How Not To SEO a Poker Site: Two Plus Two

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In the words of poker player Nat Arem:

Two Plus Two has been SEO braindead for years.

The Two Plus Two Forums are the most trafficked poker forums in the world. With hundreds of thousands of unique visitors a month, a dedicated (to the point of obsessive) crowd of regulars including top industry personalities, and deep stockpiles of poker-related content, no other forum even comes close.*

According to one ranking, Two Plus Two is the 39th most popular forum on the Internet. A generation of players have cut their teeth on Two Plus Two books, and those books have inspired forum discussions which have inspired yet more books. Many of the strategic concepts which are second-nature today were first formulated on Two Plus Two. So when you purchase a recent Two Plus Two book and read Greg Raymer's glowing endorsement on the backside...

I can say with full confidence that if it were not for Two Plus Two Publishing and their web site, I would not have the 2004 World Championship bracelet on my wrist.

...you can rest easy knowing it's not complete B.S. Two Plus Two really does have some great information, whether in book format or codified in their forums.

Which is why I feel so comfortable saying: if any site deserves to rank for the keyword "poker" that site is Two Plus Two. When people go to Google and type in "poker", Two Plus Two should, by rights, appear somewhere on the first page.

Want to know what Two Plus Two's actual rank is for that particular search?

#238

Which is almost funny, considering how richly deserving of search engine quan Two Plus Two actually is.

  • The most successful poker publishing company in poker...
  • The most trafficked discussion forums in poker...
  • Home to some of the top poker theorists and players in the world...
  • On the Internet for around a decade...
  • Thousands of incoming organic links from every poker site in existence...

And yet...238.

Now it could be argued that there's no way Two Plus Two could ever compete, SEO-wise, against the well-funded online poker venues who dominate the "poker" and "online poker" keyword arena. In Online Poker: Too Competitive for White Hat SEO?, Rand Fishkin explains.

Some of the more established sites (PartyPoker, FullTiltPoker, Bodog, 888, etc.) have hundreds of thousands of backlinks, a good portion of which are fully white-hat. In addition, they've got history, good on-page optimization and the depth of experience in the field that would be tough for anyone outside of my panel cohorts to match.

So achieving a Top 10 ranking for those terms takes a lot of time, money, and expertise. Fine. Poker SEO is a bloodbath especially on the short tail. We know this. Yet there are hundreds of sites with less content than Two Plus Two that rank higher in the SERPs. Two Plus Two manages to get schooled, rank-wise, by some truly tangential stuff.

  • Conjelco's poker glossary. Rank #57.
  • Lady Gaga's Poker Face Lyrics. Rank. Rank #64.
  • University of Alaska Geophysical Institute's Poker Flat Research Range. Rank #99.
  • The Poker For Dummies book on Amazon. Rank #174.

It performs slightly...slightly...better on the long tail, where you can find combinations of words that summon Two Plus Two results:

  • average player win rates PTBB/100
  • online poker AHK macros
  • absolute poker scandal

But what kind of user searches for those terms? A poker player who probably already knows about Two Plus Two, that's who. For those ultra-competitive poker keywords on the short tail, Two Plus Two's performance is abysmal. You could say that Two Plus Two is the 98-pound weakling of poker SEO.

Rarely will you find any website more deserving of rank getting so little of it. Nat Arem (in the above-linked article) points out a few reasons why:

  • "HORRIBLE URL management..."
  • "Lack of robots.txt usage, along with proper nofollow'ing..."
  • "Lack of keywords in URLS..."
  • "Not maximizing content..."

Some improvements have been made along these lines. But problems still abound:

  • Terrible on-page SEO. Clutter. Poor keyword density. More clutter.
  • Failure to promote high-value content (signal) over low-value content (noise).
  • Failure to promote high-value content on the front page.
  • Lack of coherent, easily-spiderable inner link structure.
  • Link density is way too high in general; keyword density too low.
  • No clear prev/next or left/right progression in multipage threads (at the markup level).
  • Two Plus Two post archiving process breaks permalinks and everything gets archived eventually.

