Despite the availability of legal online gambling in the US, illegal offshore sites still feature prominently in Google search results. Sponsored content pages appearing in mainstream media and even student newspapers are helping to drive black market operators to the top of Google rankings.
Those search engine results leading Americans to illegal offshore betting sites may be more harmful than the TV commercials Americans love to hate. That’s because television brand awareness campaigns only inform gamblers about legal betting options.
Google appears to have difficulty differentiating legal and locally regulated sites from dangerous and illegal offshore operators. Searches for online gambling terms tend to return a mixture of both.
Feeding the confusion is misinformation published by various sources across the web. Some of this is from affiliates working directly with illegal offshore sites. However, it also comes from publications Google considers trustworthy and authoritative, ranging from The New York Times and Fox News to student-run college papers.
For instance, over a dozen legal online casino operators serve the Pennsylvania market. Even so, a Google search for “online casino” on June 9 in Philadelphia yielded three links to illegal offshore gambling sites on the first page.
The first of these, Bovada, appeared in the sixth position. The eighth and 12th results led to illegal, offshore gambling site ads on WTKR – a site owned by a Norfolk TV – and SFGate – a Hearst Communications-run San Francisco “local newsletter,” respectively. Hearst owns The San Francisco Chronicle.
Legal Operators Get a Disproportionate Amount of Flak
US lawmakers and regulators are concentrating on denouncing legal online gambling operators for those TV ads and what they claim is an increase in gambling addiction.
Lawmakers and regulators say laws and rules surrounding legal online gambling operators, especially their marketing practices, need more teeth. They claim that marketing adversely impacts minors and college students.
Officials make these claims despite knowing that all legal US online gambling apps have strict identity verification requirements to ensure underage users don’t have access. Conversely, for illegal offshore sites, gambling age “verification” often consists of a single checkbox asking the user to assert that they’re 18 or older.
Some legal operators even go beyond the requirements of the states they operate in. For instance, Caesars Sportsbook plans to keep its app 21-and-up in Kentucky, even though state law will allow bettors 18 and older to participate in the upcoming marketplace.
Meanwhile, US lawmakers and regulators say they’re concerned about anyone under 21 even being aware of the sites or their marketing. The New Jersey Legislature is considering bills in each chamber requiring public universities engaged in sports wagering partnerships to mandate gambling education for students as a proactive move, even though none of the state’s colleges have such deals.
On June 26, Brian O’Dwyer – the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC) chairman – informed commission members during a meeting that he was glad to hear from colleges that they were “negating” their agreements with sportsbooks. He added that enhanced sportsbook marketing regulations would be ready for commissioners at the next meeting.
Meanwhile, illegal sites continue to take bets from Americans.
Mainstream Outlets Cite Illegal Offshore Books
Mainstream news outlets frequently cite betting lines to add statistical interest to their stories. The trouble is that they often seem not to differentiate between legal and illegal sources of that information. As a result, they inadvertently lend credit to dangerous black market operators.
The Times’ willingness to name-drop offshore sportsbooks seems particularly inconsistent in light of later editorial positions. On Nov. 20, 2022, the publication ran several highly critical articles about the legal US online gambling industry. The stories raised valid concerns about the conduct of legal operators but largely ignored the long history of illegal offshore gambling sites targeting Americans.
Consciously or not, these authoritative sites and several others are helping drive illegal offshore gambling sites to the top of Google SERPs.
Student-Run College Publications Advertising Illegal Betting Sites
Two student-run college publications, The Daily Iowan and The Daily Collegian, run prominent advertisements for illegal offshore betting sites. In other words, these publications are not only advertising gambling to students; they’re advertising illegal sites.
Both publications reside in states that offer legal online gambling.
Iowa’s legal online sports betting marketplace launched in 2019. At that time, The Daily Iowan even published articles about what the law meant for students at the University of Iowa.
Meanwhile, the bottom of The Daily Iowan home page provides a link to crypto casino sites. No legal US online casino accepts cryptocurrency.
