The coupon site world is a strange one.
Without the figures in front of me, it’s obvious to say that ecommerce is growing year over year, and therefore digital couponing is on the rise. The idea of couponing is nothing new and the genius drug peddlers at Coca-Cola are said to have created the first coupon in the late 1800’s. What has exploded in the decade and a half since the new millennium is the rise of digital coupon sites.
These sites have been mentioned ad naseum by most major news outlets and crappy small blog posts stating the best places to get coupons for the holidays, or how to save money online. While this is a universal human desire – saving money – the topic has been beaten to death.
The digital coupon site world is a lucrative one, with a few winners and the scattered remains of a few losers.
Why are there so many coupon sites?
There are so many coupon sites because the barrier to entry is so low. Anyone that understands how to put up a WordPress site and buy a pre-made coupon theme can get started right away. There are basically two aspects to creating a coupon site:
- Creating website with coupon theme
- Getting approved by advertisers at Commission Junction and Linkshare
Number one above is pretty easy and number two is even easier. This has created thousands of Retailmenot copycat sites with dreams of digital couponing riches.
Secondly, there are so many sites because the reward is very lucrative. The way coupon sites make money is through affiliate links sourced through affiliate networks. On the low end, retailers (the real companies like Macy’s, GoDaddy, etc) pay in the low single digits. On the high end, companies like ecommerce software companies can pay several hundred dollars.
But there is one reality: there are only a few winners in this space.
The winner in this space is clearly Retailmenot. They have the largest traffic volume, the most revenue, and investment by Google (Ventures). This Google Ventures connection has been noted previously, and the connection was dug into deeply in an excellent post by Glen on ViperChill. Retailmenot was one of the first and one of the most aggressive coupon sites and by becoming the largest, they now are buoyed by the fact that since they are the largest, they are referred to first by news publications, which improves their search engine performance. They did make a good move of allowing users to submit their own coupons and share the profits of each link.
Coupons.com raised $30 million from Greylock Partners in October 2011, bringing the total raised by that point to $247 million. Since then their organic search traffic has increased to hit its new organic search traffic peak as of this publication. For a company founded in 1998, they’ve sure taken their time trying to catch up to the relative upstart Retailmenot, who currently pull in double the organic traffic of Coupons.com from organic search. A key component to the rise of Coupons.com has been a shift from focusing on just digitizing physical coupons to focusing on affiliate revenue from online ecommerce companies. All this goes to show the amount of money and interest swirling around out there for digital coupons.
A third strong contender is cash-back site Fatwallet.com. They have a different model from Retailmenot. While Retailmenot relies on 70%+ of its traffic from it’s strong search engine rankings, Fatwallet almost certainly relies on the loyalty of its customers. As a cash-back site, every time someone purchases through Fatwallet, they return a portion of their affiliate earnings back to the customer. As a customer this sounds like a great proposition, and they’ve created a loyal fan base because of this.
The losers in the digital coupon site world match up closely with the changes in Google’s algorithms. Before Google became better at detecting poor-quality pages and poor-quality links, many coupon sites relied heavily on any practices at the time that helped them get Google rankings. This included created tons of low quality pages, focusing on rich anchor texts links, or just poor quality links in general.
Every site is different on why they fell, but here are a few samples.
CouponMountain.com used to be one of the top dogs in the space, but they’ve since fallen from grace.
They have their site under construction as of publication, perhaps they’re seeking a pivot?
Not sure myself about the reason for their downfall, but I’d be very interested to learn. Without digging into too much research, I believe they were first impacted by Google’s Panda algorithm update in 2011 and have not recovered since.
FrugalDad started as a blog from a dad’s perspective and branched out into producing great infographics and coupons, but from what I saw has shifted focus first to affording higher education, and now the site redirects to Affordable Schools Online. The About Us page says that the original Frugal Dad is still running the site, but something about the About Us page seems fishy. All I’m saying is that the site hit it’s peak early 2012 and now is a shadow of its former self.
Various other coupons sites that used a good amount of link spam and other tricks did profit from the gaps in Google’s ranking algorithm, mostly smaller sites that would rank for a little while and then fall away.
A strange rebirth
One site that struck me as odd during my research was CouponCabin. They were right up there with Retailmenot for a good period in 2011, but then slowly fell in organic search traffic from late 2011 to June 2014 when they shot up in search traffic to their previous record traffic levels. This decline continued even after the company was injected with $54 million from JMI Equity. I recently discovered that they’ve transitioned to a cash-back website, just like FatWallet.
With a nice new 2014 facelift, the site looks much better than before, although I get the sense they are still trying to find their bearings.
So which sites are the best?
Coupon sites (the publishers) are rewarded by referring shoppers to the ecommerce websites (the retailers) they have an affiliate relationship with. Because of this, they are incentivized to promote anything and everything as great. Like any good company, they give prominent ad space to retailers willing to pay the most. As a consumer, the cash-back sites are probably where you will get the most savings, since you earn back some of the sale. So FatWallet or CouponCabin are where you’ll get the most money saved. Retailmenot and Coupons.com are the heavy weights, and are most likely to have the most coupons. The problem with Retailmenot is there is just a huge volume of junk coupons submitted by users that you have to test a few to see what works.
What about this stupid site, it’s a coupon site?
You’re right – I Love These Brands is a coupon site that has a miserable amount of coupons. It’s an ongoing experiment for me, where I learn what works and what doesn’t. The general crowded coupon site space is hard to compete with if I don’t have millions of dollars in funding, so I seek to differentiate my site by being honest and taking a look at the industry from a different angle. I couldn’t find much exposing how the coupon site industry works, besides the ViperChill post, so this could be an interesting home for discussions about the coupon industry.
It’s a very interesting and weird space.