Auction fans who compare the moribund eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) to other four-letter words will probably warm up to MercadoLibre (NASDAQ:MELI). The Latin American online auction leader posted respectable fourth-quarter results, but you'll need to dig deep to understand its mixed showing.

Revenue climbed 24% to $33.4 million. Non-GAAP earnings fell by 10% to $4.8 million, or $0.11 a share. If you think Wall Street's feeling cozy about the company's top-line performance, but getting battered on the bottom line, you'd be wrong. Analysts were only expecting an adjusted profit of $0.08 a share on $34.4 million. MercadoLibre actually missed on revenue, but coasted on the bottom line.

Reported earnings actually rose sharply, with the difference between reported and non-GAAP profitability stemming mostly from a $3.3 million item accounting for the Venezuelan foreign currency remeasurement.

Like eBay, MercadoLibre's pay platform is growing faster than its bread-and-butter marketplace business. Unlike eBay, at least MercadoLibre is growing on both counts.

MercadoLibre is expanding throughout South and Central America. Venezuela surpassed the company's home turf of Argentina in 2008 to become the company's second-most-lucrative market. Brazil -- accounting for 46% of the company's marketplace revenue -- remains at the top.

Country-specific marketplaces -- like MercadoLibre, Gmarket (NASDAQ:GMKT) in South Korea, and Taobao or the new auction site launched by Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) in China -- are helping keep eBay at bay abroad. That said, you can always argue that eBay is secretly rooting for MercadoLibre, since it owns 18% of the company.

Investors shouldn't buy eBay to piggyback on MercadoLibre's success; our homegrown auction giant simply has too many moving parts. Investors who can stomach a little foreign risk should instead eye MercadoLibre itself. Buying eBay for its stake in MercadoLibre, or Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) for its stakes in both Gmarket and Taobao, misses the point of direct ownership.

MercadoLibre isn't perfect. I'm still wondering why its 44-year-old CFO is retiring at the end of the year. South America also is not immune to the global recessions, which will undoubtedly cut into shopping habits.

All the same, this company is the real deal. Given MercadoLibre's 33.7 million registered users, $58.3 million in cash and investments, and heady growth, it's hard to ignore a company that looks a lot like eBay -- to borrow from Billy Joel's "Piano Man" -- when it wore a younger man's clothes.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a satisfied eBay user with 177 positive feedbacks to show for it. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also a member of the Rule Breakers analytical team, seeking out the next great growth stock early in its defiance. The Fool has a disclosure policy.