SEO in the iGaming: affiliates vs operators

In the iGaming world (or online gambling world, if you prefer), the B2C businesses are of two types: operators (casinos, sportsbooks, poker rooms, etc…), and affiliates (websites – or other properties like a Facebook page or a mobile app – that drive traffic toward the operators in exchange for a commission).

From an SEO point of view, affiliates and operators compete on search engines. What I’d like to point out in this simple article is about the main differences between the two, and try to help those going from one side of the fence to the other, highlighting where are the main challenges for them.

SEO is all about three different areas: technical, content and off-site (links), so I’m going to discuss each area for both affiliates and operators.

SEO for iGaming affiliates

For affiliate sites, organic traffic is by far the most important source. Sure, some use Google AdWords, and some others use social networks, but for the vast majority of affiliate businesses, Google is the traffic source (social profiles and apps work on different things to get visible, so they are out of scope).

By the way, please note I’d be happy to use “search engines” instead of “Google”, but, you know, the two terms are almost interchangeable…

Affiliates and technical SEO

Affiliate sites are usually optimised out-of-the-box from a technical SEO point of view because they are often content sites that rely on platforms like WordPress that are pretty good with it.

Of course, lately, some affiliates are evolving into something more complicated than that, for example with logged-in areas of the site, but still, technical SEO is usually easy, because there’s no need to complicate things.

What affiliates usually need to focus on are the two other areas of SEO: content and links.

Affiliates and SEO content

Content is vital for an affiliate site, and not just from an SEO point of view. Without useful, informative content, affiliate sites would have no reason to exist at all. For this reason, affiliates usually have good SEO content anyway: without good content, an affiliate site wouldn’t be bad just for SEO; it would be bad in absolute terms.

Affiliates and links

The hardest part for affiliates is off-site SEO.

Getting good links is hard in general; it’s harder in the iGaming; it’s even harder when a site is not a brand. Affiliate sites tick the boxes.

It can also be too expensive when the affiliate site starts as a side project of a single person because getting links costs money and time (and time is money).

The good news for affiliates, however, is that they are usually able to create any content they want and creating linkable content help them getting links more easily.

SEO for iGaming operators

Operators have other types of challenges. Here SEO is just another source of traffic, and never the most important (at launch, at least).

This is how it usually goes: a new casino gets developed, from the day of the launch all the traffic comes from affiliates who are offered a generous reward to promote the casino, and after a while, trying to diversify the traffic and reduce the costs in commissions, the decision of investing in SEO is finally taken.

But SEO is not a patchwork, and SEO should have been planned since the very beginning.

Operators and technical SEO

Sure, sometimes it’s easy to jump in and fix everything. It takes (a lot of) time, but step by step a site can be fully optimised.

Some other times, though (more and more often lately, with the explosion of technologies like Javascript web application frameworks), fixing a site is extremely challenging and, in the end, one has to choose between two alternatives: compromise on a not-really-optimised site or rebuild it from scratch.

In general, anyway, the big challenge for SEOs within iGaming operators is the same that most in-house SEOs in the world have: getting the priority.

Here, SEO competes with a lot of other things and, and if SEO is not the priority for the company, it will always be relegated to a suboptimal compromise.

And then operators are surprised when affiliates outrank them…

The hardest part for affiliates is technical SEO

Operators and SEO content

Content is a perfect example of conflict of priorities: marketing and UX might come to a good solution that will make both happy, but SEO often ends up with a sop like “you can add a line of text of the bottom of the page” or “we can put it hidden, but visitors can expand the text with a click”.

If SEO has no priority, content is going to be a problem. Not much a problem in having the content per se, but in having the content displayed effectively.

Operators and links

Off-site is possibly the easiest part of SEO with operators. At least, if they have enough budget to dedicate to this work. Off-site SEO is extremely time-consuming, but at least if there’s a budget it’s something that can be done without having to fight over priorities with others (well, except when it’s time to discuss the budget, of course!).

Mind, getting links is never easy, and getting good links is very hard, but with the right resources, it can be done efficiently.

Obviously, it’s always true that getting links to a site that has critical issues is like trying to fill with water a bucket full of holes.

So, fixing at least the main on-site SEO issues is vital anyway.

