Updated from 6:02 p.m. EST

Amazon.com ( AMZN), the Internet retailing giant that has become a barometer of commerce in cyberspace, posted a wider-than-expected loss for the fourth quarter, but sales also surged and investors snapped up its stock in after-hours trading.

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The company said it lost $185 million, or 55 cents per share. Analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial had expected a loss of 48 cents per share. The higher-than-expected loss was not a total surprise, however, because last month Amazon.com offered guidance that indicated it wouldn't meet expectations.

Henry Blodget, the influential Internet analyst at Merrill Lynch, wrote in a report issued Wednesday morning that he expected the company to post earnings 5 cents to 10 cents below consensus estimates.

Amazon shares rose ahead of the earnings news Wednesday, climbing 2 points, or 2.9%, 69 7/16. In after-hours trading, Amazon was up to 75 15/16.

Part of the reason for the jump appeared to be higher-than-expected sales of $676 million for the fourth quarter, more than double the year-earlier figures. In early January Amazon had estimated fourth-quarter revenue of $650 million.

Prior to the financial announcement, analysts were eager to learn more about the financial impact of a bevy of alliances the company has struck up in the last two months. Among the alliances the Seattle-based e-tailer has announced: drugstore.com ( DSCM), Web-content provider Audible, Inc., ( ADBL) and luxury goods e-commerce company Ashford.com. ( ASFD).

In the conference call, Amazon CFO Warren Jenson told analysts that the fourth quarter represented "a high point for the overall level of operating losses as both a dollar amount and as a percentage of sales."

That represents a change in the company's spin. "Amazon has changed its posturing over the last year or so," said Mike May, digital commerce analyst at Internet research firm Jupiter Communications. "They are realizing that they have to pander to analysts and investors." In years past, the company would offer nothing but long-term projections of losses.

By contrast, Jenson and Amazon's chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos offered a much rosier picture of the company's future. The two said operating losses as a percentage of revenue were expected to drop from more than 20% in the fourth quarter to the single-digit range by the end of this year.

"In 2000 we should begin to reap the benefits of scale,'' Jenson said.

Jupiter's May doesn't disagree. In addition to providing guaranteed revenue streams, Amazon's recent deals make for excellent investments for the company, he says. "By virtue of its investments, Amazon is tipping the scales in its favor," he said. "The investments that Amazon has made are investments from which only Amazon can make money," by virtue of the 17 million customers it can direct to drugstore.com or Ashford.com.

Last week, Amazon announced the first layoffs in its history, cutting its payroll by 2% in what was viewed by some investors as an ominous sign.