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How to Rank Multiple Times in Google — Or: How Voucher White Labels Dominate the Results Pages

This story is a follow-up to “How a Rocket Internet Startup, Daily Mail, and Others Exploit Google’s Algorithm and Make Millions” which I published in June 2018. The goal of this new story is to provide an update on some developments since (a big one being that white label sites are entering the U.S. market) and to analyse how voucher code white label sites appear in the Google search results.

The post got quite long but I hope it’s worth the time as it documents in extensive detail an exploitation of the Google algorithm on a whole new level and includes ingenious companies that come to dominate the Google search results in the time-span of months and in the result make millions.

First, a selection of the key findings (readers who just want to see the data can directly proceed to this Google spreadsheet):

  • White label sites dominate the Google results for voucher code related keyword searches across all reviewed countries (United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain) with the United States being an exception.
  • About 50% of the Google results for the most searched voucher keywords in cthe United Kingdom, France, Germany and Spain are from white label sites hosted by well-known national newspapers and tabloids, like the Daily Mail, Le Monde, El País and BILD.
  • There are cases where the affiliate marketing company Global Savings Group by operating multiple white label sites “owns” 3 (or 30%) of the Google results for the most searched keywords – with each result leading to essentially the exact same content.
  • While in the past there were only white label sites in non-U.S. markets, recently the first white label sites started to appear in the American Google results too. Currently, about 8% of the results are from white label sites. This share seems to be growing rapidly.

Wait, what’s a “voucher code white label” site?

I recommend to review my previous post “How a Rocket Internet Startup, Daily Mail, and Others Exploit Google’s Algorithm and Make Millions” but put briefly: Some online advertising and affiliate companies operating voucher code sites (think of the websites that appear in Google when you’re looking for a code before ordering something online) figured out that if they can get an online newspaper website to host their vouchers under a white label that these will rank really, really well in Google. These white label sites get enormous amounts of traffic — in some cases millions of visitors each month — from Google and monetise this traffic through affiliate links. The proceeds are then shared between the actual operator of the white label site (the provider of the voucher codes) and the host (mostly newspapers). An example is discountcode.dailymail.co.uk in the U.K. and coupons.cnn.com in the U.S. As discussed in the previous post, the companies involved are making millions in pounds and dollars from the visitors they receive from Google.

What share of the Google search results are from white label sites?

To answer this question, I collected data. The methodology was very simple: First, I used Google Trends to get the top 6 most searched keyword combinations for “discount code” in the United Kingdom. The most searched keyword was “asos discount code”. I then entered these combinations in Google.co.uk, making sure to disable personalisation by appending &pws=0 to the search results URL to get representative results. The positions white label sites appeared in where recorded in a spreadsheet. The same process was then repeated for Germany, France, Spain and the United States. Further, for each white label domain I tried to identify the company that owns and operates it. This wasn’t always easy as it’s, as we will see, in the best interest of the operators to stay under the radar.

The whole project was done in the middle of March 2019.

To get to the meat of the story, here is a screenshot of the results from the review for the United Kingdom:

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The two biggest operators are highlighted: Global Savings Group (founded by Rocket Internet, a well-known company builder from Berlin) in blue and Savings United, also from Germany, in red. We’ll see more of both companies below.

It’s recommended to carefully the screenshot above. It shows two tables. In the first you can find the positions white label sites rank for different keyword combinations. For example, if you look in the top-left corner of the screenshot, for the keyword combination “asos discount code” there are two white label sites (telegraph.co.uk/vouchercodes/ and independent.co.uk/vouchercodes/) run by the company Savings United in positions 2 and 3, respectively. There is one white label site (discountcode.mirror.co.uk) from the Global Savings Group marked in blue in position 8. The blank spots are results from websites that didn’t seem to be white label sites. The second table at the bottom of the screenshots shows how often the different white label sites appear in the results.

A disclaimer is in order here: The positions of the individual white label sites are not very stable. From one day to another, a site that was formerly in position 2 might move to position 3. Or the other way around. However, the moves don’t seem to be very large, so that the collected data should be approximately and sufficiently correct.