Authority Score is a new must-use metric for link builders

In the last years, every time I had to evaluate a site for link-related reasons (meaning, for any possible reason I had to look at the value of a website that could link to mine), I always performed few checks:

  • checked the website, obviously, to see what the site is about, how nice the design looks, how usable the site is (these things are important even if you just want a link because if design and usability are not there, you automatically know that the site is not made for real users);
  • checked the backlink metrics, like Majestic’s TrustFlow and CitationFlow, Ahrefs’s Domain Rating, etc;
  • checked the organic traffic / SEO visibility (using tools like SEMrush, Sistrix or Search Metrics), because a site that is ranking on Google is clearly a site with value in Google’s eyes… and so will be the links present in it.

SEMrush just launched a new metric called Authority Score that is going to help by cross-checking automatically backlinks and traffic:

This value is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, with the latter being the strongest, and is based on the following compound data provided by SEMrush:

  • Backlink data (including Domain Score, Trust Score, referring domains, follow and no follow links, and more)
  • Website traffic data
  • Organic search data (including organic search traffic and positions)

As usual, when introducing a new metric in your work, I don’t recommend to dump any other metric normally used… spend time adding this to your analysis and over time you will understand how to evaluate it and use it.

 

What SEO really is

SEO is easy

Since I started doing SEO at the end of 2004, I always thought (especially after having seen the first success cases, few months later) that SEO was (and still is) easy.

For several years, I thought that my strong technical background was my big advantage over the average SEO.

But if that was true, then why so many other SEOs with a strong technical background don’t find it that easy? Instead, they struggle with stress of performance, the fear of penalties, the doubts about different options, and the uncertainty of the next Google update. Many SEOs proceed with tactics and techniques, trying to force the algorithm, accepting the risk of penalties, happily before getting caught, sadly afterward.

And this happens with those who call themselves SEO.

What about the others? For example, those who just hear something here and there about SEO, but who don’t really understand it, who don’t really know what it is, who barely care. What about those who know that one day “Content is the king” and the day after “SEO is dead”? Or those who ask themselves (if they get to ask themselves questions at all!) “should I use the dash or the underscore in the URLs?”, “how many times should I repeat this keyword in this text?”, “do I put more keywords in the title?” or “how long should this text be?”, like the complexity of a search engine like Google can be faced with this kind of questions… What about those who are just lost, those that SEO is all about content marketing; or all about buying links. Maybe SEO is just spam.

Or, even worse, black magic.

This is a very common perception of what SEO is.

Then, why did I always find SEO very straightforward? Why something complicated for others was so easy for me? Now I know it’s because of my different approach. An approach that turns inside out even the definition of SEO itself, an approach that requires a rigorous attention to the details and the mind focused on the big picture, an approach that starts from ignoring the most used metrics and tactics.

Change perspective

Forget keywords. Forget ranking. Forget links.

Don’t look at Google like the enemy to fight; look at Google like a judge who evaluates the quality of a website; more, the quality of the whole business. And look at SEO as a guideline on how to do the right thing the right way.

Pretend it’s not about search engines. After all, SEO is optimization on every level, from server and network to users and conversions.

SEO is optimization of every single aspect of an online business, and every single department within the company can have an impact on SEO:

  • Marketing (brand, social, country)
  • Affiliates
  • UX
  • System and network administration
  • Web developers
  • Finance
  • Customer support

SEO is optimization of every single thing, because every single thing can have an impact on the ranking on search engines.

Don’t consider it a marketing channel. It’s not a competition with other channels. It’s about improving the whole business.

  • It’s about improving usability of a website.
  • It’s about improving speed of a website.
  • It’s about improving trust of a website.
  • It’s about improving recognition of a website.

Keep SEO in mind when doing your own job. That way you can contribute to SEO success; that way SEO success will be also your success!

There’s nothing done for search engines only. Saying something is done for search engines actually means that something is done in a better way.

What SEO really is

SEO is about doing the right thing the right way.

With 12 billion searches per month, Google knows quite well what its users want and what makes a site good or bad.

So, take SEO as a guideline on what to do, and how to do it. Ranking will just naturally follow, once the right thing is done the right way.

Basically, you should always chase perfection. And who decides if something is right is, in the end, the final user. To chase perfection, you should start by following the best practices, and then you should improve your work by analysing its results. It’s an ongoing process that involves every single element, of a website and of a business.

