While doing some research on college football for a blog post, I visited ESPN’s College Football Scoreboard to see what games were scheduled for week 1 (see here). While there I noticed the page absolutely loaded with links to Stubhub. Not only does each game have “Ticket” link directing you to the appropriate page to purchase tickets for that game, but there is also a “Stubhub Ticket Center” with dynamically generated football links on the right sidebar.
I have visited ESPN hundreds of times over the years and never thought anything of this. I figured big deal, Stubhub probably has an enormous advertising budget and can afford to slather ESPN with advertising – something us small business owners could only dream of. However, I decided to take a closer look as I have been paying a lot more attention to search engine optimization after Google’s latest algorithm change (dubbed “Penguin“) put Tickifieds.com on life alert. What I noticed was rather shocking….none of the Stubhub links I examined were designated as purchased advertising links (typically noted by the rel=”nofollow” tag). Here is just one example of the HTML code used to link to Stubhub:
<a href=”http://www.stubhub.com/vanderbilt-football-tickets/” onclick=”this.href=this.href+’?gcid=C12289x459&keyword=Vanderbilt+Commodores+Football'” title=”Vanderbilt Commodores Football Tickets”>Tickets</a>
Notice that no where in the code does ESPN denote that this link is a paid advertisement. There is just the “onclick” tag that allows them to track clicked links. Google has made it extremely clear over the years that paid links that affect search results (i.e. followed links that pass PageRank) are a direct violation of their Webmaster Guidelines.
Anyone that has attempted to optimize their website for search engines to increase this online visibility knows that the name of the game is getting backlinks from trusted sources. Getting legitimate backlinks pointing to a commerical site from trusted sources is extremely difficult. That is, unless you have a massive budget and can buy links while the search engines like Google turn a blind eye.
So Google, and in particular Matt Cutts, my question to you is why are mega corporations like ESPN and Stubhub seemingly allowed to violate these Webmaster Guidelines on such a massive scale yet still dominated the organic results? Call it sour grapes but I am beginning to lose faith that Google really has any semblance of a level playing field.