Analysis: 3 companies Microsoft could buy instead of Yahoo

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Bachelor No. 2: LinkedIn Corp.

Microsoft wants to get into social networking in a bad way. Why not buy LinkedIn? The 20-million-member professional networking site, in danger of becoming a Web 2.0 punching bag the way Evite has, has made a number of technical improvements in the past year to stay relevant.

The Silicon Valley firm recently claimed that it was selling at least some of its Web ads at a $75 CPM (cost per thousand impressions) rate. If that's true, it's getting a far rate higher than most competitors. LinkedIn is targeting revenue this year of $75 million to $100 million.

For Microsoft to take over MySpace or even Facebook Inc. would tarnish much of the cool factor that makes those sites popular with young adults. There'd be much less backlash if it bought LinkedIn. Buying LinkedIn also wouldn't conflict with Microsoft's existing efforts -- most significantly Windows Live Spaces -- which are not puny. According to Nielsen Online statistics quoted by The Economist magazine, Windows Live Spaces actually had 8.3% of the social networking market last August, just behind Facebook's 8.5%.

Downsides: LinkedIn CEO Dan Nye has said the company is uninterested in a buyout, and is aiming for an initial public offering next year, instead. That may be typical Silicon Valley rhetoric, where going public is more glorious than settling for a buyout, but you never know. Also, LinkedIn doesn't have a public history of setting and delivering on its revenue goals.

Potential price: Fending off News Corp. takeover rumors, Nye said late last year that LinkedIn was worth "a lot more" than $1 billion. If Microsoft was willing to put $240 million into Facebook for a mere 1.6% share of the company (giving it a $15 billion theoretical valuation), then $1 billion-plus for all of LinkedIn, which, according to stats released last fall, was growing faster than Facebook, seems reasonable.

Bachelor No. 3: ValueClick Inc.

Bolstering Web advertising is Microsoft's single greatest need (besides search, which, given Google's dominance of core search and the infancy of vertical search engines, is impossible for Microsoft to boost quickly through acquisition). The Westlake Village, Calif.-based firm would appear to fit the bill nicely.

The Nasdaq-traded firm is the fifth-largest provider of Web banner advertising in the U.S., according to comScore. Its revenue last year was $645.6 million, up more than 14 times from 2001's $44.9 million, according to Morningstar.com.

Moreover, ValueClick, despite a zigzagging stock price due to on-again, off-again rumors of a Microsoft acquisition, remains a good value. As of last Friday, the profitable firm's market cap was just under $2 billion, giving it a forward price/earnings ratio of just 20.6. Microsoft's final offer of $33 per share pegged Yahoo at a forward P/E ratio of about 60.

Downsides: ValueClick's reputation is hurting, and its momentum is flagging. In March, the company agreed to pay a record $2.9 million to settle an Federal Trade Commission complaint that it sent deceptive advertising claims in spam e-mail and failed to protect consumers' sensitive financial information. The same month, it lost a key customer in eBay Inc., which is migrating management of its affiliate programs away from ValueClick. And don't forget the buzz, or lack thereof -- online advertising is important, but compared with the other candidates, it's not exactly the most attention-getting option.

Potential price: Microsoft could double ValueClick's stock price, pay $4 billion and still get -- mathematically speaking -- a better deal than it was willing to make for Yahoo or the $6 billion deal it made for aQuantive last year. If ValueClick is uninterested, Microsoft could also go for Specific Media Inc., which actually ranked slightly higher than ValueClick, according to comScore. Specific Media received $100 million in funding from venture capital firms last year. With all of the recession talk, it may welcome a quick exit.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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