When this result is achieved, search engines will reflect this achievement by ranking the website accordingly.

You do SEO

You need to understand how your work impacts SEO. Because, like it or not, your work is already doing that, because everything done on a website can potentially lead to a change of evaluation of the website by a search engine.

Be curious. You really need to have your mind on SEO effects all the time, because they do happen all the time!

Ask yourself how your work has an impact on SEO, and find out how you can improve them both, your work and its impact. Start from a search on Google. If you can’t see how your work can have an impact on SEO, keep on trying. I assure you your work has an impact on (at least) one of these three big pillars of SEO: technical, content, popularity.

The three pillars of SEO

The technical SEO is about things like accessibility, indexability, site speed, usability, structured data.

The content side has today evolved into what is called content marketing. However, before content marketing, it’s important to remember the basic features of a good content (uniqueness, usefulness, attractiveness) and the right use of every element (title, meta description, alt attribute, canonical).

There is then the popularity of a website. This important part of SEO is mostly about links. Links are seen like votes by Google, so you want to get more links. It’s important to understand that even just a good customer support experience can potentially lead to a link, so doing it right is important.

Yes, a customer support agent can have a big impact on SEO. Still thinking if your job can really have an impact on SEO?

The ultimate goal

The real goal of SEO is to improve the visibility of a website on search engines by deserving that visibility.

To deserve maximum visibility, a site has to be the best. SEO is business optimization and growth, because it involves the improvement of the product.

6 examples where SEO and usability are the very same thing

If I had to kittens, I'd call them Search and User

I already explained why SEO and web usability go hand in hand. Let’s see some example where this happens. You will quickly realize like every big on-site SEO element is also, mainly, sometimes solely, a usability element.

Title tags

Considered the most important single SEO tag in a page, the title tag is indeed very important.

How a title tag should be written to be good for SEO? It should be unique, short, meaningful. And when you have a title good for SEO, what else you have? A title good for users. Think of a SERP, where the title is shown as the biggest part of the snippet. If the title is unique, short and meaningful, it will be able to tell the users immediately what the page is about.

By the way, the SERP is also a perfect point of contact between SEO and usability.

But even in a different context, far from a search engine, a title is still very useful for a user. Think of the tabs in your browser, think how it is when you have 5 tabs open. How do you know what each tab is about? Just read the tab. It’s in fact showing the title tag.

URLs

Historically, search engines proved to have troubles to clearly understand URLs full of parameters (you know, those URLs full of ? = and &…). So, making these dynamic URLs static was a good idea from a SEO point of view. Transforming a URL from something like /?id=1&cat=2&tag=3 to /1/2/3 was such a big improvement for SE and users that it was a no-brainer. But adding keywords to the URL was even better, because a URL is still supposed to be seen by the users somewhere (and SEOs found another thing to stuff with keywords, woohoo!).

Truth is, for the search engines, URLs are friendly once they can be processed and understood correctly: when they are static. Adding keywords was believed to be an advantage from an SEO point of view, mainly because of this common misconception that keywords must be everywhere. Nonetheless, keywords in the URLs are still a good thing to use (as long as the URL doesn’t become too long), if URL is built the right way. A good URL is static, unique, short, meaningful, consistent and follow a hierarchical structure.

Anchor texts

The anchor text has been so much abused by SEOs that it’s now one of the first signals that can trigger a Penguin penalty. But why Google decided it was worth to consider the anchor text of a link? Because an anchor text says (or, at least, should!) what the destination page is about. It says that to the search engine like it says  that to the user.

Redirects (301)

Imagine you are browsing the web. Maybe you are reading an article. At a certain point, in the page, you see a link you want to follow. You click on it and… not found! User experience ruined before it even started…

Or imagine that, when you click the link, you get redirected to the homepage. Would you feel lost? I know I would!

But user experience can be preserved, if resources are moved from a URL to another.

What is the correct way to handle a change of URL for a resource? The server side redirect.

SEOs know redirects very well, everyone else tends to forget it (or, even worse, to decide not to care about it). That’s because redirects are useful for SEO, they let you keep the value of a link pointing to a resource that is going to be moved to a new URL. Redirects let you preserve the link juice, so they must be good for SEO. But they are also very very good for users, because users won’t experience the kind of user journeys I used as example: a 404 page or an irrelevant redirect.

