Why You Might Give Google Another Chance

Updated from 6:13 a.m. EST

SAN FRANCISCO -- Just three months ago, shares of Internet giant Google ( GOOG) were prancing around $750, even amid heightened fears of a recession.

The hyper-growth company was thought to be mostly immune to any economic downturn. Credit Suisse, for example, raised not a single eyebrow when the firm raised its price target on the stock to $900 from $800 on Nov. 20.

One quarter and a subprime crisis later, the stock trades a few dollars above $500, stirring speculation that Google's selloff -- it has sunk 31% from its 52-week high of $747.24 -- might be nearing its trough.

One of its biggest declines came two weeks ago, right after the Mountain View, Calif., company missed Wall Street's fourth-quarter estimates on a sharp decline in paid-click growth on its company-owned sites.

At one point, the price dipped to a once-unthinkable $495.43, marking the first time it had fallen below the $500 mark since last August. The stock was trading at $516.01 in early morning trading Monday.

Some are now saying this could be the right time to get back in. "We think the bottom's already happened," says Jeffrey Lindsay, an analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, who rates Google as outperform, with a price target of $750.

Despite the fourth-quarter miss, the company still posted a 17% climb in profit and generated more than $1 billion in free cash flow. The company's search engine also continues to command an enviable lead over its rivals, capturing 60% of the market share.

But with high expectations came the increasing risk for a downfall: Any little slip was enough to cause the stock price to plunge.

Now investors are starting to return to the outperformance that Google's growth -- and diminished share price -- offers.

"We believe GOOG has several years of exceptional growth ahead," wrote American Technology Research analyst Rob Sanderson in a recent research note. "Controversy has shaken marginal investors and a few sell-side bulls. We think this is creating a great buying opportunity and we encourage accumulation of the stock."

Other tech companies may also be ripe for the picking, including Amazon ( AMZN) and eBay ( EBAY).

"With eBay, Google and Amazon, there's nothing fundamentally that's changed with the companies so when the economy picks up, we'll look back on this period as an amazing buying opportunity," says Bernstein's Lindsay.

In Google's case, Lindsay says investors may have been spooked by the prospect of it winning the bid for wireless spectrum, which would have provided access to the Internet via mobile devices. Google was thought to be eyeing a block that carried a price tag as high as $5 billion in an auction held by the Federal Communications Commission, which did not disclose the names of the bidders.

"The risk of the spectrum was enough to make people stand on the sidelines," Lindsay says.

But now the prevailing sentiment is that the bid will go to a traditional telecommunications company like Verizon ( VZ) or AT&T ( T). Lindsay says there's a chance that Google might still win the bid, which could cause lingering weakness for the company down the road -- or until an outcome is determined in a month or so.

Another factor weighing down Google, as with most tech shares, is the prospect, if not realization, of a recession and its impact on tech spending and advertising markets. Although Google CEO Eric Schmidt has insisted that the company hasn't yet felt any impact of the macro economy, that's not to say that it never will.

Lindsay says Google is recession-resistant -- but not recession-proof.

"They're not totally insulated from it," he says, noting that the company could take a hit if advertisers decide to pull back on spending. Consumers also will be less likely to click through ads for, say, a plasma TV, if they're feeling the pain.

At the same time, with advertisers shifting their spending from traditional mediums to online, Google still stands to weather -- and even benefit from -- a downturn.

Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney notes that over the last two years, Google's forward price-to-earnings ratio has ranged between 25 and 35. At $500, Google's P/E ratio of 25 would suggest a bottom is at hand.

As for any potential merger between Yahoo! ( YHOO) and Microsoft ( MSFT), Mahaney expects Google to remain on top.

Google is widely expected to maintain its lead over the two companies in search, even if they combine their resources. Lindsay says Google may even benefit from the merger by stealing away some of its rivals' customers as well as its workers.

"We think it's probably going to be a net positive for Google," he says.