There’s an average of 90,500 searches for the keyword ‘bingo’ in the UK each month. That single keyword is more popular with players than ‘bingo sites’, ‘online bingo’, ‘bingo games’ and ‘new bingo sites’ combined (57,800).
Why is this relevant? Because not one affiliate site ranks within the first 100 organic results. The SERPs are dominated by operators.
In his recent article, ‘The Great Brand Phrase Goldmine’ (iGB Affiliate issue 61), Nick Garner talks about the need for affiliates to target branded keywords as “operators are increasingly dominating generic phrases”.
I can’t help feeling that this is a defeatist approach. My own experience of organic click-through rates to affiliate sites from branded search terms suggests the branded opportunity is limited at best and inefficient at worst.
Back in December 2015, I used traffic data from Google Search Console to plot a branded click-through rate curve for one of our affiliate sites. It revealed that 94% of branded keyword traffic went to position one (usually the operator in question) and PPC adverts.
Can affiliates really compensate for the loss of exposure to 90,500+ generic searches with just 6% of branded search traffic? And what’s more, why should we have to? To discover just how bad the generic keyword situation is now, in May 2017 I examined the top 100 organic results of 20 popular bingo search terms in the UK.
Using Google Keyword Planner, I compiled a list of sample keywords consisting of the highest volume generic bingo phrases and their lower volume direct variants. I defined these as ‘pure generics’ and ‘modified generics’.
Pure generic keywords – a pure, usually singular, search phrase with objective general intent, often very high volume, e.g. ‘free bingo’, ‘online bingo’.
Modified generic keywords – variants of the clean generic keywords, usually pluralised and containing modifying terms that narrow the user intent, such as ‘best’, ‘new’ and ‘sites’.
The keywords were then uploaded into AWR Cloud and organic ranking reports for Google UK on desktop and mobile were requested.
The resulting data was then sorted, filtered and analysed to provide the insights that follow.
Here is the full list of keywords studied, along with average monthly search volume in brackets. Pure generic keywords are defined in bold.
- online bingo (12,100)
- bingo UK (720)
- bingo online (4,400)
- online bingo (12,100)
- bingo games (18,100)
- bingo sites (22,200)
- online bingo sites (1,600)
- new bingo sites (5,400)
- best bingo (720)
- best online bingo (720)
- best bingo sites (4,400)
- free bingo sites (2,400)
- free bingo (14,800)
- free bingo games (9,900)
- no deposit bingo (9,900)
- free bingo no deposit (8,800)
- no deposit bingo sites (1,900)
- mobile bingo (720)
- bingo mobile (90)
- mobile bingo sites (590)
Affiliate sites occupy just 32% of all generic organic search results
Of the 2,000 ranking positions analysed for all generic bingo keywords, just 32% were occupied by affiliate sites, compared with 63% by operators.
Just 13% of organic positions for pure generic keywords are occupied by affiliate sites
Affiliates are almost completely excluded from some of bingo’s highest volume keywords, with phrases such as ‘bingo games’ and ‘online bingo’ returning 87% and 88%, respectively, in favour of operator sites.
However, the situation does improve slightly as the pure keywords become more bonus-oriented. For the full breakdown, see Figure 1.
Affiliates dominate the SERPs of most modified generic keywords, but operators hold strong
As you might expect, affiliate sites enjoy more organic success once modifying terms are added. The general rule appears to be that affiliate exposure widens as searcher intent narrows (see Figure 2).
Phrases such as ‘new bingo sites’ and ‘best bingo sites’ return the greatest proportion of affiliate results, which is both a blessing and a curse. With just a handful of high-volume generics to target and hundreds of affiliate sites fighting for traffic, organic competition is fierce and intense.
Affiliate exposure is generally consistent across desktop and mobile, with exceptions
Give or take a percentage point or two, there is very little difference between the exposure of affiliate sites for generic keywords on desktop and mobile (see Figure 3).
However, one interesting outlier is ‘online bingo sites’, which returns 14% fewer bingo affiliates on mobile as it does on desktop.
Top-performing bingo affiliate sites
Despite the obvious challenges, there are some bingo affiliates achieving success across a range of generic keywords analysed, although exposure is far more limited for the unmodified phrases.
There is still a lot of ground to make up in the battle for generic search equality.
Even WhichBingo occupies only 25 of 2,000 possible ranking positions on desktop and just 34 on mobile.
Two key questions remain:
- Why (and how) are affiliates being excluded from broader generic search results?
- What can affiliates do to overcome the inherent search bias?
I do not believe that the answer lies wholly in branded keywords, but in our ability as affiliates to serve a wider range of player intents with our content and to diversify into new gambling verticals, such as slots and casinos.
How can Google tell the difference?
In his article, Nick argues that SERP clickthrough rates are most likely responsible for the filtering out of affiliate sites from pure generic keywords.
This may well be a contributing factor, but in order to measure the relative clickthrough rates of operators and affiliates, Google needs to show both. The fact that Google doesn’t return a single affiliate result for the term ‘bingo’ and only returns three for ‘online bingo’, suggests that other forces are at play.
If not, you would have to agree that Google is using historic CTR data, possibly years old, to rank sites. Given the frequency that Google tests and tweaks its algorithm, it’s hard to believe that is the actually the case.
