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Bowling for Google
Shares of the top search engine are getting close to $300 and analysts still see more room to run.
May 25, 2005: 3:05 PM EDT
By Paul R. La Monica, CNN/Money senior writer

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$300 and beyond? Google's stock has been on an incredible ride since last year's IPO.
$300 and beyond? Google's stock has been on an incredible ride since last year's IPO.
Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt has said that despite its triple-digit share price, the company has no plans for a stock split in the near future.
Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt has said that despite its triple-digit share price, the company has no plans for a stock split in the near future.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Is Google on its way to hitting a perfect bowling score, a $300 stock price, in the near future? At Tuesday's closing price of $256, it's less than 20 percent away.

Shares of the leading search engine have been on a tear, shooting up 25 percent since the company reported much better than expected sales and earnings for the first quarter, thanks to a booming market for online advertising.

During the past month, Google (Research) has also released several new features -- including a desktop search function for businesses and a test version of a personalized home page tool -- that should help the company remain competitive against rivals Yahoo! (Research) and Microsoft (Research).

Most recently, speculation that Google will soon be added to the S&P 500 index has helped propel the stock higher.

So is it possible that Google could continue climbing? Is $300 in the bag and should we be talking about Google hitting $350 or higher?

Investors still feel lucky

Crazy as it may sound, Google could still have a lot more upside. Sure, the stock price looks frothy on an absolute basis. Few companies have prices in the triple digits, let alone, approaching $300.

But Google has maintained that it would not split its stock to make the shares more affordable for the average investor. Clearly, that hasn't hindered the stock's performance.

In fact, data from Vickers Stock Research suggests that Google's surge has been fueled by retail investors, not big mutual funds. According to Vickers, only 35 percent of Google's shares are held by institutional investors while 73 percent of Yahoo!'s shares are owned by mutual funds and other money managers.

So what's more important for investors to look at is not the dollar amount of Google's stock price but what Google's valuation is relative to its peers. And on that basis, Google still looks reasonably attractive, if not exactly cheap.

Shares trade at 50 times 2005 earnings estimates and 39 times 2006 projections. Yahoo!, on the other hand, trades at 64 times 2005 profit forecasts and has a P/E of 50 times 2006 estimates.

Steve Weinstein, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities, said that Google's fundamentals could justify a $330 stock price. At that level, Google would trade at a multiple in line with Yahoo!

If anything, Google looks to be the company that deserves the premium right now. It has reported stronger gains in sales and earnings than Yahoo! lately since Google has more exposure to the online advertising market, specifically ads tied to key word search results, than Yahoo!

"In the short-term, Google could grow faster than Yahoo!, as it has over the past few quarters," said Marianne Wolk, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group.

To that end, earnings estimates for Google have risen at a meteoric pace.

Three months ago, analysts expected Google's earnings to come in at $3.94 a share this year. Now the consensus estimate is $5.14 a share, an increase of 30 percent. Likewise, estimates for 2006 have surged nearly 30 percent in the past three months, from $5.14 a share to current projections of $6.56 a share.

By way of comparison, estimates for Yahoo! have increased by about 10 percent for 2005 and 2006 during the past three months.

Searching for the S&P 500

The S&P 500 speculation is also worth keeping an eye on. (I wrote last year about why I thought Google probably would be added to the index sometime in 2005. Click here for that column.)

At the time, the only major knock against Google was that less than half of its outstanding shares were available to the public. One of Standard & Poor's criteria for adding a stock to the index is that a company's float, or available shares, must be at least 50 percent of the total shares.

That's no longer an issue. According to Vickers, the float now accounts for nearly two-thirds of shares outstanding. And if Google does get added to the S&P, many institutions that run index funds would have to buy the stock.

"We view the possible inclusion of Google in the S&P as a potential positive catalyst due to the relatively low institutional ownership as compared to Yahoo! and eBay," wrote David Edwards, an analyst with American Technology Research in a recent report.

Since going public last August, Google has faced a lot of skepticism (from me included) and has defied all the critics.

Fears about how the stock could take a hit following a deluge of new shares hitting the market after IPO lock-up periods expired were for naught.

Worries about a slowdown in Internet ad spending proved temporary.

And the valuation, while rich, never seems to have gotten ahead of itself because the stock has simply moved higher as earnings estimates for Google have increased.

So as long as online ad spending doesn't take a sudden sharp turn downward, it's hard to imagine Google's stock losing serious ground.

"Internet advertising is in its infancy. The long-term prospects for Google are quite strong," said Wolk.

For a look at Google and other Internet stocks, click here.

Some Google customers don't love the company. Click here for more.

Analysts quoted in this story do not own shares of the companies mentioned and their firms have no investment banking relationships with the companies.

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Written by: Paul R. La Monica
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