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PokerListings CEO Martin Carleslund: Why Affiliates Can't Bet On Google

Sure, PokerListings has 2.1 million backlinks and 10,000 No. 1 positions with keywords, but print media and PPC can be other means of effective marketing channels, as Martin Carleslund explains in this video interview. As CEO and President of Highlight Media Group, one of the world-leading affiliate and online marketing groups and holding company for, Martin knows a thing or two about diversifying a marketing strategy and making the mistake of relying solely on Google will hurt your affiliate marketing business in the long run.
So, why does PokerListings continue to be the world’s #1 online poker portal? Not relying solely on Google to meet all of your SEO needs. Diversification into other marketing channels is essential to success, Martin explains, as well as why a balanced user experience and SEO relationship will make you a successful affiliate in the long run.
About Martin Carleslund
In 2010, Martin Carleslund became CEO and President of Highlight Media Group, which owns among other verticals Prior to joining HLM, Martin served as CEO and President of Eniro Sweden, overseeing 3, 200 employees. He’s also served as CEO and President, as well as CEO and President 3L System Group, a public company noted on the Stockholm Stock Exchange.
Raw Transcript

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Warren: Hey everyone. I’m Warren Jolly with I want to welcome you to today’s interview with Martin Carleslund.
Since 2010, Martin has been the CEO and President of Highlight Media Group, the holding company of PokerListings and
HLM is a diversified affiliate marketing and online publishing company with offices worldwide, and works in many verticals outside of live gaming. The company is the largest iGaming affiliate in the world, and to our knowledge, generates over 100 million euros  in estimated annual turnover.
Today, we’ll learn about the amazing business HLM has built, how they got there, and the company’s future direction. Martin, it’s great to have you today. Thanks for joining us.
Martin: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
Warren: Let’s start off by telling our audience the history of HLM since it first created, and how the business got to where it is today as the biggest player in our industry.
Martin: Okay. It’s nice. I can comment on that. I can give you some information on the background of our company. It started with the founders, who saw a great opportunity in the organic search and also the PPC. I started out testing that early, in 2005.
Started to see how we could build a number of sites using the organic search as a platform. We were really, really early on that. Created from that, among other sites,
It became, due to our competence in SEO, one of the largest sites in the world with regard to poker, for example.
Warren: Okay. You’re personally new to iGaming and have no prior gambling experience or industry relations before joining HLM in 2010. What do you love and dislike about this industry?
Martin: I’m new to gambling, of course. What I actually do love about the industry is the great potential in it. It’s like downgraded right now, and we’re losing it because of the number of players and interest of media. That also creates a huge opportunity. It’s a highly immature market, and I think that that creates a lot of opportunities for us that is out there, behaving in a professional way.
Warren: What would you say has been challenging or that you’ve not been so fond of, coming from other industries in the past into gaming? Where do you see the big challenges outside of just the ups and downs of the market?
Martin: It’s probably a little bit the same as the up side. The downside, due to the immaturity of the market, there’s a lot of “not so serious” actors. It’s sometimes very hard to make business with people in iGaming.
They don’t really say anything, and it’s hard to get to the core essence of the business. There’s a lot of speculation, a lot of hiding figures, and so on. That’s a little bit frustrating, to put it mildly.
Warren: As far as HLM is concerned and your business, how many employees does the company have? Is there one office, or multiple offices around the world? Help us understand the scope of the business.
Martin: We have a lot of offices around the world. We have offices in Stockholm, Malta, London, New York, Palm Coast, Manila. Probably I mentioned Malta, and Thailand as well. We have quite some offices around the world. We’re about 270 employees. I would say around 300 employees in different places in the world.
Warren: Okay. You operate multiple verticals outside of iGaming. What are your most successful verticals?
Martin: Of course gambling, poker and casinos substantial, that’s important verticals for us. We operate in ten more different verticals, such as web hosting, Forex, the finance sector, mortgage, and others. I would say that next in line of interest for me right now, when it comes to other verticals, would be the finance sector vertical within the US. We’re doing very well there and it’s an interesting market. Right now I would say finance.