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are useful for users, who can find out where in the website they are. And so does Google. Breadcrumbs help Google understand the structure of the site and the content. I can’t even tell if breadcrumbs are more important for users or for search engines. The fantastic truth is that it doesn’t matter!

Custom 404 page

This one has really nothing to do with SEO. Afterall, once Google sees the status code 404, it doesn’t even bother to check the content of the page. If it’s 404, it doesn’t exist. Simple as that.

However, this is something that often an SEO will be asked about. But it’s clearly a usability question, not a SEO question.

 

I could go on and on with this list, but I think these six examples should be enough to understand why SEO and usability overlap so much and so well. So much and so well that in many cases SEO and usability are in fact the very same thing.

Usability vs SEO: the big misunderstanding

Dilemma

When working in big companies, where every person has his own speciality, many conflicts can happen. Social media, SEO, UX designer, developer, content manager: everyone has his own reasons, and it seems impossible to reconcile every request. The consequence is a less than optimal compromise.

As SEO, I too often hear statements like “I understand you need this for SEO purposes, but we can’t do it because it would be bad for usability”. A big misunderstanding.

No, it’s not what you are thinking: we are not talking about keyword stuffing all over the page (that shit stuff stopped working before I started studying SEO in 2004 – 10 years ago…).

And every time I hear that, I can hardly keep calm, because it’s immediately clear to me that the other person is totally missing the point. And I’m not referring just to the specific SEO request; I’m talking about completely missing what Google wants. Because in the end, doing SEO is a lot about understanding what Google wants. And what is it?

Google wants to make his users happy.

Once you understand this, deeply understand this, the question “usability or SEO?” becomes suddenly meaningless. SEO and usability have the same goal!

This very simple truth has a huge consequence: the conflict between the SEO guy and the UX guy becomes a joint effort to find the best way to implement some improvement. Not anymore a less than optimal compromise, but a possibly new best practice to experiment.

Unless the SEO guy and/or the UX guy are not good at their job, of course.

By the way, there’s an interesting 2 years old article by Jakob Nielsen about SEO and Usability, and the few possible conflicts he mentions there aren’t in fact an issue, if the SEO guy really knows his job.

SEO and web usability go hand in hand.

If a solution is not good for both sides, chances are that the solution is not good for any side!

In that case, please reconsider your options.

2 books that have made me a better SEO

Like everyone else, I wasn’t born SEO.

DNS&BindHowever, when I first started doing SEO in 2004, I had a solid understanding of how Internet works. In fact, at that time I was more a system/network administrator.

I knew many things, but surely I didn’t know that knowledge would have helped me to become a better SEO.

I didn’t even know what SEO was, I think.

But still, I was learning it. The two books are:

  1. TCP/IP Illustrated Vol. 1
  2. DNS&Bind

I know, it seems unnecessary to study the basics of Internet. However, still today I happen to answer to SEO questions using the knowledge I got from these two books.

Also, I’m not saying that without this knowledge you can’t be a SEO.

Afterall, I’m not your average SEO.

Celebrity Website SEO Audit

Celebrity Website Audit Yesterday I was following (“participating” would be too much for someone who doesn’t say a word, right?) the Celebrity Website SEO Audit, a Google Hangout organized by Dejan SEO.

I don’t know if it was the spam attack to Spamhaus, a too slow internet connection here in Malta or just that sometimes I’m not very patient, but after about 10/15 minutes I decided to give up trying to follow the SEO audit.

However, in the few minutes I followed, I could get a bit of what I was actually trying to get, which is, basically, how other SEOs would conduct a quick SEO audit, what they would look for first, and so. Because it’s always good to compare your way to do things with others.

And what I could see is that there are not big differences. I didn’t expect to find them, but you never know.

However, to apologize with Dan and all the others, I would like to point out 3 issues I found on LadyGaga.com, the first website audited yesterday. I apologize again if any of these issues has been already pointed out yesterday, but again I had 5 minutes of connection problems, and then quit, so I might have missed it.

