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EARNINGS PREVIEW: Internet Giants Look To Boost Profitability

By Drew FitzGerald OF DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: The biggest Internet companies continued to encroach on their peers' traditional turf in the first quarter, with Google Inc.'s (GOOG) virtual wallet vying for a piece of EBay's Inc.'s (EBAY) nascent PayPal card-swiping business and Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) moving more aggressively into digital media. Still, most online companies have dialed back on new acquisitions so far this year--Amazon being a notable exception--as their immediate focus turns to boosting existing businesses and improving their profitability. In its core business, Google will look to maintain the strong advertising sales that fed its massive spending over the past year, while a struggling Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) is shedding employees in an effort to stay nimble. An improving U.S. retail environment should help online marketplaces report stronger sales, leaving investors to focus on how well those companies can hold up margins. COMPANIES TO WATCH: Google Inc. (GOOG) - April 12 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts' average projection calls for a profit of $9.64 a share with $8.13 billion in revenue, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters. A year earlier, the company delivered a profit of $7.04 a share, or $8.08 excluding stock-compensation costs and tax-related effects, with $6.54 billion in revenue after commissions paid to marketing partners. Total revenue reached $8.58 billion. Key Issues: Google continues to invest in projects outside its traditional search business, but shareholders still pay close attention to the massive revenue generated from advertising sold next to its bread-and-butter query results. The average price of those ads slipped in the fourth quarter, spooking investors, partly because Google's growing mobile-ads were fetching lower fees. At the same time, the volume of users clicking on mobile ads is exploding, which should help maintain the search giant's surging top-line growth. The company is also expected to disclose more about its Google+ social network, which now boasts more than 100 million users. Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) - April 17 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters see a 17-cent per-share profit with $1.07 billion in revenue. A year earlier, the company earned 17 cents a share, which included a 2-cent per-share write-down, on $1.06 billion in revenue excluding traffic-acquisition costs. Total revenue was $1.21 billion. Key Issues: Investors await details on Chief Executive Scott Thompson's turnaround strategy as Yahoo struggles to revive its declining ad business, the cornerstone of its operations. The company's core display ad business has been trending downward for some time, while its search partnership with Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) sputters, meaning the latest results will likely take a back seat to details on the company's turnaround plan. Yahoo recently said it would cut about 14% of its workforce, though the Internet giant has yet to articulate how it plans to improve its top line. eBay Inc. (EBAY) - April 18 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts expect a 52-cent per-share profit and $3.15 billion of revenue. Year-earlier earnings reached 36 cents a share, or 47 cents excluding stock-based compensation costs and other adjustments, on $2.55 billion of revenue. Key Issues: Recent monthly sales data suggest EBay's core marketplace segment is on track to deliver stronger revenue, building on gains seen over the past year after the online retailer revamped the business with fee changes and other tweaks. PayPal remains the company's fastest growing segment, however, with a small but expanding business among companies looking for an alternative to existing payment processors. PayPal's point-of-sale business is still gaining its footing, and investors will look for news of its progress. PayPal chief David Marcus is new on the job but has said he plans to maintain the unit's overall strategy after his predecessor abruptly departed for the top spot at Yahoo. Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) - reporting date to be announced Wall Street Expectations: Forecasts call for a 7-cent per-share profit with $12.86 billion of revenue. The company reported a 44-cent per-share profit with $9.86 billion of revenue a year ago. Key Issues: Amazon's spending spree showed no signs of abating in the latest quarter, as demonstrated by the retailer's $775 million acquisition of robot maker Kiva Systems Inc., a deal unveiled last month. The online shopping giant says heavy investment will drive greater profitability in the long run--Kiva's robots make its distribution network more efficient, for instance--and the company is aggressively expanding offerings of e-books, videos and other electronic media, which offer stronger margins. Investors will look for details on how quickly Amazon's nonphysical sales are growing as rivals like Apple Inc. (AAPL) encroach. (The Thomson Reuters financial estimates and year-earlier figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) -By Drew FitzGerald, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2909; Andrew.FitzGerald@dowjones.com

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