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Date Yahoo!, Marry Google, Kill Microsoft

Join me out on a limb. This week I'm taking the popular "date, marry, kill" game and applying it to related stocks. Yesterday, I took a closer look at digital music. This time, I dive right into the paid search space.

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) rule this market. How big is this kingdom? Let's put it this way: Google generated more than $3 billion in net profits on $10.6 billion in revenues last year.

Unfortunately, I can't hand out three blue ribbons today. I can't even hand out gold, silver, and bronze medals. I am forcing myself to pick one stock for a short-term trade (date), one stock for a long-term investment (marry), and one stock to short (kill).

Let's do this.

Date Yahoo!
It's true that Yahoo! squandered its pioneer status. It acquired paid search innovator Overture, giving it years of experience lead time in contextual marketing before Google launched its rival AdWords service. It let Google lap it. It watched as Big G introduced lower price points to attract advertisers and armed small webmasters with the ability to populate the Internet with Google ads through the ingenious AdSense program.

That's in the past. Right now, Yahoo! is in a better place than you may think. It has some pretty amazing properties in the Flickr photo-sharing site, the HotJobs employment hub, and the sticky community-driven Yahoo! Answers offering.

Humility finds Yahoo! aping Google with its paid search product now, but you really couldn't pick a better mentor. It won't be easy, but the company should make strides as it continues to flesh out its own websites while making its online advertising product more effective.

Earnings are only expected to inch marginally higher this year, but Wall Street is looking for a 35% bottom-line boost come next year. The shares have tripled over the past five years, yet still trade well off their all-time highs. Better-than-expected initial results with its search tweaks can finally light a firecracker here. Let's hope that Yahoo! isn't still holding it when it goes off.

Marry Google
It's easy to fall in love with Google. Even though smaller players like MIVA (Nasdaq: MIVA  ) and LookSmart (Nasdaq: LOOK  ) helped pave the way for paid search, this is Google's show now.

Rather than devour the spoils of victory, Google's never gotten cocky. It hasn't loaded its flagship site with portal distractions like its rivals have done. In short, it's the search engine that all the other search engines want to be when they grow up.

Despite a fivefold advance since going public in the summer of 2005, Google isn't as pricey as you may think. The stock is trading at just 22 times next year's profit targets, and it's growing at a much faster clip than that.

Google isn't perfect. It's losing market share in China to (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) . Its own Yahoo! Answers clone was a bust. The company attracts lawsuits like sideburns at an Elvis convention. That's OK. I can still lift Google's veil, admire the blemishes, and kiss the heck out of the bride.

Kill Microsoft
Death to Mr. Softy? I'm afraid so. Google and Yahoo! are carving out thick margins in paid search, yet Microsoft is actually losing money in its online services. It is also in the red in its Zune/Xbox gadgetry businesses.

Microsoft is all about software, but where is the mad rush to upgrade to Vista and Office 2007? I know Inside Value subscribers will disagree with me. The stock is a newsletter pick. It's a cash-rich money tree. But with the company in the red beyond its software stronghold, is this really the safest of blue chips?

Vista should open up new doors; it finds Microsoft poking its head into new areas like PC security and accounting software. But is Microsoft's door closing where it matters the most? Google is teaming up with Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW  ) to promote free, Web-based productivity software. The popularity of open-source solutions will be a bigger threat in a wired world post-Vista.

Microsoft has the brains -- and brawn -- to matter in cyberspace. It just hasn't been able to prove it. It has lost market share in online search over the past year. The stock has shot 35% higher since bottoming out in June, discounting the upgrade cycle. What if Microsoft threw an upgrade party and nobody came?

Come back tomorrow for the third installment in this series. Check out yesterday's original entry if you need a quick fix for now.

Yahoo! is a popular recommendation for Motley Fool Stock Advisor subscribers. Microsoft is an active pick for Inside Value readers. Baidu is a Rule Breakers newsletter selection. Whatever your investing style, we have a newsletter that's right for you.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story, and he recognizes that nearly all of the 50 states ban marriage between a man and a stock. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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