How webspammers are quickly launching new, “thin” coupon sites with fake content and then buying links to rank prominently on Google, often above established coupon players like RetailMeNot, Offers.com, DealsPlus, CouponChief, CouponCabin, and GoodSearch.

If you’ve ever searched Google to find a promo code to get a discount while shopping on any e-commerce store, you’ve probably encountered names like RetailMeNot, CouponCabin, and Offers.com. More than likely, you’ve found some sort of coupon or code that got you a discount on your purchase.

If you’re less lucky, you’ve encountered one of the new generation of spammy coupon sites — sites like PromoCodeWatch, ChameleonJohn, CopyCouponCode or CouponLab — and most likely, you clicked to view a bunch of coupons, only to find the to be expired, invalid, or just fake content. What’s going on here, and how are these smaller sites starting to appear above more trustworthy sites in Google?

I work with multiple companies in the online coupon space, and I’m concerned about the explosive growth we’re seeing with these types of thin affiliate sites (or “thin coupon sites”) pervading our industry and Google’s search results, such that more established companies (who are investing resources into providing high quality coupon content) are being pushed down Google’s pages in favor of these largely content-free sites. I believe that we as an industry should take collective action to suppress these types of sites by reporting them to Google.

What are “thin” coupon sites?

First, a primer. Operating a real coupon site takes significant resources. Companies like RetailMeNot, CouponCabin, and Offers.com have dozens or even hundreds of employees who spend enormous time and energy updating coupons for thousands of stores, every day. Coupons need to be tested, verified, and described accurately, so that when shoppers arrive looking for a coupon for Kohl’s, they can quickly find one that works. Providing high quality coupons for tens of thousands of stores is a challenging and expensive business endeavor.

Thin coupon sites take advantage of the good reputations of these established coupon sites among consumers and launch clone sites and emulate real coupon sites in their design and presentation. As an example, PromoCodeWatch.com looks almost exactly like RetailMeNot. However, what these small fly-by-night operations lack are the large staffs to keep coupons for thousands of stores updated, tested, and verified.

Their solution? Basically, screw the user, and just post old coupons or even fake ones, don’t bother updating them, and masquerade them as real, working coupons. Their sinister secret is that these thin coupon sites make money whenever someone clicks on their coupon links, regardless of whether the coupon works or not. So by simply launching a site that looks just like RetailMeNot and has a page to compete with every RetailMeNot page (for stores like Kohl’s, Macy’s, or Best Buy), and then filling those pages with fake coupons, these sites look just like real coupon sites, and people visit them and click on their links, just like they do on RetailMeNot.

Why thin coupon sites suck — in pictures

Here’s an example of a thin coupon site in action. Say you’re shopping on Babies R Us’ website, and you’re looking for a coupon code. If you search on Google, you’ll see PromoCodeWatch come up as one of the top results, above many other established sites.

PromoCodeWatch results for Babies R Us coupons

From a quick test of the coupons they display, here’s what you’ll find:

  • FASHION20 (expired)
  • 978945 (not recognized)
  • 979911 (not recognized)
  • BABYCACHE20 (expired)
  • TOY15OFF (expired)

A highly frustrating experience, and a lot of time wasted trying bad coupon codes. Given the high visibility of this page on Google, it is likely that hundreds of people everyday are wasting time with these fake coupons. No reputable business would do this to their customers.

Given the search engine success of these thin coupon sites, more established sites like RetailMeNot, CouponCabin, and Offers.com are being pushed down Google’s rankings and are harder to find. For comparison, let’s look at an established coupon site (RetailMeNot) for the same store, Babies R Us.

You see, Retailmenot only shows one coupon code, SHOPINHOME, and it does work. Clearly, they have someone looking at this page everyday to ensure they are providing a great experience for shoppers.

RetailMeNot’s coupon code for Toys R Us actually works

Let’s try another major coupon site, Offers.com, for their coupon codes for Babies R Us.

Offers.com lists just one coupon code, SAVEBIG16, and it works.

Offers.com coupon code for Toys R Us works

As you can see, Offers.com has a staff that monitors this page and ensures that they provide good coupons to visitors. Whenever you visit this page, it will likely have a good coupon.

So, these fly-by-night coupon operations are simply slapping up shell sites to emulate real coupon sites — but how are they able to rank past the bigger coupon sites in Google?

