How to Audit a Coupon Affiliate Website: How Spam Coupon Sites Steal Commissions
Are you an affiliate advertiser, considering working with coupon sites? Are you already working with them, and wondering whether this is helping or hurting you?
Coupon affiliate sites can either turbocharge your sales or hurt your margins, depending on whether they're real or fake.
Real or fake? Let me explain.
Real coupon sites attract real communities of people who love deals. Sites like RetailMeNot, Slickdeals, Ben's Bargain - these well established sites have loyal communities of users who come back and check out their deals each day or each week.
Coupon sites like these can drive you tons of value, if they share your offer, there will be a lot of people coming to your site to buy something. This is a good affiliate relationship.
Fake coupon sites, on the other hand, look like real coupon sites, but they're missing the community of loyal shoppers. Instead, they rely mostly on SEO techniques to make sure they appear on the first page of Google when people search for "yourbrandname coupons."
How spammy coupon sites earn false commissions
How does it work? Coupon websites take advantage of the natural e-commerce checkout flow. While shopping on your site, a customer may see a promo code input box. Naturally, most will want to try to find a code to enter in that box to unlock a discount.
While some people will go straight to their favorite coupon site to find a code, most people will by default go to Google or another web search engine to try to find a code.
Enter the last click problem
Affiliate marketing works around the principle of the last click. Even if multiple other links were used during the buying process, only the last link clicked results in a commission being credited to a given affiliate.
This is not ideal, since many websites or apps could have contributed to that shopper making a given purchase, but this is how the affiliate industry works for now.
Coupon websites earn your commission even if their coupons don't work
This seems counter-intuitive: if a coupon website's job is to provide shoppers with coupons, one might think that they only earn their commission if their coupon provided the shopper with a working discount.
Unfortunately, most affiliate systems aren't quite that sophisticated, and will simply track which link was clicked and whether the purchase was completed, and can't tell whether the discount actually worked.
For spammy coupon sites, this reduces their business incentive to actually provide discounts that work.
Google may actually rank higher coupon sites that post lots of fake coupons
This gets technical here, but there's a potential loophole in Google's algorithm which actually rewards spammers who post lots of fake codes.
We've all become accustomed to assuming that Google returns us great results for any given search query.
But - doesn't it seem like an awful lot of the coupons you find on Google seem to be expired, invalid, or even just simply fake? Why does Google seem to perform worse for coupon queries?
The answer lies in the way Google ranks sites. Google looks at what's called "behavioral metrics" among their search users, which is a fancy way of saying they watch what people do while searching and clicking on various results on their pages. Using a principle called "dwell time" Google assumes that the more time someone spends looking at a particular page after clicking from a search page, the more likely that the page was helpful to that user, and that page earns a ranking boost.
When a shopper is searching for a promo code however, just because they landed on a page and tried out a dozen coupon codes that didn't work - doesn't mean that this page offered a great experience. In fact, it means quite the opposite.
However, Google is currently unable to differentiate whether the shopper actually received a working discount, only whether or not they spent considerable time viewing and clicking around that page.
Some coupon sites exploit this fact, and will post large volumes of promo codes on their pages, even if they may not work. Similarly, they may spend little effort to test and remove older coupons which may be expired, since doing so may actually hurt them in the search results.
Especially for popular stores that rarely even often coupons, there's a huge incentive for spammy sites to simply post up fake coupons for these stores, since lots of people search for these coupons, and by simply appearing to have working ones, these spammy sites can easily rise to the top of the Google results.
One example of a fake coupon site
To audit a coupon website, we can check for the most obvious patterns that spammer coupon sites will use.
When auditing a site, the number one sign to look for is whether the coupon site posts valid-looking coupon codes for online stores that don't even accept codes on their checkout pages.
Here's just one example. This coupon site PromoCodeWatch.com looks just like some of the other coupon sites I mentioned above.
However, when you look under the hood, you find pages like this page they publish for the popular logo design site 99designs:
PromoCodeWatch advertises two promo codes for this top affiliate advertiser,
But - 99designs doesn't have a promo code entry box anywhere on their site.
We checked with their customer service rep just to be sure.
How could PromoCodeWatch.com be promoting promo codes for this site that doesn't even have a way to enter them in their checkout process?
When you look a little deeper into this one example site, you can see that they do this same thing for many many stores that don't offer promo codes.
Here's another example for another popular affiliate advertiser on CJ Affiliate, Cameta Camera, for which PromoCodeWatch lists a valid-looking promo code offering a great 10% off site-wide discount:
This is another fake code. We checked, and Cameta also confirmed with us they do not offer a promo code entry box on their website:
Here's yet another egregious example. VRBO is another mega-popular retailer that pays affiliate commissions through Commission Junction (CJ Affiliate).
VRBO explicitly does not offer any promo codes, period:
But PromoCodeWatch advertises 10 active promo codes for VRBO, offering appealing discounts such as 10% off specific vacation destinations and $75 off site-wide:
Need yet another example? SmileBox is a popular e-card provider, but they do not offer promo codes. Yet, some sites list promo codes for this brand as if they are valid:
Taken all together - this means PromoCodeWatch may be collecting commissions from these (and many more) advertisers. Due to the last-click affiliate payment model, plus the fact that shoppers will likely not find any working coupons on any site, many shoppers will simply complete their purchase without a coupon, thereby earning PromoCodeWatch a commission based on these fake promo codes.
There are more cases on PromoCodeWatch alone where they advertise fake promo codes for top affiliate advertisers who don't support promo codes, so this site is engaging in this behavior on a widespread basis.
How spammy coupon sites use blackhat SEO tactics such as "paid links" to appear at the top of Google searches
You would think that a site that posts mostly fake coupons might never rank well on Google's search results.
Think again. These spammy sites use a banned SEO technique called "paid links" to manipulate their search rankings so they appear prominently on Google.
To illustrate, despite showing a large number of fake coupons, PromoCodeWatch is still a popular coupon website, with over a half million visitors per month:
PromoCodeWatch's fake coupon pages appear prominently in search engines like Google for terms such as "99designs promo code" or 'VRBO coupons."
In fact, almost all of PromoCodeWatch's traffic comes from search engines, meaning they do not attract that many actual repeat visitors:
How do spammers like PromoCodeWatch achieve high SEO rankings?
Quick primer. To determine which coupon sites to show at the top of its search results, Google looks at each coupon site's "backlinks" or links from other sites that point to it. The more backlinks a coupon site has, the more authoritative it seems, so Google gives it a boost. In particular, Google loves links from other "important" pages, if a big site like the New York Times or Wikipedia links to a coupon site, then that site will show much higher in the results.
What these spam sites do is they find big sites similar to Wikipedia, and then pay money to those sites in exchange for a backlink. Often, they do this by making a donation to the site, knowing they'll receive a backlink in return.
However, Google forbids this practice, because it allows spammy sites with poor content to out-rank quality sites.
Here's one example. This site, PhpMyAdmin is a website run by a popular software developer. PromoCodeWatch has made a donation to this site and they've received what's called a "dofollow" link that boosts their search ranking.
Here's another example. This site, PSPad.com is another popular software website. PromoCodeWatch has purchased a link in the site's footer, alongside other spammy sites.
And another. Chami.com is a software developer site that PromoCodeWatch has purchased a link on in the footer.
In fact, PromoCodeWatch alone has hundreds of these types of paid links, which is why they appear on the first page of Google for so many searches. There are many other sites doing this too, although this is probably one of the worst cases.
What can be done about these spammy sites?
The fact that PromoCodeWatch advertises "working" promo codes for this vendor is a clear indication of spam that should be avoided.
The net result of all of this:
- Shoppers waste a ton of time
- Affiliate advertisers waste tons of money in commissions
This is bad for advertisers, bad for the affiliate marketing industry, and bad for coupon websites who are trying to do the right thing.
So -- what can be done about this?
The quick 2-minute test to check any coupon affiliate site
Luckily, there's a quick way to check any coupon site to see if it's a flagrant spammer. The secret is to go directly to the pages that are most likely to contain the spam. This means going to the pages that likely earn the site the most money (and which they think you won't look!).
One mistake many advertisers make is to simply visit a coupon site's homepage and click on a few of the links presented there to assess content quality. Most coupon sites will carefully curate the pages they link to from their homepage, so you're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. You want to get a glimpse at what's under the hood to determine whether a coupon site is truly offering good content or if they're engaging in spam.
Visit pages of affiliate advertisers who don't offer coupon codes
Here's a quick 2-minute trick to audit any coupon site to see if they're a spammer.
Go directly to store pages on their site that may not be visible from their homepage but which might contain fake or expired coupons or other spammy content.
We're going to focus on checking store pages on this coupon site that are most likely to contain fake coupon codes, if this site is a spammer.
We'll do this by directly visiting pages on this coupon site for brands that do participate in affiliate programs, but which we're 100% certain do not offer any coupon codes as a store policy.
The spammers are most likely to post fake codes on these pages, since this can result in an advantage vs other coupon websites which will be sure to keep their pages for these same stores free of any promo codes.
Here's your list (save it in a note somewhere for future reference) of store pages to audit for any coupon site (brands that offer affiliate programs but do not offer promo codes):
- Cameta Camera
- Lexington Law
All of these stores offer affiliate programs, making them good targets for coupon sites to derive revenue from, but they do not offer promo codes as a matter of store policy.
More techniques for auditing coupon websites and spotting the spammers
In addition to the 2-minute test above, there are other ways you can audit coupon sites to get an even better sense of whether they will add to or subtract from your marketing mix.
Don't auto-accept affiliates
While it's obviously a huge time-saver to simply auto-approve new affiliates who apply to your program, this can result in paying out commissions to spammy sites. Not to mention the negative brand impact that comes from being affiliated with low-quality sites.
