Google Searches for a Mobile Answer (Update 1)

Updated from 1:08 p.m. EST to provide additional analyst comments in the third and fourteenth paragraphs.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Google ( GOOG) has vastly underperformed since the start of 2012. Shareholders hope the company's first-quarter results on Thursday can be a catalyst for the stock to move higher.

Since the start of the year, Google shares have lost 1.99%, compared to a 15.79% gain in the Nasdaq. Weakness in Europe, concerns over its relationship with Apple ( AAPL) in mobile search and potential issues with Google's pending Motorola Mobility ( MMI) acquisition have weighed on the stock.

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster believes that investors will want to focus on the Motorola acquisition, despite Google's penchant for not mentioning it. He believes the best option for Google is to ultimately sell the hardware business, in order not to upset Android partners. Munster rates Google shares "overweight" with a $675 price target.

The Internet search giant has struggled to drive revenue from its mobile initiatives, despite having over 50% market share in smartphones, according to Comscore. Apple's ( AAPL) iOS is second in the U.S., with 30.2% market share, and Research In Motion ( RIMM) is in third place at 13.4%.

When Google reported weaker-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings, there were concerns that perhaps the company is expanding into too many ventures, many of which are not driving meaningful revenue, such as the much-maligned social network, Google+. Google CEO Larry Page recently said the social network has over 100 million users (though there has been discussion about how many of these are active users).

During the fourth quarter, Page announced plans to consolidate many of the company's ventures. A prime example of this strategy was Google's app store, now renamed Google Play, encompassing music, apps, videos and games.

There have also been concerns that Google's nascent search advertising business is struggling to grow, prompting speculation drastic action may be needed, such as buying Twitter. In the fourth quarter, Google reported a profit of $9.50 per share on revenue of $8.13 billion. Total revenue excluding traffic acquisition costs or revenue Google shares with its partners, was $10.58 billion.

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were looking for a profit of $10.49 per share on $8.4 billion in revenue.

Sanford Bernstein analyst Carlos Kirjner believes that search will continue to grow double-digit percentages, and display and YouTube "will be material contributors to revenue growth and profitability, leading revenues and profits to beat expectations." Kirjner rates Google shares "overweight" with a $727 price target.

J.P. Morgan analyst Doug Anmuth believes that the quality of ads are changing for the better, but that could weigh on cost-per-click, a key metric, in the short run.

"Designed to be net revenue positive, search and ad changes are continually rolled out and the net impact to individual metrics can vary quarter to quarter," Anmuth wrote, in his research note. "Google commented on its Inside Search blog that approximately 107 search quality changes were made in the quarter (17 in January, 40 in February, 50 in March)." He rates Google shares "overweight" with a $686 price target.

Raymond James analyst Aaron Kessler believes that Google will report inline earnings later this week, but has some concern about Search Engine Marketing checks. SEM refers to gaining traffic from search engines, as epitomized by Google AdWords, or similar offerings from Yahoo! ( YHOO) and Microsoft ( MSFT).

"On average, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) checks indicate modest deceleration in search spend for the first quarter. Our discussions and industry data points from SEMs indicate low-double digit to low-20% year-over-year growth in the first quarter of 2012 (a deceleration from 20%-plus growth in the fourth quarter)," Kessler wrote in his research report. "While the SEMs have generally indicated a slowdown in first-quarter year-over-year growth rates, we would note that many of the SEMs recorded a similar slowdown last year during the first quarter." He rates Google stock "outperform" with a $740 price target.

Wells Fargo analyst Jason Maynard believes that revenue stemming from both the United States and Canada will continue to maintain its pace, but Europe and the UK may see weakness. "We are now forecasting a Q1 headwind from FX of less than 1% which translates into an approximately $60-$70 million negative impact on net revenue," Maynard wrote in his research note. He rates Google shares "market perform" with a $620 to $640 price range.

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Google reports earnings after the close of trading on Thursday. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect revenue excluding traffic acquisition costs to be $8.146 billion and $9.65 in earnings.

Interested in more on Google? See TheStreet Ratings' report card for this stock.

-- Written by Chris Ciaccia in New York

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