Gaming ranks amongst some of the most competitive of online industries. In the UK alone, the online gambling industry is estimated to be worth around £2 Billion and still growing. With any online industry worth so much money, it’s inevitable that there will be lots of people competing for a piece of the pie, using every available tactic and channel to reach customers and bring revenue through their site. We took a peek inside the market to see exactly what techniques were currently being used and which ones appear to be effective…
Overall Visibility and Brands Vs Affiliates
The first area we looked at was overall visibility across a range of terms. An interesting trend immediately emerged. Whilst recognisable brands appear to dominate overall in terms of visibility, most of the queries we checked also included one or two affiliate sites in the top ten results. These affiliate sites ranged in value from informational and teaching sites to simple top ten sites.
Whilst affiliate sites are giving a good account for themselves overall, they don’t seem to have the weight to compete market-wide. They tend to only pop up in the occasional search result, usually focusing on winning in one specific niche. This is likely good business for solo domain owners but not substantial enough to build a business on.
By contrast, the big brands (who, ultimately, the affiliate sites are also sending their traffic to) tend to control visibility across a wide spectrum of short and long tail terms. In some cases they may specialise within a certain niche – some brands do better in sports betting terms versus casino terms for example – but overall they control more visibility than the affiliate sites.
What’s more, whilst some affiliate sites are ranking based on age and quality others tended to rank with more dubious and spammy techniques including:
- Domain names containing exact matches for queries (often very long domain names)
- Hidden links
- Heavy use of exact match anchor text in inbound links
- Exotic methods such as 302 Redirect exploits (more on this below)
Does Spam Work?
Looking at the results it is tempting to claim that spam is still a viable method for gaining visibility in gaming SERPs. Do a search for any of the big gambling terms and you’re likely to get at least a couple of results on the first page which are there thanks to brute force spam tactics.
And granted, these sites are probably making good money with their positions. However, when you look at a broad set of keywords or monitor these keywords over time it becomes clear that the success of these sites is generally temporary at best. A good case in point was the recent 302 redirect exploit spam spotted across a lot of short tail gaming SERPs.
This spam technique is actually very old (at least by search engine standards). In fact, Google declared this exploit ‘fixed’ several years ago, even although it still occasionally pops up again.
In essence a domain owner sets up a 302 redirect from their domain to another page on the internet. In the recent case of the domains spotted doing this in the online gaming SERPs, they were pointing multiple domains to Wikipedia pages related to the terms they were trying to rank for (eg. Online Poker, Online Casinos etc.). This tricks Google into transferring the ability for the target page to rank for a specific keyword over to the spammer’s domain. Once the domain is ranking, the owner can start sending traffic to an affiliate site or similar instead whilst still sending Google’s crawler to the fake page.
One or more spammers used this exploit earlier this year to dominate multiple positions across several high-value online gaming SERPs. It wasn’t particularly sophisticated – the domains where all named the same with different numbers after them (eg onlinepokersite001, onlinepokersite002, etc.) and it may have been somebody testing the technique to see if it still worked. Checking today, these have all been cleared out of the SERPs, so whilst it may have been an effective temporary way to spam their way into high-value search results, it’s not something that a business is likely to build a long term marketing model around.
So How Are The Big Brands Doing It?
When we started to dive into the big brands, we honestly expected to see more grey hat SEO than we did. Generally with high rewards SERPs like gambling, you see a lot of high risk strategies being used, even amongst the big brands. If nothing else, you expect to see legacy issues with link building techniques that were once consider perfectly legitimate and are now classified as spam.
However, it’s not nearly as bad as you might expect. Reviewing the backlinks of ten of the top online gaming sites in terms of visibility shows a surprising amount of restraint on the part of these brands and the agencies working for them. Brand terms and natural anchor text far outweigh money terms from links pointing to these sites and, of course, being pretty major UK companies, they tend to have a lot of powerful links pointing to them from major media outlets and similar.
