Alibaba's (BABA -0.21%) stock price has nearly tripled since its IPO five years ago as the company impressed investors with its robust revenue growth, consistent profits, and expanding ecosystem. Let's highlight eight key things investors should know about this Chinese tech giant.

1. Alibaba is already 20 years old

Alibaba was founded 20 years ago by Jack Ma, a former English teacher, and 17 of his friends in his apartment in Hangzhou, China. Its original site,, was a B2B (business-to-business) marketplace that let Chinese companies export their goods to other countries.

Alibaba's growth led to the launch of Taobao; a C2C (consumer-to-consumer) marketplace; and its spin-off Tmall, a B2C (business-to-consumer) marketplace. These three marketplaces still generate most of Alibaba's revenue.

Alibaba's corporate campus in Hangzhou.

Image source: Alibaba.

2. Alibaba only owns one profitable business

Alibaba's core commerce business, which generated 85% of its revenue last quarter, is its only profitable unit. It operates at high margins because its marketplaces don't take on any inventories and fulfill orders with third-party logistics services -- unlike its main rival (JD -0.25%), which takes on inventories and uses its own logistics platform.

Alibaba's core commerce unit subsidizes the growth of its other three units (cloud, digital media and entertainment, and innovation initiatives), which all expand its ecosystem but don't generate any profits.

3. Alibaba has a growing brick-and-mortar presence

Alibaba is also expanding its brick-and-mortar footprint with 170 Freshippo cashierless grocery stores across China. It also owns a major stake in Sun Art, the country's top grocery chain, and 485 of its stores are already linked to its delivery services.

These stores are also tethered to Alibaba-backed AliPay, which shares a duopoly in China's online payments market with Tencent's (TCEHY 0.03%) WeChat Pay. Alibaba continues to expand that reach with new partnerships with other brick-and-mortar retailers.

4. Alibaba is expanding overseas

Back in September, Alibaba declared that it served about 860 million active customers worldwide, including 730 million in China and 130 million in its cross-border and overseas marketplaces. It predicted that the total would top one billion by the end of 2024.

Alibaba plans to hit that target by expanding its overseas marketplaces, which include Lazada in Southeast Asia, AliExpress for overseas shoppers, and Kaola and Tmall Global for cross-border e-commerce. It's also expanding overseas with localized versions of Tmall for top markets (like Russia), as well as investments in India, Latin America, and Africa.

5. Alibaba is one of the biggest cloud players in the world

Alibaba Cloud, which generated 8% of its revenue last quarter, is the largest cloud infrastructure platform in China with a 47% market share, according to Canalys. It's also the leading cloud platform provider in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Gartner, and the third-largest in the world after Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft's Azure.

A visualization of network connections across a city.

Image source: Getty Images.

Alibaba is also expanding its cloud ecosystem with IoT and AI services, tools for migrating data between the private and public clouds, first-party chips, facial recognition technologies, and e-commerce services tethered to its online marketplaces.

6. Alibaba is the government-designated company for smart cities

Two years ago, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology declared that China's first wave of open AI platforms would rely on Baidu (BIDU 0.70%) for driverless cars, Tencent for digital healthcare, and Alibaba for smart cities.

Alibaba's cloud platform, facial recognition technologies, IoT services, and other technologies form the crux of China's long-term plans to building seamlessly connected cities. That data supports the growth of China's controversial "social credit" system which judges citizens based on their behavior -- and makes it tougher for low-scoring citizens to travel, secure loans, and perform other tasks.

7. Alibaba owns a major search engine

Alibaba bought UCWeb, which made the UC mobile browser and UC News app, five years ago. That acquisition led to the development of Shenma, a mobile search engine that now ranks second to Baidu in China with a 12% market share, according to StatCounter.

Shenma won't overtake Baidu anytime soon, but it represents another key piece of Alibaba's digital advertising ecosystem, which is currently the largest in China.

8. Alibaba is one of the world's top smart speaker makers

Lastly, Alibaba is the second-largest maker of smart speakers in China after Baidu, according to Canalys, and the fourth-largest in the world. The firm estimates that Alibaba's speaker shipments surged 39% annually in the second quarter and that the broader market is still growing.

Alibaba's Tmall Genie smart speakers run its Alexa-like assistant AliGenie. Like Alexa, AliGenie can be used to place orders, control home devices, and execute third-party skills -- all of which tether users more tightly to Alibaba's broader ecosystem.

A jack of all trades, and a master of many

Alibaba is still primarily an e-commerce company, but investors should realize that it's also a top player in the cloud, advertising, AI, and smart device markets. Its leading positions in those markets, along with its robust growth rates and a surprising low valuation, make Alibaba a top long-term play on China's growth.