Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU ) remains the dot-com darling of China, but at least one analyst is concerned about where the country's leading search engine will be in the future.
Goldman Sachs analyst Catherine Leung reiterated her firm's "neutral" rating yesterday, fearing that the growing popularity of mobile search makes the company vulnerable.
Sure, it's easy to fret. Baidu commands nearly 80% of the search market through computers, but its share of the mobile search market is closer to 35%, according to Chinese tracker EnfoDesk. Just as global PC sales have stalled in the face of "good enough" computing devices including smartphones and tablets, isn't it just a matter of time before mobile usage catches up and passes the time spent on a desktop?
Well, not so fast, Baidu bashers.
Leung does have some valid points. Mobile search is harder to monetize, and smartphones give app developers lower barriers to entry. However, the near-term trends remain positive.
Folks buying smartphones in China are probably spending more time surfing the Web, since the Internet travels in their pockets. In other words, the usage is incremental. There is certainly no slowing of popularity for Baidu at the moment. Revenue climbed 75% in its lastest quarter.
There will also be opportunities for Baidu to grow in mobile search. In a major win, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) announced last week that it will incorporate Baidu into its Safari browser in China. Baidu has also thrown its weight behind its own mobile platform.
Now, before one argues that Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android gives Big G the greater advantage in that battle, keep in mind that Google reportedly commands only 10% of the mobile search market in China.
Baidu knows what it's doing. It's rolling out new Web services that will appeal to mobile users. Until Baidu's growth slows to the point where its forward earnings multiple is a larger number -- and it's not even close now, at a surprisingly low 19 times next year's profitability -- the bigger risk is not owning Baidu.
Bullish on Baidu
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