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Aug. 4, 2016, 12:38 p.m.
Audience & Social

ESPN.com has finally replaced espn.go.com, and a newish SEO rule means it won’t lose Google juice

A remnant of the old portal days of the 1990s disappears as it becomes clear news sites won’t be penalized by Google for redirecting their traffic.

It isn’t quite our-long-national-nightmare-is-over level, but one of the significant daily reminders of the early web just disappeared. ESPN’s website, which had been hosted at espn.go.com since 1998, is finally now just at espn.com. Here’s ESPN’s EVP for digital and print John Kosner yesterday:

And ESPN CTO Aaron LaBerge:

“ESPN.com” has been the site’s branding all these years, even at espn.go.com’s launch:

espn-1998

And people have been tweeting complaints about how old-timey the situation seemed for, well, as long as there’s been a Twitter. These are all six years old or older:

For those with long memories, Go.com was launched in January 1999 — peak of the portal era — as a portal for Walt Disney Company-owned content, primarily from Disney, ESPN, and ABC News. It looked like this:

go-com-1999

Since ESPN was part of that family, its website was at espn.go.com.

Go.com didn’t last long; amid the dot-com bust, Disney announced it was shutting down as an independent site in January 2001. (Since it’s a valuable URL, it’s hosted a variety of search engines and things since then; it’s currently this weird Disney link list.)

But Go.com lived on in the browser address bars of millions of sports fans.

Even The Onion had fun with it:

BRISTOL, CT—In a merger of the two online sports news giants, top executives at ESPN.com announced Thursday that they have fully acquired and subsumed rival website ESPN.go.com. “The audience of ESPN.com and the audience of ESPN.go.com overlapped so much that this move made the most sense,” said ESPN.com vice president Kevin Jackson, explaining that fans will no longer have to check both websites for complete sports news coverage. “Obviously, getting the traffic that was going to ESPN.go.com is huge for us. But there’s also just a lot of mutual respect and admiration between our staff and the ESPN.go.com staff. We’re very excited to start working together.” With the blockbuster acquisition complete, ESPN.com will reportedly now set its sights on picking up one or both of www.espn.com and http://espn.com.

I reached out to ESPN PR to find out why the switch now, and I’ll update if I hear back. (Update: ESPN has gotten back to me and they say my theory is wrong! See their comment below.) But I think this theory could be part of it:

@methode is not the publisher CMS of that name but a Google webmaster trends analyst named Gary Illyes who tweeted this last week:

“30x” here isn’t “30 times” — it’s referring to the 300s class of HTTP status codes, like HTTP 301. (You’ve no doubt heard of HTTP 404.) A 301 is one way to direct one URL to another — like, say, an espn.go.com URL to an espn.com one.

301s have been around forever, but the received wisdom for years had been that using a 301 would get you penalized a bit in Google’s PageRank, the algorithm it uses to determine the search results you see. (The thinking, presumably, is that the new site you’re being redirected to could be something different than the one that earned the PageRank before.) Sites obviously don’t want to be penalized by their No. 1 or No. 2 source of traffic, so some held off.

Turns out that penalties for 30x redirects were eliminated some time ago, but as Search Engine Land notes, “there are many SEOs who simply do not believe Google.” Illyes’ tweet seems to have finally convinced people it was SEO-safe to do a 301 redirect.

And now, as it happens, espn.go.com is now returning a 301 HTTP status code.

espn-http-301

Now, of course it’s possible that this has been in the works for a long time, and ESPN’s tech team figured out the penalty had disappeared some time ago. But it’s also possible a random tweet from a Googler played a role, however small, in leading ESPN to finally rid itself of a relic of the 1990s.

[Update from ESPN: A network spokesman tells me that SEO, while a consideration in the switch, wasn’t the primary reason:

We relaunched ESPN.com last year, and have built a global digital platform for our sites and signature app, which we have rolled out multiple editions of them on in various markets (10 in total so far…including UK, India, Australia, Mexico, Argentina…)

One thing that happened as a part of that was that we implemented a new user registration system last year. That meant that aspect of the site was no longer connected into the Go domain anymore. So, as we looked to continue to update and clean up the code base of our sites as part of the continued evolution (following the relaunch) we could make this change.

It is true that SEO (generally) is certainly a consideration in doing something like this, and in the overall operations of our sites (we’ve been applying and evolving best practices for SEO for a long time and were aware of 301s for years). But that wasn’t the reason for this.

ESPN also, very reasonably, points out that this big of a chance was in the works long before a week-old tweet. Mea culpa. But for other publishers who might be in a similar situation, know that that SEO clarity now exists: You won’t be penalized by Google for a redirect.]

If you’re really feeling nostalgic for the earlier days of the web, ABC and ABC News are still at go.com domains.

Photo of ESPN studios by Ross Cidlowski used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 4, 2016, 12:38 p.m.
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