spamming refers to actions intended to mislead search engines
and give some pages higher ranking than they deserve."
-- Zoltan Gyongi and Hector Garcia-Molina
First, some definitions. "Search engine optimization" (SEO) is the use of tactics to present a webpage in its best light to a
search engine algorithm. It's basically the equivalent of giving your car a tune-up so it runs at peak efficiency. This is also called
"white hat SEO". In contrast, "search engine spamming" (spam) is the use of tactics to fool a search engine algorithm
into thinking a low quality webpage is more relevant/authoritative than it actually is. This is also called "black hat".
White hat SEO includes things like titling pages with the search term you want to target; using various synonyms and related words for
the search terms you are targeting; using exact matches to phrases that you believe people will type into a search engine when looking for a page like
yours; getting authoritative on-topic websites (or general authority sites like newspapers) to link to your page, etc.
Black hat activities include titling pages deceptively, stealing content, buying links to your page from unrelated sites (like buying a link
from a website about ballerinas and linking the second word of "fireplace poker" to your page), etc. In other words, basically
anything that tricks an algorithm into thinking that a lump of dirt looks like a diamond.
White hat SEO has utterly dominated black hat spamming in the poker sphere since the beginning of the boom. Here is the story of how
black hat spamming cost Party Poker hundreds of millions of dollars.
Late summer 2002, over six months before the first World Poker Tour broadcast (with Moneymaker coming a couple months later), Party Poker,
PokerStars, UltimateBet, TruePoker,
PokerRoom and some other sites are jockeying to be the clear #2 behind
Paradise Poker, by far the industry leader. However,
the Google poker search results were not reflecting this competition. Instead, about half of the results for most poker-type searches
bring up results for websites with names like pokerhangout.com, playherepoker.com, online-online-poker-poker.com and dozens more.
Each of these websites purported to be stand-alone online poker room... but all of them had Party Poker's contact phone number and
clicking the download link led to downloading Party Poker software.
In Google's eyes that made these sites all "doorway pages" to Party. In addition, all these sites had hidden links in their source
code to each other. Both those tactics were a direct violation of Google's webmaster guidelines.
Without going into details, this family of websites tricked Google into thinking they were unrelated, and ranked them all fairly decently...
right up until the point Google saw through the scheme and brought down the hammer.
I don't know whether these sites were owned by Party Poker itself, or owned by a large affiliate, but Google's response was
unequivocal. Google removed all the domains from their search results -- including PartyPoker.com. One day I went to do a poker
search, and poof, no more hidden link doorway domains, and no more Party Poker.
This "Google Death sentence" meant that even if you typed [partypoker.com] directly in the search box, the domain would not show up in
the results for anything.
Within a few weeks of Google taking this step, instead of powering its own search engine, Yahoo.com switched to using Google results.
This was even more devastating to the Party doorway pages as five of them had been ranking in the Yahoo top ten for a [poker] search.
Naturally this death sentence was bad news for Party... and good news for all the other cardrooms and independent poker portals. But
still, since it was the pre-boom fall of 2002, no really major shift in revenue occurred for anyone except Party.
That is, until the World Poker Tour debuted, Party had a monopoly on WPT commercials, and then Moneymaker won the WSOP to explode the
boom. Suddenly [poker] was the #1 search term in the world... and Party Poker was still nowhere to be found in the search results for
anything, including its own name.
Party's TV ads shot it into first place among the online cardrooms, but you couldn't find Party anywhere in the search results. And guess
what happens when you spend boatloads of money on television ads?
Thousands and thousands of people type [party poker] or [partypoker.com] or [partypoker.net] into the search box! And what happens when the
Party Poker domain has a Google death sentence? Well, somebody else has to rank first for those terms. That "somebody else"
was primarily three domains.
