A few weeks ago I was one of the tens of thousands of people who enjoyed reading a blog post on Priceonomics about “The SEO Dominance of RetailMeNot”. It was an absolutely fascinating read because, being a total SEO geek, I rarely find information in this space that hasn’t been repeated 100 times before. I knew about the company already, but I had no idea about the scale in which they were absolutely annihilating their competitors.
For the thousands of popular search terms that are out there in the coupon world, you’ll see RetailMeNot as the number one search result for the vast majority of them. The Priceonomics article was a great read, but it’s clear that a number of their readers were disappointed with what the article lacked, rather than what it included. I’m always up for doing some digging into the SEO background of a website, especially when 63% of their traffic comes from search and they’re valued at $1.7 Billion dollars.
Priceonomics readers seemed to want a little more, so I hope to fill that gap with this article.
One of the reasons I loved the movie The Social Network is because it really dug into the beginning of Facebook. Although things may have been a little exaggerated for entertainment purposes, I find it far more interesting to hear about a company’s struggles and mini successes rather than just knowing “Oh cool, now they’re worth $1.7 billion dollars” or in Facebook’s case “Oh cool, now they have 1 billion active users”.
After doing a lot of internet detective work for this blog post, I came across a post on a forum from a user identified as bclark. Undoubtedly the handle of Bevin Clark, one of the co-founders of RetailMeNot along with his business partner, Guy King.
Here was that very first forum post announcing RMN 7 years ago:
Just 18 days after that introduction post on the forum, RetailMeNot became the highlight of a 15 page thread from other coupon site owners highlighting their dirty tactics to make their website relevant.
I’ll save you having to read the 15 pages yourself, but here’s pretty much what they contain: Webmasters and ad networks doing absolutely everything they can to stop the growth of RMN. Keep in mind that 7 years is a long time in the internet world, and back then people were dealing personally with networks to get coupon codes. Many of the people frustrated with RMN was because they were posing exclusive codes on their website that weren’t theirs to share.
Coupon codes that other people had worked hard to get.
One person did interject in the thread – not as an affiliate owner, but as a coupon user – saying that he doesn’t understand the problem as long as he can find coupon codes. The rest of the members of the forum quickly turned on him, stating that he has no idea how much work they have to put into their coupon websites just to put food on the table.
These days, the both Clark and King aren’t involved in the website after its acquisition. In an interview with Delimiter, it doesn’t seem like they had too many problems on their journey before the sale:
“From then on in, the entrepreneur describes the process of building RetailMeNot to where it is today — with around $30 million in revenues this year and some 90 million global unique visitors over the past year — as being “a lot of sweat”. He says there weren’t any really hard pain points or tough bits in his company’s evolution — but it needed to keep on moving so that it could deal with the site’s increasing scale.
While it looks like they started out by infuriating every single competitor in their industry, it’s not something I can really judge either Clark or Guy for. Primarily because I know nothing about them, and also because I’m sure a lot has changed for them both personally throughout their internet careers. If you haven’t heard of RetailMeNot, maybe you’ve heard of other ventures they’ve been involved in like BugMeNot, TrendsMap, CushyCMS or even their LIFX product, a reimagination of the lightbulb.
All hugely creative ideas from people who clearly know what others will respond to.
I don’t want to rehash what was covered in the Priceonomics article so let’s get into the nitty gritty of it: Google Ventures are an investor in Whiteshark Media, the company who purchased RetailMeNot then renamed themselves to RetailMeNot, Inc.
Jacob King was the first person to discover this back in 2013 and prompted Barry Schwartz, owner of Search Engine Roundtable to question whether Retail Me Not and other brands under Google Ventures’ watch would ever be subject to Google penalties.
I have to say that I agree with Barry’s conclusion in his post that I do believe Google would give Retail Me Not a penalty, but then side with his commenters in that it would purely be for public display, and it’s something that would quickly be dealt with and revoked if it were to ever happen. Only a large public backlash against Retail Me Not tactics would likely ever result in this happening, though.
Aaron Wall of SEO Book had a different take on the subject. Aaron is someone even more frustrated than me with Google’s favourable treatment with big brands compared to small-time webmasters.
