Our reflexive googling of scary health symptoms is a billion-dollar business for a private-equity giant

“It must be mumps…”
“It must be mumps…”
Image: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
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Diagnosis: Takeover.

Health information portal WebMD has sold itself to private equity group KKR, for $2.8 billion. That values the company’s shares near an all-time high since its listing in 2005, which is good going for a firm that tried and failed to sell itself in 2012, and often found itself under examination by activist investors—Carl Icahn and George Soros among them—looking to give it a shot in the arm.

“WebMD has a unique position at the convergence of two megatrends, digital commerce and health and wellness,” said David Silverman of Blue Harbour Group, one of the company’s biggest shareholders. In practice, this often means late-night searches about whether a rash could be a sign of flesh-eating bacteria or a sore throat is the early stages of bubonic plague. Those and other visits to the site generated more than 16 billion page views for WebMD last year. Some 80% of the company’s revenue comes from advertising.

Following its own counsel—always get professional advice before proceeding—WebMD chairman Martin Wygod said the company’s protracted sale process “involved outreach to more than 100 strategic and financial parties.” Under KKR’s ownership, WebMD will become part of Internet Brands, a holding company that spans a wide range of high-traffic consumer sites, from health-related properties like DentalPlans.com and VeinDirectory.org, to others like UltimateCoupons.com, MySummerCamps.com, and CorvetteForum.com.

The WebMD buyout was the 14th-largest private equity-backed deal of the year so far, according to Preqin.