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Google Worries Might Be Exaggerated

Friday, 29 Feb 2008 | 12:44 PM ET
CNBC.com

Google's comScore headache continues to resonate through Wall Street but a growing chorus of analysts are beginning to wonder whether this is really much ado about nothing. And when I say "much ado," I mean it, considering how much this report throttled Google stock.

ComScore reported a dramatic decrease in Google's paid clicks, the company's main source of revenue, leading some to believe this was the hardest evidence yet that Google has become the victim of recession and that business is slowing significantly. Yet even comScore itself is re-evaluating its own data; not saying it got it wrong, but saying instead that the big January drop might come from improvements in Google's click programs and not because of some big drop off in business. ComScore says that since it's not tracking the same kind of drop off in business at other search engines, the issues might be from Google click improvements alone, and not some macro-economic factors instead.

Silicon Alley Insider weighs in on all this, disputing the comScore claim, saying that "although Google's click improvement programs are almost certainly contributing to the paid click fall-off, it seems unlikely that they account for all of it. We therefore continue to view the comScore report as supporting the theory that Google is exposed to economic weakness."

First of all, I think every company is exposed to economic weakness on some level; the issue is how big that exposure is. And that's where I beg to differ with all this. As I've written before, I think Google's model is far more insulated to a recession than many others simply because of the way it generates revenue from advertisers. They only pay when consumer clicks become actual sales leads. That's a powerful model in any climate, but particularly compelling during times of recession when advertisers are looking to cut budgets, but might be loathe to do so when there's concrete evidence that consumer clicking on Google ads translates into real revenue.

And some analysts are beginning to come around to this idea. Check the note from Citigroup's Mark Mahaney this week. He continues to be one of the most thoughtful internet analysts around, and while he lowered his price target slightly, from $650 to $625, lowering quarterly revenue growth from 10 percent to 8 percent. Yet he still embraces the longer-term Google model. He writes, "We do not believe Google's paid leads have descended to a No Growth Level...There are signs of weakness in Financial Services, Travel, and Real Estate, but no signs of material deceleration in other areas."

Most importantly, he maintains his "buy" on the stock. Oppenheimer calls the paid clicks news a "serious concern," but remains cautiously optimistic on the shares.

Once again, as traders replace investors as the key drivers in this market, the meaningfulness of these kinds of headlines get far more magnified than they should. Everybody seems to be lowering estimates, but few are downgrading shares. Everybody seems to be lowering targets, but no one is suggesting you dump Google shares. And almost all the targets I've seen are dramatically higher than the share price is today, as Google continues to fall.

Traders are getting antsy. Investors are sitting on their Google shares, maybe even increasing positions a little, waiting for the rest of this year to unfold.

UPDATE: ComScore says now that its findings do not suggest a slowdown in Google business, but instead are primarily due to improvements in the way Google handles the listings themselves. Seems to me this is some significant back-peddling, but read the blog and judge for yourself.

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