Warren: Outside of verticals, you mentioned the US as a key market. What are some other key markets for the business?
Martin: It’s either the US or Europe. That’s our two, of course, major markets, so to speak. Then if you look at the European market as such, then the major countries in Europe are the major markets, like Germany, France, Spain, Italy. We are, of course, strong in the other countries as well, like Sweden, Scandinavia and England and so on. It’s sort of divided between Europe and the US.
Warren: Excellent. You work heavily with SEO. That seems to be the emphasis in terms of the business. How do you successfully create a quality user experience, but at the same time create as many leads as possible for your customers and advertisers?
Martin: I think that’s a balance. You have to monitor it every day. If you don’t monitor it, you will either go out of the search, not doing very well organically, or you will actually become a site that is not interesting to the user. Then in the long run if the site’s not interesting to the user, Google will take you away for some or other reasons.
We monitor it, and we do the best we can. It’s important not to over-capitalize the sites. If you make them look like Christmas trees, they won’t be long lasting. You have to really take care of your brand, and try to do something unique with your sites. If you manage to do that, at the same time earning some money, over time you will succeed.
Warren: In terms of monthly published articles throughout your website, maybe some of the top keyword positions you maintain in Google in some of the highly competitive terms, what information can you share with our audience about the business?
Martin: I can of course not share everything, as you understand, but like I said we publish more than 180,000 articles a year. We hold more than 10,000 number one positions within competitive keywords. Every month, we have more than 10,000 number one positions, and we publish 180,000 articles. That gives you some kind of scope.
Warren: You said 10,000 number one positions, correct?
Martin: Yes.
Warren: Very impressive. From my understanding, you were heavily impacted by the Google Panda update. What percentage of your traffic did you lose because of the update, and were you able to recover at all from that update, or are you still in that process?
Martin: We, as everyone else, as an affiliate were more or less affected by Panda. If you look at Google’s Panda rollout, about 40% of affected sites were affiliates. We’re in an affiliate area, we’re affected.
That’s of course something that Google wants, because they think that affiliates are not interesting, and they don’t add value to the user experience and therefore they take it away. We are working to get back, with many sites doing the right things.
We have gotten back some of our space. We’re continuously fighting to do so. I would say that the successful criteria is, of course ,what I expressed is the user experience of the site. You have to work with them in a better way, and you have to make substantial changes to get that.
Warren: Outside of the user experience, are there any other things that you would recommend to affiliates in terms of SEO, based on this major update and other factors that they might not be doing?
Martin: I would say that everyone that knows their business should consider where you make your money, and focus where you make it, and don’t keep too many things where you don’t earn money, which is bad for your site. That’s obvious. Cut everything that is not useful and still don’t earn any money. Take it away. That would be one advice.
Warren: We recently profiled in one of our infographics on link building. How did you successfully acquire over 2.1 million backlinks to the site?
Martin: That’s the big question, right? I think that first of all, Poker Listings is a really strong site in many aspects. It’s strong in SEO, strong in content, is strong for any user brand, and it’s strong for branding other operators.
I would say that the 2.1 million backlinks or whatever figure that you give out, it serves out a lot of efforts done over many years. If you continuously work with your site and you’re successful with organic search, then you will have a huge number of backlinks.
This is, I would say, the essence. Poker Listings is the essence of where you would get eventually.
Warren: Rome wasn’t built overnight, we understand.
Martin: Exactly.
Warren: Before I had interviewed you, you had mentioned you were trying to diversify away from your company’s reliance on Google. What other traffic sources, marketing methods are you going to deploy to achieve this goal?
Martin: I think that a non-opportunistic affiliate, meaning someone is actually wanting to be building company, needs to look into the normal marketing channels as assisting to survive or to build their business for the future.
There are print and other online measures to do so. You have to look into that, and you have to find some talent to your organic search, which you can acquire, raw data and then balance it with maybe PPC and print and other.
That’s what we’re looking into. PPC is one way, of course, everyone knows that. You can also do printed revenue, or printed advertising to build your brand. We are doing that.
Warren: Have you found any success with social media?
Martin: We are doing social media, as well. Of course, we have had some success with it, but there is a much, much less user intent in the social media platform than in, for example Google, or if you look in advertisement space in a newspaper.