Coincidentally, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s (DCI) Special Enforcement Operations Bureau is investigating more than 100 current and former Iowa and Iowa State student-athletes for possibly violating the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) gambling policy.
Over in Pennsylvania, lawmakers chose a broader scope. The Keystone State offers legal online casino, poker, and sports betting sites that went live in 2019.
However, The Daily Collegian in State College houses “Sponsored Content” at the bottom of its home page. The sponsored content includes 21 links to illegal, offshore online casinos and sports betting sites or reviews about them. The links reside just below the Collegian’s disclaimer that it’s “Independently published by students at Penn State.”
The “independent” site is staffed by Penn State University journalism majors studying at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.
However, the reason these are the most troubling sites to be disseminating false information is they’re placing well in Google for the very search terms that should lead consumers to information about legal online gambling sites.
The Daily Iowan
As of Fall 2022, 31,317 students were enrolled at The University of Iowa. The Daily Iowan serves that student body located in Iowa City.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Juli Krause has been the advertising director for The Daily Iowan since 2019. That’s the year the publication ran news articles about Iowa’s new legal online sports betting marketplace. Krause also earned her bachelor’s degree in communications studies from the university in 1992.
Bonus found that five of the 28 links near the bottom of The Daily Iowan’s home page were clearly about illegal offshore betting sites. Another link, “promoted content,” also led to illegal offshore sites. Finally, another hyperlink led to a legal betting site in Ohio, which would be illegal for most students to play on due to age and geolocation requirements.
Bonus asked Krause a number of questions about The Daily Iowan’s promotion of gambling, but she didn’t answer most of them. Instead, on June 8, she responded with a form email detailing the publication’s guidelines for advertisers.
These read (emphasis in the original):
Sponsored content is $150 per article and will be marked with promoted tags; price is the same for all topics. We don’t accept non-sponsored content or add links to existing articles.
- no more than five pages long
- no more than three do-follow links (total)
- minimum of 11-pt type
- if using an image, it must be included within the five pages
- links cannot go back to our website
- articles/links must be in English
- prepayment required
- no changes once article is posted
- articles are posted for a minimum of one year
You can send me the information and I’ll forward it to our publisher for approval. Prepayment is required so if the article is approved, I’ll send you a PayPal invoice. Once payment is made, I’ll post the article. Please allow 3-5 business days (Monday-Friday) for posting.
The offshore online casino ads Bonus found on The Daily Iowan home page on June 12 didn’t all appear to target US customers. Some weren’t even in English.
According to the fine print in Krause’s email to Bonus, The Daily Iowan’s publisher can pull an ad anytime without refunding the advertiser.
One of the reasons The Daily Iowan publisher can do so is:
Misrepresentation: We don’t allow ads or destinations that deceive users by excluding relevant product information or providing misleading information about products, services, or businesses.
One example the fine print provides in the ad guidelines Krause sent Bonus is “falsely purporting to be a reputable company.”
Clicking on just one of the seven ad links for illegal offshore gambling sites on The Daily Iowan home page, Bonus found this on the top of the web page on June 12:
Find the newest, most exciting, and top-rated Bitcoin & Cryptocurrency casino sites across the globe. With expert reviews and guides, you’ll be sure to locate the best crypto gambling site for you in June 2023.
Jason Brummond, publisher of The Daily Iowan, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Bonus also emailed and called several editors and Melissa Tully, Associate Professor and Interim Director, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Iowa. No one responded.
The Daily Collegian
In late May, The Daily Collegian moved off the university’s dot-edu site and onto its own dot-com domain. Keeping illegal gambling site content off the dot-edu domain may be prudent, legally speaking. Over the same period, however, the number of gambling ads on the new site doubled to nearly 100 from the 50 Bonus found while the university was still hosting it.
One effect of the “dot-edu” to “dot-com” domain transition has been a decrease in the publication’s Google authority. It now sits lower in the search rankings.
However, The Daily Collegian still serves 76,099 undergraduate students. And the ads are still there.
Recent research shows that the students may be paying attention to those ads.
