It takes a certain recipe to run a one-man operation for nearly 10 years, and still be one of the most successful casino affiliates in the world.
Ian Sims, known in the affiliate world as Simmo, has the ingredients for success, as he describes in this video interview. Some of the top components? A robust risk assessment plan, diversification across his 50+ sites, a passion for the games, and the 80/20 rule.
Check out the video above to learn Ian’s secrets, strategies and plans for his affiliate business moving forward.
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Warren Jolly: Hey, everyone, I’m Warren Jolly with CasinoAffiliatePrograms.com. I want to welcome you to today’s interview with Ian Sims, better known as Simmo. He’s a casino affiliate based in the UK. He went into the industry in 2005. He currently runs a small network of sites combining his passion for slots and utilizing his web development experience to create PHP, jQuery, and CSS-based sites for cross platform functionality. With experience as the director of two previous businesses and as an IT manager at one of the UK’s leading High Street banks prior to that, his current affiliate business has a strong focus on risk assessment and diversity. Ian, it’s great to have you. Tell us a little bit about how did you land in the iGaming space and become an affiliate?
Ian Sims: Through my hobby, really. I was doing a bit of gambling on Ladbrokes website one night and playing a bit of video poker as it happens, and not having a great session. I can’t remember what happened now, but I remember seeing the affiliate link at the bottom. I thought that sounded interesting, because my background was web development. One of the companies I set up and run was a web development agency. So I clicked it, read it, and thought, “I reckon I can do that.” I set up a sort of test site, for want of a better expression, and left it. I dabbled with it in and out sort of in the evenings and stuff. I got a couple of players, and like most people, I guess, you start to think there’s something in this. Off it went from there, really. So, as a player, is kind of the short answer.
Warren Jolly: Nice. And when did you become sort of full-time?
Ian Sims: Probably… It took three or four months to start realizing that there was money in it. At that stage, obviously, it wasn’t quite salary level, although I was self-employed at the time. I was working in the music publishing industry. It was my own company. So, it would’ve been a relatively easy jump. There wasn’t any kind of major responsibilities to consider or other companies. I think probably within a year I was outperforming what I was doing with music publishing with the casino stuff. That’s probably the point, by 2005, I was thinking this is the jump I’m making.
Warren Jolly: Just before the world fell out underneath us all.
Ian Sims: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. Good old UIGEA, yeah.
Warren Jolly: How did that affect your business, since you were sort of a year, a year and a half in at that stage?
Ian Sims: It wasn’t too bad actually. Well, I say it wasn’t too bad. I started off with OGGS.com. I had just made a deal about eight or nine months prior to that to sell it although staying involved in the business as a director. It wasn’t entirely my fish to deal with, although for the laws to be involved in the business obviously it had some sort of impact. But, the impact was relatively minimal. I think probably what it stopped us doing was growing the site. We hit a bit of a wall. For quite a while we were earning the same levels, if you like, through OGGS.com. So, didn’t see a major impact, but it’s hard to judge what would’ve happened if it hadn’t come in force. Basically, I suspect we probably would have started developing the site quite nicely.
Warren Jolly: Your focus has always been around sort of slots based content or websites. Now, I think your network spans 50 plus websites. What’s your strategy moving forward? Do you think still having a lot of sites is viable as an affiliate, and, if so, why? Obviously, the question’s based around SEO, Google’s recent updates, and sort of managing a business having that many properties. I just wanted to get your thoughts on that.
Ian Sims: I guess I’m kind of lucky in the fact I’m a developer, [such that] the network, a lot of the network runs itself. I have kind of centralized areas, where I feed the information in and it distributes it out to the other sites. Keeping it maintained is relatively straightforward which is great, because it’s something I’m not very good at. I like to develop new stuff and create rather than support existing stuff. From that angle, it’s not too bad. Obviously, there’s new content in bits and pieces to add, and I kind of cycle around the sites in a sort of relatively boring fashion. Throughout the year every site probably gets visited, well the smaller sites once or twice, and the bigger sites quite a bit more.
