Google's Next Buy

Don't tell me that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) printed out 14 million new shares back in mid-September without a game plan. Don't tell me that Google fattened up its balance sheet to $7.6 billion just because legal tender is fluffier pillow stuffing than goose down feathers.

There's a method to Google's madness, and there always has been. Google has been a thrifty shopper in the past, picking up small sites, software developers, and online technology companies. Now, with its coffers widening with every passing market-thumping quarter, Google is likely to make a big splash with its greenery. Or, at the very least, a decent-sized cannonball into the dot-com wading pool. It missed out on Skype -- a company that would have been perfect for Google in so many ways, and it can't afford to make the same mistake again.

With 99% of its revenue coming from advertising, Google can either broaden its reach by scooping up more virtual billboard space or try to diversify its egg basket by making inroads in software and services. I'm guessing that Google won't want to stray too far away from the money tree, although the company is flexible enough to reach for something if it fits into its greater vision.

Here are a few companies I think may be in the process of dolling themselves up in front of the dressing room mirror because they can hear Google pulling up in the driveway.

TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  )
What? This one caught you by surprise? Yes, it's an odd choice. Google, with its lean ways and plump margins, would go ballistic if it caught sight of TiVo's income statements. The fact that TiVo has incredulously recommitted itself to subsidizing hardware sales through bulky rebates isn't a pretty sight in the near term. However, the more you think about TiVo, the more you realize that it's the ideal bride for Google. Actually, it was rumor mill fodder seven months ago. That was shortly after TiVo announced that it would eventually start selling ads on its TiVo playbacks.

TiVo ads wouldn't be all that different from Google's paid search listings. They can both serve up perfectly targeted ads because TiVo knows what you're watching, just as Google knows where you're surfing. Contextual marketing is all the rage, and just as Google started duplicating some of its paid search ads in major magazine, Google's push to broadcast its ads on more than just your computer screen would make TiVo the perfect platform to get its foot into the world of televised content.

A Google digital video recorder subsidized mostly -- if not entirely -- by relevant text ads? I can definitely see that happening. Google already has the established ad inventory and the solid relationships with the marketers. Buying TiVo would allow Google to enter the market, Googlize it, and walk away with the only brand name that matters in a market cluttered with generics.

CNET Networks (Nasdaq: CNET  )
You can spot CNET a mile away. It's the bachelorette with "Marry me!" spray-painted on its forehead. The fact that traffic-rich CNET has been in play since the summer has been one of the market's worst-kept secrets. The only real questions are who will step up to the plate and how much they will offer.

Google should be drooling over the prospects. CNET serves up roughly 100 million page views on any given day. It attracts 110 million visitors every month to its wide array of magnetic properties like Gamespot, News.com, and Webshots. CNET has an existing relationship with Google, despite a silly flap over a recent article. However, it's clear that Google's ad placements throughout CNET's network of sites could stand some seriously improvement. It would also free up Google to collect all of the ad revenue instead of forking the lion's share back over to CNET.

AOL.com
America Online is CNET's largest third-party partner. Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) online arm produced 12% of Google's revenue last year, even though most of that went right back to Time Warner. That's why Google's desire to acquire AOL.com -- or at least whatever size stake Time Warner is willing to sell -- is imperative. It would not only keep Google there, earning more, but it would also keep the competition out. That's important because Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) is getting serious about growing its online advertising reach through third-party sites. How serious? That takes us to the next item up for bid in this virtual showcase.

iVillage (Nasdaq: IVIL  )
Back in August, Yahoo! bared its third-party advertising baby teeth when it managed to snag iVillage away from Google to service its search and contextual marketing needs. It should have been a sobering wake-up call for Google. iVillage's reach of 15.5 million unique monthly visitors may pale in comparison to CNET's wingspan, but iVillage can also be had for far less. Specialized content sites are important to a company with the ability to target its campaigns. Self-billed as "The Internet for Women," iVillage fits the bill perfectly. Advertisers who want to reach a female audience know that they can be found, in concentrate, at iVillage.com. The company also targets a younger female audience through gURL.com.

TheKnot.com (Nasdaq: KNOT  )
If iVillage offers a specific audience, The Knot gets even more specific. As the leading destination for folks about to get hitched, this matrimonial hotbed offers an online marketer the perfect package of young couples ready to spend a ton of money in the near term and map out their lifetimes together for the long term. The company has been as profitable as it has been prolific.

So how much are we talking here?
Because we don't know how big a stake Time Warner is willing to dish out, we can't lay a price tag on that one. There are also some pretty tantalizing privately held companies like Craigslist, StubHub, Wikipedia, and Vonage that would fit right into the Google playbook. However, we do know the enterprise value of what the four public companies are fetching these days. Even if Google were to pay a premium above that to get heads nodding in agreement, it would have enough money to buy them all twice over.

Company

Enterprise Value

TiVo

$320 million

CNET

$2.1 billion

iVillage

$475 million

TheKnot.com

$250 million



Now, this doesn't mean that you should buy any of these stocks and expect Google to come knocking. You should buy into a stock only if you feel compelled enough to own it as a stand-alone entity. I certainly feel that they're all attractive opportunities, and I'm not alone. TiVo and Time Warner are active recommendations in Motley Fool Stock Advisor, and CNET has been beating the market since being singled out earlier this year in the Rule Breakers ultimate growth stock-picking service.

That's important, because the last thing you need is to buy into a stock as if it's a connecting flight to a lush, tropical island when you may very well be stranded in the connecting flight's airport. So take the time to get to know these companies a little better. I'll be back next week with a few more dark-horse buyout candidates.

Now, if only I could beat Google to the front door to land that last dance.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a huge fan of Google and will be watching how Google spends its newfound money carefully. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story.The Fool has a disclosure policy. Rick is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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