Can LinkedIn Defeat Google and Facebook?

Since first going public in May 2011, LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD) has topped analysts’ expectations every quarter. This has set the bar fairly high for the company, which is scheduled to release its fourth-quarter results on Thursday after the stock markets close.

The professional networking company will essentially have to beat analysts’ forecasts for the seventh consecutive quarter in order to support its stock price. But with shares continuing to trade near their all-time high price of $127.45, which came in late January, investors appear confident that the company will post favorable results once again.

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Analysts at Piper Jaffray have high expectations from LinkedIn’s upcoming earnings as well. The firm initiated coverage on Tuesday with an “Overweight” rating and a price target of $150. It has its naysayers, of course, with analysts at TheStreet reiterating a sell rating on LinkedIn in a research note addressed to investors on Monday. However, a recent report from The Wall Street Journal indicates LinkedIn has a powerful growth driver.

A survey of 835 small-business owners conducted by the publication in conjunction with the business outreach organization Vistage International showed that LinkedIn is both the most used and most useful social media tool. Of the respondents, 41 percent said the service had the greatest potential to help their firms and 30 percent said they used it regularly. Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube was deemed to be the second-most useful tool, taking 16 percent of the votes. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) came next with 14 percent, followed by Google+ at 4 percent, and Twitter at 3 percent.

LinkedIn was singled out for its business-related services. Since 2008, the company has allowed small- and medium-sized companies to create free company pages and also has employees dedicated to helping these businesses boost their presence on the site. Having surpassed 200 million account holders this year, LinkedIn has unrivaled access to the business community, whereas other social media sites attract a much more varied range of users.

But with earnings on the horizon, analysts are a little concerned about LinkedIn’s ability to convince users to spend more time on its site and create more account holders, as these numbers influence how much advertising it can sell. Online advertising is an important revenue source for the company, along with its employer subscription sales and deals with job recruiters.

In the fourth quarter last year, LinkedIn earned $6.9 million, or 6 cents per share, on revenue of $168 million. For this quarter, analysts are expecting earnings to increase to 19 cents per share on revenue of $280 million, according to FactSet.

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