2005 was an odd year in many ways, as far as the poker cosmos goes. Many new sites piled into the fray, but we didn't really see much consolidation (or at least much tangible consolidation, since most acquired sites continued to run their operations as a stand-along room under new ownership).
To be honest, I'd have to say it was a disappointing year, in a larger sense, as 2005 promised to be the year that sites finally got it, improving their software and stepping up their player retention and customer service efforts, realizing that the huge growth would slow and that as the industry matured they'd be under much more pressure to satisfy and retain customers.
With a few exceptions, that didn't really happen. At all. If anything the general level of service and responsiveness regressed, with some sites (looking at Party and Empire) taking some serious steps backwards, as far as pissing off customers for no apparent reason.
I don't think it's simply a coincidence that both those companies floated IPOs in the last year on the LSE, which was another major trend for 2005. A decent amount of ink was spilled about online gaming companies beginning the process of legitimization, moving to public exchanges such as the London Stock Exchange. Which was pretty inevitable, really, and the more interesting part is that pretty much all the companies that floated shares are still sitting on the cash it generated, refraining from using the funds to acquire other properties, as many expected.
Long story short, not much changed in 2005, when it was all said and done. While many new sites popped up, they were are largely the same old book, with just a slightly different cover (literally, in many cases, as far as the majority of new sites being skins of existing sites). The online poker industry by and large still doesn't get the importance of customer service and player retention, nor are they doing much to improve interfaces that are only marginally functional to begin with. We ended the year still pretty much stuck in "Hey, dude, we're making lots of money so who cares" mode.
Because everybody loves lists, here's my take on a few of the highs and lows of 2005.
Most Improved Sites:
1) FullTilt: This one's a no-brainer, and no, it's not because 128,182 bloggers work there. Honestly, I didn't think FullTilt was going to make it at the beginning of the year, as they seemed to have entered the game too late as a stand-alone site and appeared doomed to die a slow, lingering low-traffic death.
They managed to keep attracting players, though, and actually *gasp* seem to understand that adding new features is a good thing, such as Mac clients, hand histories, Razz, and satellites for some of the earlier WSOP events that most other sites completely ignored. They also understood early on that players *gasp* like to play with well-known poker pros, and that making that fact visible might *gasp* help retain customers.
2) PokerStars: Stars continued to cater to its bread and butter, offering innovative tournament formats instead of just standing pat. They also understood that Hey, gee, maybe that whole blog thing would be a relatively inexpensive way of marketing the site, and actually put their money where their mouths were, as far as investing marketing dollars in poker blogs (something FullTilt obviously did, as well).
PokerStars also seemed to finally understand that hey, high volume players know the score, as far as what their potential rewards should be worth, and are rolling out a VIP program that actually fairly compensates players for their contributed rake. This shouldn't be a noteworthy thing, but sadly it is, since the model adopted by 90% of the sites out there is Hey, thanks for contributing $2,175 in rake last month, here's a beanie hat or a t-shirt that only fits a 5 year old child.
3) InterPoker: A bit of a stretch here, but their software client did improve slightly, and they continued to offer a monthly bonus to players. They also get props on the invisible back end, as far as offering an affiliate program that actually *gasps* is willing to eat certain costs that the vast majority of programs expect affiliates to absorb.
Least Improved Sites (aka Sites that Went to Hell):
1) Party: Enjoy that current marketshare, guys and gals, because you're doomed to lose it if you continue down the path you embarked on. Incomprehensible support and blatant jerking around of licensees and affiliates doesn't help. While adding the ability to quickly lose money at blackjack is progress of sorts, as far as your client goes, you still haven't addressed basic issues with your software that have existed for YEARS. See above kudos for Stars as far as offering a rewards program that actually *gasp* rewards players.
2) Empire: Part of this isn't your fault, as far as Party pulling the plug on your networked player base, but you're not helping matters. Rescinding player bonuses that you offered (inadvertently or not) isn't a smart move, especially when your rake is sufficient enough to offset much of the cost. Closing accounts for "bonus abuse" is particularly stupid, as you could simply flag those accounts and not offer them future promotions, if you felt they were abusing your bonuses. Slipping in token $10 bonuses before offering larger bonuses to customers is outright shadiness, as the only reason you do that is to trap people into playing more rake hands in order to clear the bonus they were actually depositing for.
3) UltimateBet: Again, this is pretty harsh, as UB really did nothing to deserve this, as their customer service is reasonable, offerings are reasonable, all that jazz. They just really didn't do anything to improve, on any front, largely simply standing pat with what they have. This is more a case of disappointment via unrealized potential, as they could be right there with the FullTilt's and PokerStars of the world, pushing the envelope and actually listening to what players want, stealing market share from Party, instead of simply rolling out the same old thing.
Best New Sites
1) None. Seriously. While some new skins appeared that offer nice bonuses (such as Bayou Poker, a PR skin), most of the truly new sites that opened were largely flops. GamesGrid seemed promising but they're just not getting any traffic. PokerShare looked cool but they got the plugged yanked on them before really getting rolling. PokerMountain never achieved more than PokerBumpIntheRoad status.
1) PokerStars: Even though they completely dropped the ball on actually producing the prizes side of things, the freeroll for poker bloggers has to rank at the top of the list (and no, I'm not just biased towards poker blogs). Not only is it a player-friendly promotion, but they got a shit-ton of promotional mileage and link pop out of it, with beaucoup blogs talking about it and linking to it. Add in their ongoing reload bonuses and VIP program and this one is a no-brainer.
2) FullTilt: Actually providing unique promotions like the Bracelet Race satellites and the ability to win a piece of pros' action at the WSOP goes a long, long way. Yeah, it's getting to be a tired refrain, but actually approaching promotions and rewards from a player's point of view, as far as what appeals to them, is a wonderful thing.
3) TruePoker: This one's an odd choice, as the site is pretty low traffic and flies under the radar, but they did a promo last year where they agreed to pony up an entry into the WSOP Main Event for a player who played a kajillion hands on their site. I forget the actual details as far as number of hands, but I remember it being essentially break-even (or even slightly profitable) for the site, as far as the rake generated by the player vs. the $10K for a WSOP Main Event entry. The player posted updates on 2+2, True got tons of publicity, everyone went home happy. Moral of the story is that successful promotions (for both players and sites) don't necessarily have to be of the here's a $100 bonus now go play 1000 raked hands variety.
Best Eye Candy
1) Bodog: Game, set, and match.
2) Nine.com: Giving Bodog a run for their money.