Natpal, Doppleganger Sites And Other Counter-Productive Marketing Techniques

June 15th, 2007 by Will Scott

First, let me apologize for the rant which follows.

Good – that’s out of the way. Stick with me and it’ll be worth your time.

Natpal” offers “Local Search Advertising”.

So do a number of other search marketing aggregators. They’re not all the same even though on the surface they offer similar products.

The keys, as pointed out by Greg Sterling are a sales channel and an aggregated online advertising buy. Additional commentary from Greg on Natpal.

As some of you may know I have a pretty deep experience in the online yellow pages industry.

From that time I have some experience with each of those listed by Greg above some of which is good. For instance:

  • ReachLocal – offers a real service. I would contend the same value can be delivered at a lower cost, but with their independent rep network and some nice lead tracking technology they do provide some value.
  • WebVisible – works primarily through existing sales channels such as yellow pages and newspapers. I like and have a lot of respect for Terry and Kirsten.
  • WebListic – offers local search engine marketing and is a creation of one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known when it comes to local online advertising, Dick Larkin .

There are others about which I’m indifferent, some of whom I know from prior dealings to be a little weak and at least one who in my recent experience has demonstrated downright destructive behavior.

Natpal is a relatively new kid on the block among those Greg details and I’d never heard of them until the incident described below.

Some of what follows may be a little technical. If it’s confusing, please comment and ask for clarification. I know this stuff seems like voodoo but I try to keep my explanations accessible regardless of your level of knowledge but some of this is definitely search engine marketing specific.

Recently we (Search Influence) have had the huge blessing to have been referred a fair number of plastic surgery practices. Plastic Surgery (particularly “cosmetic”) is a great business – high margins, great compensation for the surgeon and a real incentive to maximize return on advertising investment.

Return on investment is what we focus on with all of our clients, so it’s been a nice fit.

Because of the potential for profit though, these guys are prey for all kinds of snake-oil salesmen. For years there have been directories, SEO firms and search marketing aggregators chasing this market. No doubt some of these do add value.
Recently we discovered Natpal.

It turned out that we had a mutual client who didn’t realize the potential risk in their techniques.

While reviewing our progress with one of our clients we were doing some searches to check on our client’s ranking we came across some Google pay per click ads. Since the only people who would have authorized PPC were sitting in the room we knew something was fishy.

We did a little more investigation and found a complete mirror of the client’s site on a different domain (.net when theirs is the .com).

So why is this bad? Search engines don’t like seeing the same content in two places. In fact, they want to treat one as “authoritative” and may even drop the non-authoritative site out of the rankings altogether.

There are some simple ways to avoid having content appear duplicated and a responsible provider does so.

Rather than go into a long explanation of why duplicate content is bad I’ll defer to Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz who makes it very understandable here.

“It’s particularly dangerous with new sites or those that have recently changed ownership. However, no matter whether you’ve got penalties or just find lots of your pages in supplemental hell, I highly recommend fixing the issue as I’ve described above.”

Aaron Wall of SEOBook discusses it here way back in October of last year.

And then, to make it even easier the Google engineers are nice enough to tell us all about it here.

And if you’d like a longer more technical description, you can read this post by Todd Malicoat, which includes a link to a PDF describing the concept of “shingles” relative to duplicated content (this is more technical than I typically recommend and not for the faint of heart).

In short, if you’re going to make a duplicate of a site you need to block the search engines from “indexing” (collecting data from) the duplicate – otherwise you run the risk of seriously hurting the real site.

The most common way to block the search engines is by use of a “robots.txt” tag in the root directory of your web site. The robots.txt file is primarily used to tell the search engines where they can and cannot go. Below is an example of what you’d find in a good robots.txt (copied from a ReachLocal client site):

# go away
User-agent: *
Disallow: /

Simply put, User-agent is the name the search engine calls itself when it requests information from your site (“*” = any). So in other words all search engines need to pay attention to what follows. “Disallow” should be obvious, and “/” is the root directory of the web server (and by default anything below).

So, with 3 simple lines of code you can keep a site safe from duplicate content.
The real problem is that once the damage is done, it can take months to regain ranking and some may never regain their original prominence.

So Natpal, a venture funded startup, reportedly a product of the Wharton school, has decided they’re going to focus on this rich market as well.

We have mutual clients with ReachLocal, JumpFly and other PPC aggregators and can clearly point to the value provided by these providers.

And, whether I like the return on investment or not, ReachLocal does do it right when it comes to issues of duplicating content.

As I said, it starts with one client. We say – gosh, what dopes! (Sometimes we use stronger language in private.)

Natpal, not our client

And we tell our client that the next time they get an offer for online advertising they should forward the call to us. ‘Nuff said.

But then, we realize that we use the same call-tracking company and while in conversation with one of the techs there say “hey, if you’re working with Natpal you ought to tell them to watch out for this problem or they may really, really screw their customers”.

So, we don’t know them we don’t really compete with them and we were legitimately trying to help them in what we thought was an isolated incident.

I want to be clear: I don’t personally know anyone at Natpal, I don’t have any knowledge of their internal workings or their process. All I know is what I can see in the Google search results, and as a result of their ad-placements.

So today, while doing some searches on behalf of one of our clients I came across Natpal again. And, what I originally thought was a simple mistake is actually a consistent failing on their part likely to do a lot of harm.

