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Google's comScore Conundrum

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Sell first and ask questions later -- this has characterized trading in Google stock since January, and the biggest problem for Google and its investors has been coming from market research firm comScore.

For the past three months, the company has been tracking a marked slowdown in Google's paid clicks -- if not the most important metric to measure Google's business, certainly up there toward the top of the list.

And Wall Street has been buying the data and selling shares, pushing Google from its $740 high in November to $450, minutes before yesterday's tsunami of an earnings report.

So much stock in data from a firm that in February came out with a report -- then a few days later, retracted it.

The back story: comScore reported an enormous dropoff in Google's quarter-to-quarter paid clicks. The dropoff was so huge that the stock got trounced.

But experts following the company had another reason for that steep paid-clicks decline: new software being implemented by the company (software that would actually increase the quality of those clicks -and generate more revenue in the process) was likely responsible, and not some recession-driven slowdown.

The chatter on that front got so loud that a few days after the devastating comScore report was released, the research firm was forced to issue a "clarification." When I broke that story in late February, I read it as a retraction, essentially agreeing with the algorithm argument.

But the damage was done: Who was telling the truth? Google? ComScore? More than anything, Wall Street hates uncertainty, and the comScore data injected a big dose of uncertainty into the Google story. And it has continued to waft through Google shares since.

Never mind that most Wall Street firms tracking the company, as well as sources I talk to, haven't seen a worse-than-anticipated slowdown.

Never mind that the big hits suffered by financial institutions and mortgage lenders, some of Google's biggest advertisers, have been more than offset by travel and retail advertisers, as analyst research has been showing.

Never mind all that: People were nervous because of comScore.

In fact, just this past Tuesday, comScore released a report showing that paid clicks had only grown a paltry 1.8 percent during the March quarter. That sent a new shudder through Google shares.

And then we got the data from Google yesterday: paid clicks grew 20 percent, not 1.8 percent, and pessimism quickly jumped to optimism.

No one is arguing a Google slowdown; it's the pace of the slowdown that's in question. And the slowdown seems to be happening a lot, well, slower, than predicted, and that means good news for Google and its investors.

ComScore released a note today, again "clarifying" its data, claiming its numbers are accurate and that Google is using different metrics to arrive at its conclusions. ComScore says its 1.8 percent paid-click estimate only included domestic activity and that when Google reports, it includes international business as well.

Well, with a company now generating better than half its revenue from international customers, don't you think it's far more accurate to include that data in your findings? Talk about only telling part of the story! Makes no sense to me. In its note today, comScore says, "Two fundamental components of Google’s reported number -- international clicks and AdSense clicks -- are not currently included in the comScore report." Are you kidding me?!

Sure, there's an economic slowdown in the U.S., but if it's more than offset by business overseas, who cares? For comScore to try to explain away the data difference, by saying in essence that, "We were right because we were only giving you half the story" borders on nonsensical.

Seems to me that far too much emphasis is paid to a single market-researcher that is apparently having issues tracking this company. Google doesn't help matters by not offering guidance. Makes it that much more difficult for investors to make some money from all this.

And it's a nice reminder that if you have to consider the source, and weigh the research before making the investment.

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