How thin affiliate sites like PromoCodeWatch are outranking CouponCabin, CouponChief, RetailMeNot and other established coupon sites

How webspammers like PromoCodeWatch.com 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.

UPDATE: Thanks to Barry Schwartz and John Mueller of Google for confirming with me that PromoCodeWatch and similar thin coupon sites are indeed in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines. Please help to clean up the SERPs by reporting the sites listed below for buying / selling links. Send additional links to bostonseobrett@gmail.com.
UPDATE 2: Additional reporting is finding that PromoCodeWatch is utilizing on-page webspam tactics to further improve its rankings. PromoCodeWatch has been found to be programmatically posting fake coupon codes across its site, making them look real and “verified” through various design features, in an effort to boost clicks and dwell time. I now recommend webmasters to report PromoCodeWatch.com to Google for webspam for posting misleading content on its website.

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 (http://www.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. For comparison, PromoCodeWatch.com has just 3 employees, compared with 550 employees at RetailMeNot.

Their solution? Basically, disregard the user, and just post old coupons or even fake ones, don’t bother updating them, and masquerade them as real, working coupons. The reality is that thin coupon sites like PromoCodeWatch 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.

How thin coupon sites mislead users — 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.com 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 that PromoCodeWatch displays on their site, 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. PromoCodeWatch.com presents these visually as working, current coupons. But they don’t even bother to remove coupons that are 8 months old and clearly expired from the top of this page. Yes, PromoCodeWatch just wants you to click so they can earn their commissions. Given the high visibility of this PromoCodeWatch page on Google, it is likely that hundreds of people everyday are wasting time with these fake coupons.

Here’s a link to a more in-depth study showing how PromoCodeWatch posts fake coupons for thousands of brands, and deceptively updates their expiration dates each night to make them look real.

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. Unlike PromoCodeWatch.com, RetailMeNot removes old and expired coupons so you don’t waste your time clicking.

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. They also clear their page of irrelevant coupons, giving the reader a positive, efficient experience.

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 like PromoCodeWatch.com 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

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 like PromoCodeWatch 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, webspam sites like PromoCodeWatch 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.com 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 that thin affiliate sites like PromoCodeWatch are abusing — 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.com 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 like PromoCodeWatch.com 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.com (backlinks), ChameleonJohn (backlinks), Come2OrderDC (backlinks), ClickToGetCode (backlinks) 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.

One 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.com, CopyCouponCode.com, CouponLab.com, and Come2OrderDC.com, Coupofy.com, and ClickToGetCode.com — just a few examples of the coupon 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. PromoCodeWatch in particular has grown 550% in just six months — and the overwhelming majority of its pages have thin content.

These are growth charts any business could envy, and their growth comes at the expense of higher quality sites like RetailMeNot, DealNews, Slickdeals.net, CouponCabin, CouponChief, and others.

And if you multiply this by the dozens of new sites that are using this tactic, you can see this is a widespread problem in the coupon industry.

How to help clean up Google

If you’re a website owner or an SEO who may be negatively impacted by rise of these thin affiliate sites, you can simply report these sites to Google. I think that enough webmasters report these sites, Google will take action and these sites will lose their rankings. To report these sites, simply visit this tool and enter in the URLs of offending sites that are buying and selling links.

Additionally, due to the deceptive practices PromoCodeWatch has been found to be using on its own pages, such as posting fake codes then tricking users into thinking they are “verified,” I recommend that webmasters report the site to Google for posting content designed to mislead users.

Sites to report for buying links

My research is by no means exhaustive, my list is the result of research done specifically for my clients, but I have compiled a list of sites that are the most obvious abusers of paid links, and these sites are ranking prominently in Google and other search engines. I’ve included links to their backlink profiles on Ahrefs.com and MajesticSEO — you can do your own research and see if they have backlinks that warrant reporting to Google.

Sites to report for selling links

I’ve also compiled a list of the sites that are most obviously engaged in selling links to spammy sites like PromoCodeWatch. You can report these sites too — if Google concludes that these sites are engaged in selling links, their links will lose their value, and hopefully thin coupon sites like PromoCodeWatch.com will become less visible on search engines.

Review each of these sites, and if you see a “links” section with some suspicious looking links (gambling sites, viagra sites, attorney sites, loan sites, thin coupon sites like promocodewatch.com) and these link are dofollowed, then you can be pretty sure the site is selling these links for profit. Alternatively, if you see banner image ads for third party websites, and these are dofollowed, then you can also reasonably conclude that these sites are selling these banners for their SEO value (paid ads are supposed to be nofollowed). Finally, if it is a non-profit site, and they are providing dofollowed links to sponsors, and particularly if these sponsors include spammy or fraudulent sites, then you should report those too. My previous article on this topic shows more detail on how and where these sites are displaying their paid dofollow links.

Here’s my list of sites that are selling dofollow links against Google’s webmaster guidelines:

By reporting these sites, we can all contribute to keeping Google results free of spammy sites like PromoCodeWatch that are providing a poor user experience to users, while aiding valid sites that are investing in quality content and who care about providing a good user experience.

If you know of other coupon sites like PromoCodeWatch that are utilizing webspam to cheat Google, please email me their links. I’ll evaluate the site(s) and include here if warranted. You can also email me links to sites that are clearly selling links, and I’ll include those if appropriate too.

If you’re a webmaster or site owner and your site is on this list, you can request me to remove you from this list by first removing all paid links from your site, then emailing me. I’ll review your site and remove you from this list if no further deceptive, paid links are found.

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