Berk Sure Has A Way

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Archive for November 2005

Irrelevant Traffic Arbitrage

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Marchex bulls would lead you to believe that traffic to their domains is organic and relevant.  I am sure some of it is.

However, it appears that Marchex (or an affiliate) is abusing Google AdWords and exploiting Yahoo by arbitraging traffic.  There are ads on relatively inexpensive words on Google and that direct clickthroughs to unrelated highly monetized Marchex domains. For example, if you do a search for “Arabic” and “measurement” on Google, you will find ads linking to breastenlargementcreams and siliconimplants domains – both owned by Marchex.  Given that almost all the links on these pages are paid with high CPCs –random clickthroughs presumably pump up revenue.

In the screenshots below taken on 11/29/05, see the 4th paid listing on right for “Arabic” and the 2nd and 6th listings for the keyword “measurement”.  Those link to the two Marchex domains with highly monetized Yahoo! keywords.






I suspect Google would not be pleased with how irrelevant these results are for those terms.  Even more so, I would guess Yahoo! wouldn’t be happy to be sending low quality, irrelevant clicks to their high paying advertisers.  I plan to email some folks at both companies to get their thoughts.

As a Google user and especially as a Yahoo advertiser, I find this very disturbing.  Who knows how much revenue is being generated by these tactics… but it is clearly not sustainable.  It is not organic revenue.  It is likely not even allowed in Google and Yahoo! advertiser and publisher terms of use.

Why would the gem of Marchex’s business need to rely on such sketchy and desperate behavior?  Potential questions:

1. Is the domains business hard to grow? Is this a way to boost revenue on the sly?

2. Is the domains business as profitable as bulls say? How much are they spending on traffic acquisition?

I own puts on MCHX at various prices.


Written by Kevin Berk

November 30, 2005 at 11:35 AM

Posted in Picks and Pans

Tier Two Paid Search Syndication – bad traffic, worse businesses

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Enhance / GoClick / TrafficLeader still comprise the majority of Marchex’s revenue.  Assuming that TrafficLeader is still a small business (if it is not, that means that Enhance and GoClick are shrinking), it means that Marchex’s biggest business is paid search syndication.  In my first post, I said “Enhance and GoClick (search syndication) are deteriorating low-margin businesses riddled with traffic quality problems and a lack of scale”.

Paid search syndication is a tough business for the non-winners:

1) Network Scale drives Revenue Yield. Search syndication revenue yield is determined by CPCs, breadth of keywords, quality of advertisers and algorithm.  Advertisers are busy and they focus their money and energy on their biggest and best outlets.  A big syndication network leads to more advertisers which leads to 1) higher CPCs, 2) more keyword coverage, 3) more “budget depth” in each keyword covered, 4) better advertiser optimization of campaigns.  Google has over 200,000 advertisers and Yahoo has over 100,000.  Enhance and GoClick do not have scale and consequently do not have high CPCs, broad keyword coverage, budget depth, or frequent advertiser optimization. 

2) Revenue Yield drives Network Scale. In a virtuous cycle, as yields grow higher, the leading search advertising network can attract more scale via new distribution partners. In search syndication, scale drives advantage. Google has decimated the competition in this area.  Yahoo is a decent number two and way ahead of the second tier. Both Google and Yahoo have scale with their own sites and can therefore outbid the second tier for new distribution (MIVA, LOOKD, MCHX, INCX).

3) Traffic sources go with Google (or maybe Yahoo!) – Case in point is Marchex’s direct navigation businesses – Yahoo! provides the paid listings to these sites.   The yield using Google or Yahoo!’s ad network is higher for Marchex even though revenue is split with the network.  Since Enhance and GoClick don’t have the yield of Yahoo!, Marchex’s revenue and profit from these properties would plummet if they made Enhance or GoClick the primary source of paid listings on direct navigation.  Another quick example: uses Google paid listings instead of LookListings. 

4) The Golden Traffic Rule – he who has the traffic gets the gold.  Traffic owners get the vast majority of revenue – Google gives out north of 75% of their revenue to their partners.  Yahoo has a hard time signing new quality distribution partners against Google as Google’s yield advantage has grown.  Similarly the only high-profile distribution deals that the second tier have retained or won in the past few years have been low-margin technology platform licensing deals (e.g. MIVA for Lycos, LookSmart for AskJeeves, or Marchex for Yellow page companies) or meta-search deals where more providers improves the value proposition to consumers. Therefore, even if Marchex could compete with Google, Yahoo, etc. to sign up quality distribution partners for Enhance / GoClick – they would end up paying most of the money to partners (plus 3% to Yahoo! for the patent settlement!).

Where is Enhance / GoClick’s traffic coming from?