The link spam is still there, certainly. A trawl through the backlinks for these sites turns up the usual suspects including directory spam and paid links but this is mild in comparison to some of the less legitimate affiliate sites they are competing with. As they are brands there’s more to the picture than just their backlinks and we need to look at their full multichannel marketing strategies to really start to understand how they are succeeding in the online gambling arena.
One of the main sources of links for these brands is affiliate sites. After the main home pages and landing pages, affiliate URLs are some of the most linked to URLs across all the big brand domains. These links are generally passed through redirects and so should not be directly contributing to rankings, however it is likely that affiliates do represent a large chunk of incoming business for gaming brands.
As such – as the affiliates are essentially making their money by passing business to the brands who actually provide the end product – it’s worth noting that even whilst the brands may be competing with the affiliates for visibility in the SERPs, they still benefit directly from the affiliates who do succeed in ranking. The affiliates in turn, are going to promote the brands most heavily who they can make the most money off. This doesn’t necessarily equate to the brand paying out the best commissions – smart affiliates are also going to be taking into consideration how likely a referral is to convert. Logically, the brands who are going to get promoted most on the affiliate sites then are those who not only pay out a good commission but also those whose sites are well optimised for conversions and who are brands that the end consumer will trust with their money.
All of the top brands we looked at had an active social media presence. Most of them had at least one twitter and Facebook account. These are predominantly used to promote offers and services as well as responding to customers and launching competitions however several of the brands have also found more interesting uses for them.
If there’s a competitive element to their services – such as sports or poker tournaments – then they often run commentary on relevant events and fixtures. Some of the brands have taken this one step further and have commentators specialising in specific events with their own branded twitter accounts as well as different accounts dedicated to different sports and types of gambling.
This is an interesting approach to segmenting their markets. For example, it acknowledges that fans of horse racing may not be fans of football. Likewise, poker players are a very different market from bingo players. Having different accounts under the same brand dedicated to these different markets allows them to create highly targeted messaging and provide updates relevant to their respective followers without inundating them with irrelevant messaging.
Novel Marketing Strategies
There are definitely indications of smart marketing going on to help generate buzz around these brands. Here are some of the notable things we saw while exploring their backgrounds:
Some online gaming sites have started to accept Bitcoins as a method of payment. This made for a nice bit of publicity, especially with the general interest around Bitcoins in the mainstream press at the moment.
Celebrity endorsements is nothing new for big brands, but what was interesting was how some of these brands were bringing this affiliation online. For example, having their brand on the celebrity’s Twitter account so fans of the celebrity were also being exposed to the gaming brand.
Integrating Twitter Into Games
At least one site we looked at was using Twitter as a method for signing up to online poker tournaments. Tweeting a specific message reserves a place for the player and gives them an initial pot for free.
In The News
As big brands it is inevitable that they will be the subject of press coverage. The brands with an older, offline presence generally have more press coverage than the others but all of the brands were managing to obtain a variety of coverage in online press. The sources of coverage are interesting to note and include:
- Financial and business news reports on profits/losses etc.
- Publicity stunts including newsjacking and giving odds on topical news stories
- Industry news reports on deals, technology etc.
- Brand mentions in sporting news due to sponsorship of cups and events
Putting It All Together
Whilst the big brands are doing well overall in search, they are also taking advantage of a good mix of other channels for online marketing, ensuring that their traffic isn’t dependant solely on organic. Meanwhile we can assume that this is also feeding back into organic to ensure that they retain strong positions in search.
The indication then is that there’s a clear case for promoting strategies in this market which focus on building a reputable brand which earns legitimate coverage with a site built around solid SEO architecture and good content. This may not push your site up to the top spot for ‘online casino’ searches in under month, but it will give you better long term results across a wider range of keywords and referral traffic.
Whilst some affiliates are clearly taking their piece of the action, as ever with gambling it seems that the house, ultimately, always wins.