Wall Street may fixate on
, but the action for Internet investors lately has been in once-abandoned niche companies.
all have gained more than 40% this year. Meanwhile, mega-caps including Google,
Even more telling is the coverage of Wall Street analysts. The Knot, a wedding site that is up 61% this year, is covered by four analysts, while Stamps.com, an online stamp outfit, is up 52% and covered by five. Google, down 6% for 2006 after head-spinning gains in 2004 and 2005, is covered by 26.
Some investors see Wall Street's lack of interest as a plus for the smaller companies.
"People were just realizing that some of these under-the-radar, smaller-type names had built pretty significant franchises on the Web," says Darren Chervitz, director of research at Jacob Asset Management, which owns Internet shares. "I would caution investors that in many cases the easy money has probably been taken care of, but there are still plenty of opportunities."
These businesses are all benefiting from the surging popularity of search, which makes it easier for potential customers to find their sites. In addition, advertisers are also attracted to niche sites because it allows them to target their messages to consumers interested in hearing them.
"People are just getting more comfortable using the Internet," says Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan, which rates both Stamps.com and PetMed as buy. "It's not the early adopter that make these stocks work, it's the mainstream consumers."
Mid-cap Internet companies that do have a following on Wall Street are also doing well. Health site WebMD, which Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs began covering late last year, has seen its shares rise 44%.
, which operates the
Realtor.com site, is up 25%.
Now even the lesser names are starting to get noticed. Avondale Partners analyst Frank Gristina says he was one of a few analysts covering
( NSI) and online pet-medicine distributor
a year ago. Now, there are seven firms covering the pair. This year, shares of Nutri/Systems are up 33% and PetMed is solidly in the plus column, though its shares have been hammered in the last week after a strong start to the year.
"These companies have outperformed expectations consistently in the past 12 months," says Gristina, who owns shares of PedMed personally. He rates PetMed neutral and Nutri/Systems as outperform. Avondale makes a market in both stocks and comanaged a public offering for Nutri/System.
To be sure, everything hasn't gone right with these companies. Shares of PetMed have fallen 20% in the past week after Avondale's Gristina downgraded the stock to market perform from market outperform, saying the company could face a price war from vets in the upcoming flea-and-tick season.
, which operates automotive Web sites, and digital-music company
( NAPS) are among the favorites of Jacob Asset's Chervitz. They're both trading down this year for what he calls company-specific reasons.
Gaining popularity isn't always a good thing for a midsize Internet company, says David Liu, The Knot's chief executive and co-founder, in an interview.
"It's a double-edged sword," he says. "We have benefited from flying under the radar screen and not being under the harsh scrutiny of the Street's glare."
Those days may not last for too much longer as Wall Street renews interest in stocks that surged in the first quarter.
"Long-forgotten friends have all reappeared," Liu says.