerns about everything from its e-mail service to its desktop search function, both of which may make it easier for hackers or government agencies to gather information about individuals without their consent.
Google also faces legal action over publishing. The Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and the news service Agence France Presse have filed a joint suit challenging Google's right to post material they regard as copyright. This week, a new broadside came from the World Association of Newspapers, which said publications should be compensated for use by Google News. Gavin O'Reilly, the president and also chief operating officer of Independent News and Media, which owns this newspaper, accused search engines of building their business "on the back of kleptomania" and said he would not exclude legal action.Reuse content