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This article is part of Our Top 5 Tech Stocks for 2011 series.
I lucked out this time.
When our editors asked Foolish writers for their top tech stock ideas for 2011, only one ticker was on multiple wish lists. After an ugly battle royal in the Fool rotunda with lots of pulled hair, torn ligaments, and bruised egos (not really, but go with me here), I was chosen to explain why we were fighting over Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) . It pays to be a 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound Viking sometimes. Also, maybe I got dibs for crushing the competition in last year's tech roundup. Who knows?
Google in a nutshell
While the reasons to admire Google and its stock could fill volumes, the top three arguments in its favor are these:
- Moat: Many have tried to challenge Google's core business, and all have failed.
- Value: This is a dirt cheap blue chip with tons of locked-in value.
- Innovation: This giant ain't done growing yet, and the key to future growth lies in fresh thinking.
The tech sector is full of delectable treats for the intrepid investor. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) might match Google's deep-discount valuation, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) might claim a wider moat thanks to legions of rabid fans, and you could argue that Universal Display (Nasdaq: PANL ) depends on innovation more than Google does. But I dare you to find one stock that combines all three of these elements into one no-brainer like Google does.
Grow, grow, grow your moat
Thanks to its eponymous search service, Google is a concept, a myth, a dictionary word. No matter how often Microsoft tells me to "Bing and decide," you can't convince me that Bing is a verb. Apple may be synonymous with "great design" but that's not an easy concept to bake into everyday English: "Man, the Chrysler building is so Apple!"
That may not sound like an obvious business advantage, but think about it for a second. When the brand name becomes this enmeshed in the collective consciousness of consumers, what do you think you'll type into the browser the next time you're looking for information? That's right -- Google. This phenomenon started years ago and is still growing, and that branding power is a big part of Google's money-making mystery. Without it, the AdWords/AdSense advertising machine would never have been the money-minter it is today, nor would Google have a platform from which to launch all of its other business projects. We'll get back to this under the "innovation" header below.
It's a deal, it's a steal
I don't know if you've noticed this, but Google's business has been growing a lot faster than its share price.
Over the past three years, sales have increased by 22.5% per year, earnings grew faster than that, and free cash flow has doubled every year. If stock valuation is based on cash flows (and most value investors would tell you that it is), you would expect Google's shares to follow suit in some fashion.
But no -- Google's share price has increased by a measly 12% over the last three years, barely beating the Nasdaq's breakeven performance. The dichotomy between strong cash flows and slow stock returns has created a value monster. In the words of fellow Fool Tim Beyers, "Google today is valued as if it'll never achieve better than 3% cash flow growth from here till eternity."
The market's built-in weighing machine will eventually overrule the voting machine. Google is worth a lot more than the market cap you see today.
Never stop moving forward
You won't find Google resting on its laurels for long. Plain old search services are still important and drive the majority of Google's sales, but that won't always be the case.
Mobile ads already account for $1 billion of sales on an annualized basis, in large part thanks to the rise of the Android mobile platform. In one partnership with Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH ) , Google sells TV advertising on some of Dish's channels. In another TV-related effort, Google TV has made its retail debut on hardware by Sony (NYSE: SNE ) and others. But that obvious stuff is just the tip of the iceberg.
Google is doing research on electric cars and alternative energy. It's getting involved in international politics in a big way. When Google and Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) speak out about how Internet traffic should be regulated, competitors and Congress alike shudder -- and they listen.
In short, Google is still busy innovating -- and acquiring at will when somebody else has a great idea. The R&D budget grows relentlessly quarter by quarter, which to me is a great sign of a healthy tech business. The Larry, Sergey, Eric triumvirate at the top intend to work together until 2024, and I assume they have a master plan that looks nothing like the Google you see today in the end.
The final verdict: Buy now
Google is a long-term buy and hold if I ever saw one. The longer you hold it, the stronger your returns will be when all is said and done. It's also a severely undervalued stock, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it make a leap next year. Whether you're investing for great returns in 2011 or with a decades-long horizon, I'm sure you want some Google in your portfolio.
Do you agree? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.
To access the full list of Our Top 5 Tech Stocks for 2011, click here.