Charles Rex Arbogast, File, Associated Press
FILE - In this Sept. 22, 2012 file photo, the Groupon logo is displayed inside the online coupon company's offices, in Chicago. Groupon Inc., reports quarterly financial earnings Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012, after the market close.

NEW YORK — Groupon investors were expecting a better deal than the surprise loss the company delivered on Wednesday.

The online deals site, reporting for the first time as a public company, said its fourth-quarter revenue nearly tripled, but it lost money and its shares fell sharply after hours.

Groupon Inc., which went public in November, makes money by taking a cut from the online deals it offers on a variety of goods and services, such as restaurant meals, manicures and weekend getaways. Investors are watching whether this business model is sustainable and leads to growth over the long term — and whether the company can not only grow its customer base but make more from each subscriber.

Groupon's net loss totaled $42.7 million, or 8 cents per share, for the final three months of 2011. A year earlier, as a private company, it booked a larger loss of $378.6 million, or $1.08 per share.

The company said its adjusted loss was 2 cents per share in the latest quarter. On this basis, analysts were expecting a profit of 3 cents per share, according to FactSet.

Groupon said an unusually high international tax rate hurt the quarter's adjusted results.

Groupon's revenue was $506.5 million, nearly triple the $172.2 million it reported for last year's fourth quarter. Analysts, on average, had expected lower revenue $473.1 million, according to FactSet.

For the current quarter Groupon expects revenue of $510 million to $550 million. Analysts are forecasting $501 million.

CEO Andrew Mason called 2011 a "phenomenal growth year" for Groupon. But he stressed that the company wants to keep expanding and that will require continuing investment in technology.

"While Groupon is the clear market leader in online local commerce, we estimate that we still participate in less than 1 percent of total local transactions," Mason said.

Groupon had 33 million active customers at the end of the quarter, nearly four times as many as a year earlier. It defines active customers as those who have purchased a Groupon in the previous 12 months.

Customers spent $1.25 billion on all the Groupons the company sold in the quarter. That "gross billings" figure doesn't include taxes or account for the money the company paid to merchants.

Benchmark analyst Clayton Moran called the sharp share price drop unwarranted, though he noted that the stock has been "volatile, hotly debated" and "somewhat controversial" since its IPO. Nonetheless, he said Groupon's first quarter as a public company was impressive and strong where it counts, notably revenue and other key metrics.

Chicago-based Groupon's stock tumbled $3.59, or 14.6 percent, to $20.99 in after-hours trading. The stock, which closed at $24.58 on Wednesday, has traded in the range of $14.85 to $31.14 since pricing at $20 ahead of its initial public offering on Nov. 4.