When Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) gazes into the looking glass, does it see what it wants to see, or does it see Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) circa yesteryear?
The market is certainly wondering what became of Google's striking good looks. Its stock has plummeted by 37% since last year's peak. In market cap terms, Google's haircut amounts to roughly the size of two Yahoo!s.
The latest wrinkle came this week when trend-tracker comScore issued a sobering report, indicating that year-over-year clicks on Google's paid search ads -- the sponsored text spots that appear alongside relevant search queries -- fell in January.
It wasn't much of a dip at 0.3%, but Mr. Market isn't used to Google standing still, much less moving backward.
The comScore report is an incomplete measuring stick on many levels, but it doesn't take much for worrywarts to begin sweating under the suddenly claustrophobic sky.
You look nothing like your yearbook picture
It doesn't help that Google has let itself go in many other ways. Its employee headcount is growing quicker than its revenue. The company is in the process of throwing its hat into costly rings like wireless spectrum licenses, undersea network plumbing, and old-school advertising.
Analysts have also had their share of faith-rattling experiences with Big G. After consistently blowing past Wall Street's profit targets with ease, Google has come up short in two of the past three quarters. Forward estimates -- which used to tick higher with every passing report -- have ticked lower in recent months.
The upside for investors here is that the shares have tumbled a lot faster than the fundamentals. Consensus estimates find the pros expecting Google to earn $20.06 a share this year and $25.02 a share come 2009.
Trust me when I tell you that this is the first time that you have ever seen Google trading at less than 20 times next year's earnings. Really.
Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) is somehow not paying enough with its original offer to buy Yahoo! at 56 times next year's profits, yet Google now has the cooties at just 19 times its 2009 profit target? That's unreal.
Sure, Google isn't as cheap as Ask.com parent IAC (Nasdaq: IACI ) , at just 12 times next year's earnings, but this is Google we're talking about. Google!
More than just paid search
Keep in mind that the comScore report actually found Yahoo! producing a slightly wider year-over-year dip than Big G. There is also more to the Google story these days than its contextual marketing spots appearing on search query pages.
Google is a monster when it comes to syndicating its ads on third-party sites. AdSense revenue, which accounts for more than a third of the company's total revenue with its presence on sites like News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS ) MySpace, CNET (Nasdaq: CNET ) , or Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) AOL and CNN.com, climbed 37% higher this past quarter at Google. That compares to a 13% year-over-year dip in affiliate revenue at Yahoo! during the same period.
Google has also been growing beyond the clickthrough, whether it's through impression-based display advertising or expanding its action-based affiliate program spots. There is also the monetization of the fast-growing YouTube.
Is revenue growth going to decelerate this quarter? Definitely. Is it going to slam on the brakes and go in reverse? This isn't Crazy Taxi! The comScore data pegged Google's click growth at just 25% this past quarter, but Google's top line actually soared 51%.
Clicks on Google's search engine pages are important. They represent the perfect opportunity to deliver needy leads to advertisers at ridiculously high margins. However, it's just a sliver of the big picture at Google. It's also an incomplete equation, since even knowing the number of clicks doesn't reveal if advertisers are paying more or less than they used to.
I don't know what the market sees when Google steps before the looking glass. Maybe it's one of those funhouse mirrors that makes Google appear shorter, fatter, or more disfigured than it actually is.
That's not the Google I see. I don't see Yahoo!. I don't see an exclamation point -- or even a question mark -- after the company's moniker. I see a company that may want to keep its capital expenditures in check in the near term, but it's still quite the looker.
Even if its growth stock curves begin to fade, there's a downright irresistible value-hunting appeal at today's prices.