That’s because, in Pennsylvania, the betting age on legal online gambling sites is 21. However, 58% of 18- to 22-year-old Americans have bet on sports, according to an NCAA study released on May 24. That means “many young adults are wagering on sports, often despite age or geographic restrictions on legal sports betting.”
Bonus emailed and called several publication editors, professionals associated with the publication, and Marie Hardin, Dean, Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, Penn State University. Again, there were no responses.
‘Egregious’ Advertising of Offshore Betting by Legitimate Publications
However, gambling industry analyst Dustin Gouker told Bonus that when The Daily Collegian was using the dot-edu domain, it was “the most egregious example in the market” of a publication with ads about illegal offshore betting sites.
Gouker told Bonus:
It’s on the ‘For students’ portion of the website, which is the home for sponsored content. Offshore sportsbooks and casinos also serve users who are 18 in most instances, so you are serving the ads to a population that should not be getting them. Overall, it’s a disservice to both the college and the regulated gambling industry.
Gouker regularly comments on gambling through his Substack blog, The Closing Line. He’s also a consultant to Catena Media, which owns Bonus.
I think the danger is this: online casino legalization momentum is currently progressing at a snail’s pace, and Google is rewarding sites that operate illegally in the US. The sites publishing this content are creating a critical mass that makes these operations seem legitimate when they are not. While sports betting is the thing that everyone has been focused on, offshore gambling sites have found this way to better acquire and serve the US customer. And the longer this kind of content persists, the harder it will be to push back on it, not just in search results, but just in general about what’s legal and what’s not. When well-respected publications serve this type of sponsored content, it creates a lot of confusion. And while I understand these are businesses making their own decisions, they are promoting illegal operations.
Another gambling industry watchdog, Casey Clark, said the publications running those ads can end up swaying the editorial content at more reputable outlets.
Clark is a senior vice president at the American Gaming Association (AGA), the gambling industry’s trade association. He told Bonus:
We’ve seen a wide variety of publications take advertising from illegal websites and cite offshore sportsbooks in editorial content, including major national outlets, regional newspapers, local television and radio broadcasts, student-run publications, and fan blogs. We’ve also found offshore odds referenced in social media posts from prominent media personalities and influencers.
Clark said those reporters often pull the names of the illegal offshore betting sites from ads on regional newspaper websites and college papers.
So when an AGA representative contacts the reporters to discuss the articles, Clark told Bonus the conversation often goes well:
The majority of the reporters appreciate the outreach and are surprised to learn they are citing illegal offshore businesses. We’ve found the most pushback on the advertising side, where outlets have doubled down by posting disclaimers about the sites they partner with.
Is an Ad Ban for Legal Betting Sites Coming?
Journalists at the Times and Fox aren’t alone in publishing editorial content that cites illegal offshore betting sites.
Because Google doesn’t correctly recognize offshore betting operations for what they are, legal operators see their placement suffer, and gamblers flock to the illegal sites showing up in the search results.
Perhaps Google will eventually adjust its policies and rectify the problem at its end. In the meantime, publishers and lawmakers are struggling to decide how to address the issue.
There are increasing calls to ban gambling ads altogether. The trouble with that is that it primarily impacts the legal market. Illegal offshore betting sites, by their nature, are good at finding ways around the rules.
On June 15, the Guardian Media Group announced that it banned “all gambling advertising” in its global publications, including the Guardian. However, the media group only mentioned legal gambling.
The announcement continued, emphasizing that the media group was particularly concerned about what marketers call online “retargeting.” That’s when an individual is targeted with an ad because the marketer knows that the consumer has used that product or one like it before. In this case, the “marketer” is an online gambling operator, and the “consumer” is a bettor.
The decision will cost the Guardian Media Group millions, reports the Sydney Morning Herald on June 15. In 2022, gambling ads generated $310 million of the group’s $9 billion in advertising revenue.
In Canada, Ontario lawmaker John Fraser wants “stricter regulation” on online gambling ads in every channel, even before publications will get the chance to decide. He introduced the bill to that end on June 1, though the legislature won’t act upon it until the fall.