Coupon Sites Playing a Game of Search Arbitrage — and Should They Be Stopped?

I got an email today from Sports Authority and clicked through to their site. I decided to buy some discounted running shoes and before I checked out, like every other red-blooded American consumer, I searched on “Sports Authority Coupon Codes.”

When I did this I got a list of high ranking coupon/deal sites, including Groupon, RetailMeNot, Coupons.com and so on. Here’s the page:

Coupon spam

What’s increasingly true, when you click these links, is that there are no actual codes. They’re just a pass through to the site. For example, here’s what happens on Groupon:

Groupon code

Groupon code

This experience is essentially replicated on RetailMeNot, Coupons.com and the other sites. I’m sure these sites are collecting affiliate fees for this traffic, which is effectively “search arbitrage.” There’s no value being added for the consumer — unless someone went directly to one of these sites, discovered a sale and then clicked through and purchased without prior knowledge of the sale.

As I mentioned, however, the common pattern is to search for coupons just before checkout. So the retailer is likely paying for lots of clicks that aren’t new customers. And the consumer is not getting any additional value because she has probably already shopped the sale and is just looking for extra discounts before buying.

If we consider these sites to be “deals aggregators,” a case can be made that they deliver value to those consumers who look to them first. But, as I suggest, if the majority use case is just-before-checkout lookups then these sites are essentially spamming search results without offering value either to the consumer or the retailer.

I’m willing to allow that a percentage of the audience directly navigates to these sites as a way to discover sales. But if my experience as a consumer is consistent with others’, it’s more of a “bait and switch” experience.

Google has cracked down on search spam many times in the past. Directories that were only republishing business listings without any enhanced content have been demoted. Content farms that were just cranking out superficial articles to rank and monetize display ads were equally shunned in a past algorithm update.

I’m wondering therefore when the shoe/axe will drop/fall on these guys.

Let me know if you totally disagree. But if you agree with me, do you think that Google will act against them? And should the retailers refuse to pay?

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8 Responses to “Coupon Sites Playing a Game of Search Arbitrage — and Should They Be Stopped?”

  1. Larissa says at

    Just today I repeated the exact procedure you describe of hunting for a coupon right before I finalised my purchase! I didn’t find any and went back to checkout. However, it’s more than possible that the coupon site tagged me collected their commission based on my conversion. I had always wondered how scammy affiliate marketing actually is, because just like you said, these sites aren’t capturing new traffic for a site, they are basically taking traffic that was ‘going to happen anyway’, and claiming referral fees. 

    I think that it could take time, but I am sure Google is probably already working on a way to make this type of scheme less effective.
    Additionally, I think there is a need for CMOs and those who sign off on using affiliate networks as part of a digital marketing strategy, to really educate themselves and at the bare minimum put a magnifying glass to the traffic being sent their way. Because if you keep a close eye on your own tracking and analytics numbers, it will probably be evident that the ‘referral’ traffic from these sites doesn’t vary that much and includes a very low proportion of new visitors. If a retailer discovers these small things that don’t add up, there is a good case to refuse payment. Some sites like Sephora (and Squarespace I believe) advertise their coupons and promo codes on their own sites and discourage visitors from leaving to search elsewhere.

    There are some legitimate affiliate programs, for instance these beauty or fashion bloggers who definitely create good content, rich media etc that their followers want to see, and put down certain links for the products they have featured or recommended (and they usually disclose that they will get a commission if a sale goes through). However, these click-to-reveal-coupon sites are definitely not adding anything of value. 

  2. Greg Sterling says at

    I think you could also just crawl for the data and monetize via other methods. It’s interest that today RMN acquired a secondary gift card marketplace (GiftCardZen), which is a move toward further diversification for them.

  3. Larissa says at

    Yes! In their release they say this will significantly “enhance the consumer experience”. Let’s hope so! (Also, according to their 10k, they saw a significant decline in mobile and desktop organic search trafficlast year and want to keep reducing their reliance on organic because it’s too ‘volatile’.) 

  4. Andy Kuiper says at

    I’ve been through this charade a few times too – a waste of time and annoying. 

  5. Joe Goldstein says at

    I totally disagree. 🙂

    First off, if a company doesn’t ever offer coupons, it’s easy for them to publish a page about it and push it to the top of the SERP. Like Larissa said, Squarespace already has that one covered:

    https://www.google.com/#q=squarespace+coupon

    Next, what if a company only sometimes offers coupons? That means the coupon sites would only sometimes add value, but not always. It doesn’t make sense for Google to temporarily scrub the SERP of coupon sites when they’re not offering value, because it’s not Google’s job to keep track of sales. It doesn’t make sense for the coupon sites to reflect it in their titles or descriptions, like “Sports Authority Coupons – 0 coupons currently available!” because there’s no reasonable way to enforce it across the board, and it would only hurt the sites that implemented it. And if there was no official page on the store’s site about it, what would be left on the SERP anyways? The only thing that *might* make sense is if Google replaced all the coupon sites with a coupon code knowledge graph, but they’ve still got to get that data from somewhere.

    Lastly, if the real victims are the stores who have to pay out affiliate costs, then that should be totally within their power to fix. Either don’t offer affiliate programs to coupon sites or don’t work with affiliate networks who allow coupon sites. It’s not like they’re blind to the problem – like you said, “every other red-blooded American consumer” knows how to search for coupons at checkout.

    I just don’t see why Google needs to change anything in this case, unless they want to work on a coupon KG. The only other remote option is if they pushed for an aggregate coupon schema or something like it, so you could see “coupons available” as a new item included on relevant search results, and give rank bumps to sites that implemented it. 

    P.S. If it’s really that annoying, just install Chrome’s Honey extension and let it try coupon codes for you. https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/honey/bmnlcjabgnpnenekpadlanbbkooimhnj?hl=en-US

  6. Greg Sterling says at

    It’s increasingly the case that a page of links with “duplicate content” (e.g., coupon codes from the same retailers) is just noise and less and less meaningful. The conventional SERP is rapidly losing value. Google is plugging more KG/structured content/answers in, which is what people need/want. Facebook is also rapidly becoming an alternative way to find content (admittedly not a substitute for search now). But there’s mounting pressure on Google to do away with BAU — including this sort of thing.

  7. Ryan Rodden says at

    Interesting case study and observations. As a fan of the semantic web, I am encouraged that it may finally offer solutions to this problem.

    Like the Squarespace example above, the ultimate source of trust would be the brand itself. If you identify Squarespace as an entity, which they do, then it should be easy to just blanket the first page with their stuff.

    You would hope that the best source of information would be the very company making the offer…

  8. Terri says at

    I noticed in Google Analytics for the company I work with that in June 2016, retailmenot.com shows an increase in revenue of over 60% compared to June 2015. But in July 2016, retailmenot.com is showing a decrease in 75% in revenue over July 2015. I’ve been trying to figure out what happened and have not come across anything yet. But I suspect that Google may have changed something so that now revenue that was being attributed to the referral channel in Google Analytics is now being contributed to the last click (which is how our analytics is set up) before customers left the site to go out to the couponing sites. Does anyone have any knowledge, or can anyone point me somewhere to confirm my suspicions?

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