Fool on the Street: Asking IAC/Interactive

For Barry Diller and his built-by-acquisition IAC/InterActiveCorp. (Nasdaq: IACI  ) , it's Ask and ye shall receive. Since acquiring the former AskJeeves search engine in March of last year, and the successful relaunch of Ask.com earlier this year, IAC has experienced a financial renaissance of sorts.

In June, for example, sales rose 18%, while adjusted earnings per share climbed by 14%. All the while, cash continues to flow; IAC counts roughly $1.1 billion in net cash and investments on its balance sheet.

Still, questions remain about how Diller will successfully stitch together a diverse portfolio of online properties, including dating service Match.com and online mortgage broker LendingTree.com, into a cohesive and successful whole. Diller addressed most of them at the recent Goldman Sachs Communicopia conference.

Ask first, and then receive
Nearly all of the Q&A touched on the Ask.com portal and its position relative to competitors such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , and Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) MSN.

It doesn't look good at first blush. Both Nielsen Net Ratings and ComScore reported that Google once again grew its share of the search market during August. Ask was one of the losers year over year, but not nearly as much as MSN or AOL, both of which lost more than 3%. Ask, meanwhile, fell right behind the Big Goo, with a half-point decline.

Call it a silver lining over the digital cloud that is the Internet. It seems enough to explain Diller's positively sunny outlook for Ask: "... I never thought success goes to the entrenched. I've never thought you couldn't compete, even though you were one-tenth the size."

In other words, Ask may be small, but it's remarkably competitive. The numbers from Nielsen and ComScore bear that out. But there's apparently plenty of headroom remaining. Diller told the audience at the Goldman conference that Ask accounts for just 2% of the search market now but that, over time, 8% to 10% is "achievable."

If so, wow. That would mean a fourfold-to-fivefold increase in revenues from IAC's Media and Advertising division. Think about that for a minute. Through the six months ended in June, Media and Advertising generated $248.9 million in 2006 sales. That's an annual run rate of $497.8 million, which could expand to as much as $2.49 billion if Diller's projection proves to be more than bluster.

Buy the brand
He's pinning his hopes on the idea that IAC has acquired some of the Web's premium brands and, as such, they'll attract ever-increasing traffic volumes. As he puts it, "... I know what we've got to do is create a brand people like. If you do it -- and this is already proven in our revenues -- the queries will produce revenue."

But, of course, all brands in the IAC portfolio carry some risk. "I think the thing with us is the stronger the brand ... the larger the moat is. And where we don't yet have a strong brand -- Ask is not yet a strong brand -- you would say, of course, that would be vulnerable."

But not Ticketmaster, says Diller. He argued that competitive threats from secondary exchanges such as StubHub would be dulled over time as Ticketmaster expands its reach. "The truth is that 50% of tickets go unsold. Why? Because the house was mispriced. Why is the house mispriced? Because they have no other way to do it."

Ticketmaster helps here, argues Diller, in that it creates an efficient market where the house gets better information, thereby normalizing prices and increasing volume at the gate. This strategy, Diller says, will ultimately help the broker break into the secondary market.

Home (and home lending) isn't where the profits are
It's a different story with the Home Shopping Network, unfortunately. Though Diller expressed genuine excitement over the addition of Mindy Grossman from Nike (NYSE: NKE  ) to run merchandising for the No. 2 shopping channel, Diller was blunt that problems remain.

For example, with IAC's acquisition of apparel maker Cornerstone Brands, Diller says that the company has yet to realize the benefits it expected. "...What we were going to do was have it help us in our on-air HSN business, because we wouldn't source all those hard lines. And that's one of the reasons we decided that we had to make management changes. Because we totally screwed it up."

Meanwhile, LendingTree has its own problems, with a mortgage market that's drying up. Says Diller, "... [Refinance] has definitely hurt the business." He and his team are looking to shore up the shortfalls by aiming at competitors in a grab for market share while servicing more original purchase deals. But that could take a while, says Diller. "There's no way you can't be affected by the real downturn in [refinancing deals], but it [isn't] going to last forever."

Barry's got ... AOL?
Finally, Diller was asked whether he believed the Web was moving more toward the Yahoo! or MySpace model. He didn't mince words: "... The popular thing is to say that MySpace owns the world ... But it is yet to be. I think MySpace is going to prove to be a solid acquisition for News Corp. (NYSE: NWS  ) and typical of Rupert [Murdoch], who beat everyone in the last hour...."

Still, Diller said that while IAC would continue to invest in specialized portals like MySpace for their growing popularity, he'd bet on more diversified portals such as Yahoo! over the long term.

Perhaps that's a view of what Ask.com aims to ultimately be? A Goldman analyst wondered the same, asking whether Diller would be interested in buying AOL from Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) . His response? "I like your end." As in endgame? Or as in a job as a financial analyst? Sadly, we don't yet know.

Cagey move, Barry. Very cagey. You've got at least one Fool's attention.

Keep your ear to the Street with other reports in this series:

Fool contributor Tim Beyers owns shares of Akamai, which is aMotley Fool Rule Breakersselection. Microsoft is aMotley Fool Inside Valuepick. Time Warner and Yahoo! areMotley Fool Stock Advisorselections. Get the skinny on all of the stocks in Tim's portfolio by checking his Foolprofile. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policyalways walks on the right side of the street.


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