To illustrate, the following screenshot of the Google results page for “asos discount code” was made a few days after the data in the table above was collected. The white label site from the Telegraph dropped from the second position to the 4th. The white label from the Independent rose from the third to the second spot. It’s also featured at the top of the results. The white label from Metro dropped one position down to 9.

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But back to the results of the data:

  • For the top 6 most searched discount code keyword combinations approximately 40% of the results are from white label sites. On average, out of the 10 results Google users see when searching for voucher codes 4are from white label sites.
  • Savings United operates two white label sites that appear in every single of the 6 results pages. Isn’t it remarkable to rank twice for every search?
  • The Global Savings Group operates two white label sites that are a bit less successful. There are also a few other, smaller operators.

How many visitors do these white label sites get?

There isn’t any data for Savings United’s sites on Similarweb, but we can find out that discountcode.dailymail.co.uk receives about 3 millions visitors each month.

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Just to check that it’s not the Daily Mail readers making use of the white label offer, let’s look at the sources of the visitors:

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It’s a typical pattern that white label sites receive 90% and more of their traffic from search engines like Google.

Before proceeding to look at the situation in other European countries and the United States, let’s consider the finding that the same operator’s white label sites appear multiple times in the Google results for highly competitive keywords like “asos discount code”.

Ranking the same content multiple times

The white label operators managed to achieve something that most other companies can only dream about: Appear multiple times in the same Google results. Actually, it is even better for them: White label sites allow their operator companies to not only appear multiple times in the same results but to do so with essentially the same content.

White label sites allow their operator companies to not only appear multiple times in the same results but to do so with essentially the same content.

Of course, the content isn’t exactly the same — that would be too obvious, instead, it’s cleverly reshuffled and rephrased. Here’s a random example with Home Depot coupons from the American CNN white label (coupons.cnn.com) on the left side and from the Business Insider white label (coupons.businessinsider.com) on the right. Both are operated by the Global Savings Group.

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The layout and design elements are also very similar and you might notice that the Home Depot logo image on both sites is identical. The exact same image file was reused.

The white label operators seem to be running one central database of coupons. From this database, data is pushed after simple transformations (“Get $5 Off at Home Depot” is turned into “$5 Home Depot Promo Code”) and reshuffling to be shown on the white label sites.

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While the results might look different on one white label site compared to another (from the same operator), they are essentially the same. Any discount code available on one white label is always (and one can assume immediately) available on the operator’s other white label sites. Everything is the same, only trivially transformed to make it less obvious for visitors and harder to detect for the duplicate content and spam filters of search engines.

Everything is the same, only trivially transformed to make it less obvious for visitors and harder to detect for the duplicate content and spam filters of search engines.

Some coupon codes on the sites are marked as “exclusive”. Below is a screenshot of an “exclusive” coupon for the online store Aldo from the coupons.CNN.com white label:

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But coupons.BusinessInsider.com also lists the exact same code “exclusively”:

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It’s hard to come up with an explanation on how a code could be exclusive to both sites – other than to consider it exclusive to the company in the back, operating the white label. Instead of “Exclusive to CNN” and “Exclusive to Business Insider” the correct reading is “Exclusive to the company operating the white label (namely Global Savings Group)”.

The transformed content doesn’t provide any additional value to users searching for a coupon on Google. Instead, it makes the experience more frustrating. It also hurts companies like RetailMeNot and Coupons.com that now need to compete against someone, who not only appears in the Google results just because they host their content on a trusted domain, but also has the chance to get twice the search results page “real estate”. Or more. Why not cooperate with 5 or 10, or more, newspapers and take all the positions?

Owning multiple results also allows the operators to unfairly benefit by tailoring the result headline and description to different audience segments. Why not have one result focus on price-sensitive users by mentioning a $5 coupon on orders over $50 and another for less price-sensitive users by mentioning a coupon for $20 off orders over $200? “Traditional” voucher sites like RetailMeNot and Coupons.com, which only get to display one result on the results page, will have a hard time to compete with that.

Now, let’s look at markets where white label sites started first to get a sense of what‘s’s coming for the United States.

