Spam and blackhat marketing tactics and strategies have garnered a bad reputation, but where do they stand in today’s igaming marketing arc and why are these practices misunderstood? Team SBC caught up with IrishWonder and 90 Digital’s SEO and Marketing scientist Julia Logan to discuss black marketing practices and their effects and impacts on igaming operators.
Julia Logan a.k.a. IrishWonder has been involved in SEO since 2000, taking deep interest in both whitehat and blackhat approaches. She has been working in a wide range of areas from in-house SEO for various industries to running own affiliate sites. She believes you cannot be a true SEO without testing and experimenting with different techniques and approaches. Some of Julia’s specialties include online reputation management, online marketing strategy development, site and link profile audits and negative SEO campaign investigations.
SBC: Hi Julia, can you clearly define to our readers what is exactly SPAM marketing entails and why you believe that it is still an effective marketing practice for igaming operators?
Julia: It would actually be more correct to call it blackhat marketing as the notion is clearly wider than just spam. Spam by itself is too ambiguous a notion as people may refer to both email spam and search engine spam. I assume we’re talking about the latter.
Blackhat SEO usually refers to a set of techniques outside of the search engines’ webmaster guidelines and TOS, pursuing the goal of ranking sites and/or obtaining search traffic by exploiting the backdoors in the search engine algorithm. The popularity of blackhat techniques is directly proportional to the competitiveness and profitability of a search vertical. It is therefore no surprise that both igaming operators and affiliates are often interested in the blackhat approach.
One glance at the igaming SERPs is enough to see blackhat SEO’s effectiveness. The absolute low probably happened some time ago when 8 out of 10 domains ranking for “online casino” in the UK all belonged to the same blackhat spammer, differing only by the number at the end of the domain name and ranking within a week from their launch off a massive set of automated spam links. A few updates since then, Payday Loans 1.0 and 2.0 included, have been intended to make ranking spammy sites like this impossible, but not even two full weeks have passed since the most recent update and we could witness blackhat sites starting their return in various SERPs.
The nature of the search engines, and specifically Google, is such that if one hole in the algorithm is patched a few others are immediately discovered by spammers, so great is the incentive to rank and profit from the search traffic. While certain approaches used a year ago may no longer work, there is always some other way that still does. Google’s war on spam, paradoxically, only brings on more spam as ranking sites using whitehat methods tends to become more expensive and time consuming.
SBC: In your opinion why has SPAM/Blackhat marketing garnered a bad reputation and is this reputation justified?
Julia: Google makes it a point to “criminalise” spam as if it’s something violating laws and not just their TOS and guidelines. There is this whole talk about “ethical” and “unethical” – to me, unethical is when you charge a client for services and fail to deliver, or promise one thing and do exactly the opposite. There is nothing unethical in search spam per se, unless you are hacking other people’s sites (which is clearly a criminal activity in many countries) or make porn rank for terms children would be searching. If you are working on your own site, it’s completely up to you what you do with it. If you’re working on a client’s site, make sure you explain all the risks and tell the client what exactly you are going to do and think carefully how it fits the said client’s business strategy. Blackhat SEO is not for every business, for many businesses it will be too risky and not something they can or should do.
What gains search spam its poor reputation, in my opinion, is clueless irresponsible service providers who shouldn’t even be calling themselves SEOs – they give a bad name not only to blackhat SEO but to the whole industry.
SBC: How have SPAM marketing techniques evolved with new technologies and new consumer habits entering digital markets?
Julia: As Google rolls out its updates it becomes clear that 1) it’s easier to rank something on an aged high authority domain and 2) it’s easier to risk somebody else’s site rather than your own. As a result, we see an increase in hacked sites being used for spamming in top competitive verticals and a rise in registrations of old dropped domain names with further use in totally unrelated verticals. Also, there’s a rise in parasite hosted content (as in, creating your own page on a site that permits it, rather than just hacking a site to place your content on). This has already led to a number of large press release sites commonly used as parasite hosts getting penalised recently.
As the popularity of social networks keeps growing, on one hand, and social networks accounts become universal logins for other sites, there is also a rise in exploiting people’s social accounts. People are used to logging into sites with their Facebook accounts, for example – as a result some spammers set up these sites with the sole purpose of getting control over multiple Facebook accounts. In the age of social media driving businesses, this control can be used for anything from liking pages the actual account owner has never even heard about to stealing personal data.
It would be therefore wise to review your social accounts every once in a while, especially in terms of what third party applications are given any permissions that could lead to somebody else controlling your account. It’s better to remove permissions for something you do use (you can always give them back when needed) than to accidentally give complete access to a spammer.
SBC: For operators or agencies that choose to deploy SPAM techniques, what factors and considerations should they contemplate before undertaking a campaign?
Julia: As I said above, not every business model has a place for search spam. If you rely on one site you want to keep long term, stay away from anything risky. If your brand value means a lot to you and you cannot afford losing it and having to replace the domain or rebrand, stay away from blackhat. If, on the other hand, you can deploy quickly and cheaply multiple throwaway domains and all you care about is traffic and conversions, you have got nothing to lose. There are verticals (like pharma) completely built on this strategy: all you need to do is make sure by the time your first batch of domains drops out of index you have the next one ready to take their place and you can keep your traffic consistent that way. Affiliates (especially the ones that are referred to as “thin affiliates”) can often benefit from the blackhat approach as well – infact they can get away with much more than operators as they don’t have a brand to care about in most cases.
All that said, however, one needs to keep in mind that with the current developments, what used to be (relatively) safe and even recommended yesterday might be considered the new spam today. Generally, anything done with the purpose of manipulating a site’s search rankings already goes against Google’s TOS – but to each their own, Google has their business model and does everything to make it easier on themselves, we as marketers have our own completely opposite business model. We are getting paid for driving traffic and conversions, not for observing a third company’s TOS.
SBC: As consumers become more aware of SPAM marketing techniques, and advertisers more protective of their customer bases and messaging, can SPAM marketing survive?
Julia: I think the idea of advertisers becoming more protective of subjecting their customer bases to spam as a marketing method is a bit exaggerated. Operators and affiliate managers in highly competitive search verticals understand too well it’s a fierce war for traffic out there, and many of them close their eyes to affiliates using blackhat approaches to drive traffic. As long as those affiliates do not threaten the company’s reputation directly, or do anything nasty like cookie stuffing or installing malware on customers’ computers, anything goes. As for consumers, on the other hand, as long as they get what they search for and are not subjected to anything malicious I don’t think they pay much attention to whether or not it is spam. So considering all that, and the huge incentive to spam, I don’t see it going anywhere any time soon.
Julia Logan – SEO consultant at IrishWonder and Chief SEO Scientist at 90Digital.com.