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Commentary: Big is beautiful for AOL, but ad picture fuzzy

America Online (NYSE: AOL) checked in with its latest earnings and allayed some concerns about online advertising amid a dot-com cash crunch. All AOL told us, however, is that life is good sitting on top of the Web. The online ad picture is still a bit hazy, judging from smaller rivals.

Like Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) last week, AOL said life was grand at the top of the Web ratings. Big is clearly beautiful to AOL and Yahoo, which danced around the ad debate.

AOL zipped past Wall Street estimates in its fourth quarter Thursday, earning $334 million, or 13 cents a share, on sales of $1.9 billion.

In the quarter, advertising and commerce sales jumped 95 percent from the year-ago quarter to $609 million. That sum was ahead of most analysts' projections, but showed sequential growth of 9 percent. In the March quarter, ad growth topped 30 percent.

AOL officials said the 9 percent ad revenue growth is impressive considering the March quarter showed blowout gains. Indeed, worrying about the sequential ad growth is a bit nit-picky considering some analysts, such as Merrill Lynch's Henry Blodget, expected ad revenue to grow 7 percent.

CFO J. Michael Kelly also said most of the company's advertisers are large blue-chip companies and AOL is actively managing its backlog. "Despite the consolidation of the dot-coms, advertising revenue is continuing to accelerate," he said.

Kelly was singing a familiar refrain. Most Web execs say there are signs of an online ad slowdown for their companies. In fact, the dot-com shakeout is a healthy thing that will bring better advertisers to the table, these execs argue.

In June, NBCI (Nasdaq: NBCI) helped kick off worries about online advertising, when it issued a profit warning, revamped and partly blamed a dependence on cash-strapped dot-com advertisers for its problems.

So NBCI was looking for excuses and the online ad world is just fine, right? Not really.

With many of the top 20 properties reporting earnings in the last week, you can start to put together a picture of what advertising on the Web looks like for this quarter and next quarter. Ask Jeeves (Nasdaq: ASKJ) and NBCI could clear up the picture when they report earnings next week.

The picture still isn't clear. Here's the recap:

About.com (Nasdaq: BOUT) -- The company creamed Wall Street estimates and showed stellar growth in revenue and page views. Investors cheered the company's second quarter results on Thursday. But revenue per thousand page views (CPMs) fell sharply.

W. R. Hambrecht analyst Derek Brown, who is bullish on the stock, said About.com's reported yield was $12 a page view, down from $16 in the first quarter. Sitewide CPMs dipped from $60 to $50. "On the surface, the drop-off is alarming, particularly in light of concerns over a slowdown in the online ad market," said Brown.

Brown, however, said ad weakness played a role, but About.com also saw lower CPMs because its traffic jumped 80 percent and diluted the number. The company also started selling lower-CPM inventory from a few recently acquired companies.

DoubleClick (Nasdaq: DCLK) -- To its credit, DoubleClick didn't dance around the online ad concerns. It lowered revenue targets for the third quarter, but sees a rebound in the fourth quarter.

Advertisers' cost per thousand impressions (CPM) fell 7 percent to $3.68 in the second quarter from $3.96 in the first quarter. "As a result of rockiness in the online ad market, DoubleClick has gone from crushing consensus estimates to deeming them 'challenging,'" said Blodget.

DoubleClick is more of a "spot" advertising buy, and reacts more to online ad swings, he said.

Excite@Home (Nasdaq: ATHM) -- Lost amid concerns about broadband subscriber growth was Excite@Home's media revenue. Excite@Home is a top 10 Web property with Bluemountainarts.com and the Excite portal, but page views declined again with media revenue missing Merrill Lynch's target. It's unclear whether Excite@Home's narrowband properties are suffering from declining ad spending or neglect. It's probably a bit of both.

Go2Net (Nasdaq: GNET) -- The company acknowledged that the "concerns about online advertising are well-founded," but said the top 20 Web properties won't have a problem. Go2Net also noted that "less than 5 percent" of sales comes from "questionable dot-coms." Go2Net hinted that it saw some ad slowdown, but the company's e-commerce, subscription and licensing revenue streams almost make the worries moot.>