Google's Profits Are Exploding Because the Web Is Massive

The company's global ad business is now larger than that of Facebook, Alibaba, Baidu, Twitter, Amazon, and Snap, combined.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, just announced one of the most impressive earnings reports in tech history. In the midst of a rough news cycle for the company—with concerns about false stories appearing in search results and a huge antitrust fine from the European Union—Alphabet announced that its quarterly profits surged by 33 percent in the last quarter.

Home to the largest advertising firm ever assembled, Alphabet is the second most valuable company on the planet, after Apple. But while the Cupertino smartphone maker has sometimes struggled to maintain the ferocious growth rate of the early iPhone years, Alphabet’s growth is, somewhat ludicrously, accelerating. This quarter’s profit margin was its highest in almost five years, and the company has notched double-digit growth in sales in 15 consecutive quarters.

So, how does Alphabet do it?

Several years ago, there were some concerns about Google's profitability, as attention shifted to mobile devices, where ads are puny, annoying, and a more measly source of revenue on a cost-per-click basis. Today, cost-per-click is indeed declining. But Google has more than made up for the lost revenue by increasing total clicks on ads in mobile search results and YouTube videos, especially in Asia. While the Alphabet family includes some precocious younger children, like a growing cloud business and the self-driving car division Waymo, Alphabet is basically an advertising company, with nearly 90 percent of its revenue coming from ads.

There are at least two trends that are driving the company's gains: its utter dominance as the discovery mechanism for information online and the inexorable shift to computers—particularly the ones in our pockets and purses—away from print and television.

The singular corporate innovation of the 21st century has been the creation of discovery platforms that, rather than own their own products, instead control their customers’ discovery of those products. Just as Facebook does not own its content, and Uber does not own its cars, Google does not own the websites it surfaces in the vast majority of search results.

These discovery firms thrive in marketplaces of abundance. In early 1996, as Larry Page and Sergey Brin were developing the web page-ranking technology that became Google, there were about 100,000 websites in the world, according to Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators. Yahoo! and AltaVista rejected Page and Brin when they tried to commercialize their work, because, well, search just wasn’t an important functionality in the mid-1990s. Page and Brin’s little science project would only become truly lucrative if the internet somehow became a labyrinthine enormity—perhaps 1 million web pages! or 10 million!—so that the search engine itself would become the default homepage of the internet.

The bigger the web grows, the more valuable Google becomes. And, with more than 1 billion websites in the world and more than 4 billion people with regular access to the internet, finding your needle in that haystack is the fundamental problem of internet use. As the tech writer Ben Thompson wrote, “Google is the king of aggregators because, when information shifted from scarcity to abundance, discovery became the point of leverage, and Google was better at discovery than anyone.”

Second, the migration of attention from print and television to the internet—both desktop and mobile—has created a advertising duopoly for Google and Facebook. As these slides from the last Kleiner Perkins internet presentation show clearly, mobile is the future of media attention, and Facebook and Google’s share of digital ad revenue is growing faster than the rest of the industry combined.

Meeker / Kleiner Perkins
Meeker / Kleiner Perkins

Those graphs are for U.S. revenue alone, but the global picture isn’t much more balanced. (In fact, Google’s Asian revenue is growing faster than its North American markets.) According to eMarketer data emailed to me, Facebook’s worldwide digital ad revenue is larger than Alibaba, Baidu, Twitter, Amazon, and Snap, combined. And Google? Its global ad business is bigger than all those companies—plus Facebook. The upshot is that Google is, conservatively, eating at least 30 cents of every marginal ad dollar that shifts online.

When a company becomes this dominant, its gravest threat is political, not economic. Indeed, the company recently paid a $2.7 billion fine to the European Commission for its treatment of shopping websites in search results. Antitrust experts in the U.S. may similarly punish Google for anticompetitive practices. As a behemoth, Google may eventually attract unwanted attention from government regulators. As a pure business, however, Google appears unstoppable.