It's hard to bet against Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) these days. The company handles a majority of the United States' search-engine queries, and its market share continues to grow at the expense of softer rivals.
Google is the undisputed paid-search champ, and no Internet titan smells prettier than this market darling. But if the search king's doing so well, why are its partners struggling?
Oh mama, MIVA
MIVA (Nasdaq: MIVA ) was the market's biggest loser yesterday, shedding 36% of its value after the Internet media and interactive marketing company hosed down its guidance for the second half of the year.
MIVA is now looking to break even on an EBITDA basis for the third quarter, with revenue clocking in between $36.7 million to $37.1 million. There will be marginal sequential improvement during the fourth quarter. Analysts were perched slightly higher before the company's shortfall bombshell.
So what does MIVA have to do with Google? MIVA is a second-tier online advertiser, despite its global holdings. Google has been growing at the expense of its rivals, so watching another peer stumble should be just another notch on Big G's bedpost.
But that's not quite the case this time. Back in January, MIVA decided to take advantage of Google's rich inventory of contextual marketing ads. On its own, MIVA generated approximately $0.07 per lead on its 240 million clickthroughs during the third quarter of 2006. By outsourcing some of the billable ad space on its online destinations, search portals, widgets, and desktop toolbars to Google through the Google AdSense program, MIVA stood to make more on each generated lead, even after Google took its cut.
That may still hold true, but why is MIVA missing its targets? This isn't necessarily a reflection on Google as a partner -- If MIVA is struggling to draw a crowd, it's not Google's fault. Google arms third-party publishers with industry-leading monetization tools, but for those publishers, it's strictly BYOE -- bring your own eyeballs.
MIVA's not alone
However, MIVA isn't the only publicly-traded Google partner to stumble lately. Back in August, Answers.com (Nasdaq: ANSW ) announced that it would lay off 12% of its staff, following its warnings of a wider-than-expected third-quarter loss. Answers.com has been sprinkling its reference pages with Google ads since 2005.
Again, the Answers.com slump isn't a reflection on the quality of Google as a monetizing genius. The company conceded at the time that its site traffic was off by 28%, due mostly to a change in Google's search-engine algorithms.
In that sense, it's good to see that Google can stick to its "do no evil" stance, even if it results in near-term financial hits for both Google and Answers.com. The Answers.com site draws from several websites, including Wikipedia, to create most of its content. Ranking Wikipedia's original content higher in its search queries is the right thing for Google to do, even if Answers.com is culling data from ad-free Wikipedia and populating it with Google ads.
So we shouldn't assume that weakness at Google's partners spells weakness at Big G itself.
Mad about ads
Over the past few quarters, revenue generated from Google's own sites has been growing faster than that of its partner sites. This may come as a surprise to many out there, especially given the incremental way Google's been signing up more AdSense partners. Beyond the growing network of third-party websites of all sizes, AdSense has been booming, as Google strikes ad deals with heavy hitters like Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) CNN.com and News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS ) MySpace.
Investors don't seem to be troubled by the trend towards internal growth. It's easy to see their point. During the second quarter, Google's partners accounted for $1.35 billion in ad revenue. However, $1.15 billion of that went back out as traffic acquisition costs, most of it in the form of revenue-sharing with AdSense publishers. The margins are far more attractive for sites that Google actually owns.
This doesn't mean that investors should condemn AdSense as a slacker. It serves an important role in attracting new advertisers and keeping the Web's ad space away from paid-search rivals like Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) .
Google can clearly thrive despite its partners' weakness, though it should be worried about strength at some of its rivals' allies. (Witness Microsoft with Facebook, or Yahoo! with its growing consortium of newspaper websites.)
So is Google broken? Of course not. Still, it doesn't mean that the company can ignore several of its partners' dire need for improvement. The last thing Big G needs is for BYOE to become BYOG -- bring your own grave -- for its ailing third-party publishers.
Check out the Google AdSense food line: