It was only a couple of weeks ago when Google started penalizing news sites for publishing unrelated coupon pages. But suddenly, some of these sites’ commercial coupon content is prominently featured in Google searches again – this time, as “news” stories, by at least one defiant publisher who doesn’t like Google’s new rules and appears to be coming up with new ways to get around them.

Not long ago, if you did a Google search for something like “Kohl’s coupons,” many of the top results would be news publishers like the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times, with seemingly incongruous pages on their sites devoted to online coupon codes. That was before Google changed its algorithms, and its definition of what it considers spam, pushing those results down in favor of results from more traditional coupon sites.

But now, do a Google search for, say, “Kroger coupons,” and one of the top results is an article from USA Today. “Kroger coupons from USA TODAY’s coupons page can help you save on groceries,” the headline reads. Most notably, the article – and several others like it – appear on the news pages of the site, in the Money section.

But the “news” article, which purports to offer helpful tips on how to use coupon codes on Kroger’s website (“choose your coupon code… choose your items… enter the offer code… all done!”) is packed with links to USA Today’s coupon page – the very page that Google demoted in its search results. USA Today’s news articles still rank highly in Google search results, so all it takes is a rebrand of a coupon page to a news article, where traffic can be redirected to the original coupon page, and problem solved! That pesky Google update designed to improve its users’ search results is now undone, as USA Today’s coupons are once again among the top results that a Google searcher will find.

USA Today’s coupon page is operated by TSG Commerce, one of several third-party coupon code providers that work with news publishers in a mutually-beneficial arrangement. The coupon providers get to piggyback on the news sites’ popularity in Google search results, in order to get their offers seen by more people. And the news sites share in the revenue if anyone makes a purchase using a coupon they find there.


But Google recently updated its spam policies, saying certain activities such as “hosting coupons provided by a third party,” “without close oversight of a website owner” and “intended to manipulate Search rankings” would no longer appear prominently in Google search results. Google began enforcing that policy earlier this month, resulting in many news sites’ coupon pages plummeting in search rankings.

And USA Today is among the publishers crying foul. “Google has gone too far,” the newspaper’s general manager Scott Stein wrote in a recent editorial. The changes mean “coupons offered by newspapers’ websites are almost impossible to find when searching Google,” he wrote, even though that’s precisely what Google intended. “This hurts families who need to save and the retailers who want to offer valuable discounts,” Stein claimed. “Truly, it hurts the entire consumer ecosystem.”

Well, it certainly hurts one of USA Today’s revenue streams.

Marc Vallverdú, the Chief Operating Officer of Global Savings Group, another coupon code provider that works with publishers like CNN and Business Insider, offered his own defense of the business model at issue here. While some argue “that news sites have no business publishing coupon codes,” he wrote in a recent article, “even a cursory look at the history of newspapers shows that such content has always been a part of their offering.” Offering coupon codes online, therefore, should be considered no different than offering grocery ads and coupon inserts in print. And just because “commerce content on news sites gets a lot of search traffic” doesn’t make it “unfair or manipulative,” he continued. “My view is that Google should rank sites based on the quality of their content, regardless of whether it’s first- or third-party content.”

That may be his view, but it’s not Google’s. That leaves online news publishers with a few options – de-index their coupon pages so as not to be penalized by Google, accept the penalty and hope someone will scroll way, way, way down the list of search results and find their site, or drop their coupon partnerships and find other sources of revenue.

Or, do as USA Today has done, and come up with a clever but devious workaround. For now, that seems to be working – at least until Google’s next move, in this cat-and-mouse coupon game that appears to be far from over.

Image source: Mockuper

One Comment

  1. Google — one of the most powerful, dangerous and, sadly, most corrupt companies in the world.

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