Coupons were once a potential bright spot for publishers looking for commerce revenue, quickly growing into a seven-figure source of revenue for some participants.

Today, just weeks after a tweak in Google’s search algorithm, the future of coupon revenue for news publishers looks cloudier.

In September, Google changed the way it treats third-party content housed in sites’ subdomains, which are separate sections of a site not always directly accessible from that site’s home pages. The change badly disrupted a tactic that had grown popular among American news publishers over the past 18 months, as a cottage industry of vendors offered coupon and commerce content — often white-labeled — that news publishers could host on subdomains of their sites. If site visitors used the coupons to complete purchases, the publisher and vendor would split the resulting affiliate revenue.

While not every publisher that tried coupons saw success, some saw them turn into a breakout hit: Sources from two different publishers contacted for this story said their coupon pages had turned into a million-dollar source of highly profitable revenue within months of being turned on; one called coupons the “fastest-growing” part of their commerce revenue. A source at a third said coupons would deliver close to half a million dollars in annual revenue with little effort, beyond just adjusting the copy shared by their provider.

The coupons and offer pages housed on those subdomains often enjoyed strong positions in search results, thanks to the Google search authority the news publishers earned covering other topics, such as politics, national affairs or entertainment.

Within weeks of Google implementing its change, though, organic search traffic to one news publisher’s coupon pages fell by more than 50%. A second publisher’s coupon results fell off the first page of Google’s search results after reliably ranking on the first page for most of the year. A third source said traffic fell “slightly,” but managed to reverse the declines by changing the vendors’ posts and integrating that content more into different parts of their site.

Most of the publishers contacted for this story said the coupons were a relatively easy way to generate incremental revenue, plus signal to Google search users that they had credibility in the commerce and shopping space. Yet the drop in traffic, combined with some persistent uncertainty about where coupons fit into broader editorial and brand strategy, has some reconsidering the position.

“To make this a big revenue driver, you have to integrate them aggressively across your site,” said a source at one publisher whose coupons were affected by the change. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we wound this down.”

While the change caught some publishers by surprise, Google had signaled earlier in the year that the changes were on the way. “Overall, we’d recommend against letting others use subdomains or subfolders with content presented as if it is part of the main site, without close supervision or the involvement of the primary site,” Google’s Webmasters account tweeted in August.

But not everyone listened, and many news publishers, particularly those interested in growing their commerce revenues, were eager just to see where coupons could go as a revenue stream. While many publishers have had success diversifying into affiliate commerce, marketers spend just a small slice of their affiliate budgets, just about 25%, on content, said Nicole Ron, vp of marketing and business systems at CJ Affiliate.

Many were also curious about how coupons might augment their commerce strategies, yet were reluctant to thread coupons too tightly into their sites and experiences. At many sites, the publishers’ editorial teams play no role in creating the coupon content, which features disclaimers that make that clear. Multiple sources said that the matter of how coupons should be featured, and where, on their own sites remained unsettled.

Google’s decision to change its mind about subdomains felt familiar to many sources contacted for this story. “At the end of the day, Google’s gonna Google,” one source.

Yet many also fumed, privately, that the decision was cutting into an opportunity before it had had a chance to fully grow. “We are not going to start a 60-person team focused on coupons,” said a third source, who called coupons a “meaningful” percentage of revenue. “This is why you have partnerships. It’s supposed to allow you to do new things.”

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