Ask.com – a subsidiary of IAC/InterActiveCorp – closed its acquisition of Lexico Publishing Group last week. The 16-person company, which includes Dictionary.com, Reference.com and Thesaurus.com, reportedly went for $100m in cash, representing a multiple that we estimate at 10 times its trailing twelve-months revenue, or more than $6 per monthly unique visitor. This acquisition comes after a tumultuous ride for the profitable Lexico. The company was almost acquired by Answers Corp (Answers.com) in 2007, but after Answers failed to drum up proper financing, the deal turned sour. It was officially terminated in February, presenting an opening for Ask.com to swoop in. Besides being a happy ending for Lexico, which has been chasing an exit for a while, this fits well with Ask.com’s restructuring strategy of returning to its roots as an answer facilitator after its short but decidedly failed attempt to out-Google Google in the search engine department. Ask.com has openly said that more acquisitions are forthcoming. So who might the company buy next?
Among others, we see Answers.com itself as a potential acquisition target. Despite a growing base of about 20 million loyal users, the provider has had a tough time monetizing its page views and has been bleeding cash for more than a year now. Incorporating Answers.com’s user base and content could solidify Ask.com as the leader in the answer-search business. And with Amazon and Yahoo moving in on Ask.com’s turf, it is necessary for the company to continue to grow its market share. Indeed, we’ve heard industry rumors that Ask.com had made overtures to its rival well before the failed Lexico deal. And interestingly, Redpoint Ventures recently pumped $6m (with an option for another $7m) into Answers.com. That is the same Redpoint Ventures that helped fund Ask.com during its early days and that still has a stake in the IAC division. Ask.com’s former CEO Jim Lanzone also happens to be an entrepreneur-in-residence at Redpoint.
Surely the struggling company could be had for much less than the revenue multiple accorded to Lexico, which reported a healthy EBITDA of about $3m for calendar 2006, the last data made public. While the revenue multiple and price-per-user metrics of the Lexico deal would suggest a $100m-plus valuation for Answers, the company, which reported an operating loss of about $3.7m in the first quarter of this year, is clearly going to be valued at a steep discount. It’s currently trading at a 52-week low, with a market cap of just above $23m, or just a bit more than two times trailing revenue and a little over a dollar per user. With more than three times the number of employees as Lexico, Answers clearly has a much more labor-intensive model than its peer. That may change, though. Answers.com’s fast-growing new WikiAnswers.com service offers a lower-cost community-based answer site and is expected to exceed the more labor-intensive Answers.com service in revenue by the second half of 2008.
At a minimum, we estimate that Ask.com would have to shell out somewhere in the neighborhood of $30m, or roughly $3.80 per share, for the company – a 30% premium to the current price. It’s certainly not a question of whether IAC can afford the deal – it currently has a little more than $1.2bn in cash and a market cap of $4.7bn – but how much it could leverage the deal by cutting costs, monetizing the user base and expanding the WikiAnswers business. Indeed, for Answers.com, an acquisition by Ask.com may be just what the company and its desperate shareholders have been looking for.
On a final note, Ask.com’s new strategy of no longer trying to beat Google at its own game is in stark contrast to that of Microsoft, whose recent investments and acquisitions put it on a head-on collision course with Google. However, Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Powerset at least gives it technology that is capable (within Wikipedia, at least – it is yet to be tested publicly on a large corpus) of providing answers to both questions and keyword queries and could end up being a major challenge to the Q&A format Ask.com favors. That is, of course, if it doesn’t get lost in the mix if Microsoft should buy Yahoo’s search business.