Bodog Battles to Beat Lawsuit, Keep SERPs

Online gambling casino Bodog’s recent struggle holds lessons for SEOs. When 1st Technology slapped the Antigua-based company with a patent infringement lawsuit, it sparked a fight that is still going on. And it forced Bodog to answer the question: what do you do when you lose your domain?

The answer isn’t simple. Before we get to that, however, let’s take a look at the case. The plaintiff, based in Las Vegas, filed a lawsuit in a U.S. district court in Nevada against Bodog, alleging patent infringement. On June 14, the judge awarded 1st Technology damages in the amount of $48,937,456.00. There are a number of reasons for Bodog not showing up; company CEO Calvin Ayres claims they were never served properly, while observers of the case point to the U.S. Justice Department’s crackdown on online gambling as the reason Bodog representatives stayed away.

After Bodog failed to appear, the venue was switched to the state of Washington. On August 1, a judge for the Superior Court of Kings County in Seattle, Washington, supported the damages and ruled that Bodog must surrender all of its domains to 1st Technology. That leaves 1st Technology with the options of either liquidating or monetizing the domains. 

Note that 1st Technology is in the business of technology licensing. The head of the company, Dr. Scott Lewis, is credited with leading the development of the first single integrated computer chip with on-board video and audio compression. He is also said to have introduced multiple broadband Internet and multimedia technologies. A quick search of federal district court filings and dockets shows that 1st Technology is involved as a plaintiff in at least five other patent infringement cases at this time, and at least one of these is with another gambling site.

The disputed patent was filed by Mel Molnick with the U.S. Patent Office in 1995 and published in 1998. (As an interesting side note, Calvin Ayres has been building his company for about 10 years now, so he started not long before the patent was published). It is for a method for the production and transmission of enhanced multimedia information. This software is downloaded by Bodog’s customers to assist their gaming activities. At this point, however, it looked like it would be “game over” for Bodog and its customers.

Not surprisingly, 1st Technology went right to Bodog’s U.S.-based registrar and told them to shut down the disputed domains. Near the end of August, Bodog.com went black. But Ayres didn’t get to where he is today without knowing how to fight.

In roughly 12 hours, Bodog was back in operation on NewBodog.com – all 90,000 pages of it. If you think this must have been an SEO nightmare for the company, you’re probably right. While all the appropriate redirects went into place, Bodog had some highly coveted positions in Google with some generic keywords that are enough to make a hardcore gambler’s eyes water. Rob Garner writing for Search Insider noted that as of August 20, Bodog.com held the number one spot in Google for “poker game.” And as of August 16, it held the number one spots for “casino sport book” and “college football gambling.”

That last keyword brings up another issue: from Bodog’s point of view, 1st Technology’s timing could hardly be any worse. The beginning of September is the busiest time for North American sports-related gambling, thanks to the start of the American football season. Along with casino-style gambling, Bodog offers online sports betting – indeed, to judge from the company’s description in Google and the layout of its web site, the sports betting is at least as important as the casino.

Fortunately, Bodog was able to redirect all regular customers from bodog.com to NewBodog.com, apparently with very little hassle. You’d think 1st Technology would be upset enough about this to sue for trademark infringement – after all, it now owned Bodog, right? Wrong. They might want to sue, but they couldn’t. Calvin Ayres had registered Bodog as his company’s trademark quite some time ago; handing over the domain isn’t the same thing as handing over the trademark or even the brand. As Ayres explained in his blog, “A domain is just a doorway to your business. As long as our domain has Bodog in it we are still Bodog. This was a forced domain change only.”

Ayres also created significant buzz around the domain name change. Less than two weeks after the change, he made an entry in his blog (now removed) that rather thoroughly flamed 1st Technology, calling them “patent trolls.” He also revealed in a press release that he had signed a brand licensing agreement with “Morris Mohawk Gaming Group” for operations and marketing of gaming in North America. While industry insiders wondered whether such a group even exists, the name gave Ayres all the ammunition he needed to talk smack. He pointed out that the Mohawks “aren’t exactly known for backing down from a fight…and they don’t take kindly to folks who try to steal from them.” He uses even stronger language later in his post.