Now I don't pretend to be an SEO virtuoso, and I'm not affiliated with Two Plus Two in any way, shape, or form. My attitude towards SEO has always been try to create good or at least decent or at least halfway unique content and make it basically accessible to search engines. But what's appropriate for me isn't appropriate for a high-traffic Internet forum like Two Plus Two.

Two different animals entirely.

So setting the classic SEO aspects aside, let's surf on over to a Two Plus Two thread and click the venerable View Source button. Here's the XHTML markup generated for a page consisting of one question:

at a small stakes game or for any nlhe game   What is the usual standard open live and online? 6max and 9max nlhe  I hear it is 4bb+ 1bb per limper. Is this correct?

And one response:

Yes. You'll find that all over the NLHE forums here. It gives you enough fold equity to usually get it heads-up, which will get you into situations you know well (after a while).

That's 341 characters total. And here's what the Two Plus Two servers spit out:

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            #<a href="http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/showpost.php?p=11953722&postcount=1" target="new" rel="nofollow"

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                <a class="bigusername" href="http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/members/168706/">thaman</a>
               
               
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            <div class="smallfont">centurion</div>
           
           

           

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                <div>Join Date: Mar 2009</div>
               
               
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                <strong>Standard Open</strong>
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            at a small stakes game or for any nlhe game   What is the usual standard open live and online? 6max and 9max nlhe  I hear it

is 4bb+ 1bb per limper. Is this correct?
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            #<a href="http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/showpost.php?p=11953756&postcount=2" target="new" rel="nofollow"

id="postcount11953756" name="2"><strong>2</strong></a>
           
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                <a class="bigusername" href="http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/members/49532/">fabadam</a>
               
               
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            <div class="smallfont">old hand</div>
           
           

           
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                     <br /><a href="http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/members/49532/"><img

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                 <br />
                <div>Join Date: Feb 2006</div>
                <div>Location: Haarlem, Netherlands</div>
               
                <div>
                    Posts: 1,203
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                <strong>Re: Standard Open</strong>
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            Yes. You'll find that all over the NLHE forums here. It gives you enough fold equity to usually get it heads-up, which will get

you into situations you know well (after a while).
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<option value="78" class="fjdpth1" >     Micro Stakes Full Ring</option>
<option value="58" class="fjdpth1" >     Heads Up NL</option>
<option value="8" class="fjdpth0" > Tournament Poker</option>
<option value="23" class="fjdpth1" >     MTT Strategy</option>
<option value="36" class="fjdpth1" >     STT Strategy</option>

<option value="87" class="fjdpth1" >     High Stakes MTT</option>
<option value="61" class="fjdpth1" >     MTT Community</option>
<option value="65" class="fjdpth1" >     Tournament Circuit/WSOP</option>
<option value="144" class="fjdpth1" >     Tournament Results</option>
<option value="9" class="fjdpth0" > Other Poker</option>

<option value="44" class="fjdpth1" >     Omaha/8</option>
<option value="38" class="fjdpth1" >     Omaha High</option>
<option value="20" class="fjdpth1" >     Stud</option>
<option value="21" class="fjdpth1" >     Draw and Other Poker</option>
<option value="10" class="fjdpth0" > General Gambling</option>

<option value="138" class="fjdpth1" >     Backgammon</option>
<option value="25" class="fjdpth1" >     Probability</option>
<option value="26" class="fjdpth1" >     Psychology</option>
<option value="40" class="fjdpth1" >     Sports Betting</option>
<option value="31" class="fjdpth1" >     Other Gambling Games</option>

<option value="77" class="fjdpth1" >     Entertainment Betting</option>
<option value="11" class="fjdpth0" > Internet Poker</option>
<option value="28" class="fjdpth1" >     Internet Poker</option>
<option value="49" class="fjdpth1" >     Internet Bonuses</option>
<option value="51" class="fjdpth1" >     Affiliates/RakeBack</option>