  • The first issue I saw is the link on the logo, which links to /Default.aspx instead of /. There’s not even a rel=”canonical” saying search engines / and Default.aspx are the same. Yes, I know: if you search for the Default.aspx page, you don’t find it on Google, so one might ask why bother?  Mmm
  • Performance can be improved, just by adding a max-age or expires headers to a lot of static content or by combining CSS and javascript files.
  • All the events could use Event Schema

These are my 2 cents. Hopefully, next time I will be able to properly participate, also because SEO audits are something I really like to do.

Link building in the gambling industry

After the Penguin update, the SEO community talked a lot about unnatural links. Most of the times, the links that look unnatural are also purchased links.

This is true because SEOs focused so much on the anchor text of the links they could get from other websites they forgot one of the great rules of SEO: if you are making something unnatural, make it look natural.

The panic is at such levels that many SEOs started contacting the link vendors to ask them to shut down the links.

Ah, if only all those SEOs didn’t spend time forcing things that much… But ok, not everybody is meant to be a great SEO…

So, penalization after penalization, people is learning the importance of getting links with the most stupid anchor texts… Better late than never!

But is Google really penalizing every website buying links? Clearly no! First of all, it would be absolutely impossible for Google to know, for every link, which link is purchased and which link is spontaneous. They can just guess.

I work in a weird industry: gambling. Gambling is usually considered a very competitive niche. Yes, it is, but SEO in this industry is also really primitive. So, i wouldn’t say it’s that competitive! In the short term, sure it is… But basically every website is violating Google’s guidelines, so it’s reasonable to expect that one day they will be just wiped out.

If someone today wants to work purely in white hat mode, they won’t rank in short term, but they might be one of the best websites in the long term.

It’s funny, however, one aspect of the story: many of the online casinos buy unnecessary links. They just have a big budget and they buy all they can get.

SEO in the gambling is hard? Well, most of the times, a SEO in this industry just contact/is contacted, ask for a price, get quotes for every website (quote that varies depending on Pagerank! In 2012!), and choose a anchor text and a destination page to link to. Hard work!

This is the very competitive SEO in the gambling industry!

LOL

Even those companies that say “we don’t do that, come on” work this way. An example? This is just a little piece taken from a job description from one of the biggest betting companies when it was looking for a SEO Manager more than a year ago:

Would you expect to receive an offer of 10€ for a post with two backlinks from the same company? Well, what can i say… they don’t buy links. They beg for them!

But… is there any other way to acquire links, for a gambling website? I mean, apart from buying or exchanging links, what else a SEO working in this industry can do? It’s not all our fault. After all, who would naturally link a gaming website?

50% of webmasters wouldn’t do it at any cost; the other 50% would do it only for money. So, there’s no room for free links in this industry.

Unless you are creative. Unless you do something worth a link. Unless you deserve it.

But even doing so, you are still fighting against competitors that spend many thousands of dollars in links. If Google decided (and actually could) to ban all the websites buying links, today we’d likely have this SERP when searching for online casino:

SERP for the keyword "online casino" if Google banned websites that buy links

(click on the pic)

 

The irrational fear of high bounce rate

Watching a video from a Whiteboard Friday on SEOmoz, 10 Myths That Scare SEOs But Shouldn’t, i got stuck for a bit on the 5th myth listed by Rand about a high bounce rate.

Because yes, many SEOs are really afraid of that, they are afraid that Google can see that data and use it against the website.

The point is: this makes no sense. Users search for an information on search engines, they click on a result, they find the answer… and they leave. Happy.

What’s wrong with this behavior? Nothing! Why should a SEO be worried about the bounce rate then? No reason.

Rand correctly uses the example of a Q&A website. I go further: if you go on Google, search for something, and leave Google without coming back for more results, doesn’t it mean Google actually provided you with a good result?

Ok, technically speaking, searching for a key-phrase and clicking on a result doesn’t increase a bounce rate, since you are visiting two pages, not just one. But still, the time spent on Google is short. The shorter, the better.

You should be worry about the short time spent on your website for other reasons, maybe. But that data, out of context, means nothing. So, don’t panic.

Nice try

Derek Powazek – Spammers, Evildoers, and Opportunists. This is a kind of link baiting tactic i don’t like too much: the attack hook.

This is why, for once, i’m using a nofollow attribute.

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