Is TiVo the Next Bankrate?

Just call me Roger Ebert. After all, my TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) viewing experiences lately are filled with ads requesting a "thumbs-up" from me.

The overlay ads aren't annoying. They usually take place during television shows; a simple press of the green "thumbs-up" button sets up a future recording of the show being advertised. It's effective. It's not too intrusive. It's brilliant.

Sure, TiVo has been doing this for ages, but pace seems to be picking up lately. It makes me wonder whether TiVo might actually be the next Bankrate (Nasdaq: RATE  ) . If you can't make the immediate connection, bear with me.

One of Bankrate's most lucrative businesses involves selling hyperlinks to financial institutions. Companies that want to stand out in Bankrate's listings of loan rates, CD yields, and other financial rates pay Bankrate to attach Web links to their names. The hyperlinks then send curious customers directly to the institution.

Sure, consumers can cut and paste web addresses -- just as they can manually program their TiVo boxes -- but the convenience of a hyperlink makes the referral a breeze. The simple sale of hyperlinks accounted for $8.2 million -- or 35% -- of the company's second-quarter revenue of $23.3 million.

Referrals are a big business. Online advertising accounts for 99% of Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) top line. Isn't that essentially a high-margin referral business? Google's fiscal existence is based on its ability to send leads to sponsors.

Whether it's The Knot (Nasdaq: KNOT  ) for wedding planning services, or InsWeb (Nasdaq: INSW  ) to score a quote on new auto insurance, the profitable lead generators are everywhere.

TiVo seems to be heading in that direction. As consumers grow more comfortable with giving the thumbs-up sign to the "thumbs-up" overlays, TiVo will be able to seek out deals with more advertisers.

In its present form, the "thumbs-up" ads either program an upcoming show, or deliver an extended promotional pitch into your TiVo hard drive. We're not too far from the point when hitting a TiVo button during ads for a discount brokerage or a casual-dining chain will find a broker application or restaurant menu waiting in your mailbox or email inbox.

Can TiVo really be the next Bankrate? If so, they will both be masters of interest.

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