BBC Sport defends itself against accusations of selling paid SEO links on BBC Online

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 9 February 2011

There has been a bit of a storm in a teacup this week over whether the BBC is selling links on BBC Online, prompted by this blog post from Sam Rutley. Lewis Wiltshire, Editor of the BBC Sport site, has utterly refuted the claims.

In reply to Lewis, Sam says that "it was not my intention to accuse the BBC of selling links, just to provoke a discussion". Yet his original blog post unequivocally stated in paragraph one "it appears that the BBC/someone at the BBC is selling links in the footer of this page".

What interests me here is the immediate leap to assume that any bad, out-dated or inappropriate links on a massive editorial site must be there because of a commercial transaction.

This isn't the first time this kind of accusation has been leveled at news sites. The Telegraph has been accused of selling links, and the Guardian has been criticised for applying "nofollow" to links in comments, and criticised for not automatically applying "nofollow" in other instances. I recall, although regrettably I can't source it, the BBC being accused of including affiliate links thanks to a cut'n'paste error, but I can source it being told that it was "greedy" not to pass on PageRank to external links.

There is one common thread here though - all these accusations or claims come about because of the link economy that Google established with PageRank. As I've stated before, personally I stick to "dofollow" on this blog because, even though it gives me a comment moderation headache, setting rules to determine whether a link is "valuable" or not breaks the fundamental principles of hyperlinking.

A lot of people think that major news sites should link out more, and I agree that relevant editorially selected hyperlinks should be a vital part of any online news package. But I think that for anyone outside of SEO circles, it is hard to imagine how desirable links from authoritative domains are, or how commercially valuable they might be. For the average journalist or sub being urged to include external links in digital stories or story packages, their external SEO value and the precise wording of the anchor text is of little consequence - but for an SEO these are vital details.

The BBC is under more pressure than most, with its stated aim to both be impartial in the external links it includes, and strategic announcement that it plans double the number of click-throughs downstream from BBC Online to other websites by 2013. For the average SEO, it isn't just the traffic that is valuable, but the placement of the link itself.

3 Comments

I do believe there's some sort of a black market out there, can't confirm that it's the case of BBC, but I know of a lot of copywriters that do sell links under the table in their articles, which, again, because of Google is a valuable commodity.

I think your third paragraph is spot on - though regrettably it's a much wider trait to see people leap from "something's wrong" to "someone is doing evil".

Let's not forget that the BBC have also had a chequered past by 'fixing' their search engine results, so that a web search for "Virgin Radio" actually recommended the BBC Radio homepage, while a web search for "Classic FM" recommended... BBC Radio 3. (Martin's explanation here).

The leap from "something's wrong" to "someone's doing evil" is a natural feeling in this example if you worked for Virgin Radio at the time (I did), and the BBC were spending oodles of telly-tax-payers money promoting their search engine (they were). Indeed, I still don't quite believe Martin's explanation.

The amount of emails I get to Media UK from SEO huxters is really rather large, so I'd certainly believe that there's something fishy going on with some websites; though probably not the BBC's.

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