The situation in France, Germany and Spain

When I wrote my previous story “How a Rocket Internet Startup, Daily Mail, and Others Exploit Google’s Algorithm and Make Millions” about 9 months ago, there were no voucher white label sites in the United States. My explanation for this was that Google is monitoring and policing the U.S. market much more than non-U.S. markets. An aggressive strategy might work in non-U.S. markets by going unnoticed by the Google web spam team. I don’t think that’s the best explanation any more. Most likely non-U.S. markets are dominated by white label sites because that’s where the leaders in white label, the Global Savings Group and to a lesser extent Savings United, first focused on.

Let’s proceed to the results from France as these were the most extreme. The Global Savings Groups owns 3 results for each of the 6 keywords reviewed. In other words, for the French top 6 voucher code (“code promo” in French) keyword combinations, the Global Savings Group owns 30% of the results.

In France, the Global Savings Groups owns 3 results for each of the top 6 keywords.

Highlighted in blue, the white label sites operated by the Global Savings Group:

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If the Global Savings Group would also rank with their own French website www.cuponation.fr (I never saw it on the first page of results) and would also book an AdWords ad, they could appear 5 times on the same Google results page. It seems right to describe this as dominating the Google results and I cannot imagine any online industry where such overwhelming domination exists. There are a lot of industries where one website is significantly better than the competition and thus always gets the top spots. However, it’s a whole new level to get consistently 3 of the 10 available spots per results page for very competitors keywords with dozens of competitor websites.

To keep this story from getting too long, here are only the highlights for Germany and Spain. The interested reader is referred to the spreadsheet with the complete data for both Germany and Spain.

  • The German market is the most diverse of the reviewed countries with 10 different white label sites from 6 operators appearing in the results for the most searched keyword combinations. 47% of the results are from white label sites.
  • Global Savings Group together with a German company SPARWELT are the most dominating ones with the highest rankings. Savings United seems to not have any (successful) white label sites active in Germany.
  • In Spain, there are 8 white label sites from 6 different operators supplying 42% of the results.
  • Both the Global Savings Group and Savings United operate white label sites in Spain and compete with two Spanish companies and one which seems to be based in Switzerland.

Next, let’s move to the topic which seems to have been the most interesting to the readers of the previous story.

What’s the situation now in the U.S.?

In the U.S. it seems the white label operators are only starting up. The white label sites from CNN and the Business Insider, both operated by the Global Savings Group and launched only months ago, were already mentioned above. Compared to the European countries the white label sites have a much smaller share of the overall results. Only 8% of the overall results for the 6 most searched coupon keywords were from white label sites:

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While only 8% of the U.S. results in the table above are from white label sites, it seems that it won’t stay like this for long. Recently, a Twitter user posted two screenshots from the tool Ahrefs which show estimates of the visitor numbers some American white label sites are getting from Google:

The Twitter post contains data on two white labels:

  • coupons.cnn.com: Approximately 3.6 million visitors / month from search engines according to Ahrefs.
  • wired.com/coupons/: According to Ahrefs they receive about 100,000 visitors / month from search engines. They didn’t appear in the results for the most searched keywords. The operator is the familiar Savings United.

Why do the white label sites rank so well?

The answer seems to be that Google extends blind trust to anything hosted on (sub)domains from large newspapers and magazines. To see why this is the only explanation that makes sense, it’s helpful to first think about why the Global Savings Group, Savings United and other white label operators run white label sites where they have to share revenue with the host and second, to review the possible explanations for why white label sites might deserve to rank highly. In this analysis we’ll focus on the Global Savings Group but the same applies in a similar fashion to the other smaller white label operators.

Google extends blind trust to anything hosted on (sub)domains from large newspapers and magazines.

The Global Savings Groups not only operates white label sites but also has their own websites under the Cuponation brand. Actually, that’s the name the company was started under before they renamed in 2016 to “Global Savings Group”. As we saw above, in France, they operate three white label sites hosted by L’Express, Le Monde and Ouest-France. They also run their own website www.cuponation.fr. It’s clear that if they had to choose, they would prefer to have their own website be successful instead of the white labels. There are two major reasons for this: First, they wouldn’t need to share any of the revenue with the host and second, they wouldn’t rely on another company and be subject to risk that the host decides to change the operator of the white label site. Such operator changes seem to happen from time to time. However, sadly for the Global Savings Group, even though Cuponation.fr was launched before the white label sites, it’s nowhere to be found in the Google results.