When you go to social media, you don’t go there to shop, you don’t go there to do something, you go there to socialize with your friends or colleagues or whatever. Due to that lower user intent, you have to value it differently.
There will never be, even on a high traffic volume, a high monetization or conversion on social media. Everyone has to be aware of that.
That’s a known fact, but somehow in affiliates they may not always think of that.
Warren: In your opinion, what can affiliates do to build a strong brand in an industry?
Martin: I think we can do a lot. Again, it’s not made in one. It’s not enough to take just one domain and push it to number one keyword in a SERP where you lure someone in. You have to add something.
To become a brand, you have to add content. You have to have a user experience that is good, and you have to actually contribute, invest something. If you don’t do that, you won’t be a good affiliate, and then you might earn money for awhile or for a very long time, but you won’t be a brand.
You can earn maybe money for a long time, very fine, but you won’t be a brand. If you want to go for a brand, you have to know to invest in that. It might be to take down a conversion and add content and so on.
We are, of course, now trying to balance that, as everyone else. To build a brand costs money, and that has to be balanced between earning money here and now and building the brand.
Warren: Why is it important for affiliates to run websites like real businesses, and do things like constantly monitoring their financials? I know you mentioned that’s something that HLM does quite a bit, and that’s behind the structure. Can you give our audience some tips along these lines? How it’s helped the business?
Martin: It helped the business in such a way. We are in control. We know what we do. It’s a substantial, quite large company, and we run it and we know what we’re doing. We know our trends, we know the statistics.
We even know more about probably some of the player values in casino or in poker or even conversion rate in lenses that you have, contact lenses, than the operators, the real business-making of that. I think if you know that, you can build something that is really good. You can build a company based on that.
If you’re only in to earn the money short term, then you don’t need to build a company. Then it’s only about SEO, or you can go a little bit more black hat and you can do a lot of things to just push your site in rank, and you earn the money and take it and run.
You take the money, and when you’re done you take the next site. That’s more like, “I can do it personally, I earn it myself and I earn my money and I put it into studies, or I buy stock options, or I be a millionaire.” That’s fine.
But it won’t create a company. Then if you go that route, you’re in for the money, and you do it for the money. HLM is not in of course to deliver money, but we’re in to build something as well. A substantial company presence on the market, being able to create a CAP value and a platform for our employees, the value of our employees and all others.
Then if you select that group, then you have to act differently. Then you have to know what you’re doing.
Warren: Are there plans to take the company public in the future?
Martin: Can’t comment on that.
Warren: Okay. When you look at fundamentals of how affiliates and operators approach offline and online marketing in our industry, what areas of improvement are there in your opinion, and why is this important?
Martin: I would say that it’s so typical when it comes to poker. Many of the casino operators are coming also from the poker world. They complement in the platform in the casino and so on.
When everything is going very, very well, it was a hard situation. Money pouring in, people earning a lot of money. It’s not that important how you spend your marketing. You can take your million dollars or two or three, and you spend it somehow on marketing. You buy your case affiliate and you do something else.
Once it gets to a more normal situation, you actually have to know what return on investment, how many eyeballs do I get if I advertise in this way? How does it convert, what do I need to do? Just like anyone else.
Like Gilette is doing a campaign in Sweden or in the US, you have to know what they’re doing. How about if I continue a commercial here, what do I get in return? How many times do my target group see this advertising? Do they see it one time or two times?
All those things aren’t being completely done in the iGaming sector, I would say, because it’s been so easy in earning too much money. Now when the margins go up, down on its pressure, the market is legalizing, then everyone has to properly analyze what they’re doing and see what kind of return do we get from this publishing, or this player who buy from PokerListings?
How do we earn money on that? We have to negotiate and discuss that. As we do so, we learn, and we will find out the marketing channels being prosperous or gaining much return.
Warren: How has the Poker Listings business been since 2006, since the change of the US landscape? Have you seen growth consistently? What is the current lay of the land of
Martin: You mean the US in particular?
Warren: No, I mean globally. Just the website and the business behind it. Obviously I’m sure, when the US market closed, there was an impact. What has happened since then?
Martin: If you look at the global poker market, it peaked 2009 in March. That’s it. Just skip everything else, 2009 March, it. After that it’s been going down. Different volumes, different parts of the world, but it’s still going down.
I won’t tell what market, but one market, first part of 2010, organically went down with 48% in Europe. Meaning that the number of new players on the market are 48% lower, 2010, first of year, than 2009 first of the year.
People don’t understand that. The market’s at the same time consolidating, so some operators grow, of course, like PokerStars have been doing good during that time. That’s due to consolidation, that’s not market growth.
You have to monitor your market, what’s happening with it. To just put it bluntly, poker has been going since 2009, March, all over the world.
Then, of course, seasonality blends in, and then of course consolidation. Some brands disappear and so on. That of course affects it. But the total market organically has gone down.
I think that we see the course, because we monitor the market. I do that. We have the data warehouse, which I implemented two years ago, and we really monitor exactly what’s happening in our market.
We have tens of thousands of keywords that we monitor. We see exactly how behavior is changing. We see the number of people coming in and going out.
Since Google is such a large sector, you can read the markets from that. I think that anyone present on the market space should evaluate that and see what’s happening, and have to take appropriate action due to that.
Warren: As you see competition growing and saturation occurring, and the markets decreasing, how do you plan on continuing to expand your business in online poker over the next few years?
Martin: We want to build a very good portal for poker in each country. We have a number of products we’re putting together, and we’re acquiring a number of companies in different countries right now to build a substantial poker program.
We’re aiming to grasp the opportunity presented within poker, delivering good players to operators. High value players, fish to their network, and have a very, very close and good cooperation with operators.
We are building right now to remain on the market and be a substantial marketing partner.
Warren: You see that happening also quite a bit through consolidation on your own end, acquiring specific players and certain markets?
Martin: Yes, we do that. The big challenge right now is that many of the big players that we acquire or on the way to acquire or have acquired, they are initially coming from very high profit margin and they earned a lot of money, and they believe there’s a really strong value of the company.
Now it has to come down substantially. When that happens, we are willing to buy actually the database, add them in a certain way to our portfolio.
Warren: You’re in many other verticals outside of online gambling. You mentioned moving into the US finance. Are there any other new verticals that you’re considering moving into that we haven’t touched on?
Martin: We started ten new verticals in 2011 already, and evaluating them. Of those ten, it would be three of them actually pushing hard revenues in 2012. I will keep them to myself until later in the year. That’s a simple fact. We constantly develop and are looking for new verticals, using our skill and the set-up that we have, to reach out and get the new verticals. This year we started ten, and I think three of them will survive. The rest we just cut down.
Warren: Last question, where do you think the online gambling industry will be headed in the next five years?
Martin: I think the gambling industry will be legalized completely in five years. Basically all European and also US markets. The US market won’t be legalized as I see it until 2012, possibly 2013. There will be a tax on all iGaming.
Casinos will not be legalized. It might be shut out like it’s been in France, for example. I think that a number of the operators will disappear again. We don’t know which, but if I would have told you two years ago that Full Tilt and PokerStars would actually be killed in the US, you wouldn’t have believed that either.
I think the same changes will come to Europe. Not only in particular PokerStars, but there will be major changes on the market space. We could see the same with [inaudible 23:54], for example, France and so on.
I think that everyone that is an operator, they have to manage the company differently. Instead of increasing rates, they have to cut costs for the first time. They have to balance the company. They can’t go, “OK, we’re losing money due to tax, so we increase the rate.” That will kill the game.
You have to lower your cost base, do some cost cutting. Then keep the rate on a low level. The fat and happy times, they are over. That’s how I see it.
Warren: Okay. Martin, it’s been great to have you as our guest today. I really appreciate all your insight and expertise. It sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job over there in the past two years you’ve been in the post.
If anyone’s interested in contacting Martin at the end of this interview, please send an email to, and we’ll be more than happy to put you in touch.
Thanks for watching, and stay tuned for future interviews with iGaming industry leaders.
Martin: Thank you for having me.
Warren: Thank you.