Some clearly comes from Yahoo!  Marchex’s 10Q’s listed Yahoo! as it largest distribution partner (13% of revenue in Q1, 10% in Q3).  MSN and AskJeeves are also announced partners. What is unknown is how much of the revenue from these partners is related to TrafficLeader customers and how Marchex books revenue for that business line.  Other revenue likely comes from recycled traffic – what I call the rats and mice of the search business – the distribution partners Google and Yahoo didn’t want or rejected.  These distribution partners often include players that utilize pop-unders, pop-ups, adware, spyware, browser-hijacking, gambling-related traffic, international traffic, or just plain fake clicks.  I’ve seen instances where distribution partners have their own distribution partners that have their own distribution partners – creating a kind of traffic laundering that obscures the original source of the click.  Advertisers only want quality traffic – you will notice that all the larger search syndication players talk about traffic quality as an overarching issue.  Now clearly, I don’t know where MCHX’s traffic comes from or how high quality it is, but Overture, Miva and LookSmart all took a hit to revenue and profitability at some point in the name of “cleaning up their traffic”- I suspect MCHX will be no different.

As a starting point, I would encourage all of Enhance and GoClick’s advertisers to use Google’s conversion tracking feature to track the performance of their clicks from Marchex’s distribution providers.  If you have an issue, call Marchex’s customer service line.  If you are thinking about using GoClick or Enhance, you can read what other customers had to say:  Enhance Interactive customer reviews and GoClick customer reviews.

Where about advertisers?

A quick review of some competitive queries suggests Enhance and GoClick do not attract enough advertisers to form a competitive market.  Since Google’s algorithm is more flexible (and therefore higher yielding), we will use Yahoo’s data as a lower-bound proxy:



Oftentimes, second tier search providers will redistribute each other’s listings on their networks. The interesting thing about the rest of the tier two is that they have suffered revenue declines – it will be interesting to see if Marchex can escape the same fate.

What about cross-pollination of advertisers between their products? 

Simply put, I doubt it.

1) Direct Navigation’s revenue share from Yahoo is far superior than MCHX’s yield – MCHX won’t be putting too many (if any) of Enhance or Goclick links on their direct navigation pages – it will hurt revenue and profits

2) TrafficLeader’s larger advertisers would likely bolt if their account rep sent them too much traffic from the lower quality Enhance / GoClick networks.  I have seen local advertisers from their yellow page deals placed (often irrelevantly) within Enhance results from time to time, but on the whole TrafficLeader’s customers are likely sent mainly to the big quality networks. 

3) IndustryBrains has traction with advertisers precisely because they do not distribute beyond the specific sites you buy when you purchase through them.

I own MCHX puts at various prices.

Written by Kevin Berk

November 30, 2005 at 11:21 AM

Posted in Picks and Pans

MCHX Cash Flow Tells a Story…

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50x cash flow… that’s Google-esque! Few companies are valued greater than 50x cash flow. Those lucky enough generally grow revenue and earnings in the 50%+ range per year for multiple years and boast businesses with very wide moats. MCHX is not one of those businesses.

The math. MCHX has 38.3 million fully diluted common shares outstanding trading at about $22 a share as of today’s close. It has about $55 mil in cash on hand and a liability in the form of convertible preferred shares of about $50 mil. Therefore, MCHX’s enterprise value is about $840 million. MCHX generated $8.6 million in free cash flow so far this year, $2.9 of it in Q3. Trailing 12 month’s cash flow is $9.6 million, implying a ratio of 87. If you annualize the Q3 cash flow to $11.5 million it gives MCHX an EV/FCF ratio of 73. Even if you annualize their peak cash flow quarter of Q2 2005, you still get an EV/FCF ratio of 50. 50! 73? 87!?! Wow.

Growth? As I outlined in my previous post, MCHX’s revenue growth is largely illusory as it has been coming mainly from acquisitions – primarily domain names. Similarly, organic cash flow growth seems to be stuck in neutral or reverse given that MCHX is acquiring new domains with cash flow every quarter this year. Cash flow should be growing at a much greater rate than what they’ve reported:


MCHX fans will say that the direct navigation business is nearly all profit – domains are truly cash flow machines. However, at $7.7 million in direct nav revenue in Q3, if you assume anything above a 40% cash flow margin, the direct nav business provided greater than 100% of MCHX’s cash flow in Q3 2005. This means that cash flow from MCHX’s other businesses must be deteriorating. MCHX only boosted cash flow by $700k over 2004’s Q3 results. Given what they paid for the domains, you would have expected MCHX’s cash flow to be at least $3 – $5 million higher than last year. If you assume the Direct Navigation business gets a 58.5% cash flow margins (90% margin with a 35% tax rate), an interesting tidbit arises. If you compare the first three quarters of 2004 to 2005 for MCHX’s other businesses (excluding direct navigation), reported revenue rose from $28.7 to $48.6 million, while cash flow dropped from positive $1.7 million to negative $1.1 mil. You know you have deteriorating fundamentals when you grow revenue by $20 million but cash flow drops by close to $3 million.

