Online marketing maven ValueClick (Nasdaq: VCLK) beat earnings expectations to a pulp last night -- at a first glance.

The third-quarter earnings release proudly highlighted GAAP earnings of $0.44 per share and a non-GAAP take-home pay $0.05 higher than that. Analysts had expected just $0.16 per share, and the management guidance range topped out at $0.14 per share. So that's a tremendous win. Right?

Not so fast. The majority of the target beat-down came from a one-time tax adjustment in the company's favor. Back that out, and you get non-GAAP earnings of $0.21 per share. That's still comfortably ahead of expectations, but far from the enormous outperformance the unadjusted EPS would indicate. And $106.8 million in revenue fell way below the expected $120 million target. Both the top and bottom lines shrank compared to the year-ago period. Make of this what you will, but not drawing due attention to the tax-related windfall seems dishonest to me -- and happy tax adjustments just don't happen on a regular basis.

That said, ValueClick is doing a lot of things right. The least profitable of its four reportable segments is the slowest-growing, which tells me that the company is spending its blood, sweat, and tears to expand its higher-opportunity markets instead. ValueClick keeps a tight lid on operating expenses, despite working through the integration of newly acquired subsidiary Investopedia. Management is actively buying ValueClick stock, which tends to be a positive sign.

All things considered, ValueClick looks like a stalled sailboat searching for wind. Some analysts see a buyout target painted on ValueClick's back, which would be a sensible exit strategy from where the company stands today. Rival ad agencies are supposed to be aiming their darts at the bull's-eye, but only Interpublic Group (NYSE: IPG) and Omnicom Group (NYSE: OMC) are big enough to offer anything but a merger of equals -- and neither one has enough unencumbered cash to make an offer.

It would make more sense to me if an online operator with tons of spare cash stepped up to the plate instead, but Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) would never pass antitrust scrutiny for such a deal, and AOL (NYSE: AOL) isn't rich enough. Maybe Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) could become ValueClick's white knight, given Steve Ballmer's tendency to make wild grabs for properties he knows nothing about.

No, I think ValueClick will be left to soldier on alone. But where is the next catalyst? I just don't see it. If you have any ideas, please use the comments box below.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value choices. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Google and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.