While there are tons of online poker sites, many of them share the same software platform that allows for the action to take place. In most cases this is pretty apparent, as the sites will look and function exactly the same, with only slight differences in background colors, player avatars, etc.
What usually happens is a person (or group of people) decide they want to open an online poker site. Okay. Their most immediate need is an infrastructure to not only offer games but to process transactions and handle customer support. They could hire programmers and build all that out from scratch, investing years and likely millions of dollars. Or they could simply outsource all that and license the rights to an existing platform. Most choose the latter option, for all the obvious reasons.
Licensing an existing platform also has another huge plus, which is the ability to tap into an existing network of players from day one. Instead of trying to attract players to a brand new site (and keep them, when they first signup and find a tiny number of available games and players) licensees can flip the switch and unveil a brand spanking new site with thousands and thousands and thousands of players and games.
As a player, it's important to know what type of site you're signing up with, whether it's part of a network or an independent site, as this directly affects the quantity and quality of games you'll find. Let's take a quick look at the major networks of sites, as well as the prominent independent operators.
Party Poker is the mother of all poker sites and it's no surprise that the network it's a part of dominates the scene, too. Based in Gibralter, PartyGaming (which recently changed its name from iGlobalmedia) owns and operates Party Poker, which everyone is familiar with. They also license their platform to a slew of other sites, including Empire, PokerNow, Intertops, Multipoker, Eurobet, and Coral.
How does all that work? In a nutshell, all those sites share the same pool of players, so whenever you log on you'll find the same tables, games, and players. The only real difference is whose pocket your rake money goes into. If you signup through Party, though, your rake money goes to Party. If you signup through Empire, Empire gets your rake. That's the incentive for licensees, letting PartyGaming handle the heavy backend lifting while they simply try to attract enough players to sign up through their personalized portal. If they get enough players so that the total rake accumulated > licensing fees paid, they make money.
That's the basic operating model for most licensee sites. It's also the reason that we see so many bonus offers, especially signup bonus offers. Remember, their goal, first and foremost, is to get you in the door, entering through their door. They know that when most normal players are inside, they're likely to stay and play on that site, instead of hassling with cashing out and transferring money to another site, etc. So the average player will stay and continue to pay them rake money, month after month after month.
Sites in the PartyGaming network are not only the biggest online poker sites but they also spend the most money on advertising. This means they offer the most tables, the most players, and, better yet, a large amount of fishy players who see a tv ad and suddenly decide they want to be a poker star, too. Cashouts are nearly instantaneous for most sites and customer support is good.
CryptoLogic is similar, yet a bit different. First things first, CryptoLogic is a publicly-traded software and transaction processing provider. That's it. They don't own any poker or casino sites. Lots of people don't grasp this and talk about Crypto sites in the same way they talk about Party sites, insinuating that CryptoLogic owns and operates some of the sites. All CryptoLogic does is provide the infrastructure.
The major Cryptologic poker sites are Caribbean Sun, InterPoker, PokerPlex, Totalbet, UkBetting, Will Hill, LittleWoods, and Ritz Club. While these sites offer their own individual promotions and guidelines, they share the same player pool, just like sites in the PartyGaming network.
While the Crypto poker network has fewer players overall in comparison to PartyGaming, they do attract more European players and more casino players. While a few of the sites on the Party network offer online casinos, nearly all of the Crypto sites do. This is a very good thing for the savvy poker player, as most people who frequent online casinos tend to like to gamble it up, which leads to softer, looser games at the poker tables when the gamblers wander over to the poker tables. The Crypto sites have also been more aggressive in offering monthly bonuses in an attempt to grow and expand their player base. Cashouts are almost always processed within 24 hours and customer support is adequate.
Prima Poker is the third major network of poker sites that share software platforms and player pools. There are tons of Prima sites (20+ and counting), too many to detail, but the most prominent of them is The Gaming Club.
Many Prima poker sites are offshoots from existing casinos, so the action is a bit wild and crazy at times, like at Crypto sites. Most of the sites offer bonuses, albeit on the small side. That said, beware, because I'm about to make a broad, dangerous generalization. And we all know the dangers of those.
While the Prima software is decent, as is the player pool, most of the sites are definitely third-tier as far as customer support and cashout speed. I can't state this as fact, but I'm 99% certain that of all the available licensing options, Prima Poker is the cheapest. Which means the barrier to entry is much lower and that you're not guaranteed to be dealing with a reputable site that's doing it's best to provide great service and support. Long story short, your experience will vary widely on sites in the Prima Network, from awesome to much, much less than awesome.
Outside of the major networks of sites, there are plenty of independent operators, some of them quite large. These poker sites have developed their own software, launched their own sites, and accumulated their own players. When you join their site you're playing solely with other players on the site, and not part of a pool of players shared across multiple poker rooms. This has advantages and disadvantages, but, by and large, it's a wash. While this means that some independents are more aggressive with bonuses (they know that they have to work harder to fill their poker tables with enough players to keep new customers happy when they look for a game), it also means that some of their sites are low-traffic, to the point where it's hard to find a game at the limit you prefer.
I'll list some of the major independents, with a few caveats. I know the least about these and some might, in fact, have links to other online sites that aren't readily apparent. For the most part, though, this list is solid. It's not meant to be comprehensive, just meant to highlight some of the major players.