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1 Internet Company to Watch and 3 to Ignore

Saturday - 2/9/2013, 10:15pm  ET

Developing an economic moat is a critical part of any business. In the online world this need is magnified due to the low barriers of entry. In the absence of high fixed costs, strong brand development can be one of the best tools to grow a defensible position. Many internet stocks have quickly growing revenues, but a fundamental analysis of their business shows weakness. Bankrate  is a stock with a well-known brand and encouraging macro-fundamentals that is worth checking out. 

RATE Revenue Quarterly data by YCharts

Bankrate operates in the world of online consumer finance. Their various brands offer credit cards, mortgage, and insurance leads. On average Google receives 135,000 searches every month for the exact word "Bankrate." This type of search is called branded search and is a sign that consumers know the brand and take action to engage with the company. 

Online portals like Google, Bing, and Yahoo are long-term threats to Bankrate because they can redirect consumers to their own products while hiding Bankrate's offerings. The growth of mobile and smart phones is a very encouraging trend for Bankrate. With their own branded apps they are able to connect to consumers without the consumer ever having to use an online portal.

2013 earnings are expected to come in around $.61 per share. With a current stock price around $12 the company is trading at a forward P/E around 19.7. Their ROI of 4.2% and ROA of 3.6% show that they do not use their resources as effectively as Google, but there is hope for future improvement. American households continue to pay off debt and the stability in the housing market will improve consumer confidence. With better balance sheets and falling unemployment more people will be able and willing to buy financial products and Bankrate will profit. 

Companies with a Medium Moat 

Zillow  works in the real estate market. They provide services to house buyers and real estate agents to help speed up and simplify the selling process. Their listings have become a strong tool for both sellers and buyers and Google records an average of 2.7 million searches for "Zillow" every month. A simple script for an online real estate site is easy to find, but a site with millions of branded searches and many listings shows the development of a moat. 

The housing market is starting to come back and Zillow's numbers reflect this change. They recorded an 80% increase in premier agent subscribers between September 2012 and a year before. In the first three quarters of 2012, display revenue was only 26% of earnings while marketplace revenue came in at 74%. The fact that the majority of revenue came from the marketplace is very encouraging because the marketplace is Zillow's unique offering. Display ads are a dime a dozen.

Sadly, the company is trading at very rich valuations. 2013 EPS are expected to come in around $.29 and the current share price around $36 gives the firm a forward P/E ratio of 124. Zillow is a good company to watch, but currently valuations are too high for comfort. 

LinkedIn  is the well-known social network for professionals. Google's struggles with Google+ show that developing a social network is not an easy feat. LinkedIn has managed to grow their user base to 200 million users. This user base gives LinkedIn that all important moat. Even though Facebook has a larger user base, LinkedIn's professional audience is inherently smaller.

Still, valuations have gotten out of hand. 2014 EPS estimates come in at $1.11. Currently shares trade around $150, which gives the company a forward P/E ratio of 135. Year-over-year revenue growth has already started to slow down. Even with a gross margin of 86.4% LinkedIn's ROI 2.1% shows that some degree of caution is necessary. Bulls cite the need to invest for future growth as justification for low ROI, but the amount of future growth is certain. Until LinkedIn trades at lower valuations it is best left for another day. 

A Company with a Very Small Moat and Rather Unclear Strategy 

Groupon  is an interesting firm that has had a quite visible life lately. Accusations of ripping off merchants and their very creative accounting measures make for good news stories. Their model of selling deals to consumers through an email list is not very difficult to replicate. The entry of well-funded competitors like Living Social shows the danger of operating without a strong moat. 

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