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Sky Bet’s affiliate programme: not an open-and-shut case

| By Hannah Gannage-Stewart | Reading Time: 7 minutes
Nick Garner describes how Sky Bet’s decision to be choosier about its affiliates is more than just a reaction to regulation-induced panic 

The closure of Sky Bet’s affiliate programme is not what it seemed to be in September. Rather than regulation-induced panic or a short-sighted act of self-harm, it now looks like part of Sky Bet’s plan to be much choosier about who its affiliates are, says Nick Garner of RIZE Digital

This is a follow-up to two articles I wrote last year (in issue 65 of iGB Affiliate and online) about Sky Bet and why I thought it was commercial suicide to kill off its whole affiliate programme.

In those 2017 pieces I talked about:

• How affiliate marketing is essentially a combination of a free banner ad network (if people don’t click the ads) and organic rankings by proxy.

• How affiliates affect brand perception. If enough affiliates say a brand is 9.5/10, users will eventually believe it… even if it’s not necessarily true.

• How SEO is unbelievably important for qualified traffic, but for large organisations not geared around organic search, eg Sky Bet versus Catena Media, it’s very hard to put together a solid business case to fund something as unaccountable as SEO (not provided plus risk of penalty for aggressive SEO).

• How Google is the most trusted source of information there is and how your rank generally determines how much trust is given to your brand. (Exceptions: untrustworthy organisations ranking for phrases highlighting their untrustworthiness.)

• Why any for all the above reasons, a major brand killing off its whole affiliate network is commercially crazy in my view.

Now, I want to go through:

• My research on what happened from the Sky Bet affiliate ‘shutdown’ in September 2017.
• Why ‘Dr Evil’ could have planned this Sky Bet shake-up.
• What this actually means for you as an affiliate.
• Some conclusions, which I hope you’ll agree with.

So, what happened?

(Before I get into my findings, here’s a memory jog for those of you who had nothing to do with Sky Bet and its affiliate shake-up: back in October 2015, Sky Bet initiated a retroactive change in the terms and conditions, which meant a reduced revenue share for affiliates. Last autumn, Sky Bet decided to close its affiliate programme, citing regulatory pressures. The affiliate ecosystem got nervous, thinking this would be the beginning of the end for affiliate marketing. But all these events have actually proved how resilient the affiliate ecosystem is and how large brands cannot ignore affiliate marketers.)

The headline of this article may give you a clue… it looks as if Sky Bet has quietly been doing a massive shake-up and re-recruitment within its affiliate network.

I have some stats from a combination of Ahrefs and SEMRush. But before I get into the results, here is the method: I used Ahrefs to list all the domains that had been linking to affiliatehub.skybet.com (the domain used for tracking affiliate-referring links). If you’re not familiar with affiliate tracking, it works like this:

301 Moved Permanently

302 Found

301 Moved Permanently

200 OK

Essentially, a user clicks on a link and it goes through a bunch of ‘hops’ to get to its final destination. One of the critical hops is the domain affiliatehub.skybet.com. By analysing affiliatehub.skybet.com, you can get a lot of insight into what is actually going on with Sky Bet and its affiliate programme.

The findings

When you look at headline referring domains starts from Ahrefs, you can see a progressive decline in referring domains, especially from September 2017 (see Figure 1). Based on that data, you might think that’s the end of that, Sky Bet has pulled the plug on its affiliate programme and we should all just ‘jog on’.

Figure 1: Ahrefs’ chart showing the number of Sky Bet’s total referring domains, which has declined sharply after September 2017’s cull

But no! There are new referring domains (see Figure 2)!

Figure 2: Ahrefs’ chart for Sky Bet showing new (and lost) referring domains, including many since ‘affiliategeddon’

Turns out Sky Bet has, sort of, taken the localised nuclear option, halted its programme and started re-engaging with affiliates they trust.

Of course, trust is a two-way street and my guess is most affiliates don’t trust Sky Bet and have probably pushed for aggressive deals with them. You would, wouldn’t you?

Because Sky Bet is an international brand, it’s relatively difficult to isolate which domains are for the international market and therefore not affected by the UK’s Gambling Commission or the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority.

However, trawling through the domains since September 2017 we see:
• 680 lost referring domains
• 74 new referring domains

There are a couple of interesting patterns:
• new domains look less spammy than expected
• average domain is much more powerful on rankings

Figure 3 shows the average number of keywords, traffic and cost per new referring affiliate domain after the ‘affiliategeddon’.

Figure 3: the average number of keywords, traffic and cost per new referring affiliate domain since September 2017

Sky Bet has apparently been very selective about those they’ve decided to partner with. It seems as if it has carefully evaluated prospective affiliates based on the organic search performance of each website… and its trustworthiness (I assume).

