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Google Heads for the Moon

Choosing not to argue with inarguable success, analysts raised price targets en masse for Google (GOOG) Wednesday morning.

Led by firms such as American Technology Research and Credit Suisse First Boston -- each of which raised its target for Google's stock price to $275 -- analysts decided it was safe to assume that the fast-growing Google is growing even faster than expected.

With Google's shares trading at $214.02 Wednesday, up 11.5% from their Tuesday close, prior arguments about whether Google was overpriced at its $85 offering price or even at the pre-IPO suggested price of $135 seem hopelessly quaint, though they took place only a few months ago. Clearly, Google has delivered on expectations for growth, and then some. Despite Google management's warning Tuesday evening that future results won't necessarily be this ducky, the estimates that looked over-optimistic not so long ago look under-optimistic now.

Among the other firms setting price targets eclipsing the prior Street-high goal of $235 were Prudential, going from $200 to $260, and Goldman Sachs, going from $215 to $265.

While Google's fourth-quarter performance was remarkable from nearly every angle, a few elements stood out.

One was the search engine company's net advertising revenue growth of 32% from the third quarter of 2004 to the fourth -- a performance that exceeded Yahoo!'s estimated high-teens growth in its search advertising business over the same time period.

Also impressive was the fact that the cost to Google of its partnerships appears to be falling. That is, its traffic acquisition costs, or TAC -- the money that Google pays to other companies for the privilege of running advertising on their Web sites -- amounted to 77% of the ad revenue reaped from those sites in the fourth quarter, reports CSFB. That's down from TAC that was 85% of so-called Google Network revenue in the corresponding quarter one year earlier.

The decline suggests that Google is getting more of its revenue from smaller sites, with which it has greater bargaining power over TAC. It also runs counter to what appeared to have been an inexorable trend in TAC -- that the sites on which advertising runs have ultimate leverage over the companies that sell advertising on their behalf.

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