I believe it’s important, because, throughout this interview I’m sure I’ll probably come back to this, risk management is something that I’m very heavily into. Especially in this business where something can happen overnight that could affect your business. I’m very keen to try and diversify as much as possible. So, although I stick with what I know, which is generally slots and casino, I think it’s important to diversify. So, a network to me is a major, major issue. Yes, and so my strategy, moving forward, really is to continue that with one eye, obviously, on the US and one eye on mobile, because I think those are big areas. But, they’re not a major focus right now. That’s definitely a going forward thing, and probably for quite a few years.
Warren Jolly: So, do all of those properties that you currently have still kind of only focus on the UK, slots and casino market, or are you doing sports, or bingo? What’s your diversification strategy at the moment?
Ian Sims: They’re English-speaking markets. I’ve dabbled with foreign speaking markets, and I think I start to get out of my comfort zone with that. I think it’s very important to, for me anyway, to deal with what I know, what I understand, and what I love doing, which is basically writing about slot machines and playing slot machines. If I stick with that then I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing.
I have tried dabbling with sports. I’m trying a little bit with bingo in a joint venture at the moment. And, I’ve tried a bit with poker and I’ve actually sold that out. Because they just don’t grab me in the way that casino games do. It’s just not what I enjoy really, and I don’t think I can get too enthusiastic about it unless I enjoy it. So, I definitely stick with I like what I like.
Warren Jolly: Okay. So, being that you’re an avid slots player, you’re a technical webmaster, and an affiliate, what advice can you give to other affiliates that are sort of looking to build properties or affiliate businesses around targeting slot players in particular? I ask the question specific to slot players, because, as we all know, those are the players that generally drive the highest amount of yield lifetime to casinos in multiple markets.
Ian Sims: Yeah.
Warren Jolly: So, I think it’s an important segment to focus on.
Ian Sims: Yeah, I agree. I think things are changing rapidly. SEO itself is changing and dwindling in importance in terms of the way Google’s getting intelligent with its latest updates. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, because it’s basically removing elements that you can manipulate easily and putting the focus on authority and people knowing what they’re talking about.
I think that’s probably the one thing I would say to anyone, is “Know your product.” And, know your customers as well. I think if you can get the blend of those two right, then I think you can do very well.
Understanding your traffic is very important. You’ve got newbies, and you’ve got experienced players when it comes to slots. So, if you’re writing a review on Thunderstruck and targeting the term Thunderstruck, which is one of my favorite slot games, for example, then I think you’re wasting your time for people coming in searching for Thunderstruck telling them that it’s a five reel game with a free spin bonus that does 15 free spins at 3X, because they already know this. They’re coming in looking for more detailed information that you can probably only give them if you play the game. So, you can start to talk about the variance of the game, how the RTP affects your bankroll, and maybe how you should play it. Even more so, with newer slots, like the MGS ones, Playboy and stuff, where you’ve got different features, and every features affects the variance of the game.
If you can understand the game, and you know the game, and you understand what your audience wants you can get the right blend. Otherwise, you end up sending players to casinos. They play the wrong games, and they get a bit tired of losing all the time. They disappear. That’s not what you want. You need a player to win, to be honest with you. They need to be able to see they can win if they’re going to stick and stay loyal.
That’s kind of the key advice I would give. I wouldn’t spend an awful lot of time these days on SEO. I would focus very much on the content.
Warren Jolly: Okay. So, on that note, for someone who’s just starting out or even the guy who’s been in business three years, what marketing methods, A, do you currently utilize? Obviously, your properties are aged, so you’re still getting the benefit of natural search. What else can an affiliate do to drive traffic in a profitable fashion [to] still kind of yield high-value players?
Ian Sims: I think the two key elements… I deal almost entirely with search engines. I’ll be honest with you. I do some joint ventures with people, perhaps in areas where my skill set and their skill set match up quite nicely. That, obviously, can bring traffic from other sites. I get a fair bit of returning traffic on the main sites. So search engines, for me, are the key. I’m aware that there is a risk associated with that unless you don’t diversify enough. But, you’ve got more than one search engine, and there are other areas you can get it from.
I’ve tried PPC, and I think PPC with Google is pretty much a full-time job if you want to make it pay. I think you need someone really focusing on that. You can make it pay with long-tail terms and stuff, but it’s hard work. I work on my own, so it’s not something I’m really prepared to invest in, having tried it.