The new webspam techniques used by coupon sites to manipulate Google in 2016

For background, Google has a strict policy against “paid links.” Since Google determines search rankings based on links, spammy sites (think: Viagra, gambling, payday loans, etc) simply buy links from a large number of sites to boost their rankings. Google’s recent algorithm updates like Penguin have largely eradicated this problem, but a new type of paid link scheme has emerged, and Google is yet to deal with it.

In this new type of paid link scheme, thin coupon sites are buying links which are hard to distinguish from real, editorial links, since they appear on trusted, reputable websites.

How are they doing this? There are two methods that are quickly becoming popular in the blackhat SEO world, which I’ll outline in more detail below:

  1. Private paid link brokers
  2. Non-profit donation links

How private paid link brokers work

With private link brokers, SEOs are going through brokers who will sell, for a fee, a link on an established, high trust website.

An example is the Daily Californian, the well known student newspaper of the University of California at Berkeley — you can find link brokers who will sell you a link in the newspaper’s footer for a few hundred dollars per month.

Blackhat SEO backlinks provided on the Daily Cal website

In this example, PromoCodeWatch has placed a link to its page promoting coupons for Kohl’s. Other sites like online bankruptcy attorneys and Chinese wholesale sites are advertising in the same way. This is a clear violation of Google’s guidelines, and is currently causing PromoCodeWatch to outrank established sites like DealsPlus, CouponCabin, and SlickDeals, all of which have superior content relative to the thin content provided by PromoCodeWatch.

As another example, I was actually approached by a link broker attempting to sell me a link in the footer of the major news site the Jerusalem Post. You can see that PromoCodeWatch also has a link on this site, among other car rental and hotel sites.

Screenshot of Jpost.com site footer, where PromoCodeWatch enjoys a paid dofollow link, offering massive SEO benefit

The list goes on — I’ve detailed over 40 examples of such paid brokered links — these are becoming more and more common, as it’s easy to find a paid link broker on freelance sites like UpWork.

How non-profit donations for SEO backlinks work

With non-profit donations, companies like PromoCodeWatch are exploiting the simple fact that many non-profits and charities will link back to your site if you make a donation to them. And most charities are run by less technically-savvy folks who wouldn’t know that this is technically a violation of Google’s policies, to effectively provide a link in exchange for a monetary payment.

So these thin coupon sites scout for every opportunity to donate to various charities, based on whether the charity provides SEO-beneficial links to donors (e.g. those that are “dofollowed” — vs. “nofollowed” which do not pass any SEO value).

If you look at the entire picture of sites that link back to PromoCodeWatch, ChameleonJohn, Come2OrderDC, GreenPromoCode, ClicktogetCode and others, you will find that a majority of their links come from non-profit charities.

Now of course, I have nothing against supporting good causes — however if you’re doing it to manipulate Google and harming consumers, that is another matter.

Want to see an example? Take a look at Apache.org, a large, hugely popular non-profit site which links out to websites of donating sponsors. While acquiring a link here is expensive, thousands of dollars, the potential SEO benefit is so huge that it is likely worth many times that amount. You can see that PromoCodeWatch, ChameleonJohn, and other sites like gambling and stock trading sites are taking advantage of this SEO loophole.

Dofollow links provided to donors on Apache.org website

Another example is ISC.org, the Internet Systems Consortium, a widely known non-profit dedicated to supporting internet infrastructure. Companies can donate, and in exchange will receive an SEO-beneficial link. Coupon sites PromoCodeWatch and DiscountTrue are taking advantage of this paid link opportunity, as are other e-commerce sites and thin affiliates.

Please note that I don’t have anything against these non-profit organizations. These are great institutions pursuing worthy causes, and companies should be encouraged to support them. What I am saying is that by providing these SEO-beneficial links, in many cases to low quality or even fraudulent websites, they are indirectly harming consumers who are more likely to find these harmful sites due to these links.

The explosive growth of thin coupon sites

The proof is in the pudding. Below are traffic growth charts from PromoCodeWatch, CouponLab, and Come2OrderDC — three sites that are aggressive using the above-mentioned SEO tactics. These are thin coupon sites that contain mostly fake content, and most of their links come from obvious paid link schemes.



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