After Groupon, What's Next for Google?

Unless you’ve been living on a deserted island in the last 10 days, you’ve heard about the presumed $6 billion Google bid to buy Groupon, the leading daily offers player. Groupon walked away from the opportunity on Friday and will probably do an IPO in the next12-18 months (like Facebook). I gave a couple of media interviews last week on the phenomenon, one in the Montreal Gazette (here and here) and the other one in La Presse (in French), but I didn’t have the chance to blog about the story yet. Let’s fix that.

Why did Google want to buy Groupon and at such a huge valuation? For a couple of reasons.

1) Google wants to make sure they’re not seen as one-trick poney by Wall Street. Because they’re a public company, they need to show huge growth to meet expectations and expand into many ad vehicles. At their last quarterly call, they highlighted the success of their display ads business. Groupon is rumoured to have annual revenues of $2 billion and it certainly would have added interesting top-line revenues and great growth rates. Not sure Google would have liked the lower margins than what they have in search advertising, but it is what it is.

2) Google wanted to buy a local sales force. Groupon is present in more than 300 metropolitan markets and 35 countries and they’ve used their capital to scale the sales team and acquire regional players in Europe and Asia. Google has signaled many times in the past couple of years that they haven’t been satisfied with their large volume local sales channel partners (read Yellow Pages) and they’re probably wondering about having their own local sales force. Over the years, many rumors have surfaced about Google buying Yell and other large directory publishers. With the Groupon acquisition off, directory publishers stock has risen in value. According to The Street, “Three small-cap companies soared on Friday. Dex One Corporation ended nearly 49 percent higher, boosting its market cap to $335 million. It owns Yellow Pages and White pages directories. Meanwhile Supermedia, which pushes Superyellowpages.com and other local ads, soared 20 percent on a huge spike in volume. Its market cap is still just around $105 million. And Local.com, a business search engine and ad network, added 8.3 percent with a $90 million market cap.”

Both Supermedia and Dex One still have huge debts pushing the total cost of an acquisition higher (probably $3 billion +). Interestingly enough, Greg Sterling reported yesterday that Yell was thinking of selling Yellowbook, their US arm. Good timing!

Could a transaction to buy a directory publisher happen? Yes, it’s possible but I wouldn’t say it’s probable. There’s probably an underlying culture clash issue, trying to match Google with a Yellow Pages company. Google will probably be tempted to look at other options before including building their own sales force. After all, if Groupon did it, Google has all the capital it needs to create their own. It might take 12-24 months, but it would probably cost less than $3 to $6B required to make an acquisition. Could they look at ReachLocal? They had 641 salespeople as of Q2 2010 and a much smaller market cap / debt (under $1B). Maybe. One thing is sure. Google will make a strategic move in that field in the coming months.

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