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Google is Being Clumsy in Explaining YouTube's Performance

July 23, 2009

Yesterday's "YouTube myth busting" post on its YouTube Biz Blog had the opposite of its intended effect: rather than providing more transparency about YouTube's performance as it hoped to do, it only set off another round of frustrated posts in the blogosphere imploring Google to release actual YouTube numbers.

The post came on the heels of last week's Q2 '09 earnings call and supplementary briefing call which were full of optimistic, yet confusing comments about YouTube's "trajectory" from a handful of Google's senior executives.

Here's what CFO Patrick Pichette said on the supplementary call: "I think that it is true that we are pleased with YouTube's trajectory. And in part the reason why we're communicating it to the Street is there's been so much press over the last quarter with all of these documentations of, you know, massive cost and no business models and all kind of negative press that we've read a lot about. And we just wanted to kind of reaffirm to the Street that this is a very credible business model and it's one that's got trajectory. So in that sense it's just to kind of tell everybody that we're on progress on the plan that we had made for it."

But what plan is he referring to? In almost 3 years of owning YouTube, Google has never publicly disclosed a specific plan for YouTube or laid out its business model, so attempts at reaffirming it fall flat because there's nothing against which progress can be judged. Here are other comments, with my reactions in parentheses.

Pichette on the earnings call: "We are really pleased both in terms of its (YouTube's) revenue growth, which is really material to YouTube and in the not long, too long distance future, we actually see a very profitable and good business for us, so from that perspective, we are really pleased with the trajectory." (WR: that sounds pretty bullish)

Jonathan Rosenberg, SVP of Product Management on the earnings call: "I think what I said - or what I meant to say was that monetizable views have tripled in the last year and that we are monetizing billions of views every month." (WR: that sounds bullish too, but wouldn't some actual numbers really bolster this point?)

Rosenberg on the supplementary call: "And that's part of why I think it's taken us time to kind of triangulate toward what works, and I think some of the things that we have now are still in the pretty nascent stages..." (WR: nonetheless, per earlier comment, profitability can already be forecast in the not too distant future?)

Nikesh Arora, President of Global Sales Operations and Business Development on the earnings call: "So we are seeing significant sell-through in most of our major markets where we have YouTube homepage for sale." (WR: of what ad unit - pre-rolls or display?)

Arora on the earnings call: "So I think the next phase of YouTube is going to be toward pre-roll video on short clips and long form video (which we are in the process of doing) various deals in, which we've announced in the past." (WR: that's new news, YouTube's spoken primarily of overlays in the past)

Rosenberg on the supplementary call: "I would not say our overall optimism that we expressed with respect to YouTube is primarily a function of one specific format. We've actually been testing pre-rolls, I think, for quite a while. So if you interpret that one single comment to pre-rolls to imply the broad conclusion with respect to optimism on YouTube, I think that's probably a mistake." (WR: so maybe pre-rolls aren't actually the next big thing?)

Yesterday's post: "Myth 5 YouTube is only monetizing 3-5% of the site. This oft-cited statistic is old and wrong, and continues to raise much speculation." (WR: what is the percentage then?)

CEO Eric Schmidt on the earnings call: "The majority of YouTube views are not professional content. They are user generated content because that's the majority of what people are watching." In response to whether YouTube is able to monetize user-generated content: "Has not been our focus." (WR: again, letting us know what percentage is professional and the focus of monetization would be very helpful)

These comments raise lots of questions about how far along Google actually is in understanding YouTube's traffic and its ability/plan to monetize it. I think Google is being clumsy in explaining YouTube's performance because it got nervous about the eye-popping estimates that have been floating around lately about how much money YouTube is losing and rushed to try to mitigate this perception, but without being ready to present real numbers as backup. Further, I don't think it rehearsed its executives very well about what to say or how to say it, so the improvised comments did not convey a clear consistent message.

As someone who believes YouTube has enormous long-term value for Google, my advice is that its executives should just stay mum on YouTube until they're ready to make a logical case backed by facts and data. That may take longer than Google or the market hoped, allowing the rumor mill to continue to churn. But continuing to make unsupported statements will only rile YouTube followers further, and eventually sap Google's credibility.

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