The DraftKings Dilemma:

A Legal Case for Responsible SEO

Have you seen a commercial for DraftKings or FanDuel? The better question might be, how long has it been since you saw a commercial for DraftKings or FanDuel?

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The two hottest daily fantasy sports sites spent a combined $206 million on television ads alone between January 1 and October 5, 2015. For consumers and sports fans, DraftKings and FanDuel are practically inescapable. But with a meteoric rise in renown has come increased scrutiny, shining a spotlight on the need for responsible SEO.

WHAT IS DAILY FANTASY?

Fantasy sports involves the creation and management of a hypothetical team of athletes. Most commonly associated with the National Football League, fantasy sports is played by friends, family members, co-workers, and complete strangers. Players typically draft their roster of players at the beginning of a season and tally points in weekly match-ups based on how their athletes perform in the real world.

Daily fantasy is different (and controversial) because there is no season-long commitment to a given team. Players can draft a new team of fantasy players for every major sporting event, and winners of given contests are decided swiftly–often, within a day or even a few hours. Proponents argue this makes the action more exciting and forgiving. With the NFL, a DraftKings player need not be penalized all season long for poor player choices at the beginning of a season, because every day can be “a new season.” Opponents argue that the narrow window minimizes the game’s skill component and pushes it closer to the world of gambling, where algorithms and game theory own the day.

WHAT HAPPENED?

The massive marketing budgets of DraftKings and FanDuel, combined with their similarities to other forms of (illegal) online betting, have attracted legal scrutiny. Daily fantasy is currently legal in most states, but New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently challenged its validity in New York.

In October, Nevada outlawed daily fantasy when the Nevada Gaming Commission ruled that daily fantasy sites like DraftKings represent online unlicensed betting. Part of the evidence used against DraftKings? Image alt tags.

HOW IS SEO INVOLVED?

As is common practice in the SEO industry, someone at DraftKings used image alt tags to attach desired keywords to a particular banner on DraftKings’ site. At the time of the ruling, this banner appeared on several pages, like “fantasy football,” “weekly fantasy college football,” and “weekly fantasy hockey.” Where the banner appeared, image alt tags with phrases using the word “betting” also appeared. The result? Revealing phrases like “fantasy football betting,” “weekly fantasy college football betting,” and “weekly fantasy hockey betting.”

Here’s the kicker: DraftKing’s public voice goes to great lengths to avoid any association with betting or gambling. “Daily fantasy sports is a skill game and is not considered gambling,” they say, and the skill involved in playing has been the company’s go-to defense in separating itself from online betting mainstays like poker and horse racing. This message evidently wasn’t passed to or appreciated by the SEO team at DraftKings, and the Nevada attorney general used the “betting”-focused alt tags as evidence that DraftKings is an illegal online betting site.

Here’s a portion of the Nevada attorney general’s full statement:

“Similarly, the DraftKings website uses the following image on its website for [its pages] . . . That image is identified on each of those webpages, through alternative text (“alt text”) 30 with a phrase that includes the word “betting” . . . Although it is unclear why this image is identified using the alt text “betting,”–whether it is because these sites are trying to draw Internet search traffic from gamblers, because “betting” is how the sites internally discuss their product, or for some other reason–it appears that although the sites’ representatives publicly state that they do not believe daily fantasy sports involve “wagers” or “bets,” they do use the terms “betting” and “wagering” when they are not dealing with law enforcement agencies.”

Bottom line: “betting” was used in alt tags to give the DraftKings website some ranking benefit for related keywords. But doing so helped seal the deal on Nevada’s case that DraftKings is an illegal online betting site. Now, playing on DraftKings is illegal in Nevada, as well as Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, and Washington.

OUR TAKE

Did DraftKings assume that image alt tags would go unnoticed by scrutinizing lawmakers? Did the mandate that “betting” is an absolute no-go, blacklisted keyword reach all ears at the company? Either way, this is an expensive lesson for DraftKings and a crucially important lesson for search marketers.

“This is a unique case where we see a company (DraftKings) trying to engage a very specific audience (the online gambling community) while towing a thin legal line,” notes Shawna Kenyon, Gruen Agency’s Director of SEO. “Whoever optimized the site was hoping that, by placing keywords with ‘betting’ in alt tags, the incriminating references would go unnoticed. However, we know, as SEO practitioners, that it takes very little effort to uncover those tags. That said, it’s important to note that alt tags, when used properly and responsibly, will never hurt a site and can only help support the content that exists on it.”

SEO Coordinator Jackson Kelly has practical advice for SEO specialists hoping to avoid such a professional nightmare. “Extensive keyword research should be completed before optimizing or creating any new pages,” Jackson says, “The whole team, even executives, should have a working knowledge of the keywords we want to rank for and those we absolutely cannot rank for.”

Jackson also notes the ethical obligation inherent to alt tags. “SEO practitioners should be worried about accurately describing an image before optimizing for a given keyword,” he says. “Even low-hanging fruit like alt tags exist first and foremost to accurately classify an image. The SEO ranking benefit associated with alt tags should come vicariously, as a function of the image being high-quality and relevant.”