Google doesn’t rank the original (cuponation.fr) well but instead prefers to rank copies of it (the white label sites). This finding allows us to ignore superior content as the cause for why the white label sites are so dominant in the search results.

What could be alternative reasons for why the white label sites rank so well? Maybe a better user experience? More and stronger links? A more trusted brand visitors naturally prefer?

  • The user experience of the white label sites isn’t the cause as becomes clear if one spends a few minutes browsing and compares them to sites like RetailMeNot or even the Cuponation sites. The white label sites look quickly made, are spartan and simple. You get the sense that not much effort was put in when you look especially at the about us, terms of use and privacy policy pages. They seem to be haphazardly pasted blocks of text. In contrast, even the Global Savings Group’s own Cuponation websites show much more attention to detail. Their design and user interface are much better than what you can find on the same company’s white label sites.
  • The white label sites also don’t seem to have strong links (other than of course from the host website and the host’s other brands – but is there an argument for why these should matter?) nor many — often zero — mentions on social media.
  • Nor does it seem that anyone associates newspapers and magazines with voucher codes. While a lot of people go directly to websites like RetailMeNot and search for them in search engines, the white label sites get no direct type-in traffic and nobody searches for them specifically.

So, it’s not content, user experience, links nor the newspaper brands. What can we conclude from this?

The reason for the good rankings must be the domain of the host. The successful white label sites are always hosted by large national newspapers, magazines or other media companies. The domains of these companies all have a lot of “authority” with Google. None of the operators run any white label sites on weaker domains.

It seems that the current Google algorithm has a very strong preference for domains from (large) newspapers and magazines in the belief that these can be categorically trusted. Fake news is of course a big problem, so that isn’t necessarily a wrong assumption on Google’s part. However, their algorithm is a bit too trusting, letting certain large sites and their partners exploit Google for financial gain.

Given that Google needs newspapers and magazines for the content they provide, Google isn’t likely to penalise them too severely. Further, the costs of running the white label sites must be relatively low, especially as the same content can be reused for multiple white label sites. These two factors limit the downside. On the other hand, the potential upside is very high — in the millions and tens of millions. Given these payoffs, it’s only reasonable for media companies to exploit the situation and accept to be the host of a white label site. Especially, if the competition is doing it and are successful with it.

The tip of the iceberg — there are a lot more white label sites

While quite a few voucher white label sites are mentioned above, these are only the (currently) most successful ones. There are a lot more one can find on the second Google results page or when searching for less competitive keywords. For anyone interested, the the spreadsheet with the list of more than 80 white label sites from the previous story might be helpful. The list was made in June of 2018 and wasn’t updated. It might be partially outdated. Some of the white label sites might have shut down and others might have changed the operator.

Summary

  • The search results for the most important voucher code related searches in Europe are dominated by voucher white label sites with them representing about 50% of the overall results.
  • The United States are likely next.
  • The main operator of white label sites is the Global Savings Group from Germany.
  • They achieved something that most other companies can only dream about: Rank multiple times with essentially the same content on the Google results pages.
  • It seems that the share of results from white label sites is growing steadily.
  • The reason why white label sites rank so well seems to be that Google trusts their host domains.
  • Here’s the spreadsheet with all the data used for writing this story.

What should be done?

The domination of the search results pages by the white label sites is a structural issue. The large sites hosting white labels have all the reason to exploit the trust that Google puts in them. Google’s algorithm seems to be vulnerable to deception from domains it generally considers trustworthy. The white label sites are actively working on making it hard to notice what they are actually doing. To make detecting the duplicate content harder, it’s transformed and reshuffled. Some of the white labels even use the more technical difficult set up of delivering the white label site not through a subdomain like coupons.example.com but instead from a folder on the main domain like example.com/coupons/. For Google, to differentiate what part of a website is legitimate and deserves to be trusted and what parts are just for exploiting it is not easy.

Google’s algorithm seems to be vulnerable to deception from domains it generally considers trustworthy.

If you think something should be done discussing this issue on, for example, Twitter.

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Research & Analysis. One topic at a time.

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