• SEO

Ranking Is An Engagement Game

By clariondevelop

Nick Garner maps Google’s multi-faceted effort of delivering the most satisfying websites, and asks why he seem to be one of few talking about the engagement and use satisfaction driving rankings.

Pssst… I have a secret for you. Ranking on Google is an engagement game. There it is, now you know. I could stop here, but I guess you want more explanation and background? OK, I’ll dig into what’s going on with Google’s search algorithm around engagement and talk about how you, as an affiliate can become more engaging to a user.

Google algorithm

The micro executive summary:

  • links don’t work like they used to
  • you can’t easily rank sites which have no real value to users

There are a number of components to think about when looking at the overall picture with Google and its algorithm. By putting all these things together, you’ll get a better sense of the scale of change that is going on right now. By the way, I use the term satisfying a lot in his article, because it’s what Google uses. If you look at the definition of satisfying as being ‘“to fulfill the desires, expectations, needs, or demands of (a person, the mind, etc.); give full contentment”, you can see it’s a pretty good word to use in this context.

Quality Rater Guidelines

As covered by my article in the last issue of iGB Affiliate, Google have voluntarily released a set of guidelines which are used by their team of quality raters. These people evaluate websites and assess them for quality. In this case, ‘quality’ is based on user satisfaction. The guidelines are the clearest and most thorough set of instructions for anybody who wants to build a website that users want. One fascinating aspect of these is there is no talk about on-site optimisation or links. If you’re familiar with artificial intelligence, you’ll know that in order to make ‘intelligent’ software knowledgeable, it has to have a set of training data, and it’s pretty obvious that the quality rater program is all about training their artificial intelligence algorithms.


On the theme of algorithms and artificial intelligence, it is commonly accepted that Google disavow was its fairly “evil” way of duping the Webmaster community into supplying it with vast training sets of data to help identify the kinds of sites which supply low quality/paid-for links. As we know, Penguin, the algorithm behind Google’s aggressive culling of bad links, is driven by artificial intelligence and only improves over time.


This is now the third most powerful ranking signal there is, and I bet many of you may not have heard about it. Again, it’s driven by artificial intelligence and makes sense of unambiguous search queries. For example if I said: “Paris Hilton”, am I talking about the celebrity or the hotel in the city? RankBrain’s job is to make sense of this and serve up the right website related to that question. What this means for the rest of us is that Google now has a much more holistic understanding of what a website is about than ever before. A consequence of that is websites don’t have to be as well “on-site optimised” as they were in the past, simply because Google can understand the inference and meaning of content, much like you or I.


Panda has recently been rolled into Google’s core algorithm. Its job is to assess the quality of websites and pull out sites which have too much duplicate content or don’t appear to offer user satisfaction. I am personally of the view that Panda was trained through the Quality Rater Guidelines dataset. As an aside, I understand the Panda refresh won’t be real-time, but will be more frequent.

Engagement driving rankings

There has been a lot of evidence showing how Google’s rankings are massively driven by engagement metrics. In other words, sites that users seek out and click on from search results, typically end up ranking better. Of course there are other factors, but it makes total sense to rank the websites people actually want. Wouldn’t you?

The overall picture

Google can now interpret websites better than a human being. They can understand what an editorially justified link looks like and they are using engagement as a driver for rankings. Once you add everything up, you’re basically left with a couple of choices: 1. give up on SEO 2. build satisfying websites I vote for option number two. Why? Because if you build a website users want, you’ll convert better, making more money and as a collateral benefit, Google will rank you.

Change your mindset

Instead of asking ‘how can I game Google to rank better?’…Perhaps you should ask another question of yourself... ‘How can I satisfy users and make a profit?’

Why change the way I think?

Survival?! If you’re an iGaming affiliate, the economics of paid media don’t really stack up in your favour. So, ultimately you’re going to be reliant on cheap traffic. And that comes from natural search or social. Since social isn’t my thing, I’m not going to go there.

How to be satisfying

It’s best to start from the top and work one’s way downwards. The first question is; ‘what is satisfying?’ In the case of Google, the answer is really simple. Somebody has a question (search query) and they want an answer which satisfies them. If you’re an affiliate, there are different groups of questions:

  • Transactional: ‘free bet offer’ / ‘online casino’
  • Informational: ‘how to turn decimal into fractional odds’ / ‘betting tips for football league’
  • Navigational: ‘name of operator/ affiliate’ / wherever a user knows where to go, but doesn’t have the domain name.


Within these three categories of key phrases, transactional is where the money is. For those of you who know the site, you’ll see a superfast, but rather ugly and basic website that just gives free bet offers. It’s very satisfying to a user, because it does exactly what it supposed to. Another great example is bigfreechiplist. com, which just has hundreds and hundreds of casino-related offers. If a user wants a free bet or a casino bonus offer, these websites are extremely satisfying.