<option value="45" class="fjdpth1" >     Software</option>
<option value="12" class="fjdpth0" > 2+2 Communities</option>
<option value="34" class="fjdpth1" >     Other Other Topics</option>
<option value="63" class="fjdpth1" >     The Lounge: Discussion+Review</option>
<option value="79" class="fjdpth1" >     EDF</option>

<option value="108" class="fjdpth1" >     Las Vegas Lifestyle</option>
<option value="62" class="fjdpth1" >     BBV4Life</option>
<option value="119" class="fjdpth2" >         omg omg omg</option>
<option value="13" class="fjdpth0" > Other Topics</option>

<option value="46" class="fjdpth1" >     Sporting Events</option>
<option value="150" class="fjdpth2" >         Fantasy Sports</option>
<option value="151" class="fjdpth2" >         Single-Team Season Threads</option>
<option value="41" class="fjdpth1" >     Politics</option>

<option value="118" class="fjdpth2" >         Economics</option>
<option value="30" class="fjdpth1" >     Business, Finance, and Investing</option>
<option value="92" class="fjdpth1" >     Travel</option>
<option value="47" class="fjdpth1" >     Science, Math, and Philosophy</option>

<option value="137" class="fjdpth1" >     Religion, God, and Theology</option>
<option value="85" class="fjdpth1" >     Health and Fitness</option>
<option value="93" class="fjdpth1" >     Golf</option>
<option value="67" class="fjdpth1" >     Student Life</option>
<option value="140" class="fjdpth1" >     Chess and Other Board Games</option>

<option value="75" class="fjdpth1" >     Video Games</option>
<option value="59" class="fjdpth1" >     Puzzles and Other Games</option>
<option value="76" class="fjdpth1" >     Laughs or Links!</option>
<option value="48" class="fjdpth1" >     Computer Technical Help</option>

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Where do I even begin?

It may well be the case that Googlebot and other spiders will index up to 500KB or more of the content on a single page. But if your markup looks like the above, SEO is the least of your worries. When the ratio of boilerplate HTML to actual content starts to approach like 100 to 1 or 500 to 1 or worse, as it does on Two Plus Two, SEO is premature.

You still have a half-finished website.

I have no idea how much traffic and money and other Internet goodness Two Plus Two has squandered over the years by failing to produce a search engine-friendly website. I'm inclined to say millions of dollars but we'll never really know. Whereas forums like StackOverflow and even the reviled ExpertsExchange manage to court search engines with shallower link structures, appropriate keyword densities, optimized presentation of content, and permalinks that stay permanent, Two Plus Two's approach is more like search engine kryptonite.

And for a site with mountains of rich content operated by the guys who currently own the #1 Google result for the phrase non-self-weighting, that's a little ironic. ;-)

* - There are, however, lots of great forums out there, including PokerAI.org and CardsChat.com as well as some of the forums maintained by the poker sites themselves such as the forums at Full Tilt.

Tags: SEO, 2+2, online poker, poker

40 comment(s)

I've been SEOing my poker forum for just over a year and we rank for "poker forums" 5th on google.co.uk and recently dropped to 2nd page on google.com. I can safely say that twoplustwo do not have any SEO problems. They don't rank for the term "poker" because quite frankly, it's impossible. They'll get maybe 10 more unique views if they spent $5million just getting to page 3! I just don't think it's cost effective to get to the front page for "poker".

They get all their hits from thousands and thousands of long tail phrases like "What range do I raise on the CO in 6max". These people know something about poker but do not necessarily know anything about twoplustwo.

It's really just not sensible to rank for "poker" unless you are a multi-billionaire poker software CEO. Although it isn't great that twoplustwo don't rank top for "poker forums". My site is tiny in comparison but it is just a couple of places below the mighty 2p2!

Great article though.

I believe, I might be mistaken, but I believe that 2+2 has always considered themselves to be a book company first, an Internet company second. Malmuth //etc have deleted content off of 2+2, asked players not to discuss things in too much depth because it might 'hurt our book sales' etc so I don't think SEO is foremost on their minds.

