By Alexei Oreskovic
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Google Inc's advertising rates will get extra scrutiny as Wall Street ponders whether the proliferation of Internet-connected smartphones helps or hinders the money-making search engine that drives the company's profits.
Google's first-quarter financial results, due after Thursday's market close, will mark co-founder Larry Page's first year back in the chief executive's seat.
Page has moved aggressively to reposition the Web search leader in a shifting landscape where mobile gadgets and online social networking services are constantly vying for consumers. For a company like Google, being on top of the latest tech trends and capturing users' attention is crucial.
"The new CEO continues to put his thumbprint on the company and I think that a lot of the discussion is going to be on what the strategy is going forward," said Michael Yoshikami, fund manager for Destination Wealth Management.
"In this space, things are moving so fast, if you do the wrong things, in five or 10 years ... you can become irrelevant."
Google stunned Wall Street last quarter with a rare miss of analysts' profit and revenue expectations, sending its stock spiraling more than 9 percent.
Investors were particularly spooked by a surprise decline in Google's average cost-per-click (CPC) - the money paid by marketers for search ads - which raised fears that lower-cost mobile search ads were to blame.
Google cited several reasons for the decline, including changes to its advertising formats, and many analysts expect another drop in the first quarter. But investors will be looking for any details about the overall direction of mobile search ad rates.
"If they come out and say that mobile CPCs have moved up significantly since 2011 then we could see the stock run, because that means that even if this quarter comes in-line, you could see numbers move up for the entire year," said Sameet Sinha, an analyst with B. Riley & Co.
Meanwhile, some analysts and investors note that so long as mobile ads are supplemental to its desktop personal computer search ads, Google will benefit.
Wall Street has relatively muted expectations for Google's first-quarter results. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S expect net revenue, which excludes fees paid to partner websites, of $8.14 billion, up 25 percent year-over-year and flat from the fourth quarter. Analysts are looking for adjusted earnings per share of $9.65.
"The market right now is so greedy for good news, they're going to have to probably meet or beat" both revenue and profit margin expectations, said Yoshikami of Destination Wealth Management.
"If they have a growth in revenue and reduced margins, the stock will sell off," he said. Stock during Page's tenure: http://link.reuters.com/xus57s
Google's swelling cash coffers will also be in the spotlight, following Apple Inc's decision to issue a dividend and begin a stock buyback program, and Facebook's $1 billion acquisition on Monday of Instagram, a popular photo-sharing app for smarpthones.
Google had $44.6 billion in cash and marketable securities at the end of 2011, the fourth largest cash pile among U.S. non-financial companies according to Moody's Investors Service.
"Investors deserve to know more about what Google is going to do with its cash other than spend $9 billion on Motorola Mobility," said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Jordan Rohan. Google announced plans last year to buy Motorola Mobility Inc, which has roughly $3.45 billion in cash on its balance sheet, for $12.5 billion.
Google shares, which finished Tuesday at $626.86, are up 5.7 percent since Page became CEO in early April 2011, compared to the Nasdaq composite index's roughly 7 percent increase over the same period.
The Motorola acquisition is among Page's many big moves since his return. He has cut back on extraneous projects and launched a full-fledged social networking service, Google+, to compete head-on with Facebook.
New projects, such as Google's augmented reality glasses whose prototypes were unveiled last week, reflect a commitment to creating ambitious products that can generate the kind of consumer buzz typically associated with rival Apple.
Google hired aggressively in 2011 - boosting its headcount from roughly 24,400 to more than 32,000 - but the pace seems to be slowing. Job postings for Google have shown a "material deceleration" in the first quarter from the last few months of 2011, according to a report by Bernstein Research analyst Carlos Kirjner.
The hiring slowdown could signal that Google's profit margins, adjusted for the Motorola acquisition, will either hold steady or expand slightly during the year, according to Kirjner.
Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co, also sees margins stabilizing by year's end, but noted that Page's penchant for long-term bets means the company's overall spending remains unpredictable. And it means that investors may need to be patient before Page's accomplishments begin to pay off.
"Considering the fact that most of what he's working on is very long-term in nature, I'd say Wall Street is still trying to determine what grade to give him," Sebastian said.
(Reporting By Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by Richard Chang)