The domain that usually ranked first for a [party poker] search and second for [partypoker] was a domain called... I'm not kidding here:
"teamfu.freeshell.org". Freeshell.org was a free webhost, and "teamfu" was the subdomain where a Party affiliate decided
to make a website he titled: "Party Poker Playing Guide". It was under this title that the site was listed in the DMOZ web directory
(more about DMOZ another time). The strength of being in DMOZ under that title lead to "teamfu" usually ranking first for [party poker].
(The site that was teamfu eventually moved to the TightPoker.com domain.)
Most of the time, a page from my old playwinningpoker site ranked second for a [party poker] search and first for [partypoker]. I also
tended to rank first for most other search variations like [partypoker.com], [party poker.com], [party poker.net] and so on.
The site that most often ranked third for all the variations was:
guinnessandpoker.blogspot.com. Iggy was one of the first poker bloggers,
but it was the on-page naming of his blog the "Party Poker Blog" that lead to his high ranking for [party poker] searches.
It is impossible for me to express exactly the degree of "found money" this Party Poker penalty was to our three sites, as well
as dozens of other websites who sometimes ranked in the top three for the above terms or who ranked for what are called "longtail"
searches like [party poker online] or [poker party].
I suppose I benefitted considerably more than these other two sites because when you search for [party poker], I'm pretty sure it is easier to click on a
link that says "playwinningpoker" than one that says "teamfu" or "guinness". But there was plenty of wealth to go around.
Just imagine, Party Poker was running commercials all over television... to send people to my website! How sweet.☺
It's hard to overstate what a financial disaster the Google penalty was to Party. They paid for TV commercials... to send people to my
website... then they paid me to send these players on to Party. Sure, lots of people managed to type partypoker.com or partypoker.net
into the address bar, but hundreds of thousands typed those letters into a search box instead, and that spamming penalty made it so
Party had to essentially pay double in its cost-per-acquisition of those players.
The first six months of 2005, at the peak of the boom, my website sent 1.76% of the real money players to Party. Then, at the end of June 2005,
Google lifted the Party penalty, 36 hours before Party Gaming went public with an IPO valuation of $8,500,000,000. Eight and half
billion dollars... a greater valuation on the London Stock Exchange than Rolls-Royce or British Airways.
Party Gaming's valuation came crashing down in September 2006 with the passing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, but it
was also originally impacted by the Google penalty. Imagine being an investment banker being told of an upcoming IPO, taking out a laptop,
typing in the company name and seeing "teamfu" come up as the first result. Think that made those bankers more inclined to want
to invest a billion dollars in this outfit or less?
The Google penalty must have cost Party an enormous amount of value in its IPO. How much value that actually was we will never know.
Maybe some historian will try to figure it out someday.
At the same time, because of the Google penalty Party had to double-dip pay online affiliates to portal to the PartyPoker.com site a
large percentage of the people whom they also paid television networks and other offline media outlets for.
Finally then, the Google penalty meant that for three years, most of that during the peak of the poker boom, while millions of
people every week were searching the Internet for [how to play poker] and [where to play poker online] and every other similar search,
the largest online poker site in the world got zero direct traffic from that. Party Poker should have been dominating the vast
majority of all poker searches, like [Texas Hold'em] or [seven card stud rules] or [play poker for money online].
But they didn't, because either they dumbly spammed or they dumbly let an affiliate spam. Party's penalty helped "spread the poker
boom around" to independent website operators and to other cardrooms that ranked for all kinds of a variety of terms... with PokerStars
benefitting by far the most, dominating poker search terms to this day.
Many of my stories from the poker boom emphasize the major
unintended consequences of what might have seemed like minor choices back then. The Google penalty against Party Poker probably lead
to the single largest unintended consequence of the poker boom... hundreds of millions of dollars spread around to people in the poker
industry who were not one of the four original Party Poker founders.
Remember that $8,500,000,000 IPO though before you feel too sorry for them...
See also: Stupidest Cheater in Online Poker History and
The Online Poker Industry Evolution