That said, I agree with you that its a waste. Everything a person needs to know about poker can probably be learned by gleaning the 2+2 forums... if you have the superhuman patience for it. I don't.

Ah, 2+2 ranks 2nd for "poker forums" but that's behind a site who's NAME is "pokerforums". Effectively, that should be a #1.

What the heck is that in the black markup section? Is that a shaved rat?

I think to a degree this is a factor of the SEO-ability of legacy (read: crappy) forum software. 2p2 runs on vBulletin, which is decent from a usability standpoint, but horribly bad from an SEO standpoint. Then again other forums either customize or implement from scratch (like StackOverflow).

@ James

I think you're right, they could be a lot better. I guess the owners are just lazy with CEO and they're happy with the traffic they get so they don't bother link building or even just hiring a professional. Just even looking at their on-page SEO, they only have "poker forum" keyphrase written 3 times and "poker forums" written 0. The "s" on the end is really important as I have discovered, being page 1 with the "s" and page 9 without it. Google works in mysterious ways.

Maybe I'll start SEOing for Bing? :s

"What the heck is that in the black markup section? Is that a shaved rat?"

Lol, it's a newborn mole rat. So I guess you're half right.

Hi James. I'm curious to know where you got the traffic data for those sites shown in the graph at the top. Also, minor thing, technically cardplayer.com isn't a forum, so if you remove that from the equation 2+2 gets as much traffic as the rest combined.

I think 2+2 has a lot of problems not least of which SEO. The site learning curve is steep. The community can be a real dick to newcomers who don't read the FAQs and the FAQs aren't posted where they can be easily found. The site is a failure on the whole but it's been successful because of its dedicated user base. They churn out enough content/response to keep the newcomers coming.

How sad to read: "Important! Due to file space limitations, older archives are only available in digest form." - With a traffic like they have, a single ad should sponsor several terabytes of server disk space - and if they are worried more about bandwidth, they can just trim 450/500 of the generated HTML.

@Keff:

As James pointed out, they relie on their own book sales for profits. Putting up banners from competitors is therefore not an option.

Moreover, it all sounds easier then it really is. For an outsider, who doesn't relie on these type of revenues, it's indeed that easy. But there are many factors that determine the profitability of such a forum. So we cannot judge, from our point of view, if this really is bs from their side... or if they have to do this.

I cannot comment on the trimming part. But I'm sure this is true. The problem in that case is:

Is it really that easy to do for millions of pages?

This is a question I can't really answer. But I'm sure you can.

James,

It's been 3 months since you have written a technical article about poker botting (I think I am not the only one who considers player notes and OCR tangential). I was curious whether you had decided to shift the focus of the site away from the botting series. Is there anything you can share with your readers about that?

Thanks, Marc.

@ Marc

I don't have much of an interest in botting but I have an overwhelming desire for news/information on SEO and poker. I say stick to this stuff and throw in the bot coding every now and then. I'd love to see some really indepth technical posting about SEO (Google inparticular).

While I agree with Nick/Poker Forums about how terms like "poker" are so competitive it's almost not worth trying to rank well for them, the PokerJunkie.com forums are front-page for the keyword "poker". Currently at no. 10.

http://www.google.com/search?q=poker

There's not question that 2+2 should be ranking higher than PokerJunkie. So I'm going to have to go with the author on this one, but it's great to hear from some of the people who actually run forums. Keep the comments coming!

...and one more thing:

@James

Great job! I totally agree with your entire point, though I would have made it probably more harshly. The ignorance of the 2+2 company (and crowd, for that matter) is truly astounding. Honestly, as far as I'm concerned, I agree with Matt (the community can be a collective dick to newcomers (@2+2ers: newcomers are not the guys who stole your lunch money on the playground when you were little....get over it))....2+2 gets what they deserve.

Keep up the great work James. I rarely see bloggers who put as much work into their posts as you, and it always shows.

