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Stubhub Buying Links From ESPN?

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 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:

Stubhub Buys Links

Here is an example of a game specific ticket link.


<a href=”” onclick=”this.href=this.href+’?gcid=C12289x459&amp;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.

  • Gary Tickifieds

    @mattcutts So how can @stubhub @espn get away with massive Webmaster Guideline violations?…— Tickifieds (@Tickifieds) August 28, 2012

  • Cory Howell

    I’m sure ESPN & StubHub have a business relationship that provides the former w/ a commission on any sales. This is not a paid link as you’ve classified it IMHO. It sucks because it’s a competitor, but they’re large enough to make partnerships w/ ESPN vs. paying for a link.

    • Gary Tickifieds

      I guess I am confused as to what a paid link is then. Surely, ESPN is getting well compensated for slathering their site with Stubhub links and the only reason not to add the ‘nofollow’ tag would be to manipulate the search engines.

  • Scott Baker

    This is common practice as I have noticed for a long time now. Buying links, friends with benefits or whatever you call it, it affects the site ranking unnaturally because there is money involved not matter how you slice it. Comeon, Matt Cutts knows this is but a microcosm of a bigger problem I suspect may be changing with the upcoming update. If not, more shame on Google for looking the other way while crimes are being committed against the corporate citizens of our/Google’s (un)fair world.

  • Chad Burgess

    You’re intentionally trolling right? Being in the industry, I can confirm this is a well publicized partnership. Also, SEO snitching is frowned upon…especially when you get it wrong.

    You’re sort of missing the fact that someone landing a business development deal with ESPN speaks volumes to the credibility or “authority” [1] of that site – in this case StubHub – and is completely different than someone “buying links”. Even though the links aren’t editorial or organic, it stills signifies trust and in such business partnerships GOOG doesn’t/shouldn’t have the power IMO to say that you have to impact your UI with a “sponsored link” notification, because that’s not actually what is going on, and hurts the user experience. You know how Google loves users…
    Also, it’s pretty easy for Google to see sitewide links on the same part of the page on every templated version of said page and realize something more is going on than just an editorial link.

    Anyway I let myself get trolled so no one else has to hopefully. Peace.

    1. Obviously you can’t just have your whole backlink profile from BD deals but it’s a nice addition

    EDIT: disclaimer or whatever, I work and do SEO for

    • Gary Tickifieds

      Not trolling, just apparently an idiot when it comes to SEO. Appreciate the comments – all I was looking to get is some explanation as to how ESPN could place followed links when it is clear Stubhub is advertising. Even after your explaination it still seems like a gray area to me…

      What is the difference between a “business development deal” involving followed links and someone simply selling/buying a link on any website? Both involving exchanging money for referral traffic and a backlink to help increase their search visibility. Any link worth paying for would be from a credible or authority site – why wouldn’t those links also signify “trust”? Any site with enough link juice to pass likely wouldn’t link to a shady site (e.g. porn or gambling) that wouldn’t benefit their users. To me it seems like the only difference is the term used. So what you are saying is that you can essentially buy links all you want if its considered a “business” deal, correct? Kinda like some of the sitewide SeatGeek links on some high profile sports sites. I assume some are business deals while others are not since some are followed while others aren’t?

      Not trying to be a snitch or anything but I have spent countless hours trying to figure out why Google has devalued my site. I’ve tried to find and clean up any links that may be viewed as paid or sponsored and I was pretty shocked to see the Stubhub-ESPN link scheme.

  • Erik Dafforn

    One question to consider here is whether Google views the HREF value as it’s written in the ESPN code, or whether it is appending the gcid value to the URL when determining the destination URL. Five years ago, it would be a foregone conclusion that Google would NOT take the JS code into consideration. But over the last few years, that’s become less clear (especially if you look at the crawl errors in your Webmaster Tools area to see some of the ways Google will create URLs to crawl based on JS code structures). If you click over to the StubHub page, you (as a user, assuming that JavaScript is enabled in your browser) will go to a URL with the gcid value appended to it. The important thing here is that StubHub HAS excluded all URLs that contain “gcid” via its robots.txt file. And exclusion of destination URLs via robots.txt is just as valid a way of excluding paid links as the “nofollow” attribute.

    To add another twist, looking closely at the StubHub robots.txt, it looks like they may need to change the line from
    Disallow: /?gcid
    Disallow: /*?gcid

    to catch all of those and exclude them properly. But IMO it looks like they’ve tried to account for it. What is unclear is exactly how Google is parsing those URLs. StubHub may technically be in the wrong here from a crawler perspective, but I think it’s premature to say that StubHub is openly flaunting its disregard of a Google rule for its own gain.

  • James Allen

    Usually speaking paid links are discounted, but not the entire backlink profile. Have you considered that even with their paid links discounted these companies may have millions of organic links stacked on top? The removal of value from their paid links may not even affect them. Without digging deeper, I can’t really see any evidence from this article that the rules are any different for ESPN/Stubhub as they are for anyone else.