By Lisa Baertlein
Strong search advertising revenues are expected to drive profits at Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. when they report earnings next week.
Some financial analysts and research firms flagged a decline in "keyword" pricing during the holiday hangover months of January and February, compared with prior months when pricing on retail-related terms rose.
But several analysts who cover search companies are skeptical, saying discerning trends is notoriously difficult because of the large number of keywords available and variability within the group.
Web search advertisers set the prices on keywords through auction-style bidding. They pay each time a Web search user clicks on their ad, which links to their site.
For their parts, executives at Google and Yahoo each repeatedly have said their growth has resulted from greater search volume rather than price increases.
"People should be careful about extrapolating too much from a small sample" of keyword prices, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said on the sidelines of a recent cable industry conference in San Francisco.
Yahoo is scheduled to release earnings on April 19 and Google is due to announce on April 21.
"Although there has been significant controversy over search trends this quarter, the numerous data points we compiled indicate to us continued strong momentum," American Technology Research analyst Mark Mahaney said in a client note this week.
"We believe Google will outpace the industry," added Mahaney, who does not own Google shares and whose firm does not provide investment banking services.
Mahaney expects Google to beat analysts' consensus estimates when it reports its first-quarter results. He sees Google posting a profit, excluding items, of 99 cents a share.
The average targets compiled by Reuters Estimates call for Google to post earnings excluding items of 91 cents a share.
Jeffrey Herzog, chairman and chief executive of iCrossing, a search engine marketing company that helps advertisers create and manage campaigns, said keyword prices are up from a year ago.
Analysts pegged their Google optimism on the company's international growth, the expansion of its network of Web sites that carry Google ads pegged to editorial content, and recent efforts to make Web search ads more relevant to users.
"We would expect Google to again grow faster as it is much further along in the monetization process, has a stronger international presence, and is benefiting from expansion of its contextual advertising network," Lehman Brothers analyst Douglas Anmuth wrote in a client note last week. Lehman Brothers was one of the underwriters on Google's IPO.
Anmuth's target calls for Google to post first-quarter net revenue of $739 million, up 13 percent from the prior quarter, and earnings, excluding items, of 91 cents a share.
He projected 12 percent quarter-over-quarter search revenue growth for Yahoo during the first quarter of 2005.
Mahaney sees Yahoo posting 13 percent growth in the same time frame -- largely driven by volume growth -- and net income of 11 cents a share, matching analysts' average target.
"Our belief in continued strong search growth was reinforced by public comments by Yahoo and Google executives, as well as by numerous conversations we've had with other public and private search companies," Mahaney said.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press.
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