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(Torsten Silz/The Associated Press)
(Torsten Silz/The Associated Press)

Strategy Lab

Why I own Google – and not Facebook Add to ...

Chris Umiastowski is the growth investor for Globe Investor’s Strategy Lab. Follow his contributions here and view his model portfolio here.

One of the keys to being a successful growth investor is realizing all fast-growing companies aren’t equally attractive.

Google, for instance, is a great investment. Facebook? Not so much.

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This may seem odd to people who think of both of them as being Internet giants that dominate their respective specialties. In reality, the two are completely different in terms of their competitive positions.

Google is a diversified empire that has found ingenious ways to ensure it will grow in line with the Internet. Facebook has to generate its own internal growth to expand.

I own Google shares, both personally and in my Strategy Lab portfolio, but I eschew Facebook, because Google offers me a much broader play on Internet growth at a much lower cost.

Most people don’t realize how wide reaching Google’s offerings are. Did you know it owns the two most popular search engines on the planet? Google.com is obviously No. 1. But YouTube is No. 2 – ahead of Bing and Yahoo.

Given the increasing importance of video on the Internet, and YouTube’s pre-eminent position, this gives Google a huge advantage. It has started to monetize YouTube by integrating it into Adwords, its advertising platform. I’ve been testing it out, and I think we’re still in the first inning of growth.

Facebook has no equivalent. Sure, social media is growing, but Facebook faces some high hurdles in tapping its advertising potential.

Facebook traffic is (for now) mostly about people swapping personal minutiae. It’s like listening to a friend tell you about his day, or sharing a story about taking kids out for Halloween. Imagine this happening in person, with a salesperson standing over at the sidebar, waving a banner for a product. It doesn’t seem natural.

Contrast this with people who visit Google.com and type keywords into the search bar.

They’re looking for information and welcome whatever is relevant to their search. Someone who searches “What’s the best juicer” is probably interested in buying a product and doesn’t mind some clearly commercial messages in response. Google and Amazon naturally get this kind of traffic. Facebook does not.

And that’s just one weakness with its model. Facebook suffers from the limitation of being a portal – a huge portal, but still a portal, nonetheless. People have to go to Facebook (or use the Facebook app) to generate revenue for the company. Not so with Google.

While many people think of Google as purely a search engine, it is also a giant global advertising firm that can place ads across its own properties and any external websites that partner with Google. Drop a snippet of code on your website and all of a sudden you’re pulling ads from Google’s inventory – and getting paid for it.

All of this illustrates my key point: Google reaches across the entire Internet; Facebook does not. Google grows as the Internet grows. Facebook revenue grows as Facebook usage grows.

And then there’s mobile. Google owns Android, the No. 1 smartphone platform on the planet. Android is open source, meaning anyone can use it without paying a fee, but whoever does must use the operating system according to Google’s terms and conditions.

Which company would you prefer to invest in – Google, which controls the entire operating system, or Facebook, which controls one app?

Finally, let’s look at the two companies’ financials.

It’s unfair to compare Facebook to Google based solely on price-to-earnings ratios because the former is not as mature as the latter. But revenue shows the vast size difference between the two companies. The consensus estimate for Facebook revenue in 2013 is $6.4-billion (U.S.). For Google, it is $65.1-billion, according to S&P Capital IQ.

Which stock offers the best value?

One way to answer that question is to look at each company’s ratio of enterprise value (EV) to sales. Enterprise value is similar to market capitalization, except that it’s adjusted to exclude cash and add back any debt. It reflects what a private buyer would theoretically pay to buy the enterprise.

By looking at EV to sales, you can get a sense of what a private buyer would pay for a dollar of a company’s sales. And by looking at sales rather than profit, you put both companies on an equal footing although Facebook is far earlier in its profit-realizing cycle than Google.

Using 2013 estimates, Google’s EV/S multiple is 2.85 while Facebook’s multiple is 5.65, according to Capital IQ.

The math doesn’t lie. As an investor, I’m a lot more comfortable owning Google. It has a fundamentally better business than Facebook – and I can buy it at half the price.

 
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