He showed that back in 2010, Retail Me Not were basically paying people to put the Retail Me Not widget on their websites (a widget which came with a dozen internal links to different pages of RMN – do-followed, of course).
This also wasn’t a once-off promotion either, as Aaron continues…
“That free t-shirt for links post was from 2010 – the same year that Google invested in RetailMeNot. They did those promotions multiple times & long enough that they ran out of t-shirts! Now that RMN is a publicly traded billion Dollar company which Google already endorsed by investing in, there’s a zero percent chance of them getting penalized.
To recap, if you are VC-backed you can: spam away, wait until you are outed, when outed reply with a combined “we didn’t know” and a “our competitors are spammers” deflective response.”
A quick search on Google for text that was included in the widget shows there are over 100,000 results with links from websites directly back to Retail Me Not.
Of course, the linked text in all of the widgets is “popular coupons” and not Retail Me Not, as you might expect.
But those widgets don’t exist any more, and the removal of the widget page on RMN’s website is just one of many things that makes me believe Google have had direct communication with RMN and what they should be doing regarding their SEO tactics. After all, that is one of the selling points of having Google Ventures invest in your business. As Chuck price states…
“For the uninitiated, Google Ventures is the venture capital arm of Google. They provide seed venture and growth-stage funding to companies – including Uber, Nest, and RetailMeNot. They are financially motivated to build a company, and then sell it at crazy multiples. One means to do that is to drive gobs of organic traffic to their ecommerce holdings.
Websites owned by Google Ventures have direct access to Google. Quoting from their own site “We provide unparalleled (and real) access to Google’s massive network of employees and alumni.” I assume this includes people that know how the algorithm works and how to optimize for it. I can’t imagine a better resource for competitive or comparative analysis.”
Now, I don’t just want to jump on the Google-hate bandwagon and say RMN are getting some favourable treatment, but the removal of their widget is not the only change.
Example #2: No More Community Sponsored Posts
For a long time, Retail Me Not were promoting a sponsored community page known as their “blogger network”. Among other things, this would give participants ‘Priority access to premium content for your blog’ and ‘Sponsored Content Posts’.
What’s more interesting is that I did not find this in Google cache, but it’s still live on the RetailMeNot.ca version of their website, here. It used to be available on their .com website, but can not be found anymore.
Example #3: Paying for Blog Posts But Linking With Bitly
This was one of the stranger things I’ve seen for a brand worth so much money and only continues to confirm my belief that the very real access companies get from Google Ventures has made sure RetailMeNot don’t do anything stupid they can be called out on.
Here’s a small sampling of some bloggers showing that their support for the RMN blog, The Daily Deal, was a sponsored promotion and readers should be aware of that.
Surely they would have been able track visitors much better by linking to their website with a no-followed link? I know with Bitly you can easily track how many clicks a URL received by adding a + to the end of it, but this seems a little odd to me.
Not odd, however, for a company operating under the close assistance of Google.
The original report on this topic by Priceonomics showed that “Retail Me Not ranks first in Google search results for an astounding 187 out of the 263 keywords we track“. That’s a huge number of rankings to be dominating, especially in an industry with such high conversion rates.
For my analysis I’ve decided to look into the links they are getting for three of their biggest keywords (in terms of search volume) which they rank #1 for. I’m primarily covering referring domains here, since I think the total links to each page ranking is a bit of a skewed metric. If one large website gives them a sitewide link then that really messes with the numbers.
I’m well aware that the number of domains that a website gets links from is not the only important factor when it comes to search engine rankings. It matters where those links are coming from, whether they’re from relevant websites, how Google view the domain as a whole and so on. However, just for some quick birds-eye-view analysis I thought this had the potential to be interesting. And it was.
The three keywords I chose to cover were:
The data in the charts below was compiled from a combination of the data in Ahrefs and MajesticSEO. They always showed varying figures for each website so I added them together and divided them by two to get the average. Though the figures differed, they weren’t wildly crazy. Meaning, there wasn’t a case of Ahrefs showing the page had links from 50 domains and MajesticSEO showing it had links from 500 or even 250. They were fairly close.