You’ve heard about content marketing? It’s not something I particularly like, because I think a lot of it’s rather misguided, as giving a user helpful information takes you quite ‘far’ away from getting them to join an operator. However, so many affiliates are fixated with the idea of giving comprehensive reviews about particular offers. This is also content marketing, because in theory a user trusts an affiliate to give them helpful guidance on joining an operator. In my experience, users are a bit smarter than we think. They don’t know that you’re going to promote the bookie who pays you the most money, but they do notice that every single review kind of looks the same and typically gives 9.5 stars out of 10 for nearly half of the operators. That’s not very helpful or satisfying to a user. to their credit have pushed the boundaries on content marketing further than just about any affiliate. They are taking a lifetime view on the customer, going from offering a huge number of free bets through to crowd-sourced and vetted tips to the punter. The clever part is how they think about lifetime value. But not everyone is OLBG…


In many respects, navigational searches are very commercially driven. If a user does a brand search and they are not yet registered with that company, there’s an opportunity for you. Very often, operators don’t advertise their free bet offers very well, and all it takes is an enterprising affiliate to rank somewhere on the bottom half of page 1 for a brand phrase. A user doesn’t care where the free money comes from, as long as they get it, and affiliates are smarter about advertising an operator free bet than the operator. An affiliate can provide great user satisfaction and make a load of money.

What would I do?

I am in an odd position. I am both a casino operator, running a bitcoin casino, and an affiliate, who owns Clubcall is a sport content website and so falls into the ‘informational’ bucket. If you check out the site, you’ll see that it’s very basic, but quick. We have a relationship with Betfair, where we use their APIs to contextualise odds that relate to a game or sports event. Put simply, we were trying to align a user’s primary goal, news on sport, with a secondary goal, betting on an event. Despite getting some nice traffic numbers (1.5 million visits per month at peak), it’s just not very transactional. And there’s not a great deal I can do about that. My online casino started out as a typical casino. But like every other casino I’ve seen, it had one massive fail: navigation. A user wants to play games they love - fast. And for some reason, no casino that I’ve ever seen organises the hundreds of casino games they have in the same way any good e-commerce website would. So with that big idea of user satisfaction in mind, my answer is to build a casino site around e-commerce principles. Whether it really works are not, we will see, but the point is that I am living by my principles. I would rather create a truly satisfying casino website and then work it on the marketing, than the other way round.

What about you?

If you could wipe the slate clean and start all over again, what would you do that would satisfy the user within the context of the most profitable key phrases? I think the money is ‘in the money’, i.e. free bets, casino offers, brand phrases. What could you do to outcompete others in the ‘user satisfaction’ stakes? The second cycle is in continuous revenue from a customer. So what can you do to keep the money coming in from every single sign-up?

My answers

I think navigation is huge. People use search engines to navigate the Internet. They love Google the most, because Google helps them to get from a question to an answer the quickest way possible. So, build websites that get users to where they want - quickly. This is why and nail it. How could you improve upon those websites? I think it’s around:

  • better categorisation
  • easier sorting
  • better cross comparison between offers
  • genuine reviews of operators (optional)

This is where content marketing plays its part. By helping users make better decisions about where to bet, you will hopefully increase their bet volume. That’s why years ago, I founded a website called betting. and explicitly steered the editorial narrative around useful, actionable information to make a bet with. The catch with this kind of ongoing content-driven customer relationship is cost. If you’ve ever done your numbers, you’ll know how expensive it is to produce really good content people love. That’s why I think big players like the aforementioned OLBG will only push further ahead, because they have the community, editorial depth and resources behind them.

Wrapping up

The iGaming SEO world has changed. Since SEO is the lifeblood of so much iGaming affiliation, it’s fair to say affiliation is now very different from five years ago. And this change is only going to get more pronounced in the forthcoming years. The new winners are sites that give what users want. Ironically, these websites often don’t look pretty; they just do what they’re supposed to. They probably make more money today than ever before, because now they don’t even need to buy links. Google ranks them pretty much irrespective of link volume. I think you will see the rise of a small group of ‘end-to-end’ affiliates like OLBG who can satisfy users throughout their whole life cycle. And they will rank, because Google likes ranking websites users like. I also think SEO is morphing from gaming Google to helping Google, and delivering the most satisfying websites possible. So if you want to do well in SEO, maybe just start from scratch, forget about SEO and build a website a user really wants. As an afterthought, you could factor in some on-site optimisation, perhaps get a few good links that Panda hasn’t nuked and you’ll be on your way.

Final comment

I seem to be one of the few people talking about engagement and user satisfaction driving rankings. Why? I put it down to commercial interests getting in the way of the inconvenient truth. People listen to what they want to hear. It’s far easier for an SEO agency to sell you links and content marketing services than the complexities of user experience, conversion optimisation and nailing user satisfaction. If you get what I’m talking about, move quickly before the pain of failure in SEO drives other affiliates to change their ways. User satisfaction isn’t some fluffy marketing nonsense, it’s survival.

“It Is commonly accepted that Google disavow was its fairly ‘evil’ way of duping the Webmaster community into supplying it with vast training sets of data to help identify the kinds of sites which supply low quality/paid-for links.”

“Google’s AI-driven RankBrain makes sense of ambiguous search queries, meaning that websites don’t have to be as well “on-site optimised” as they were in the past, as Google can understand the inference and meaning of content, much like you or I.”

“Very often, operators don’t advertise their free bet offers very well, and all it takes is an enterprising affiliate to rank somewhere on the bottom half of page 1 for a brand phrase. A user doesn’t care where the free money comes from, as long as they get it.”

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