Match Group's (MTCH 2.05%) stock rose 5.3% on Feb. 2 after the online dating giant posted its fourth-quarter earnings report. That post-earnings pop was surprising since the company broadly missed analysts' expectations, but it was also short-lived as shares gave up those gains the next day.

Let's dig deeper into Match's report and learn why its headline numbers masked some core improvements before deciding if the stock is still worth buying.

How fast is Match growing?

Match's revenue rose 24% year over year to $806.1 million, which missed estimates by about $18 million.

CEO Shar Dubey attributed the shortfall to the new COVID-19 variants, which "disproportionately impacted" Match's higher-growth markets in Asia. Dubey also noted that while the variants bore less of an impact on Western markets, Match still saw a "hesitancy among new users" to start using dating apps before the pandemic ended.

A person tries to hide from a blind date holding a bouquet.

Image source: Getty Images.

Despite those challenges, Match's number of payers still grew 15% year over year to 16.2 million (including 10.6 million Tinder users) during the fourth quarter, as its revenue per payer (RPP) improved 8%. Tinder's own RPP rose 4% year over year, which indicates Match's smaller apps (like Hinge) are now generating stronger sales growth per payer than its flagship service.

Match expects its first-quarter revenue to rise 18% to 20% with low-to-mid-teens growth in payers and mid-single digit growth for RPP. For the full year, it expects its revenue to grow 15% to 20% with most of that growth driven by Tinder and Hinge. That stable outlook assumes pandemic-related headwinds will ease in the second half of 2022.

How profitable is Match?

Match's top-line growth looks stable, but it also posted a net loss of $168.6 million in the fourth quarter, compared to a net profit of $148.6 million a year earlier. That $0.60 per share loss came in well below analysts' expectations for a $0.54 profit.

However, those results were distorted by the $1.73 billion acquisition of South Korean social network Hyperconnect (which closed last June), a big boost in stock-based compensation expenses related to that deal, and legal expenses tied to a lengthy legal battle against Tinder's founders. Match finally settled that lawsuit last December for $441 million, and it plans to pay the entire amount from its cash on hand in the first quarter of 2022.

Match's adjusted operating income -- formerly called its adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) -- excludes most of those one-off costs and gives us a clearer picture of the company's underlying profitability. Adjusted operating income rose 18% year over year to $290 million during the quarter, surpassing analysts' forecasts by about $53 million.

However, the integration of Hyperconnect's lower-margin (but faster growing) business still reduced Match's adjusted operating margin year over year from 38% to 36%. Excluding Hyperconnect, adjusted operating margin would have expanded by about half a percentage point.

For the full year, COO and CFO Gary Swidler expects Match's overall margins to remain "roughly flat". He believes Match will benefit from Alphabet's lower fees for subscription-based apps on Google's Play Store as well as lower legal expenses, but he also expects those savings to be offset by Hyperconnect's lower margins, Match's investments in corporate safety and social responsibility initiatives, and "higher employee costs" related to "the ongoing war for talent."

Nonetheless, analysts still expect Match's annual earnings per share to grow 23% in 2022 as its portfolio of over a dozen dating apps locks in more users.

Is Match reasonably valued relative to its growth?

Match trades at nine times this year's sales. That makes it significantly pricier than its smaller rival Bumble, which trades at less than four times revenue. Match is also growing at a slower rate than Bumble, which only operates two dating apps.

But Match is also better diversified, both in terms of geographic reach and niche demographics, than Bumble. The former is also profitable on a full-year GAAP basis, while Bumble isn't.

Is Match stock worth buying?

Those strengths might make Match a better buy than Bumble, but I'm not sufficiently impressed by its earnings and guidance to buy the stock. Its outlook for 2022 is stable, but it also depends heavily on the pandemic receding and other macro headwinds waning by the second half of the year.

It's fairly easy to find other higher-growth tech stocks that are trading at comparable price-to-sales ratios in this market -- and many of those companies aren't as exposed to the ongoing pandemic.