P.S.: When are you going to start monetizing your own blog? You deserve it. Stop giving your time away for free. ; )

@Seeing the forest:

Seriously... you'd better stick to what you are doing. I definitely know what I am talking about as I have, in fact, spend A LOT of money testing these type of things.

No, they would not benefit from it. All costs you got SEOing for a term as broad as poker and adding the bandwidth you are wasting... and then considering the small return you'll get for that is simply not worth it for a site like 2+2. Believe it or not. I don't care. I know what I'm talking about in this case.

For poker sites it's worth it because these people are interested to play poker. For fun. Their entire mentality is a fun mentality. Not a serious...

Let's pick up the latest book of Negreanu

...type of mentality. Ones you really realize that part... you'll also realize exactly WHY it has no real use nor added value to optimize for a term such as poker.

As for you "affiliate deals" comment. Here's my reaction:

Affiliate deals are no banner ads. I have never seen a forum who sell their own product, sticking up banners for other peoples products.

There's a huge difference between affiliate deals and being an affiliate. Where an affiliate deal is the "I promote you if you promote me" type of arrangement, an affiliate promotes other peoples product to make a living.

As we've established that 2+2 is interested in their sales only... they'll never promote stuff as an affiliate, as straight forward as that. They may only consider promoting other peoples product to their existing customer database IF the reward is that they'll get a promotion back. THAT is a real affiliate deal. And THAT is how the most successful companies in the world work. Believe me... because I do these type of things all the time. And there is a good reason why I do it in that way.

btw: there are always exeptions. But these are people who, in general, don't make a lot of money with their activities. And they fall back on banners, adsense and other stuff that doesn't really build a business. And 2+2 obviously isn't one of those companies.

How do I know all this? Because I have a very successful company in a very specific market. I tried optimizing my site for the main, single keyword, which was getting a lot of searches. And no... it didn't make a lot of money.

Also I personally know the owner of a big poker site. And we talk a lot about these type of things.

I can see your next comment coming. And I will counter that as well:

I am spending my time, giving such a comment because I got that time. Plus because reading James his blog is something I like to do. So commenting on his blog is something I like to do too. And I gladly spend some more time on that.

So before you tout yourself as the expert of all things regarding sales on the internet... think. Seriously now. And don't just blatantly attack or try to degrade people because you think you are right... while facts tell different. Pure, cold-hard facts and deep, DEEP psychology is what I'm really talking about in this case. No assumptions.

Ok... I will not waste any more words nor James his bandwidth on you. You're simply not worth it. Because it's too obvious that you don't know much about making money online with a real business. And quite frankly... I am not reading his blog because of you. But because James does a real good job on this blog. :)

I do agree on your last point, though:

James... you should definitely start to monetize your efforts. You really do deserve it. And it would be so easy too. :)

Nick and Seeing the Forest both have some interesting arguments...

Just in case anybody else didn't catch it, the "non-self-weighting" reference at the end of the post is an inside joke. In Gambling Theory and Other Topics, Mason Malmuth goes off on a rant about how even though nerd/geek/intellectual types may not get all the attention and the girls, they're non-self-weighting...when people speak, they listen... :-D

Fascinating discussion of the pros and cons of that dirtiest arena of SEO, online poker. ;-) The number of comment spam I see on this blog alone gives a good indication of how competitive the arena is. James, fwiw I would start moderating comments where the words "rakeback" or "poker" are mentioned in the comment website.

James,

Since your talking about SEO in this article, do you plan to do any articles that talk about it in more depth? like things to look for when creating sites and whatnot?

Hi Everyone:

I came across this article by accident and found much written to be quite interesting. Here are a few notes:

  1. Two Plus Two is in the middle of a major SEO upgrade. We are just beginning to see results. For instance, if you type in "poker forum" or "poker forums" you'll see that we are right at the top.

  2. Our business has three branches. Our book sales, foreign language book sales where we now have contracts to have books translated into 15 different languages, and our website. Stating that that our only source of revenue is from our English language book sales is inaccurate. All three branches each plays a significant role.