And another thing, you can also look at the social platforms, Facebook and stuff. Facebook has a fantastic advertising system in terms of how it performs and who you can target. Indeed, the value in terms of the number of clicks you can get per the cost per click is fantastic. Again, I tried that a couple of years ago. I ran it three or four months. When I sat down and looked at the overall figures that came out of that, it just made very poor reading. It maybe just covered about what I put into it. I decided that wasn’t an avenue.
I tend to focus now on natural search. I still believe, at the moment, at least, that that’s where most traffic will come from for slots affiliates, unless they’re involved in communities, perhaps. But, again, that goes back to the authority thing. Casinomeister’s done a lot for me, obviously, as a moderator there, but then I’m in Casinomeister as a player. So I get involved in player conversations at a relatively deep level or certainly a knowledgeable level. I think that obviously helps, but not everyone can get that involved in a community that easily.
Warren Jolly: What would be your tips for other affiliates who, let’s just say, are struggling in their SEO efforts? I mean everyone knows Google’s gotten inherently more difficult as time has passed. What are some quick things that people should be doing that still work today?
Ian Sims: In terms of SEO, there are no quick things any more I don’t believe. There are short-term fixes. If you want to start throwing links all around the place and what have you, those still do have an impact. If you want to take the risk of buying links and stuff, that still has an impact, but it’s a short-term strategy and you’re taking a risk.
A number of my sites are probably seeing the benefits now of other people around me having done that in the past, because I just basically plodded away adding content. I’ve never bought a link in my life. That’s a lie, I bought one about six years ago. I don’t exchange links generally. I don’t do anything with linking. I might do some relevant links within my network if it’s got some value for that user on a particular page.
But, in general, I spend my time doing content, and those people… The reason my sites have generally done well over the past year and a half since Panda and Penguin came in, I think, is because sites above me have been chopped out or relegated. So, more so than Google recognizing, necessarily, that my content is good, I’m not sure it necessarily can do that quite yet, but it’s getting there. I think certainly it’s recognizing what’s bad. It’s recognizing what’s bad, or Google, I believe, thinks what’s bad is basically what it sees a hundred times over and over again. So, it’s seeing a hundred sites saying pretty much the same thing and thinking, “Well we only need one that tells us this so let’s pick what we think’s the best.”
Warren Jolly: So the old tried and true methods still work?
Ian Sims: They still have some value. Like I say, anything you can manipulate in Google is basically a short-term solution. Yeah, oh I see, it’s funny, [I think I'll take that back]. It’s been a bit cyclical, because I think before I came into the industry I read a hundred times, “content is king.” You saw some great sites, which are still going today like the Wizard of Odds and things like that, which became sort of Bibles in games and casino stuff, had really good content and still do.
I think there was an element where Google had a lot of holes in it that were exploited, so consequently a lot of these very good sites probably didn’t do as well as they should’ve done for long period of time, dipped out, and now the valuable ones are starting to come back, albeit gradually. There are still loopholes. A quick look at the generic terms like online casinos will still show you hacked sites and all sorts of stuff getting in there. So it’s not perfect. It’s a long way from perfect, but it’s the way it’s going.
If you have a long-term strategy then I think content and authority is the long-term strategy. But, in the short-term, yeah, you can still get away with little bits and pieces if you’re prepared for that site to take a nosedive in six months, a year, whatever.
Warren Jolly: So, touching on long-term, you mentioned earlier risk management is a big focus of your business, and diversification is a key way how you manage risk. In terms of bringing that element to the rest of the business and everything else that you do, how do you effectively manage risks such that your business and your sites are around into perpetuity?
Ian Sims: I have a kind of a, an absolute, what I call an 80/20 rule, which is basically where I try to make sure that no more than 20% of my sites are on one server, that no more than 20% of my revenue comes from one site, that no more than 20% of my traffic comes from one source. And so on and so forth.
I basically identified all the different elements that could affect my business, hence why I now have a network of 50 sites. They’re on different servers in different countries with different who is, to a degree. I’ve got businesses, and I’ve got my own name, et cetera. I’ve tried to diversify as much as I can, just purely to minimize that risk. That’s the way I handle it.