Most successful affiliate marketers will tell you that they review their affiliate publishers carefully to ensure they're only working with top quality sites that can actually help boost your sales while avoiding spam operators who may impact your brand negatively while siphoning commissions away from more productive marketing uses.
This is especially true with coupon sites, for the reasons listed above.
Do a sanity check on each site's content, design, and apparent quality
Affiliate marketing in many ways comes down to simple common sense. Look at the coupon site. Does it look spammy? Does it appear that they invested in their site design, do they are about providing a great user experience? Do they curate compelling content on their homepage? Is it easy to navigate their site?
Does the site offer anything unique?
Real coupon sites like Brad's Deals or Dealsplus offer curated deals on their homepages. Browser tools like Honey offer useful functionality through software.
When you look at a potential coupon site partner, see if they offer anything unique. Since there are a million coupons sites out there (most of which are fake), does this site offer anything that would compel real people to visit them every day?
Use SimilarWeb to see where their visitors come from
If you know about SimilarWeb, you know what an invaluable resource it is when it comes to researching websites. If you don't, you're about to discover an essential tool you may end up using everyday.
SimilarWeb is by far the most accurate source of traffic information on any website. Some marketers use Alexa to gauge website popularity, but Alexa's data is far less accurate than SimilarWeb. SimilarWeb has established over many years a formidable global network of data sources that enables them to very accurately estimate the traffic a given website receives.
In the context of evaluating coupon websites, SimilarWeb's power lies in its ability to tell you where each coupon site gets its traffic. To view a site's traffic, simply go to similarweb.com and enter the site's URL. You'll see a report like this:
It's a positive sign when a significant portion of a site's traffic is Direct. This means many users go straight to the site via bookmark or by typing it into their browser address bar and indicates the site has a loyal fanbase. Here's an example:
It's also not a bad thing if a significant portion of a site's traffic comes from email. This indicates that they have a large and engaged email list, which can be used to draw their customers to your deals.
Where you want to be cautious is when over 90% of a site's traffic comes from search engines. While attracting search engine traffic is not necessarily a negative thing, if a coupon site receives almost no traffic from other sources, you can surmise that they are likely engaging primarily in SEO to rank themselves in search engines, rather than in building a great website and a loyal fanbase.
You can be particularly concerned if 90%+ search traffic...
...is paired with a poor site design.
In many of these cases, these coupon sites are not driving any new customers your way, rather they are simply smart SEO people who are parking themselves on Google to earn commissions.
Is search traffic always bad? Definitely not. Some of the most established coupon sites have significant traffic coming from search.
RetailMeNot for example gets 87% of its traffic from search engines. But you can see that RetailMeNot offers a great user experience and high quality content. They just happen to also be great at SEO so they get a lot of search traffic too.
There's no hard-and-fast rule here, but between looking at a site's design and content and its traffic sources, you can go a long ways towards spotting the spammy sites.
Check their brand reputation by Googling their brand name and checking their social media pages
To fully audit a coupon site, you'll want to go beyond their homepage and visit their Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and possibly LinkedIn and Pinterest pages to see if they're active there with real followers. You can usually get a good sense for whether a site has real people following them based on the types of content they're posting and whether anyone is liking or commenting on their posts.
Also, quickly Google the name of the coupon site. Do they appear prominently for their own brand name? Do any negative reviews appear? Do they get real coverage from the press or among blogs?
Get a sense of your potential partner's reputation by checking these off-site sources.
Some more advanced techniques for working with coupon affiliate sites
Think about the design and placement of your promo code entry box
Coupon websites get a ton of traffic from people going to Google or directly to their site to lookup promo codes during the checkout process on your site.
If you have your own coupons page, why not link to it directly near your promo code box? That way you'll lose less in commissions to other coupon sites.
Experiment with influencer marketing in addition to affiliate marketing
In addition to working with large coupon sites you can also experiment in the growing new field of influencer marketing. Influencers can have a more authentic relationship with their followers and are far less likely to exhibit very spammy behavior.
Influencers are usually paid up-front, however, so we're moving away from the pure performance-based model that makes affiliate marketing so attractive. However, there are some influencers who are willing to run CPA campaigns through affiliate networks. Typically, the larger influencers, particularly bloggers, are open to pay-for-performance models.
You can use free influencer search tools like Dealspotr to locate influencers to work with.
Negotiate placements and promotions
When working with valid coupon sites, you can often see a big lift in sales when they promote you in featured areas of their sites or newsletters. Try to negotiate these placements in exchange for exclusive discount codes or increased commission rates.
To sum it up
By picking your coupon affiliate partners carefully, and you can avoid the trap suffered by many affiliate advertisers of working with tons of fake coupon sites.
Disclosure: Our parent company, ZipfWorks Inc, is currently in litigation with the above-mentioned site, PromoCodeWatch, on the basis of fraudulent business practices and unfair competition. Learn more about our lawsuit here.