Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) has never been shy about ripping pages out of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) playbook. From its marketing platform to its push into video-sharing, China's leading search engine knows that there's no point in inventing the wheel if Big G is already on a roll.
Baidu is starting to follow in Google's hardware footsteps, too. Over the past few days, China's dot-com darling has introduced a couple of interesting gadgets and promised to raise the bar on the computing front.
There's no denying it: Baidu has always wanted to be like Google, but these days it may very well be aiming to be better.
Baidu's box of toys
There have been a few interesting developments at Baidu recently. Let's check a few of them out.
Baidu unveiled Baidu Eye at its Baidu World powwow. Some are calling Baidu's response to Google Glass, but that's not entirely fair. Instead of projecting images on eyewear specs, Baidu Eye features a smart camera that straps around the back of the head and provides audio information. It also works in cahoots with a smartphone for a display.
Chopsticks that measure the quality of cooking oil that a food was prepared in were also on display. Smart chopsticks may not seem like such a big deal, but monitoring the quality of cooking oil is a pretty big deal in China.
Baidu's Chief Scientist also revealed that the company is within six months of completing a massive computing cluster that will be 100 times more powerful than 2012's Google Brain project. The push into deep learning should help Baidu deliver better search results and more accurate image recognition.
Follow the money
Stateside investors naturally don't see Baidu as a toy maker. They see it as the market leader in the lucrative Chinese search market. Despite the competitive challenges of a pesky upstart, Baidu continues to grow its reach and its opportunities for marketers. As large as Baidu may be, growth has actually been accelerating in recent quarters. The stock has recently raced to fresh all-time highs as healthy growth and shrewd acquisitions to beef up areas where analysts once saw weaknesses have silenced the skeptics.
Will Baidu ever be bigger than Google? No. However, it should continue to be more efficient. A combination of low-cost labor and kind tax rates finds Baidu's net margins clocking in at nearly 30% over the past year. Google's 20% in net margins is impressive, but it's not likely to match Baidu in driving $0.30 out of every dollar in revenue to the bottom line these days. If that's impressive keep in mind that Baidu is actually performing at the low end of its historical range as net margins clocked in as high as 47% in 2012. Baidu then went on a shopping spree in lower-margin areas to remain competitive.
It's true that Google's net margins also used to be higher when it was more of a pure paid search play. Net margins peaked at 29% in 2010. However, given the current environment it's just going to be as profitable as Baidu on a percentage of revenue basis.
This isn't enough to crown Baidu king, of course. Google is a global player, and Baidu -- despite a few forays outside of the world's most populous nation -- is still largely a play on China. Baidu is growing a lot faster than Google, but Google is the one commanding the lower market multiples in terms of valuation. They have both been big winners, and they should both continue to be big winners. However, Baidu's starting to make some interesting moves that could raise the bar. That doesn't have to be bad news for Google investors, but it should be great news for Baidu investors.