If you work with Natpal, you should really look at some alternatives because these guys are, in my opinion, running a risk of hurting your real site’s ranking. If you feel like you can’t beat the ROI (and I’m sure you can if you find the right provider) and must stay with them then at least tell them to clean up their act.

In my investigation I started with this search:

This gave me a list of sites with Natpal’s self-promotion in the footer.

I then dug a little deeper and found a number of examples like the following.

** If I don’t link a site it’s because it’s the copy and I don’t want to help hurt these customers. I’m linking to the real sites in the hopes of raising their authority just in case.
phillycriminallaw.net is the copy of
www.philadelphiacriminallaw.com

The Brennan Firm (who I don’t know and with whom I have no association) is thankfully first for “Brennan Law Firm Philadelphia”.

But wait, the doppleganger page is in the middle of page 2 on Google. And, Google has 28 pages indexed (in its database) from the copy. Ahhhhh! This is scary stuff. Google only recognizes 2 more pages for the original than the copy – this is a bad sign.

All it would take is for the fake to gain authority and the real site could fall off the charts. This is bad, really bad.

And then, one from our newfound favorite niche – our set-upon friends the plastic surgeons:

vernonhillsplasticsurgery.com is the copy of
www.ritaccalasercenter.com

The copy has 16 pages indexed as compared to 32 for the original.

And again, a name and location search thankfully puts the original on top, but the copy is only on page 2.

Again, scary stuff. Google has cues to tell which is authoritative, but they’re nowhere near perfect and the tipping point isn’t far to go.

And finally, the icing on the cake. These faux sites don’t even belong to the customers. They’re registered to Natpal.

As I’ve said: I don’t know Natpal, I’ve never seen one of their contracts.

Here’s what I do know – it’s pretty darn hard to wrestle a domain away from someone who wants to keep it. And whether the clients would be successful in litigation or not, the damage done can be very hard to recover from and hurt their business for a long time to come.

So with that I say: Hey Natpal! Please clean up your act. Whether in ignorance or negligence you’re putting your customers at risk.

Unfortunately, the customer I came across today is in direct conflict with one of our current customers so we can’t take them on as a client. I hope they find a good search marketing firm and I’ll certainly give them a call as a courtesy regardless.

If you made it this far, thanks for taking the time.

To this point, we’ve attracted a broad spectrum of industries. We’ve been very lucky to find the plastic surgery market. The only downside is that we occasionally have to tell our clients that they’re getting screwed when we help them assess their online spending.

Some day – hopefully soon – we’ll publish some of our recent findings on directories in this industry. Which of them bring traffic, which of them don’t and which ones cost way too much.

12 Responses to “Natpal, Doppleganger Sites And Other Counter-Productive Marketing Techniques”

  1. Dick Larkin says:

    I appreciate the nice words about me, but the message here is that there are serious backlash issues for clients of any dishonest (or just plain lazy) search marketing firm.

    I do not know anyone at NatPal, either, but the practices you describe are completely black hat and go against best marketing practices.

    Thanks for spreading the word.

  2. wscott says:

    Thanks to the input of some very smart people I’ve updated this at least twice since its initial publication.

    Thanks guys!

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful post on this subject. NatPal is committed to driving as many online leads for our clients as possible, and we would never intentionally reduce the performance of their SEO efforts.
    Our policy has recently changed to require the use of robots.txt tag on all new duplicate sites, and we are in the process of implementing this across our hundreds of customers.

    Some background:
    As a marketing lead generation provider to the SMB market, we found that most of our clients did not have an existing website. As part of delivering our online lead generation service, we also build for them, at a nominal cost, their primary website. In this case there is no issue, since there is no duplicate content.

    Given our 50% quarter over quarter growth rate we are increasingly starting to work with clients who do have an existing website. As a result of our growth in this segment, this issue was raised to us recently by a client, at which time we changed our policy for new sites.

    We have only one mission, driving more leads at a reasonable price for our clients. We succeed when they succeed. We have in the past and will continue to adjust our tactics to ensure we succeed in this mission.

    Thanks

    Court Cunningham
    CEO

  4. […] Court Cunningham, the CEO of NatPal, has been incredibly quick in responding to my earlier post in which I was critical of NatPal’s handling of mirror sites. […]

  5. Jonathan Haynes says:

    Hey Court, what do you mean by “this issue was raised to us recently by a client, at which time we changed our policy for new sites.” Are you serious? So NatPal is out there building a search practice for SME’s and you guys did not understand the need for robot.txt? Hello McFly! I don’t doubt your intentions, but I will tell you, even the yellow page companies that sell clicks know better… Not to impressive.

  6. Jonathan Haynes says:

    This is a good blog…

  7. wscott says:

    Jonathon,

    Thanks for your comments!

    I appreciate the feedback and only wish I had more time to get what’s between my ears onto the screen.

    Thanks again,
    Will

  8. […] To be clear, we did this on their site. Using simple PHP and Javascript we avoided mirroring their site and the only change was the phone number. After 2 months we made a decision… […]

  9. […] I’ve already posted about our use of call-tracking numbers. Honestly, we want to know what’s working. Since we don’t have a directory and we’re not a one-trick pony PPC aggregator we have some latitude. We don’t have a property in which we need to outrank you. […]

  10. […] and you don’t fall for a slick sales pitch from the likes of SEOMatrix, Yodle (formerly Natpal), or LinksHog (or one of their hundred other […]

  11. Jazmin Tittl says:

    Privacy doesn’t do anything for you from my experience.

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