The market ate up CNET Networks' (NASDAQ:CNET) fourth-quarter report with such aplomb yesterday, one would think that the recipe would find its way to CNET's site. Shares shot 9% higher, as investors applauded the company's better-than-expected financials. The rosy 2007 outlook also bested analyst targets.

I was able to catch up with CEO Neil Ashe yesterday afternoon. He took the helm at CNET three months ago, after former CEO Shelby Bonnie stepped down in the aftermath of the company's unfortunate stock options backdating scandal.

The diversified media empire -- and it really is so much more than the "online tech publisher" tag that so many journalists use to describe CNET -- is doing pretty well these days. It is drawing 136 million unique visitors a month, a 17% advance over the past year. The company is earning more on every page that it is serving up, except for its photo-sharing site, where it is losing traffic.

Cynics figured that the level playing field of tech bloggers or the launch of Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) Tech would sink its role as the top source in consumer gadgetry, but CNET has fought back and won.

Its Crave blog on CNET launched just three months ago, but drew 800,000 unique users last month. The site was drawing 350,000 daily page views during the Consumer Electronics Show, dovetailing nicely into the company's ZDNet stronghold. ZDNet has been blogging away since 2004, attracting two million technology decision-makers a month.

As for Yahoo! Tech, CNET Reviews has seen its traffic climb 30% over the past year, greater than CNET as a whole. "You can't serve passionate users part-time," Ashe notes.

CNET is currently the 12th-largest Internet network in the world. Now it's just looking for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The potential upside
To me, the beauty of CNET -- and the reason why I have recommended the stock twice to Rule Breakers subscribers over the past two years -- is that CNET looks good, yet we still haven't seen everything that it's got.

Its search engine and its comparison shopping site appear to be stuck in a time capsule, oblivious to the success of their larger peers. The domain-rich company has barely scratched the surface of some of its valuable virtual real estate. will simply direct you to chat software available on the company's site. CNET also owns domains like and, which are little more than landing pages loaded with paid-search links.

The company outsources the selling of those contextual links, whcih comes as a relief to me. Minutes before our interview, I clicked on "Childrens Toys" at and was surprised to see an ad by adult novelty store Adam & Eve promoting a "Sex Toy Super Sale."

Ashe checks it on his end, and assures me that it will be gone within the hour. It is. Yet even then, Ashe uses that as a point to stress why the company's bias is to sell its own ads. CNET is pretty good at that. This past quarter found all but four of its 100 largest advertisers renewing their site campaigns. The company has a working relationship with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and its AdSense program, yet it clearly prefers to drum up its own ad inventory.

In to win
CNET has made recent divestitures -- in areas like print magazines, live event conferences, and overseas properties -- that haven't panned out. But that doesn't mean the company is going to quit on all of its struggling properties. Webshots has been dragging down overall page views, and sites like and seem to rely on chunky bandwidth that isn't as cost-effective to monetize as its text-driven bulwarks -- but Ashe isn't giving up.

"We can't shrink our way to greatness," he says.

It doesn't seem as if CNET is looking to cash out as a whole, either. Ashe may have cut his teeth at Smith Barney's Mergers & Acquisitions group in the early 1990s, but his hire isn't an exit strategy. If anything, Ashe has been using his earlier experience to assemble and acquire the pieces that make up the growing CNET puzzle. He's been working on that since he joined the company in 2002.

CNET's expanding empire has taken it far from its tech-heavy roots. The company recently launched Filmspot, a site for movie buffs that incorporates the features of its and Metacritic properties in its own celluloid-specific platform.

Ashe sees games, television, music, and film as the four legs of the entertainment stool. He can now flip that stool over and grab a seat as the marketer-magnet youth audience redefines CNET's potential.

"A different kind of media company," is CNET's tagline. The editorial-driven nature of CNET sets it apart from content aggregators like Google, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Yahoo!, which simply spit back third-party headlines.

Other media giants, like News Corp. (NYSE:NWS), approach community-building as an unchecked social-networking free-for-all. CNET leans on its users and their specialized knowledge to create more lasting user experiences.

In short, CNET's got community. It's got Just wait until the community-building process bears fruit.

CNET is an active recommendation in the Rule Breakers growth stock newsletter service. To see all the reasons why, just click here to take a free 30-day trial today. You can chow down on all that the newsletter has to offer without any obligation to subscribe.

Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. Yahoo! is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of CNET and of's Chowhound community. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.