Google's the NFL of Brains

 | Aug 19, 2014 | 3:08 PM EDT  | Comments
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Ten years ago today, Google (GOOGL) launched its initial public offering at the equivalent of $42.50 a share and it's been off to the races ever since, with the stock hitting $597 today.

That's a remarkable run, one that has far exceeded the stock market's performance, and I think it's fair to say that it's a performance that's been remarkably underestimated by so many people, including thousands of investment professionals, pretty much the entire way.

From the very beginning there's been an amazing failure of imagination when it came to visualizing what this company can do and how much money it can make doing it. This failure of imagination isn't unusual when it comes to technology. For example, all week on "Mad Money" we are examining the remarkable energy renaissance in this country, which is largely because of a revolution in American drilling technology. It's been underestimated pretty much ever since it started, with both the amount and the profits available to the domestic companies far greater than most thought just three years ago.

But Google's unique in how many people didn't trust it from the get-go. A perusal of the research at the time of its offering shows a mixture of weak Buys, some Holds and a couple of Sells. That's because the analysts showed a level of skepticism about the company and its prospects that was, in retrospect, both ridiculous and obtuse. They almost systematically believed that the market for Google's wares was much smaller than it turned out to be. They placed heavy bets against Google and in favor of Yahoo! (YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT), dramatically overstating the power of the competition. Almost universally they fretted about the lock-up, the number of shares that would ultimately be unleashed on the market after half a year. Many damned the company as immature in its actions, in part because its executives were so young, but also because its offering was done without the help of major brokers, in an auction. The company lacked Wall Street backing because of the rebellious streak that continues to this very day.

But most importantly, the analysts looked at the world as a relatively static place, a world where Google would be competing for a small portion of the advertising market that would come from the television and print world and land right on your desktop, largely in ineffective banner ads augmented by some rebate payment that advertisers might be willing to pay Google in return for renting keywords in the Google lexicon.

They were wrong from the get-go, with earnings estimates that were about half of what they turned out to be even a few years from when Google launched. The estimates in what we call the out-years were so low that the stock seemed incredibly expensive from the day it came public, when, in actuality, at its launch price the stock was selling at about 6x the earnings it racked up just three years later. Six times!

Not long after I made those projections, I found myself being questioned by many in the business, including people in a position of authority, about why I could be so outrageously positive in my statements about the company. We had just come through a very bad time where trillions had been lost in technology stocks and no one seemed to want to hear a pundit talk about how a stock could double in a short period of time.

I, in a rather matter-of-fact way, said to anyone that questioned my analysis that I envisioned a world where Google would get a minimum of 10% of the $600 billion advertising market because it just was superior to every other company on the Web in every single way.

I told questioners that if they had kids they would know that Google had already become so pervasive that many a homework assignment I helped my kids with point blank said "no Googling allowed." Google wasn't just a verb, it was a forbidden verb.

Finally, I said I was lucky, lucky enough to have started my own Web company, TheStreet.com, eight years before Google came public and I could see that the only way that you could survive, if not thrive, as a publisher on the Web was to fork over a lot of money to Google in order to get in the queue for keywords that individuals might hit up about the stock market. If you didn't, you couldn't get the traffic you needed to support your own ads, ads which were already getting sophisticated enough that you could see where banners were a thing of the past and video ads were a thing of the future.

All of these reasons, I dispassionately explained, combined to make me realize that Google would triple rather quickly, but that I didn't want to say it was going to triple because that would hurt my credibility as no one would believe me, so I was staying conservative with the double.

Needless to say, it had tripled in slightly more than a year's time. I was way, way too conservative.

Now, I have certainly screwed up on many stocks in my time, and you can see those mentioned endlessly on Twitter. But back then began, at least for me, a love affair with a stock that I have been right on pretty much the whole way. And I have always approached it the same way I did in that first interview about Google's prospects.

In fact, because of the acquisition of YouTube and the subsequent creation of the iPhone, it's been tough for me to keep my price targets far enough ahead of the stock's move itself. Both of those game-changers, plus the widespread adoption of faster and faster Internet speeds has allowed Google to take that 10% of the $600 billion ad market that I forecasted 10 years ago.

Now, after calls like today's Home Depot wonder, where the company is shifting up to 36% of its ad budget online, I know that this percentage will only grow, although it will have to be shared with the likes of Facebook (FB) and perhaps Twitter (TWTR). And I know that Google's only begun to monetize YouTube and so many other weapons in its arsenal, while at the same time laying to waste pretty much every one of its competitors as it dominates search. It's even now come up with a way for advertisers to reach targets that eviscerates the margins of pretty much every other publisher on the Web.

That's why, even up here, I remain steadfast in support of Google and why it remains the largest position that I own in my charitable trust. Even after this run, the stock is still cheap vs. the estimates out a few years and I think those estimates are too low vs. what Google can do with its business.

But in the end, what makes me most bullish on Google is what was so off-putting to many 10 years ago: the people who work there. Google, run by the best and the brightest, has also attracted the best and the brightest and, with the possible exception of Facebook, can pick the smartest graduates of any school it wants to. It is the NFL of brains and every young person I know believes that.

As long as that's the case, and I think it will be for many years to come, the contest will be to keep the price targets current and not have them be overrun by the stock of this amazing company that came public 10 years ago today. 

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