The company can still draw a crowd, though. The 137 million unique monthly visitors its sites attracted marked an 18% spike year over year. Unfortunately, daily page views were off by 19%. Even if you back out the problematically fading Webshots photo-sharing site, page views still dipped by 1%.
One can spin that as a positive. Higher revenue on lower traffic is a testament to better monetization. With CNET's contract with Google
The point? CNET's focused on its future -- a place that's ultimately brighter than its present -- as it shuffles through 2007 as a transitory year.
Growing in the shade
I spoke to CNET CEO Neil Ashe last night. He took over a few months ago, when Shelby Bonnie unceremoniously left the company. Bonnie was one of the bigger tech chieftains to resign after last year's stock-option backdating scandal.
I asked Ashe whether his growth strategy is any different than Bonnie's approach. "We're both long-term greedy," he said, echoing the classic Goldman Sachs axiom.
It's a great line, and it works because CNET can't afford to be short-term greedy. The stock has shed nearly half its value since peaking 18 months ago. Back then, CNET felt nimble, and bulls were polisihing it up as a buyout candidate. Given its portfolio of high-traffic properties such as Download.com, Gamespot, and CNET itself, it was a perfect match for Yahoo!
Shortly after that, investors began to see a slowdown at the company. Delays of Windows Vista and the PS3 ultimately found the company talking down its 2006 prospects. PC and video game industry advertisers had little reason to spend until the next-generation platforms hit the market.
As we all know now, it wasn't worth the wait. The PS3 has been a dud, and Vista upgrades have been gradual. CNET responded by growing horizontally. Rather than depending on the techies who made TechRepublic and News.com their online hubs, CNET expanded into lifestyle areas by launching or acquiring TV.com, Chow.com, and the business-savvy BNET.com.
"The PC industry was no longer the 20% a year growth industry it once was," said Ashe, a major architect of the expansion strategy before he took over for Bonnie.
CNET battles back
The company remains profitable, though it's scaling back its year-end targets. CNET now expects to generate between $405 million and $430 million in revenue this year -- $20 million less than the guidance issued in both January and April of this year. The company hopes to earn between $1.30 per share and $1.39 per share. Hold off on that single-digit P/E multiple jubilation, though. You still have to back out $1.19 per share in the form of a tax allowance credit.
Still, it's hard to call CNET bloated, as some of its critics have, when even its own CEO can fight fire with fire.
I asked Ashe about a recent Wired article in which TechCrunch's Michael Arrington boasts about how his blogging expansion strategy has CNET in the crosshairs. TechCrunch aims to have 15 to 20 different sites by the end of next year.
"With 25 to 30 paid writers against CNET's huge cost base, they won't be able to compete," Arrington said in the article.
I asked Ashe for his response, and he came back with a zinger: "Three guys in WordPress does not a media brand make."
WordPress is the open-source blog publishing system that powers TechCrunch. It doesn't seem like a fair shot. TechCrunch is huge, a definite maker and shaker in the tech-based venture capital space. You didn't need to come across the Wired feature to know that. Meanwhile, WordPress powers 1.2 million blogs, including biggies for New York Times
That's not the point, though. Ashe's ability to roll up his sleeves and dish it out to CNET attackers and detractors is refreshing. His company can be nimble when it wants to be, and gargantuan when it has to be.
Yes, CNET is big, but that's not a bad thing when the time comes to attract advertisers. Even though many of CNET's sites share similar navigation and video presentation features, Ashe insisted that the company's approach is in no way a cookie-cutter formula. Each site is truly independent, aiming to create "a one-on-one relationship between the user and the brand."
That statement will no doubt be validated if traffic begins picking up in the coming quarters. Let's hope so, because depressed operating margins, hosed-down guidance, and increasingly transitory payoff years aren't easy to stomach.
Being long-term greedy is a great approach to have, but it often means butting heads with shareholders who are short-term impatient.
CNET is an active recommendation in the Rule Breakers growth stock newsletter service. Yahoo! is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. Find out why with free 30-day subscription offers to any or all of the newsletters.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of CNET, but still misses the old MP3.com days. 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.