What do CNET Networks (NASDAQ:CNET), swamp water, and a football fumble pile have in common? Well, in all of those cases, you can't see much more than what's on top.

Last night, CNET reported a third-quarter report that ran skimpy on the nitty-gritty line items like expenses and the eventual bottom line. Technically, of course, we can't call it an earnings report, even if the limited report was expected. Until the company completes the massive undertaking of auditing results stemming from the options backdating scandal, it is going to be restricted until its past financials are restated.

That doesn't mean that we can't dissect what we're getting. In fact, even though I'm not much for financial reports that don veils, I like what little CNET is revealing these days.

The numbers we know
For the September quarter, revenues rose 13% higher to hit $92.8 million. The spurt happened despite a 13% decline in page views. It's a mixed bag, of course. Less traffic isn't good, yet milking more out of every page served is the key to building an online brand.

However, just as we have seen over the past few quarters, the reason page views fell during the quarter is that traffic declined at Webshots.com. The photo-sharing site has seen sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Yahoo!'s (NASDAQ:YHOO) Flickr take over as the new snapshot darlings.

A recent makeover at the site may help. I was impressed with the navigational improvement at Webshots after the late-summer redesign. Some welcome features, like more thumbnail previews per page, may reduce the number of pages served, but they make the site more useful. Perhaps the best feature of the new Webshots -- beyond the promise that video uploads are forthcoming, in an attempt to possibly take on YouTube -- is that the snapshots are divided into several categories. That may be neat for the user who's search-box shy, but it's an even better deal for advertisers. Now a company like Webshots sponsor Purina can target the category for pets to make the best use of its ad budget.

Adding up the ads
CNET works for advertisers; 96% of the top sponsors from the second quarter returned in the third quarter. Obviously, they're not going to let a little backdating scandal get in the way of reaching a relevant audience. A gamer looking for some Call of Duty tips on Gamespot or an adware-bitten user looking for an appropriate adware zapper on Download.com isn't going to care that CNET's former executives dated options at more attractive price points in the past.

Most would agree that the two things holding back CNET's stock these days are the backdating stigma and ad spending weakness in its technology and video game strongholds. Those seem to be temporary maladies. The latter should be resolved in a matter of months once the Sony PS3, Nintendo's Wii, and Windows Vista hit retailers and related providers have something to market again.

Yes, playing games with stock options is vile to shareholders, but those with dirty hands have stepped down and even voluntarily agreed to have their errant options repriced. If that plays itself out, the financial statements may look a little neater, with either a reduction in fully diluted shares outstanding or a healthier balance sheet.

The inability to file audited reports due to the options scandal has had its share of collateral damage. The shares took a hit last week when the majority of holders of the $125 million worth of convertible bonds began taking steps to redeem their securities at par value. They have that right under certain filing defaults. It's not the ideal way to clean up your balance sheet, but the company has enough greenery on its balance sheet to cover the redemption process.

Another thorn in CNET's side over the lack of financial reporting: Being in default opens the company up to being delisted by Nasdaq. Even if this is a temporary sting, few companies want to go through life with a five-letter ticker symbol.

Reasons to be grateful
One knock on CNET that I've seen lately in the Rule Breakers newsletter discussion board, as well as on the new Motley Fool CAPS service, is that the company is too big for its own good. Its CNET, News.com, and TechRepublic.com once broke major tech stories, but now that task is falling to individuals running industry-respected blogs like TechCrunch and GigaOm.

I have nothing against that argument, but it does forget that there is power in girth, too. CNET has great video-production facilities -- check out CNETTV.com for a spell -- which gives it the ability to "hit 'em where they ain't," as baseball legend Wee Willie Keeler used to say.

Web 2.0 has made being small and nimble so desirable, but we can't forget about the economies of being gigantic. Have you seen Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) lately? The retailer's online store is now featuring CNET reviews on many of its sale items. When Gamespot launched a Gamespot After Hours event that featured live music, gameplay, and PS3 previews, it drew an in-studio audience 1,500 strong, with 130,000 others participating online. When TV.com was granted exclusive access at the Emmy Awards to make them a more interactive experience, the site was drawing 600,000 unique visitors a day.

As it stands, CNET is serving up 86 million daily page views and attracting 125 million unique visitors every month.

It has all the right relationships; speedy bellwether Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is a lucrative partner that now accounts for 10% of its total revenue. I don't think CNET will ever shake buyout speculation, so I might as well claim that the upheaval at the helm and Google's role as a prominent ad server opens up CNET to buyout offers from Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) MSN.com.

This doesn't mean that anyone should approach an investment in CNET as a takeover situation. It's a short-term bonus if it happens, but the company keeps doing what it takes to grow as it claws its way out of the unfortunate options scandal.

Yes, CNET is still growing organically. It also retains its appetite for buyouts of its own. CNET's recent acquisitions have had an international flavor, such as Arts-Culinaires.com -- a recipe site in France -- and Chinese car-buying site Xcar. The company is growing faster overseas at this point.

Growth will continue. The company is still looking to grow its top line from 5% to 14% for the current quarter and from 12% to 15% for all of 2006. One can argue that you should never buy into a company that keeps its income statement under a veil, but in reality, we know that CNET has many prolific puzzle pieces in its dot-com portfolio. And it's hard to imagine what hasn't been discounted in a share price that has been nearly cut in half since peaking earlier this year.

CNET has been a challenging Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection, but I've seen dark clouds before. Viewed from the top, the clouds look stormy and uninviting, but eventually they clear. That's when you can finally see the bottom. In theory, it would all be downhill from there.

CNET is an active recommendation in theRule Breakersgrowth stock newsletter service. Best Buy and Yahoo! have been singled out toStock Advisorreaders. Microsoft is anInside Valuepick.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of CNET who finds himself hooked on watching CNETTV and resorting to Chowhound for area eatery reviews. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.The Fool has a disclosure policy.