Search-engine advertising is getting all the investor attention -- but regular online advertising may be getting more of the growth. That's an interesting conclusion from Yahoo!'s ( YHOO) earnings report Tuesday -- one that's drawn by several of the analysts who follow the Internet advertising company. The growth in branded advertising doesn't exactly signal the death of paid search. But the quarter's numbers do speak well to Yahoo!'s diversified revenue streams in a world where Google ( GOOG) -- a nearly pure play on paid search and text-based advertising -- has enjoyed phenomenal stock growth over the past five months. Yahoo!'s shares, which traded as low as $20.57 last March, rose 28 cents to $37.46 Wednesday. Google, which went public in August at $85 a share and hit a new high of $205.30 Tuesday, fell $3.05 to trade at $200.85. At issue is the relative strength of what's known as search-engine advertising -- for the most part, text ads that pop up in search results, keyed to the words that users type in -- as opposed to branded advertising, or the pictorial ads that range from simple banners to audio-video extravaganzas that take over a page. While Yahoo! doesn't break out separate numbers for search advertising vs. banner ads, the company does drop enough hints and factoids for analysts to estimate the relative performance of each. And while numbers may vary from analyst to analyst, several called attention to stronger sequential growth -- that is, from the third quarter of 2004 to the fourth quarter of 2004 -- for branded advertising than for search. Goldman Sachs' Anthony Noto, for example, calculated that paid search revenue grew 16% from the third quarter to the fourth, while non-search branded advertising grew 25% in the same time period.
"As far as we can tell, the upside to numbers in 4Q came surprisingly from volume-driven increases in branded advertising, not necessarily from search, as many of we Wall Street analysts were anticipating," wrote CIBC's Michael Gallant in a Wednesday morning note. Yahoo!'s search business, writes Gallant, was in line with expectations but below rumored growth numbers. "As a result, we would now expect there to be less price appreciation in the pure-play search names -- such as Google and Ask Jeeves ( ASKJ) -- from now through Feb. 1 (when Google reports its 4Q results) than we would have thought previously," he writes. (Gallant rates Yahoo! a sector outperformer and Google a sector performer, and has no rating on Ask Jeeves; CIBC hasn't done recent banking for any of them.) Though branded advertising may have dominated the quarter, search is hardly a laggard within Yahoo!. Excluding traffic acquisition costs -- ad revenue that Yahoo!'s Overture Services pays to other publishers in return for the privilege of allowing Overture to place ads on their sites -- Yahoo!'s search revenue amounted to $336 million in the fourth quarter, estimates Noto, while branded advertising amounted to $282 million. Of course, it is possible that Google's search growth will outpace Yahoo!'s. But until Google reports its fourth-quarter 2004 results next month, branded advertising is enjoying its time in the sun.