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Does Google’s “Site Reputation Abuse” Power Endanger All of Us?

May 29, 2024 by Michael McNerney, Publisher, Martech Record

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that Google changed how it treats coupon pages hosted on popular sites but curated by third-party companies. Effective May 5, they began to enforce the new policy on “site reputation abuse.” In their post announcing the change, Google said:

Site reputation abuse is when third-party pages are published with little or no first-party oversight or involvement, where the purpose is to manipulate search rankings by taking advantage of the first-party site's ranking signals. Such third-party pages include sponsored, advertising, partner, or other third-party pages that are typically independent of a host site's main purpose or produced without close oversight or involvement of the host site and provide little to no value to users.

Essentially, they consider these pages a form of spam and have decided to de-rank them in search results. One of the examples they used to illustrate the meaning of site reputation abuse was:

A news site hosting coupons provided by a third party with little to no oversight or involvement from the hosting site, and where the main purpose is to manipulate search rankings.

IMPACT ON LEADING NEWS AND CONTENT PUBLISHERS

Many large news and lifestyle properties had rev-share coupon pages on their domains. These arrangements enabled them to deliver significant value to their viewers while earning lots – in many cases, $millions – from rev share. More importantly, that revenue is high margin, and that is important because news is incredibly expensive to produce. Even when the news came in print, newspapers relied on high margin products that were often sold by third parties (classifieds & coupons) to fund expensive, but important news operations. 

Naturally, a decision of this magnitude provoked many strong opinions on both sides. Within our industry, I saw passionate defenses of third-party coupon pages on reputable sites and equally full-throated support for Google’s decision. 

IMPACT ON LEADING COUPON PUBLISHERS

In conversations with leading coupon & deal sites the policy has had a positive impact on traffic. But at what cost?  Some of the coupon sites I chatted with indicated that they had significantly scaled down resources dedicated to coupons precisely because big news organizations were taking share. Now what to do?  Do you reallocate resources back to coupons - even though you have no idea what Google’s next move will be?

Google’s approach was not a thoughtful approach to harmful content. It was a sledgehammer approach that will end up scaring away anyone who has the experience and resources to approach coupons thoughtfully. 

If it was thoughtful they would have followed up to determine what oversight policies news organizations had, or worked with coupon publishers as partners to rebuild. 

Google views content as theirs to farm how they see fit. 

THE BIGGER ISSUE

But let’s set all that aside for a minute. The larger issue is how the decisions of one large tech company – one that drives 77.8% of its revenue from the same marketing and advertising budgets as the affected companies – can up-end an industry overnight. With one decision, Google substantively altered revenue and business outlook for dozens of companies. 

 Whether it is a strategic move against the coupon industry or just a lack of strong leadership, should any one company have the power to hobble competitors like that? 

 With Google, decisions are couched in asserting that they help consumers. However, consider how a single company with a strong business interest in the category can throttle the business of many of its reputable competitors:

 

  • While Google captures more than a quarter of all digital advertising dollars, its market share is in slow decline as Amazon, TikTok, and other platforms chip away. That puts pressure on the company to find new revenue sources. 
  • Figures vary, but the most cited estimate for the US digital coupon market size is about $150B, growing fast. This is a tasty potential market for any company, including a major digital platform that earns most of its revenue and profit from the marketing ecosystem. 
  • Large news and lifestyle publishers with third-party coupon pages have strong relationships with millions of customers. Now, their power in the coupon space is slashed.

I am not accusing Google of using site reputation abuse enforcement as a part of a master plan to crush every player in the coupon industry. Suffice it to say, though, that companies rarely act against their own interests. It may not be a master plan, but with AI and more results in the SERP, Google will inevitably come for the coupon business as a whole. 

So my concern here is about OUR behavior, not THEIRS.

TOO MUCH FIGHTING EACH OTHER

Way too often in affiliate, we focus on immediate consequences to ourselves. We have “inside baseball” food fights with other partnership marketing companies with different models or interests instead of banding together to promote the health and vitality of the industry and challenge existential risks.  

As an industry, we should recognize that our fortunes are far too vulnerable to the subjective decisions of one competitor, whatever their asserted motivations.

If we don’t, we may find the rug pulled out from under our entire industry.

And be powerless to stop it.