Moneysupermarket.com Group Plc (MONY), the U.K.’s largest price comparison website, is confident that fresh competition from Google Inc. (GOOG:US) won’t reduce profits even if it eats into sales, Chief Executive Officer Peter Plumb said.
Google started a credit-card price comparison website in March, prompting concern among analysts including David McCann at Numis Securities Ltd. that the owner of the world’s largest search engine could grab market share from Moneysupermarket by replacing it on popular searches.
Google’s new sites are included on the list of paid-for ads that appear at the top of its searches, though they aren’t yet competitive on the so-called organic lists that are based on customer popularity, Plumb said. And while transactions generated by clicks on Google’s paid-for ads accounted for 24 percent of Moneysupermarket’s sales in the first half of 2012, Plumb said the area was not a source of profit for the company.
“It doesn’t really matter to us because we have never made money out of that,” Plumb, 48, said in an interview in London ahead of a trading statement on Nov. 14. “All it would do is to reduce revenue in a zero-margin part of the business.”
Moneysupermarket, which aims to save U.K. households a combined 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) in 2012, reported unchanged first-half net income of 8.8 million pounds on July 26, based on a 15 percent rise in sales to 102 million pounds.
The Chester, England-based company boosted sales 19 percent from its money deals website, which covers credit cards, savings accounts and loans. It’s seeing a similar trend in vehicle insurance, Plumb said. Google also started a car insurance site in September this year, saying it could offer greater privacy and transparency than other price comparison sites.
Google opened a property search website in 2010 only to close it in January 2011. Now the Mountain View, California- based company is betting it can attract more sales from its high ranking on the list of paid-for ads than providers like Moneysupermarket had previously been paying for the slots, Plumb said.
Plumb also said he is convinced that Google, which is under investigation by the European Union over allegations that it promotes its own specialist search services over rivals, won’t alter its search algorithms to ensure it rises to the top of organic search lists ahead of Moneysupermarket due to the risk to its reputation.
“If they ever decided to take us all out, it would be a big corporate decision which I don’t think they will take,” Plumb said. “If they ever messed about with the search terms it would destroy trust.”
Not everyone is convinced that Google isn’t a threat to Moneysupermarket. Numis’s David McCann says investors should sell the U.K. firm’s stock in part because of that risk.
“The elephant in the room to the investment case remains Google,” McCann said in a note to clients after Moneysupermarket’s first-half results. On Nov. 9 he lowered his price prediction on the shares to 99 pence from 109 pence. The stock closed at 151.7 pence today, down 0.2 percent.
Google has the potential to disrupt Moneysupermarket’s growth significantly if it succeeds in diverting visitors from Moneysupermarket’s site to its own, McCann said. More than half of the company’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization comes via Google, he said.
Moneysupermarket shares have risen 44 percent this year, including an 8.4 percent gain in the past week, compared with a 12 percent year-to-date advance in the Bloomberg European Internet Index. (BEUNET) The company has a market value of 815 million pounds.
Plumb, a civil engineer by training, said expanding in Britain is his main priority even though Moneysupermarket is now in a position to consider similar operations overseas. The company agreed to buy MoneySavingExpert.com, an independent financial advice website founded by the broadcaster Martin Lewis, for as much as 87 million pounds in June.
“I don’t need to be outside the U.K.,” he said. “I would be very happy still being U.K.-based in three years’ time, still focused on our seven main channels and growing market share.”
Just 15 percent of savers switch bank accounts or open new ones each year and of those only 27 percent go online, according to data compiled by the company and GfK, a Nuremburg, Germany- based market research company.
Fewer than one in five energy consumers switch supplier or are new customers each year, and of those only 23 percent do so online. Similar data apply to credit cards and loans.
“There is a lot of opportunity for the company as it really starts getting focused on what it does well and be a business no one else can replicate,“ Plumb said.
Unlike rivals such as Gocompare, Comparethemarket and Uswitch, Moneysupermarket covers all the main price comparison areas, giving it a 50 percent market share in terms of visitor hits, according to a company presentation. Its business model is also different in that it only gets sales once a customer’s application is accepted rather than being paid per referral.
Plumb previously held executive roles at Walt Disney Co., PepsiCo Inc. (PEP:US) and James Dyson Ltd, before becoming chief executive of Moneysupermarket in February 2009.
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