I think it’s major. This industry changes overnight. Regulation is obviously a major part of it. You get some rather underhanded political tactics. A lot can affect your business. And Google turning around one night and saying, “You know what, we don’t like that site anymore.” With all of your eggs in one basket, or a lot of your eggs in one basket, it’s going to hit you hard. It’s almost impossible to get it right.
Look at my revenue breakdown, for example, over the past 12 months. I think in only two of those months has my top earner been over 20% of my total revenue. Again, working with a lot of programs, switching programs, has made a big difference to that. My sites, obviously, some have died, and some have gone up. They kind of rotate a bit in Google. Some are doing well, while others at the moment aren’t. You work on those. That’s the kind of focus I tend to have.
I also have a slightly different philosophy, I think, to some affiliates in terms of, if I see a site doing well… Sorry, if I see a casino operator doing well on my sites, I tend to move them down, and I move someone else up. Again, so I can spread my players over lots of different programs relatively evenly. Again, it’s hard to balance. You’ll never get it exact, but you can do a reasonable job of that.
Warren Jolly: Okay. Part of risk management, you mentioned earlier. You work solo by yourself. You’re not employing any staff. But, how do you manage the 50 properties in the sense of like, producing content? Are you doing it all yourself, or are you working with any freelancers? Tell us just a little bit about that.
Ian Sims: No, I do it all myself. I’ve got a handful of those joint ventures where content comes from both sides, or I provide the content and they provide marketing or something like that, but in general, I, you know, those sites in general. I do subscribe to new services and stuff, which brings in fresh content, which is pretty valuable stuff. So, I have got stuff going on on the sites as well as what I do.
But, as I said to you earlier, being sort of technical I guess, coming from a technical background, I’ve identified the sites that can remain relatively static and those that need fresh content, and I focus my efforts where I feel they’re needed.
Another thing I do as well is I don’t necessarily add content every day or every week to a site, but I try to do it on a regular scale. So, I might add one article a month to one of my sites, but I do that every month. If it’s a particularly busy site or I’m trying to boost a particular ranking, then I might well add one a week for X amount of time.
I find I can manage it because I can write it. Because know slots so well, I don’t have to go and research it. I can normally find something decent to write about. I can do an article on the Marvel slots from Playtech off the top of my head and go into quite some depth on each game, how it compares, and the variance of each game and stuff. Because I’m a player, I guess that just helps. It saves a lot of time when it comes to writing content.
Warren Jolly: I see. Which ties back to your earlier comment about sort of being the expert in the key area that you’re focusing on as an affiliate.
Ian Sims: Yeah. If you pick, even if it’s only a small area, maybe someone like a blackjack expert or whatever and just focus on blackjack, you’ll do very well, because people will see you as the person to come to, as the authority in that niche, and that’s how you get the recognition. That recognition will help within Google, and so on and so forth. I think a lot of affiliates probably try to be too many things to too many people when they don’t really need to be.
Warren Jolly: Okay. You mentioned that online casinos in particular could definitely treat their players a lot better. If you could wave a magic wand and make that happen, how would these casinos effectively be able to do that?
Ian Sims: This is a key aspect, because when I’m taking on a casino I don’t look at the affiliate program first at all. I look at the casino. I’ll go and play it, and I’ll see how they treat me. And I’ll probably play as a VIP and see how they treat me as a VIP. Then I’ll make a decision. Then, if that works, I’ll have a look at the affiliate program and see if those terms are suitable. If necessary, I’ll go and negotiate separately and get a separate agreement.
I think the problem is there are a lot of casinos out there that don’t deal with regular players or don’t recognize VIP players particular well or, even worse, don’t really see each player as an individual with individual needs. A lot of us affiliates get bonus traffic, and a lot of us get experienced players who want different things. A lot of casinos, a lot of Playtech’s, for example, take four, five, or six days to cash out. No one, unless they’re a bonus player and they’re getting regular bonuses, no experienced player’s going to sit with that. They’re going to try it. They’re going to cash out. They’re going to wait four days, and they’re going to think, “What am I doing?” you know, “I can go and play at Paddy Power, or Betfred, or bet365″ and get paid next day or same day, even.
