Last night's report out of China Finance Online (Nasdaq: JRJC) was mildly encouraging, warts and all.

The Web-based provider of stock research for individual investors in China closed out the fourth quarter with a record 117,900 premium subscribers, surpassing its previous peak of 116,200 paying members four quarters ago. Despite the market's buoyant ways last year, it took all of 2009 for CFO to get back on track.

The recession was bad for investing sites all over, but the improvements are coming. TheStreet.com (Nasdaq: TSCM) booked a sequential increase in premium services revenue for the first time in nearly two years in its latest quarter. Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN) posted a small year-over-year gain on the top line in the fourth quarter, despite posting revenue and earnings declines for all of 2009.

CFO's main challenge in China to its jrj.com and stockstar.com websites has come in the form of what the company describes as illegal copycat sites that are confusing investors. It is something that the government is cracking down on this year.

The site still knows how to draw a crowd, with its registered user base growing from 11.3 million to 14 million over the past year. As a cumulative number, it should always go up -- and that's why I prefer to stick to subscription growth metrics for companies such as CFO and domestic commercial real estate marketplace LoopNet (Nasdaq: LOOP) as the true taste tests of success.

Despite the uptick in paying members, revenue stilled dipped by 2% to $15 million relative to 2008's fourth quarter. CFO also reversed a profit of $0.28 a share in ringing up a net loss of $0.13 a share this time around.

Where did it all go wrong? Well, gross profits and profit margins improved and G&A costs shrank. So far, so good. However, then we see sales and marketing expenses more than doubling to $8.5 million. One of the two reasons for the huge bite was a hefty round of year-end bonuses paid to the sales and marketing team. Rewarding flattish results isn't cool, especially since the spike in sales and marketing expenses was the difference between CFO posting a loss or a profit during the quarter.

The upside here is that CFO sees a non-GAAP profit of $2 million to $4 million this year, scoring more than $8 million in free cash flow along the way. It also closed out 2009 with $107.4 million in cash and cash equivalents on its balance sheet, or just over $5 per ADS.

Its guidance of $56 million to $62 million  is a bit of a downer. The midpoint there would be $59 million, implying that there won't be a whole lot of revenue improvement from the $15 million it delivered in its latest quarter.

Let's hope that CFO is lowballing its prospects. It has scored several new portal and data deals in recent months, including warming up to China Unicom (NYSE: CHU) to be the carrier's exclusive financial news and market data provider for its 3G mobile portal. Yes, this is the same China Unicom that introduced Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhone in China -- so the potential is meaty.

It's a mixed showing, but CFO shareholders will take it. This is stock that traded in the high $40s for a brief spell nearly three years ago, so even flat revenue growth and modest subscriber gains are applause-worthy at this point.

Would you be a buyer of investing sites here or abroad? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

China Finance Online and LoopNet are Motley Fool Rule Breakers selections. Apple and Morningstar are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Fool owns shares of Morningstar. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of China's growth story but 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.