You can't believe the things that I have seen.
I'll be taking unauthorized -- and entirely fictional -- treks into the future, providing glimpses into where I think some of the more popular companies that I cover will be in three years.
I'm hoping this experience will be more thought-provoking than entertaining, but I'll let you be the judge. My point is only that I may or may not have been to the future, and this is what China's leading search engine looked like in 2014.
Baidu to the future
I guess I'll kick things off with the most pressing question by those of you stuck in 2011. Yes, shares of Baidu
I realize that the stock's valuation seemed lofty in January 2011, but the one-two punch of China's booming economy and growing Internet usage helped push profitability to levels that even the most ardent of bulls never imagined.
Just a third of China's 1.3 billion citizens were online in early 2011. The penetration rate finds more than half of the country with improving connectivity in 2014. It's not just about the larger wired base. Folks are leaning on the web more and more.
Advertisers have also taken notice. By the third quarter of 2010, Baidu had 272,000 active online marketing customers spending an average of $1,241 during the quarter to drum up new leads. Baidu's sponsorship base has nearly doubled by 2014, with a good chunk of that advertiser growth coming from outside of China. It also shouldn't surprise you that the average quarterly spending is also markedly higher. Consumers are hitting up Baidu more often, and those leads are worth more to advertisers in 2014 because customers have a lot more money to spend.
Big G in bigger China
Baidu's growth by 2014 hasn't come from gobbling up market share. In fact, Baidu's generous slice of China's search engine pie has actually contracted a bit. Google
It's not just Google gaining share. Microsoft's
Don't panic. Baidu still commands the majority of China's search queries. However, it's also just as relevant outside of search.
Stateside investors aren't used to search engines succeeding in social media. Google, Microsoft, and Microsoft's Yahoo! -- oh, that's right: Microsoft finally bought Yahoo! in 2012 -- have been flops in social networking and micro-blogging. Well, in China, it is Sina
It's a great big, Baidu-ful world
Remember when Baidu entered Japan in 2008, hoping that its prowess in character-based languages could help it make a dent in the established market? No dice. Google and Microsoft's partly owned Yahoo! Japan remain the top dogs there.
However, Baidu's popularity has grown outside of China as more business-savvy students overseas begin embracing Mandarin as a second language. Rosetta Stone's
Baidu's attractive 2010 combination of high margins and heady growth continues. Revenue and earnings have more than quadrupled by 2014. The stock hasn't kept pace, merely doubling since January 2011, but that's more than enough to beat the market.
Valuation critics still argue that Baidu's not worth 30 times the $7.20 that it's angling to earn in 2014, but eating crow over the years has a funny way of silencing the vocal chords.
So, yes, Baidu's still a rocking good investment in 2014. Keep coming back throughout the week for other 2014 snapshots.
Do you think Baidu is a good buy at this point? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.
Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Baidu, Google, and Sohu.com are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Rosetta Stone and Sina are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Yahoo! is a Motley Fool Global Gains pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Google, and Microsoft. 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.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has only been to China once, but he relishes admiring its dot-com revolution from afar. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this article. 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.