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A Question of Ethics – May 9th, 2006

Casino NewsA storm has been building in the affiliate marketing sector of the industry over claims that one of the largest online gambling groups in the business, and a publicly quoted company to boot is turning a blind eye to the allegedly unethical marketing activities of its independent affiliates.

888 has been the focus of massive criticism from the affiliate world on this issue, but is reportedly disinclined to either agree with the views of the affiliate community or take action against its affiliates, who stand accused of unethical practices such as site-scraping (content theft) and spamming.

To better understand the issue, InfoPowa asked a principled and professional webmaster, Dave Sawyer of Online Casino Reviewer to explain what has been going on in lay terms, but before reading his interesting perspective it is perhaps necessary for clarity to outline broadly how the affiliate concept works.

Online gambling venues want to attract players to their sites to maintain and increase their revenues, and the operators budget substantial sums of marketing money to do this through a variety of media and channels.

One of those channels is the use of affiliates – totally independent individuals or (usually small) companies that recruit and refer players to the gambling sites. To do this, the affiliate most commonly builds a website or blog, the useful content of which attracts players when it is skillfully presented through media like the search engines, presence on other sites and so forth.

The operator will often pay for advertising “real estate” on the site, and/or will guarantee that for every player delivered there will be a monetary reward or “commission” for the affiliate calculated on a diversity of conditions and methods that are previously agreed between the two.

Larger gambling groups frequently have a division to handle the administration associated with vetting and accrediting affiliates, tracking players, paying the affiliates, providing promotional materials and briefing on new developments. Sometimes this is outsourced to specialised companies. Generally this organisation is positioned between operator and affiliate, and is commonly called a “program”

The affiliate marketing system is devoid of a widely accepted, formal controlling body and it is therefore open to abuse when it comes to ethical commitments, professional qualifications, discipline of practitioners and similar issues. There is no generally accepted independent affiliate regulatory body, although there are a number of websites where some affiliates gather to cooperate on issues, and exchange views and information.

That means that only the “Programs” have any sort of practical influence over their affiliates, because they control the purse strings and continued accreditation. Affiliates may work with several different programs, however so disciplinary action exacted by one program does not necessarily mean that an affiliate will go out of business.

Dave Sawyer provided InfoPowa with the following brief on the current controversy surrounding 888.com’s affiliate activities:

“There has been an increasing furore over the last couple of months amongst Webmasters involved in the Online Gambling Industry, and it is allegedly caused by the online gambling behemoth 888 Holdings PLC, a prominent group behind household names such as 888.com and Pacific Poker.

“Serious allegations have been made that affiliates of the company are actively engaging in murky and underhand marketing activities, not befitting a Public Listed Company on the London Stock Exchange.

“According to 888 Holding’s Website: ’888′s marketing is principally planned, sourced and executed through its in-house marketing arm which has accumulated significant creative and marketing experience focusing on achieving high return on its investment-driven campaigns.’

“So what exactly is all the concern about? Well over recent weeks, it has become clear to the members of Casino Affiliate Programs.com that 888 is allowing several of their online affiliate marketers to steal content from thousands of websites, which they then utilise as their own, in order to increase 888’s exposure in the internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo.

“The result is that 888’s exposure in the search engines is not just limited to requested gambling related searches; indeed 888 can be returned as a result for a multitude of terms which are definitely not gambling related.

“What is even more worrying is that there is evidence to suggest that affiliates of 888 Holdings PLC have been actively participating in the practice of Blog Spamming. Blog Spamming in layman terms is whereby webmasters try to increase the popularity of their websites by adding links to website forums or blogs (a form of online diary) regardless of their content.

“Not only is this extremely annoying for the owner of said forums or blogs, but this “shotgun” approach of broadly targeting any and all media and audiences can promote gambling to unreceptive or worse still undesirable audiences e.g. minors.

“This is a big concern, especially as anti online gambling lobbies and organisations are gaining support in the United States. The fact that 888 as a listed company is actively involved in this brings the whole online gambling industry into disrepute and further fuels the calls for online gambling to be banned in the US.

“888 has substantial marketing budgets and resources to call on. For example the company sponsored English Premiership Football Team Middlesbrough and the recent World Snooker Championships. This being the case, the question must be asked: “Why does the company have to resort to these underhand, unethical and potentially very damaging marketing techniques?”

Dave Sawyer as the webmaster of casino portal Online Casino Reviewer commented: “It is a serious concern that one of the leading online gambling companies is unable or unwilling to police its affiliate program. In my opinion, by allowing affiliates to do as they please in promoting 888 and its associated brands, 888.com not only tarnishes its own brands, but the entire industry.

“For this reason, Online Casino Reviewer, along with many other gambling websites has taken the hard but necessary decision to rogue 888 and inform our visitors of what is currently happening.”

Sawyer’s ethical concerns are clearly shared by many professional affiliate marketers and portal owners. For example Lou Fabiano of Casino Affiliate Programs.com (CAP – a gathering place for many experienced webmasters) has pulled 888.com’s accreditation after months of attempting to reason with the gambling group regarding its “…failure to reach an amicable resolution involving known content theft and blog spamming being performed by their top affiliates and consultants.”

One of the top watchdog and player advocate sites, Bryan Bailey’s Casinomeister.com placed 888.com on the Rogue list last week, and Brian Nank’s iGAMI took similar action.

“Site scraping and content theft are very serious issues that need to be halted now,” wrote Bailey.

All of these actions were widely publicised, and sources report that many webmasters have started collaborating through a links system to bring the issue to prominent public notice and possibly take further joint action.

A CAP spokesman went into more detail, saying: “These illegal activities are negatively impacting thousands of affiliates and online marketers worldwide. There are a number of programming teams operating with the approval of 888 Casino which are flooding search engines like Google and Yahoo with thousands of spurious search results.

“This angers searchers and makes finding legitimate destinations on the internet difficult if not impossible. These rogues are also robbing bandwidth and corrupting web logs with millions of commercial messages all linked to 888 Casino. This abuse of the system tarnishes the image of the industry as a whole and can not be allowed to continue.

“To resolve this issue CAP has been in negotiations with 888 Casino for the last six weeks, but so far they have declined to comply and have stated they are not interested in a resolution at this time.”

CAP wants 888.com to grasp the affiliate nettle by initiating the following actions:

  1. Issue a public statement indicating that 888 Casino does not condone nor will they reward content theft or illegal marketing practices by their affiliates or marketing consultants. If affiliates or marketers are discovered to be engaged in these practices their accounts will be closed, they will be banned from the 888 affiliate program and their proceeds or commissions due forfeited.
  2. Addition to the Affiliate Program Terms and Conditions a provision stating the above policy.
  3. A good faith effort by 888 Casino to adhere to these policies now and in the future.”

This truly raging controversy, generating widespread adverse publicity across the Internet for not only unethical affiliate activities and the ubiquitous 888.com brand itself cannot have escaped the attention of the top management at the publicly listed company.

InfoPowa has requested a comment from 888.com for balance on this article and currently awaits a response.

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