Amazon are thought to be one of the biggest sources of income for RetailMeNot. They pay a 4% commission to the company on everything that a customer buys if they go through RetailMeNot’s affiliate link, no matter what RMN are promoting.
And as far as competition goes, here are the Deals websites in the Google search results from the first page of results. Please note that this is not the position of their ranking, but the position of their rankings among themselves. So TechBargains are actually ranking third in Google (not second), but above DealCatcher and below RetailMeNot.
With the success of RetailMeNot it’s clear they have a lot of competition in the search results but in this case, they have the most sites linking to them.
Another big earner for RetailMeNot is no doubt the relationship they have with BB&B, the domestic merchandise store which has outlets in the US, Canada and Mexico.
And as far as competition goes, here are the Deals websites in the Google search results from the first page of results. Notice that RetailMeNot actually take up two of the top 10 spots.
The results here are quite interesting as besides one website, RetailMeNot once again has the most backlinks to one of their internal pages. However, GoodSearch are clearly getting a lot more links for this one yet the rankings just don’t seem to be there.
I’m not totally sure why people search more for ‘Amazon Coupon’ and ‘Bed Bath and Beyond Coupon’ but when it comes to Kohls, people like to use the plural coupons.
And as far as competition goes, here are the Deals websites in the Google search results from the first page of results.
Once again, RetailMeNot simply have more people (number of websites) linking to their internal pages then their competition. From a purely link building based standpoint they deserve to be ranking well for those terms. Or do they?
It’s very clear when you spend a lot of time looking into links to all of these websites ranking that none of them have high quality backlinks. Not one of the sites I looked at seemed to have more than one or two links which were actually on websites of any credibility.
Allow me to delve further into the Bed Bath and Beyond coupon rankings to give you a better example of how links are being generated in this industry. For the RMN page that is ranking, here are the anchor texts that are pointing their way:
Just in case the above screenshot isn’t clear, people are actually using phrases like: “20% off bath bed and beyond coupon, 2014 coupon and codes” as the actual link text. So instead of just saying “click here” they have this huge long phrase. I don’t have to tell you that these are from low-quality, majorly automated websites which appear to simply be scraping RMN.
A good example of this is the links they are getting with the anchor text “20% off”.
As you can see the text surrounding the links is identical, even though it’s posted on different websites.
Now, this isn’t to say that they don’t have any authoritative backlinks. They’re a well-known brand and no doubt pick up a lot of natural links. When they raised rounds of funding and were eventually acquired by WhaleSharkMedia (who rebranded themselves to RetailMeNot, Inc.) they picked up links from the likes of TechCrunch, Bloomberg, Mashable and other large tech sites.
Also, a large number of online retailers, both big and small, try to entice people to buy their products by sending them over to the RMN website to pick up discount codes before the purchase. However, the vast majority of their backlinks, if you take the time to look into them, are very, very poor. The thing working in their favour though, is that so are those of their competitors.
This is an industry where it clearly isn’t easy to pick up backlinks. Sure they do get them to their homepage, but who really wants to talk about Amazon coupon codes on a high-value website.
Go ahead yourself and look at the backlinks for pages like:
The reason I linked to the anchors portion of Ahrefs is that you can clearly see the majority of their links come from anchor text which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Meaning, there’s no way a human manually put together those links. That is a big risk, but as I’ve mentioned already, nobody else is coming along and doing a better job with their backlink profile.
I’ve personally analysed thousands of links to RMN in the last week and, as stated, I find very few of any quality. Luckily their competitors aren’t doing a better job when it comes to links either. Since Goodsearch actually have a lot more links pointing to their Bed Bath and Beyond page, let’s see if their source of links is any better.
A quick glance shows you that Goodsearch have a ton of links from authoritative websites, but guess where they’re coming from…
…widget links. Exactly what Godaddy, Symantec and Houzz are using to absolutely dominate Google and get millions of free visitors. GoodSearch are just one more in a very long line of companies abusing a tactic that Google still don’t seem to know how to handle. Here’s the source code for one of the Goodsearch widgets:
And these widgets are absolutely everywhere on the web. Actually, the majority of their entire backlink profile is built using nothing but widget links and it’s working on a great scale:
That’s an estimated 130,000 visitors per day from search that they’re likely making a huge amount of money from. Not bad just for ignoring a few Google guidelines.