What about next year? Next year’s analyst projections are actually pretty rosy – “earnings” up 47%. But…digging beneath the surface, this makes some sense since their domains businesses were acquired this year making year over year comparisons favorable and “earnings” as tracked by MCHX’s analysts exclude amortization. That means MCHX’s gets to spend shareholder money without it impacting “earnings”. No wonder MCHX keeps buying companies – what a deal!

Wide Moat? MCHX is not the leader in any of its businesses. I will admit the direct navigation business makes good money (for now), but it relies heavily on user error to generate traffic. It strains credibility to think that MCHX will be able to maintain the same level of monetization while making these domains true destinations. As for the rest of MCHX businesses, they are each strategically weak and lack scale (more on that later).

What’s the story? I said that businesses trading at more than 50x cash flow are growing rapidly and have a wide moat. I forgot one case… when a stock is wildly overvalued. That is the story with MCHX’s valuation. Given its risks, MCHX should probably be trading at a EV/FCF of less than 20, implying it should decline 60-75% from $22 before it is back in line with reality.

I own puts on MCHX stock at various prices.

Written by Kevin Berk

November 22, 2005 at 11:11 PM

Posted in Picks and Pans

Where’s the organic growth at MCHX?

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If you dig through Marchex’s financial statements and press releases, you can piece together a picture of how all of Marchex’s businesses would have performed on a pro forma basis. With some conservative estimates for Q4 of last year, it appears that Marchex is not growing organically. Q4, Q1, and Q2 were $24.2, $24.7 and $24.2 million respectively. 

Since Q4 of last year, MCHX managed to grow to $26.3 million in Q3 of 2005 – less than 9% overall and less than 7% over since Q1 2005! 

The numbers look a bit better if you compare year over year with a 25% growth rate. However, since most of that growth likely happened from Q3 to Q4 of 2004, it is clear that the annual growth rate is decelerating rapidly. 

Based on current estimates, they will grow at ~15% Y/Y in Q4. This is not a growth rate of a stock trading at 50 times cash flow. 

See the table below for historical actuals and my estimates of each of their businesses:


Even if you assume they can grow the direct navigation business (more on that later), MCHX’s overall pro-forma revenue will likely be flat in 2006 from 2005. My guess is that they will continue to buy businesses to mask the underperformance of their core business.

Most troubling about these numbers is the fact that all of MCHX cash flow seems to come from the direct navigation (domains) business. That means that investors are valuing MCHX at $800 million on the back of a business MCHX purchased for around $200 million this year.

I own puts on MCHX at various prices.

Written by Kevin Berk

November 20, 2005 at 8:15 PM

Posted in Picks and Pans

MCHX – 10 Reasons to Sell

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MCHX is overvalued. I will admit that they’ve made some smart financial moves and they own some profitable internet domain names. However, MCHX shares are probably worth maybe $7, not $20. I don’t know the folks at Marchex and I have nothing against them. But, I am definitely self-interested – I think MCHX will decline so I own MCHX puts at various prices.

I used to work at LookSmart and saw the challenges that tier two search syndication players (MCHX, MIVA, LOOKD, INCX, INSP) face first hand. MCHX has been able to delay a decline through smart acquisitions (paying 10-20x cash flow for domain names funded by selling stock at 50x), but most tier two search syndication business models are unprofitable, strategically challenged, and deteriorating. The key point is that while the other tier two players seem to be more appropriately valued, MCHX is way out of whack. It is important to note that owning end-user traffic combined with a winning tier one syndication business is beautiful, profitable, and often defensible. Google and Yahoo have built great businesses, but MCHX is not in the same league.

Over the course of a few weeks, I will outline my reasons why I think MCHX will decline. In my opinion, it is a combination of the 10 points below. I will try to blog about each of these in turn.

  1. Low Organic Revenue Growth – 7% pro-forma revenue growth from Q1 to Q3 that has been masked by acquisitions

  2. 50+ P/FCF ratio (on a run-rate basis) is absurdly high 

  3. Enhance and GoClick (search syndication) are deteriorating low-margin businesses likely struggling with traffic quality problems and a lack of scale

  4. Most tier two search stocks have stumbled (LOOKD, MIVA, INCX, INSP) and the majority of MCHX’s business is very similar to these players

  5. MCHX is stretched too thin across too many products with no real synergy

  6. TrafficLeader is a former SEM/SEO leader likely struggling with conflicts of interest

  7. Direct Navigation is a slow growth business vulnerable to changes in behavior and technology

  8. Wacky corporate structure has two tiers of stock and preferred shares. For a company with less than $100 million in revenue?

  9. Marchex is pursuing low quality traffic through irrelevant traffic arbitrageMore details here.
  10. Bubble-era accounting does not take into acquisitions into account

I own puts on MCHX stock.

NOTE: I edited this post on 12/6/05 to link to my recent posts. I aslo swapped out reason 9 (MCHX paying too much for acquisitions) with the current 9 (MCHX pursuing sketchy traffic).

Written by Kevin Berk

November 20, 2005 at 8:08 PM

Posted in Picks and Pans