So, experienced players, if you’re targeting those, you need to understand a bit more about what the casinos do. I think casinos themselves need to understand a bit more about what they do. I think the affiliate programs are a bit too divorced from the casino to understand what they do. So, I think in an ideal world, you’d look at your 32Reds and 3Dice casinos and the newer ones like Guts and Tropezia Palace, who are doing much better jobs. And sort of recognize that players have individual requirements, not just VIP’s but all players. They’d do more for those players, and consequently, as an affiliate, I’d do well with those brands.
They can’t all do that. The bigger brands can’t. They’ve just got too many players and [we] don’t have enough staff. It tends to be the smaller brands that can do that if they choose to.
Warren Jolly: That’s helpful. Obviously, you’re close with a lot of the other top affiliates in the industry. What are one or two things that this group of affiliates do consistently, or in common rather, to stay successful and remain ahead of the rest of the pack?
Ian Sims: I think the thing I’ve noticed, really, about them, is they have a very good understanding of how to run a business, and they’re driven. I think those are the two key elements. I differentiate myself in a way, because I see myself… Well, I believe I have a good understanding of business just purely because I’ve been lucky enough to run a couple of businesses before and come from a banking background, which kind of teaches you those principles.
I see myself more as a lifestyle affiliate than a driven affiliate, so money to me is not that important. Don’t get me wrong. It’s what I measure my success by, month by month, I’ll look to see, you know, as a secondary measure anyway. I look at the players I signed up as my kind of primary measure. Money is obviously important to all of us, but lifestyle is what it’s about. I want to have, you know, a convenient lifestyle.
The professional, the big affiliates, you see, the Power 50 and stuff like that, tend to be, part of them, employing people running businesses, very driven, spending 12, 14 hours a day, doing the work and basically managing the people they’ve got working for them. But, they fully understand what their weaknesses are. They plug those by getting people in around them that understand the elements of the business. If they’re not financially sound, they’ve got someone to run their finances for them. If they don’t know slots and they’re dealing with slots, they’ve got people that understand slots well.
I think those are the ones that, generally speaking that we would, the affiliate programs are probably called businesses rather than affiliates. You’ve got PokerListings and Davindras, a lot in America, Bettingpro, and Bingo Port, and these kind of… They’re companies, really. I mean, they are companies. They [rate] with, you know… They’re very driven directors, but they’re now companies. They’re not really, they are affiliates, but they’re kind of in another league, really.
Warren Jolly: Yeah, definitely going more the business route many of the affiliates in the space.
Ian Sims: Yeah, that doesn’t have to be the way. I mean, you can do it on your own. You can do it sitting at home. It’s just that that differentiates the sort of, what I would probably say are the million-dollar businesses from the five and six mega businesses, if you like.
Warren Jolly: Absolutely. Let’s touch on social gaming a little bit. Obviously, many affiliates have seen Slotomania, DoubleDown Casino, and what have you. Some of these businesses, DoubleDown in particular, I know sold for half a billion US, and Slotomania somewhere close to 100 million US. These were their exits. You had mentioned that you don’t particularly like social gaming and you question its morality. I just wanted to get your thoughts on that and some further elaboration.
Ian Sims: Yeah, I’m not sure morality is necessarily quite the right word. I think the problem with social gaming and gambling is there’s a danger in normalizing gambling. You’re reaching out to people…
There’s a difference between social gaming and a search engine. Someone comes to a search engine and they know what they’re looking for. They’re looking for something gambling-related, they search it, and they find it.
On Facebook, there’s are a lot of people, your family, my family, daughters, sisters, husbands, wives, whatever, that haven’t’ really got an interest in gambling. They’ve never really considered gambling, yet they’re going to be faced with gambling ads in bits and pieces on here like they are on television but in a much more direct way.
It bothers me slightly that the gambling industry will normalize itself through social and be in the same sort of situation as the porn industry currently finds itself, where it’s being questioned as to whether… in the UK, it’s being questioned as to whether maybe everyone should have to opt in on their ISP’s in order to receive, if they want to access porn sites and stuff. Good or bad, I’m not here to debate that. But, I think the gambling industry needs to be a little bit careful in that regard.
I’m not particularly comfortable with just banging my adverts out for my sites to hundreds of thousands of people who may not have considered gambling and be responsible for one of them getting a habit. I’d rather, if I’m going to do that, I want to do it to someone who’s searching for it. At least that’s someone who’s going in with their eyes open.