Who really deserves to rank in this industry?
Coupons.com is a pretty horrible website. There’s no obvious search function and you have to wait for some Ajax-spinning wheel every time you click on a category.
Slickdeals is a little better as there’s community engagement happening, but it’s a very ugly and cluttered website that seems to need a spring clean. Brads Deals is more attractive but there’s no discussion related to any of the links. They simply open up in a new tab and that’s it. The offers could be a lot clearer as well.
Dealcatcher is also attractive, but they’re missing out on the community element (discussions and “does this coupon work”) in clear places which Retail Me Not utilises so well. Valpak is their smaller, uglier brother.
I’m not going to claim to have reviewed all of the sites in this industry but as someone who hasn’t ever used coupon sites, I’m instantly more attracted to how RetailMeNot handle their website than any of the competition.
Whether you like it or not, they seem to be the best search result for the majority – if not all – of the terms they are ranking for, and that’s why they’re worth 1.7 billion dollars.
The concept that Clark and King came up with when they started the site – to allow the community to share and rate coupon codes – was a blast of genius at the time and an idea that has clearly resonated with hundreds of millions of people who have landed on their website. Their app for iPhone has now had millions of downloads as well, further solidifying their focus on branding.
Interestingly, the industry they’re in may actually be getting smaller, even though they’re sitting right at the top of it.
This dip doesn’t just show in SEMRush, but in Quantcast as well. Obviously their traffic is going to spike at busy shopping months like the Christmas holiday period, but that’s a real drop for almost one year of operation.
That’s the title I enticed you with at the start of this post, so let’s sum up the main points that we’ve covered:
Those steps may not sound easy, but when it comes to owning a billion dollar business, they aren’t meant to be.
Towards the end of the excellent Priceonomics article, they had this to say:
“At some point, Google will change the rules, RetailMeNot will trip up, or competitors will catch up. It’s not really a matter of if Google pulls the rug out from under you, it’s a matter of when.”
I don’t agree with this at all. I also think the ending of their blog post would have been different if they knew that Google Ventures was indirectly a RMN investor.
The biggest threat to RMN right now is not Google pulling the rug from under them or having a competitor catch up, but small teams or even individuals building coupon sites for specific websites.
What I didn’t tell you earlier in this post is that from my vast research, in nearly all of the hugely popular search terms that RMN are ranking for, there’s a 3-5 page website on the first page of the Google results with just a few hundred backlinks.
The reason I’m not going to tell you what they are is because I’ve decided that I will no longer ever mention the SEO strategies or rankings of smaller websites. Big brands can take it because nothing is likely to happen to them, but small niche-site owners who have had the initiative to build a website in an industry don’t deserve myself or anyone else “outing” them and their strategies.
One such site with 3-5 pages and only 100 backlinks was already mentioned in this post. It ranks for a search term getting hundreds of thousands of exact searches per month. Although I’ve just mentioned it, ignore that one. 1,000 people will go for it after this blog post.
Whack RMN into SEMRush, find some coupon codes for specific companies with insane search volumes, and see what you can do (only if you have the time — don’t let this distract you from what you’re working on already).
There is a plus side and a downside to operating in this industry.
The plus side is the huge conversion rates. People look for coupon codes just as they’re about to make a purchase. For every 10 visitors to your coupon from search traffic you’re probably going to get 5 using your code and earning you a commission.
The downside is likely the CTR from search results. I can’t verify this as a fact, but if you’re not ranking first or second then there will be little point to be ranking at all. Once someone has a coupon, they’re unlikely to keep shopping for more.
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game”.
I put a ton of work into this blog post and really hope you got something out of it. If you did, please do leave a comment (good or bad). I have nothing to sell in 99.58% of my blog posts and comments are really what I write for in the first place. Either way, thank you (as always) for reading!