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Web-holding firm IAC promises continued search growth

By Alexei Oreskovic

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - IAC/InteractiveCorp's said that growth in its search business would slow from the "meteor ride" of the past two years, but it was confident of double-digit growth for the "foreseeable future."

Shares of IAC were unchanged at about $43 in after hours trading on Wednesday after the company reported a 28 percent increase in fourth-quarter revenue, slightly exceeding Wall Street targets.

Executives at the Web holding company sought to dispel concerns that industry changes were taking a toll on its search business, which includes the Ask.com website and accounts for roughly half of IAC's revenue.

"The growth rates will slow from the meteor ride we were on in 2011 and 2012, but we've been saying that would happen since the ride started," said IAC Chief Executive Greg Blatt on a conference call with analysts on Wednesday. "We're confident this segment should yield double-digit growth for the foreseeable future."

Shares of IAC have been under pressure, falling roughly 20 percent since October, on concerns that recent policy changes at Google Inc and consumers adoption of mobile devices would erode revenue in its search business.

Executives said the impact of changes to Google's search algorithm had not hurt traffic and monetization of IAC's online proprieties as drastically as some investors feared. And executives said the company saw significant opportunities to grow its business among users of smartphones and tablet PCs.

"They went to pains to clear up that confusion," said Jefferies & Co analyst Brian Fitzgerald. "The takeaway was Q1 is going to feel some impact from search changes but long-term the business is not going away."

The company for the first time provided a financial forecast, projecting that consolidated revenue and operating income before amortization in the first quarter would grow in the "strong double digits, high-teens range."

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S were looking for Q1 revenue of $775.1 million, which would represent a roughly 21 percent increase from the year before.

IAC has amassed a wide variety of online properties in the online search, dating and media markets. In September, IAC spent $300 million to acquire the About Group from the New York Times Co.

IAC incurred $11.5 million in charges in the fourth quarter, with $7 million of the charges related to IAC's decision to cease print publication of Newsweek Daily Beast and to make it an online-only publication.

Net income for the quarter ended December 31 was $40.7 million, or 43 cents per share, versus $48.8 million, or 53 cents per share in the year-ago period. Excluding certain items, IAC said it had EPS of 70 cents.

IAC Chairman Barry Diller said in response to a question during the conference call that spinning off any of the company's assets was always a possibility, but that there were no such plans at this time.

"We think the best configuration is a consolidated number of businesses that we think relate to each other," Diller said.

He said the company would continue to buy back stock opportunistically and to pay a dividend.

IAC's search business increased sales by 30 percent in the fourth-quarter to $403.6 million. Revenue in IAC's online dating segment rose 16 percent to $182.6 million.

Overall, IAC's revenue in the fourth quarter was $765.3 million, compared with $596.9 million in the year-ago period and above the $758.1 million expected by analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

(Reporting By Alexei Oreskovic; editing by Gunna Dickson and Bob Burgdorfer)

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