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Coupon Sites: In Google’s Crosshairs?

Published: August 15, 2009

Author: David Rodnitzky

Coupon sites seem to single-handedly power the affiliate industry, especially for retail affiliate programs. Many in the affiliate industry swear by these sites. My friend Brook Schaaf of Schaaf Consulting – one of the leading outsourced program managers (OPM) for affiliates – recently advocated for the value of coupon sites, but also acknowledged some of the complaints publishers have about these URLs:

I think coupon sites are an excellent value add. Beyond online and offline deals, they have a natural affinity for loyalty, price comparison, community, and more. At the same time that the coupon vertical is growing, I perceive a simultaneous growth in the myth that coupon sites don’t provide value because orders “would have happened anyway” or some similar logic.

He may well have been talking about me, since I’m one who tends to propagate this ‘myth.’ I think a lot of coupon site revenue is not “incremental revenue” to publishers; when a consumer goes to an etail site, adds an item to his shopping cart and is about to check out, and then sees an “enter coupon code” link, and ends up finding a coupon via SEO from a coupon site, I question how much work the coupon site did to earn their affiliate commission. Moreover, if in fact the sale ‘would have happened anyway’, the merchant has lost tons of money here when you add up the affiliate commission, affiliate network fee, OPM fee, and the coupon discount.
I tend to think that Google agrees with my side of the argument; they hate it when the SERPs are filled with coupon site after coupon site, especially when many of these sites are optimizing against merchants that either don’t currently have a coupon, or don’t offer coupons in the first place. Indeed, Zappos apparently got so annoyed by coupon sites trying to get affiliate revenue by SEOing around “zappos coupons” that they’ve create a page called “The Truth About Zappos Coupons.” The page is pretty clearly attacking coupon site SEO:

Don’t get confused either. Some sites might try to offer you “Zapos Coupons” or “Zoppos Coupons,” but don’t let them fool you. There is only one Zappos.com and again we do not offer Zappos coupon codes. They may try to get you by using terms like:

  • Zapos Coupons”
  • Zoppos Coupons”
  • Zappo Coupons”
  • Zappo’s Coupons”
  • Zappo.com Coupons”
  • “Zappa Coupons”

But again, don’t let them fool you. They are not going to give you any discount since Zappos Coupons are not offered.

Today I was browsing the Google Code labs (the place where Google releases code that they are in early public testing stages) and noticed something that I thought might be a Google attempt to push coupon sites out of the organic results. It’s called Google Coupon Feeds and Google describes its utility as follows:

Google coupon feeds enable businesses to provide coupon listings that will be included in Google search results. Coupon feeds enable merchants to easily distribute coupons for free via the web. Consumers can also search for, print and redeem coupons for free. This service brings tangible value to both merchants, who can use coupons to find new customers who are very likely to make purchases, and for customers, who can find more competitive offers for the products and services that they buy.

Hmm, a way for merchants to upload coupons directly to Google that will be “included in Google search results” and “brings tangible value” to merchants and customers. Sounds just like a coupon site, except for perhaps the “tangible value” that is difficult to see on coupon sites, at least from the merchant perspective.
Granted, right now this product is in beta and is not anywhere near ready for primetime; after all, you need to be comfortably formatting and uploading a feed to Google, something that anyone who has worked in the comparison shopping business knows is not a core strength for most merchants. But the fact that this program even exists tells me that at least Google understands the value of couponing and may well be thinking about ways to monetize this traffic themselves instead of leaving it to affiliates.
Indeed, since Google acquired Performics and their affiliate program (now called the Google Affiliate Network or GAN), you could potentially see Google using this coupon feed and uploading all participating GAN merchants’ coupons through it. It could either be an argument for merchants to join the program (Use GAN and you will get actually free traffic from coupons in SEO, instead of traffic from coupon sites who use your affiliate link and then get the SEO traffic themselves), or perhaps even a way for Google to monetize these coupons themselves (append an affiliate link to the coupon listings and directly take the affiliate commission for themselves!). While I doubt that Google would ever do the latter and attempt to actually monetize SERPs through affiliate links, the former could be a good selling point to any merchants sick of questionable traffic from coupon site affiliates.
Americans love coupons, and more and more Americans are turning to the Internet to find the latest and greatest deals. Google loves pushing out middlemen, and coupon sites often fit that definition. And merchants are wary of gray-hat affiliate techniques, not least of which is the “cookie stuffing” that can often occur on coupon sites. Perhap
s the expiration date on coupon sites might not be too far around the corner.

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