  3. We don't accept affiliate ads due to advice from our legal team. (The only exception to this is our Bonus Books Program which is restricted to non-US players only.) All banner ads on www.twoplustwo.com are paid for in advance with the exception of a few banners, such as the Poker Players Alliance banners, that we run at no charge. We do accept ads from affiliate companies as long as they are paid for in advance, and they are the affiliate and not us.

  4. We also accept ads from competitors. For instance, we recently ran ads for two non-Two Plus Two books. Our only requirement here is that we need reason to believe that it is a good book that will benefit our posters.

Best wishes, Mason

On final point. The statement that we asked/encouraged deletion of quality information on our forums is completely inaccurate. But I suspect that person already knew that.

MM

Mason -- huge fan of your books.

I've noticed the same thing with 2+2 SEO but: it's a problem many forums are afflicted with.

In addition to the things suggested in this article I would suggest that somebody take the best 2+2 posts and publish them in "Digest" form eg. available via RSS. Expose RSS feeds for all forums and threads.

Etc..

Also a hello to Mason Malmuth. Mason, as a former builder of poker forums I can attest to how difficult it is and I only wish my forum had achieved 1/10th the success of 2+2. Keep up the great work!

Although 2+2 has neglected this area for years and lost millions because of it, I know they have been taking steps to correct this. Just look at the recent improvements that have been made. As a webmaster in this industry, I honestly hate to see it :)

Hello Mason, huge fan. Gambling Theory & Other Topics FTW!!!

Found this thread late, but for archives sake there is considerable misinformation in the comments in the thread. The article is mostly right on.

" I still can't 100% understand how 2+2 ever fell behind in the SERPs in the 1st place,"

Because Mason is not a very flexible guy. He knows what he knows, books, and distrusts anything he doesn't understand at all, SEO (obviously). This has cost him conservatively $45,000,000 over the past decade. To their credit they recently have hired a SEO that should reap rewards eventually - for example, up until a couple months ago the main page was title "Two Plus Two", which does not exactly scream out "this page should rank for poker searches".

Ranking for short tail poker searches is not easy, but that is because there are sites out there like Two Plus Two with lots of quality content, powerful links, etc. Except for Cardplayer (even worse seo-ed than 2+2), most quality sites have adequate SEO. White hat rules poker searches, period. Black hat SEO fails, fails and fails again in the poker market, largely because Google recognizes the white hat assets of the sites it should. Cardplayer and 2+2 have aggressively pursued an ANTI-seo strategy for a decade, and have paid because of it.

(I don't think Nick above has any idea what he is talking about. 2+2 has had banners from "competitors", online poker rooms and affiliates, since 1998. That is where the real money is.)

Well 2+2 is undoubtedly the site of choice for real poker players. its got the best strategy forums and pretty much all of the best players in the world post or lurk there. Believe it or not I dont think ive ever even visited poker.com where as I read 2+2 every day

Great post, for a long time it was consensus that 2+2 was in fact the the worst SEO'ed poker forum ever...

If 2+2 was a run of the mill poker forum, and they implemented the SEO that they did, they would have been buried from the SERPS and their brand value would have been obliterated.

But it was their great content that kept them slightly above water. Now with proper SEO, the site can blossom nicely in the SERPS and add a new stream of visitors.

I think that you will see 2+2 has started changing this strategy. A friend of mine was hired to do the SEO for their site, but it is going to take time. Also, I think a lot of the problems is the people there just don't care about things like SEO, which fortunately is a good thing for other poker affiliates out there.

ha the guy who stole from his own affiliates and operators in the CardSpike scandel..not so successful if you ask me

SK: What? When was this? Link??

Complete and utter bullshit, that's what. SK doesn't know what he's talking about. That's not how it happened at all.

What a laugh this thread is book marked for future giggles =)

No more can be said really here but we definetly got a case of Poker Pros & Seo Noobs on the loose.

Evo VI RS

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