Baidubell

Image source: Baidu. 

There were a lot of good and bad things happening to Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) through 2015, but now let's take a look at the prospects for China's leading search engine provider in the year ahead.

We know what Wall Street thinks. Analysts see revenue climbing 25% to hit $12.78 billion in 2016. They see earnings per share growing even faster -- up 29% -- but most of that is ground that it lost through 2015 as margins continued to contract.

If the forecasts hold up this would be the first year since 2012 that the bottom line grows faster than the top line, according to S&P Capital IQ data, but we will still be nowhere closer to where we were when net margins peaked at 46.9% three years ago. 

It's a different Baidu these days. It's still the undisputed leader in paid search. It has been able to successfully navigate the migration to mobile that has tripped up other dot-com dynamos, now generating more than half of its revenue from usage on mobile devices. However, the push to diversify into new online-to-offline -- or O2O -- categories has reshaped the market darling. The initiatives ate at its profitability in 2015, and it also gnawed away at its stock price.

Baidu stock is trading 15% lower in 2015 as we head into the final week of the year. Barring a ridiculous rally in the final four trading days of 2015, we'll be eyeing just the third down year for the stock since it went public a decade ago.

History has been kind on that front. The stock soared 215% in 2009 after declining the year before. It moved 77% higher in 2013 after inching lower in 2012. Baidu is unlikely to experience that kind of dramatic bounce in 2016, but it's also easy to see the stock beating the market if it's able to get a few things right in the year ahead.

The most important thing for Baidu's prospects in bouncing back is that it reverses the 2015 trend of negative earnings growth. Analysts don't see that happening until midway through 2016, but any indication that it won't happen or will happen even sooner will drive the stock lower or higher, respectively.

Another factor that can weigh on the fortunes of Baidu's shareholders is what the dot-com speedster does with its ample liquidity. Baidu had more than $11 billion in cash and short-term investments on its books by the end of September. Whether it puts some of that money to work on acquisitions or buying back stock, anything is better than just letting it burn a hole in its widening pocket. 

Online advertising in general and paid search in particular will continue to drive results in 2016, but some of its other niches could also start to move the needle. Baidu announced earlier this month that iQIYI -- its fast-growing video-streaming platform -- has seen its paid subscriber base hit 10 million, doubling in less than six months. Few things solve the monetization challenges of running a hot media streaming site like premium members. If it's able to make similar inroads in other niches including online travel and mobile app marketplaces Baidu's diversification strategy will pay off for investors in 2016. 

The chances are good for Baidu stock to bounce back in 2016. It won't be its best year. The stock would have to more than triple -- taking its market cap north of $200 billion -- for that to be the case. However, Baidu has all of the right ingredients to move higher in 2016, something that it has done in eight of its first 11 years as a public company. That's a reasonable goal for one of the best names in the world's most populous nation.

Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Baidu. 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. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.