The myth of good user experience and CTR
You’ll often hear that if you focus on your users, SEO will take care of itself.
This is analogous to saying that if you’re driving a car and focusing only on the wellbeing of your passengers, you’ll get to your destination without looking at the road.
The truth is, you can’t on one hand argue that it’s click-through rate causing the generic exclusion of affiliates and, then on the other, argue that good user experience is the key to achieving it.
That particular point of view assumes that there is no situation online where an affiliate site could provide a good experience for users searching for pure generic keywords. This is simply not true.
An affiliate website appearing for the term ‘online bingo’, could indeed offer a lot of value to a user.
Affiliate sites would (in most cases):
- Provide a simple way for players to compare site quality and bonus offers
- Provide detailed information and advice about playing bingo online
- Provide specialist insight into the experiences players can expect (Google is not a bingo expert)
- Allow players to tailor their search to their personal bingo preferences
Compare this to many of the operator sites currently ranking on page one for the term:
- Basic bonus-orientated landing pages with limited supporting content (except T&Cs)
- Single brand options with no way of comparing value
- The same white-label experiences shared across hundreds of other sites on a network
It is very hard to imagine a scenario where an affiliate site offers such little value to searchers, compared to operators, to the extent that its CTR, bounce rate and other usability factors are impacted significantly enough for it not to rank in the top 100 results.
The success or failure of an SEO strategy is never due to a single ranking factor. Rankings are the consequence of an algorithmic analysis of multiple data points across multiple site areas.
To suggest that CTR, site usability, links or content are magic bullets is to neglect the fundamentals that have underpinned search since the beginning.
So, what’s happening and what can you do?
Although it is almost impossible to give definitive reasons for why affiliate sites are excluded from the most profitable pure generic search phrases, I do believe that some or all of following factors may be influential.
1. Google is jealous
If you ran the world’s biggest search engine and had worked for decades to tailor your algorithms to provide the best search results, would you then want those results to include links to other search result pages?
Affiliate sites are just that. Every category on every affiliate site is effectively another search page. If Google assumes the intent of a user to be to search for a bingo site, Google wants to be the one providing the list of bingo sites for you to play on.
And, to be even more cynical: Google knows that unmodified generic keywords attract the highest AdWords bids. Why should it link to your list of adverts when it could instead profit from its own?
Solution: Be more than just a list of sites. Support your site categories with helpful and relevant content for players. Consider reducing the use of phrases such as ‘directory’, ‘index’, ‘results’ and ‘database’ in your category copy in favour of more typical operator calls-toaction, such as ‘play’, ‘sign up’ and ‘join now’.
2. Affiliates are the cause of the problem
Have you ever looked through the backlink profile of a gambling affiliate site? Russian link directories and unrelated forum comments are hardly signs of relevance or authority.
For every one good backlink an affiliate site acquires, there are at least another 100 that are worthless. Affiliates famously struggle to build relevant high quality links for reasons including industry taboo, a lack of nonaffiliate gaming publishers and poor branding.
The last five years have seen a continued improvement in Google’s ability to distinguish high-quality earned backlinks from black hat link pyramids. As the SEO impact of these schemes diminishes, affiliates are struggling to compete with what remains.
At the same time, affiliate sites are directly strengthening operators. Every link to an operator from an affiliate is relevant, on-topic and fresh. While many of these links are nofollowed or blocked by robots, there are still hundreds that are not.
And, unfortunately, despite all of the advances Google has made, it is still miserably incompetent at differentiating a paid-for affiliate link from an earned natural link.
Solution: Ensure that all outbound affiliate links from your site to operators are not followed or blocked by robots. Review your site’s backlink profile to honestly and objectively determine which links are actually providing value. Do you need quality to balance quantity?
3. Operators scarcely target modified generic keywords
The vast majority of white label bingo sites consist of a homepage and a series of templated networked sections. These usually include a simple overview of slot games, a list of current promotions and information about player rewards.
It is very difficult for a typical white label operator to target a broad range of generic keywords compared to an affiliate. As a result, only the broadest and all-encompassing search terms are realistic targets.
Conversely, affiliate sites are very good at providing narrowly focused categories for the best sites, the newest sites or the biggest offers, in ways that operators cannot.
Affiliates are the jack of all trades, operators are the masters of one.
Solution: Take a top-level look at your site structure and categories. Your affiliate site is full of relevant content about various strands of bingo, but lacks relevance to the topic as a whole. Utilise internal linking to signal topical relationships between the various sections of your site and expand outwards to the most general topic itself – bingo.
Don’t settle for 6%
I strongly believe that there is a place for affiliate sites in the results pages of even the most generic keywords. I see no reason to sit back and hand over hundreds of thousands of monthly searches to undeserving operators.
Google is not a person; it’s an algorithm.
Instead of accepting defeat and the loss of thousands of potential new visitors and millions of pounds in revenue, we should focus on identifying and overcoming the patterns leading to affiliate exclusion. The value of affiliate sites for players is undeniable. We are not doing ourselves or our players justice by targeting the scraps of branded SERPs.
It’s time to fight back.
- https://www.igbaffiliate.com/articles/ great-brand-phrase-goldmine-1
- Keyword reports generated by AWR Cloud on 17 May, 2017
- Full sample data available on request