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April 18 (Reuters) - Jefferies & Co upgraded Google (GOOG.O) to "buy" from "hold," saying the Internet leader showed impressive improvements in converting Web searchers into advertising viewers and delivered stellar quarterly results, defying economic headwinds.
Google's better-than-expected first-quarter results, which dispelled fears of an online advertising slump, also prompted analysts at Merrill Lynch, Oppenheimer, Lehman, RBC Capital and Citigroup to raise their price targets on one of the hottest technology stocks of 2007.
As the undisputed leader in the Internet space, Google is best-positioned to benefit from the secular shift of ad dollars online even while facing economic headwind, Jefferies analyst Youssef Squali said.
International revenue accounted for 51 percent of Google's first-quarter total revenue and surpassed U.S. revenue for the first time. Translating overseas sales into a weaker dollar helped boost Google revenue by nearly 4 percent.
Google's focus on international markets and the early stages of its penetration in many emerging markets lower the company's exposure to recession in the US, Jefferies said.
The Internet giant posted strong results even as Wall Street debated over whether recent comScore data showing Google having trouble converting Web searchers into advertising viewers was an indication its best days of growth are behind it.
Paid clicks, a measure of how often users of its Web search click on ads tied to search results, rose 4 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 and grew 20 percent from a year ago.
"We believe Google is operating well in a challenging environment and that the company's efforts to improve ads quality will pay off more over time despite the potential near-term hit to revenue," Lehman Brothers analyst Douglas Anmuth said.
Google's shares were up more than 18 percent at $532 in trading before the bell on Nasdaq. However, they are about 30 percent below their Nov 2007 highs of $747.24.
The following table gives a list of brokerages, their price targets and ratings on the technology stock:
BROKERAGE PRICE TARGET RATING
Jefferies $600 $600 Buy
Merrill Lynch $600 $580 --*
Lehman $620 $580 Overweight
Citigroup $630 $600 Buy*
RBC Capital $550 $530 Outperform
Oppenheimer $620 $600 Outperform*
* As reported by theflyonthewell.com (Reporting by Dhanya Skariachan in Bangalore; Editing by Anil D'Silva)