Not long after that, however, Bodog was moving again, this time to BodogLife.com. Doing a Google search on Bodog quickly turns up BodogLife.com at the top position. This is a very good thing for the company brand, since the major search engines will not allow gambling and casino ads. In short, Bodog can’t use a pay-per-click campaign to let users know about the site or the redirection, unlike many other businesses.

But it’s clear that Ayres intends this last move to be permanent. “Once we get Bodog.com back from Raymond Niro and the 1st Tech Patent Trolls,” he explains in a blog post, “we will just use it as a redirect since there will be no reason to change back again and by then the new site will be too well positioned in the search engines again to make it worth the effort to change.”

Even so, wasn’t it a struggle to make the two moves? “Making the transition from Bodog.com to Newbodog.com to BodogLife.com has not been the SEO nightmare that so many naysayers would like to think,” Ayres revealed. “Within 12 hours of having Bodog.com stolen we had moved everything over to a new URL and within five days we had all of our new domains resume their number-one positioning on Google.”

One is forced to ask, however: number one for which keywords? As of this writing, Bodog has not regained its strong position for generic keywords in the online gambling market. For the very same keywords for which it used to come up as the number one listing in Google, Bodog is not even among the top 30 results. That could be the kiss of death in an industry as highly competitive as online gambling.

On the other hand, the new domain name – BodogLife – hints at a possible change of focus at the company. Bodog, after all, is not a name that can inherently be associated only with gambling. Bodog introduced Bodog Girls in 2002 (with their own calendar following in 2005), and its site includes tabs labeled “bodognation,” “bodogmusic,” “bodogtv” and “bodogfight.” In short, Ayres seems to be trying to reposition Bodog from an online gambling site into a lifestyle brand. With a business that brings in $7.3 billion a year, Ayres could turn himself into the next Hugh Hefner.

Let’s do a quick recap before taking this into the final stretch. Ayres has been fighting what he sees as the theft of his domains by making sure in advance that his business name was trademarked (so he didn’t lose it when he lost the domains), getting the word out about the move, and getting the move and the redirects completed as quickly as possible. He made sure the new site would score high in the SERPs for his brand since he can’t control his ranking on the generic keywords – not immediately, at least; he gave the impression in his blog of having a team of SEOs working on it. And he took advantage of this potential disaster by expanding his brand and working toward repositioning his site to cover more than gambling – something he’s apparently been moving toward for years.

But it’s not over yet. Mid-October saw Bodog and 1st Technology back in court in Las Vegas. Bodog sought to overturn the default judgment, while 1st Technology filed for a permanent injunction to prevent Bodog from operating in the US and also to prevent them from redirecting traffic to BodogLife.com. Chief Judge Roger L. Hunt ruled against both of them. He let the default judgment stand and rejected Ayre’s argument that he never received notice of the lawsuit. Likewise, he ruled that 1st Technology “failed to adequately address the four-prong test that would satisfy the burden to obtain a permanent injunction.”

Ayres, meanwhile, has raised the rhetoric. NewBodog.com displays a mocking tabloid-like page with a “story” dated October 11, 2007 that describes 1st Technology’s lawyers as “the same law firm that has made a business out of taking nearly discarded patents, stretching them thinner than a slice of deli meat and using legal threats in an effort to extort money from large companies.” It further describes the lead lawyer, Raymond Niro, as “nothing but an evil patent troll with stinky sausage breath.”

It’s hard to say how this will end; many expect the case to set a precedent, and some think that if 1st Technology wins the case, it could have repercussions in the online music industry as well. But Ayres has shown that the way out of a situation like this is to move forward, not backward – and this lawsuit should serve as a warning to show how easily one can lose one’s domain.

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