If you’re an operator in these times, where gambling compliance is such a prominent issue, it makes sense to pick your affiliate carefully, make sure you have control over how they are representing you and, if you’re going to put all this work in, at least make sure the site has a fair chance of ranking well.

To recap

Sky Bet has nuked its affiliate base and it has started rebuilding it. Sadly, it has got away with all of this because… some affiliates get amnesia when they see the colour of money.

What about other operators? To get a sense of the way the affiliate ecosystem is going, it’s important to look at the high-level drivers moulding the future of this industry. Of course, I’m talking about compliance. It’s an area I don’t know a huge amount about but in various ways it has affected me first-hand.

If you talk to an operator about compliance, its main concern is the speed at which compliance has to be applied. There are many problems, including: complexity of big websites; the vast amount of content to be updated; advertising that must be redone; and rogue affiliates that operators cannot control.

Let’s talk about rogue affiliates, who terrify operators. An operator is now responsible for the messaging delivered by all affiliates. However, the tough part with having this kind of responsibility is that you cannot easily control how an affiliate links back to you nor control the content it uses. There are lots of ways to disguise links and, if an unscrupulous affiliate decides to advertise a brand near inappropriate (eg underage) content, it is very hard for an operator to spot this stuff.

This is why operators are so nervous with affiliates and why in many ways it makes sense for Sky Bet to nuke nearly every affiliate and start again. This time round, it will work only with affiliates it trusts and who are going to be compliant.

You can be sure that Sky Bet will be auditing all of the content that goes out with its brand name and will be ruthless about compliance, for two reasons: it wants to keep its UK gambling licence; and it can control messaging much more tightly and in effect create coherent brand messaging across a whole network of sites.

Whether you’re a casino operator or sportsbook operator, the fear is palpable when it comes to dealing with out-of-control affiliates. When there is such a strong pressure on a whole ecosystem, it’s inevitably going to change an industry.

Change I’m seeing already

There are a bunch of new compliance tools coming out that operators can use to scrape pages, check for branded artwork not hosted by the brand itself and even to look for inappropriate content.

A typical scenario for an affiliate might be:
• Affiliate launches new page, references brand
• Before the page can go live, it’s submitted to the brand for approval
• Page is approved
• Sometime later, affiliate makes a small change on that page
• Compliance tool flags up page in question
• Affiliate finds its account has been frozen until the page has passed compliance.

If you think that’s a recipe for a lot of admin, this is the new reality that’s coming. That operator’s licence depends on your conduct.

After talking with various people about affiliate compliance, I’ve heard a whole range of interpretations of what is compliant. As an affiliate, you’re sure to see this with different operators.

In time, I assume there will be some kind of harmonisation regarding the way compliance is interpreted. I suppose it’s similar to the law itself, which is essentially made up of hundreds of years of judgments, leading to a consensus on what judgement should be applied in any given circumstance. The age of compliance is very new so it’s inevitable different operators are going to expect their own version of compliance. For affiliates, it’s just more admin.

In the next 12 months

I can see the mega-affiliate networks, eg Catena, being more and more prominent. Essentially, these big networks will have a combination of bargaining power to press operators into working with them (because, if they don’t, operators lose too much visibility), brand equity and new accounts. Bigger affiliates will have more robust compliance systems and they will be able to enforce this compliance across their networks.

For an operator, despite having to pay top dollar for affiliate representation, they will at least be assured that these big affiliates are trustworthy and won’t go rogue on messaging and compliance.

For smaller affiliates… unfortunately, if you are a new player on the scene, it’s very likely you’re going to have problems working with many of the big UK operators, because they have no idea who you are and, because you’re a little guy, you don’t have much to lose by playing an aggressive (and risky) affiliate game.

If you can’t find good operators to work with in the UK, do bear in mind online gambling is a global activity and SEO is also global. You don’t have to rank in the UK. There’s a world of other territories that are far less rigorous about compliance than the UK. So I would look carefully at where you can rank internationally and follow on from there.

In summary

The gambling industry in the UK is going through a period of massive change and operators are rightly very nervous about the behaviour of affiliates.

I can see a further consolidation of the affiliate ecosystem, with more and more networks emerging. And there will be a drive for internationalisation with the smaller players.

Do I think this is a good thing? Yes, even though we’re going through a lot of pain at the moment as an industry, this kind of existential pressure to be compliant will just clean up our industry, give us more legitimacy and in the long run make online gambling more socially acceptable.

The Sky Bet episode has proved how uneasy the relationship between affiliates and operators can be. But it also shows the critical importance of affiliates in the igaming ecosystem. The industry has begun an uncomfortable journey, but which I believe is the right one to further legitimise igaming. You can either fight these changes every step of the way, or embrace them knowing compliance and social responsibility are the new norms for our industry.

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