Google's Billion-Dollar Shopping List

If the New York Yankees have taught us anything, it's that if you have money and aren't afraid to spend, you can get pretty much what you want. When the small-market Kansas City Royals add players to their roster, the top pick-up is somebody named Neifi Perez. When the Yankees go shopping, they acquire Alex Rodriguez, arguably the game's best player.

The comparison of Google to the Yankees isn't perfect -- no one is referring to the search engine as the "Evil Empire." But Google, which will soon be coming into money with its IPO, will have the industry's deepest pockets. This IPO will represent a significant transfer of wealth -- estimates are at more than $3 billion in cash -- as well as a healthy market cap (probably over $30 billion).

One theory is that Google will save the cash for a rainy day, although this seems unlikely. Despite the tremendous success, the company is far from a sure thing. This week, the research firm Vividence issued an extensive report on the search industry, indicating that Google is not necessarily the most useful search engine. If anything, search technology is becoming a commodity.

With advertising constituting 95% of revenues, Google is diversifying into new markets. For example, it plans to launch a desktop application for file and text search, which is a direct threat to Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) . There is also the initiative to provide free gigabyte email storage.

However, building businesses organically is expensive and time-consuming. Why not put Google's wealth to use by purchasing companies? True, it has bought several companies, like Kaltix (context-sensitive search), Applied Semantics (technologies for online advertising), and Sprinks (a pay-per-click network). There are likely to be other tactical acquisitions to boost Google's technology. A good starting point would be to look at the portfolios of the company's venture capitalists, Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins.

The mega deals, though, will come from search distribution companies. But who will be Google's A-Rod?

A particularly attractive target is Ask Jeeves (Nasdaq: ASKJ  ) . In March of this year, it made a transformative deal for the purchase of Interactive Search Holdings, a composite of properties like Excite.com, MySearch.com, and iWon.com.

With the deal, Ask Jeeves more than doubled its traffic. What's more, the incremental costs of adding more traffic is minimal, so monetization of traffic falls mostly to the bottom line. While most tech deals get a thumbs-down from investors, Ask Jeeves saw a 40% surge in its stock price. In other words, Wall Street understands that search is no longer about technology; it's about market share.

Other distribution plays include FindWhat (Nasdaq: FWHT  ) and InfoSpace (Nasdaq: INSP  ) . Interestingly, these distribution companies may be imminent targets for Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) or Microsoft. With Google in the registration process for its IPO, it's difficult for the company to cut a major deal. Competitors may take the next few months as an opportunity for a preemptive strike.

But isn't Google a self-proclaimed "unconventional company"? Might it instead do out-of-the box deals? After all, the Yankees signed seven top-notch starting pitchers even though they use a five-man rotation, so you can't know for sure.

Let's take a look at some possibilities:

Monster Worldwide (Nasdaq: MNST  )
A key acquisition for Yahoo!'s growth plan was HotJobs.com. If it can work for Yahoo!, why not Google? One target that makes sense is Monster Worldwide, the parent company for leading career online site Monster.com. Other properties include TMP Worldwide, which is the biggest Yellow Pages advertising agency.

In the most recent quarterly report, Monster showed an increase in revenues of 11% to $186.7 million. Net income was $12.4 million. Management upped its earnings guidance because of improving business conditions and improved marketing efforts.

Monster has been on an acquisition spree. Targets include jobpilot (a European online career portal) and Military Advantage (operator of military.com, the nation's largest online military destination). Perhaps Tickle was Monster's most interesting acquisition. The company is a leader in career assessments, but also has a thriving social networking business with approximately 18 million active members. That would certainly be a nice addition to the Google community.

Verity (Nasdaq: VRTY  )
A noticeable weak spot for Google is the enterprise market, as seen by the lackluster traction of the Google Search Appliance. Yet, there is significant opportunity in the enterprise search market, especially with the anticipated uptick in the IT spending environment.

An enticing target for Google would be Verity, a company with a best-of-breed product with over 3,500 customers. It has pursued a dual track of strong internal development and strategic acquisitions, such as for Cardiff Software and NativeMinds. The company expects to generate revenues between $121 million to $123 million in fiscal 2004. Profits are forecasted at $0.39 to $0.42 per share.

Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK  ) and Priceline.com (Nasdaq: PCLN  )
Likewise, e-commerce revenues have been underwhelming for Google. An intriguing target would be Overstock.com (hey, the company even used the Dutch Auction to go public), an online site focused on closeouts for brand-name merchandise. The company has been growing at a torrid rate, with revenues up 79% during the prior quarter.

Next, an acquisition of Priceline.com would provide Google entrée into the lucrative online travel space (that is, if Google is interested in taking a Barry Diller approach). This company is also growing fast, as it has gained traction in other vertical, such as car rentals.

InfoSpace (Nasdaq: INSP  )
The company has had to undergo painful restructuring after the dot-com bust. But it was smart enough to keep two businesses: wireless and paid search.

Mobile is still in the early stages, but is likely to see substantial growth. Already, there is increasing demand for ring tones and gaming. How else will the mobile carriers be able to differentiate themselves? InfoSpace's recent acquisition of Switchboard provides penetration into the local search market, which is the next battleground in the search wars.

Conclusion
No doubt, it is always a bad idea to base an investment decision solely on the basis of a possible buyout. During the past few years, however, Internet companies have done a tremendous job in terms of restructuring. With low cost structures, as well as lots of cash on the balance sheet, these companies are now enjoying the leverage in their earnings. If anything, the possibility of a buyout would be a nice bonus for investors.

Anyway, when it comes to analyzing Google, isn't it always natural to engage in some good-natured speculation?

Final note: As of this morning, the Yankees have the best record in baseball.

Fool contributorTom Taulliis the author ofThe EDGAR Online Guide to Decoding Financial Statements. He owns shares of FindWhat. The Motley Fool is investors writingfor investors.


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