Warren Jolly: That makes sense. So, your strategy, going forward, you talked about the US market and mobile. Could you elaborate a little more? What are your plans in the US, or what are you thinking of doing? Whatever you’re willing to share, obviously, and as well with mobile. Obviously, mobile’s starting to, I wouldn’t say mature, but obviously it’s, the products have been quite established now. There are a lot of players in the mobile gaming market. So where do you see yourself fitting in in both of those arenas?
Ian Sims: The US is pretty straightforward. It’s a waiting game. I think until we know a lot more about what’s happening over there, there’s not really a lot of point in getting involved. There’s not really a lot of need to get involved for most affiliates, I think. Since UIGA most have probably managed to diversify pretty successfully, and those that haven’t probably aren’t in the industry anymore.
I don’t think there’s really anything else we can do right now except keep an eye on what’s happening and follow. Be like sheep, I guess. That’s where we’re at at the moment. I do believe there will be a space for affiliates, but I don’t think it will be as lucrative as we’re used to. Lucrative as in the revenue shares and stuff. I think the number of players, obviously, will probably make up for that.
Mobile’s a bit more interesting, because it’s a bit more now. It’s particularly well suited to sports betting, obviously. I’m still a little bit skeptical on casino games where you need to spend more time, generally, with a game than with, you know, a sports app, where you go in and place a bet.
I think tablets are the game-changer for a casino. And obviously, now you’ve got the [market getting] Playtech products. You’ve got the IGT games out. Then [NetEnd's Touch] and all this sort of stuff going on. When you play them, they look pretty decent. Microgaming’s and Playtech’s games look fantastic. [NetEnd's] games look fantastic. Playtech, has somewhat, in my opinion, screwed up their interface, so it’s not particularly playable at the moment. But, clearly, they’re symmetric going into it. And [Microgames] is very good, albeit without autoplay at the moment, but I’m sure that will come.
I think mobile’s probably more now, and I think that’s definitely got a future. But I think it’s, you have to think, I think, from a casino’s point of view, I think you have to think of mobile as a sort of [in situ]… It’s more of a device than it is the actual action. I don’t think people travelling around on trains and planes are necessarily going to spend that much time playing casino games, because you need a length of time to do it. I think it’s more likely they’ll play at home on a tablet. But it’s definitely an interesting market, and I’m seeing more and more activity.
One big, big problem I think that casinos have at the moment is their signup forms. People generally don’t want to type on a mobile device, on a tablet or a phone, and the signup forms are daunting. So I’m seeing more and more mobile players coming through upsell than I am through direct signup on tablets and mobile phones.
It needs someone to crack a short signup form where you take the basics, then you take the deposits, and once the money’s in there, you know you’re not going to lose the player. Then you get the rest of the information. When someone cracks that, I think they’ll have pretty much a winning formula, but it’s not there yet. Obviously, KYC plays a part.
Warren Jolly: Yeah. That’s interesting feedback. So, Ian, we’re up on time. I really appreciate your time on this interview. Thanks so much for all your insight and expertise. Obviously, you’ve been around for a while, so everyone can appreciate that.
If anyone’s interested in contacting Ian, go ahead and send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to put you in touch.
Thanks for watching, and stay tuned for future interviews with iGaming industry leaders. Bye.
Ian Sims, better known as Simmo, is a casino affiliate based in England who entered the industry in 2005. His background is as a web programmer and prior to affiliating he set up and ran two “real world” companies, one a music publisher and the other a web development agency which, although he is longer involved, is still operating.
He currently runs a small network of sites combining his passion for slots and utilising his web development experience to create PHP, jQuery and CSS based websites for cross-platform functionality. With experience as a director of two previous businesses and as an I.T. manager at one of the UK’s leading high-street banks prior to that, his current affiliate bussiness has a strong focus on risk assessment and diversity.
Away from work, Simmo is a keen golfer and football player (an Arsenal fan) and is an avid listener of ambient, IDM, experimental and downtempo electronica. By his own admission, the boundaries between “downtime” and work become a little blurred through the fact that his hobbies also include programming and playing slots!