The Difference Between a Cowboy SEO Company and Pros

Published Jun 11, 2014 by James Parsons in SEO
The views of contributors are their own, and not necessarily those of

Search Engine Optimization is a unique industry. It is largely unregulated. All of the rules for operation are set by one primary organization – Google – with little accountability or oversight. There’s no reporting agency or policing to rank the trust of a given company. Some of the largest firms may show up in the Better Business Bureau, but for most companies, the best you’re going to get are user reviews and community referrals. And where do those reviews and referrals come from? Other SEO companies, largely, which presents the problem of trust. After all, SEO companies presumably know how to rank their businesses high even without the backing of long years of experience.

When you’re searching for an SEO company to contract, there are generally three types of company you’ll encounter.

The Professionals. These companies are large, long-established and good at what they do. They have a wide range of referrals and successful contracts under their belts. They also charge rates commensurate to their experience; that is, a lot.
The Newbies. These companies are the smaller, newer folks on the scene. They may not have the long backing of years of experience, but they know their stuff. Their rates are lower than the professionals, but they’re cut from the same cloth; the newbies will become professionals themselves, one day.
The Cowboys. These companies play fast and loose with the rules, and they aren’t afraid to step over the line when it suits them. They have a wide range of possible flaws to differentiate them from the professionals. Some of them charge incredibly high rates. Some of them make use of gray or black hat techniques. Some of them receive their first few payments, and then disappear forever.

It seems like an obvious choice. Avoid the cowboys and pick from the pros on a level corresponding to your budget. The problem is that cowboys look legitimate from the outside. Until you’ve seen what they’re doing – and suffered the consequences of their techniques – you might have no idea. Here are a few places you can look for differences.


Price is the most obvious factor. Cowboys scam you by hoping you haven’t done your research. Their prices will be five, ten or as much as twenty times the industry average. Look up the most famous companies you can and check out their prices; if someone is charging far more, they’re pulling something. They might even provide service of a decent quality, but they’re charging far more than such a service is worth.

Professionals will have prices commensurate with their experience and competitive with the going market rates. You may pay an unexpectedly high price, but it won’t be the absurd numbers of a high-charging cowboy.


Experience-on-SEOCowboy search marketers have to know their stuff – or give the illusion that they do. That doesn’t mean they have years of experience to back them up. If you ask, chances are they will have very few customers they can claim are satisfied. More likely, the few they list will be false fronts they own.

Professionals will be more than happy to provide the names and contact information of some of their past and current clients. They’ll happily advertise the names of high profile companies they have worked with. They want to show off their successes, to get you to convert.

Link Building

Link building requires a patient hand. Cowboys don’t have this patience. They’ll submit the same link to a hundred blogs and a thousand article directories. Your site will almost immediately shoot up the rankings, but that rise is temporary at best. Soon, a poorly diversified link profile driven by largely copy and pasted text will bring down penalties. By then, you’ll be unable to contact the cowboy support and you’ll be left stranded.

Professionals know you’re going to have to build links slowly and organically. They can identify a few niche directories and blogs to network with, but they know the process won’t happen over night.

Keyword Usage

Cowboys work hard to convince you of the importance of keywords, in your content and your meta tags. They’ll emphasize the detailed keyword research they perform and their specific process for calculating the right keyword density. Then they’ll be slammed for keyword stuffing and disappear.

Professionals know that keywords are a guide, not a rule. Density hasn’t been important for years. Keywords guide the topic of the content they publish on your site; they don’t open the door to some magical realm of instant success when used the right number of times.

SEO Guarantees


Cowboys draw you in with beautiful promises. Rank number one on Google! See instant results! Enjoy a high rank within two weeks!

Professionals know you can’t possibly offer such a guarantee. SEO is an ongoing, organic process. Ranking high is highly dependent on the search query and the competition. No promise could possibly cover every situation, and no such promises should ever be made.

Availability of Names

Cowboys have, at best, a thin about page without a single name listed. They have no history and no future. They are a transient artifact of a scam in progress.

Professionals have a history to display. Often they will have a bio of their founder and CEO. Sometimes they will have detailed bios for their individual team members. They are proud of who they are and will tell you such.

Process Transparency

Cowboys are all about secrecy. They’ll tell you all about how their techniques are on the cutting edge of search engine science. They’ll tell you that they can’t say exactly what they do, because no one else knows the secret and it would immediately lose value if it got out. They may even claim insider information from Google itself.

Professionals know that SEO is a team sport. Information is shared between companies and from company to client. They should have no trouble going over their process with you and keeping you in the loop along the way.

Content Creation

Cowboys know the value of content. They also know that developing content can cost a lot and takes time. Rather than bother with that, they put their advanced article spinners to work, harvesting content from the Internet and repurposing it for their own ends.

Professionals know that article spinners don’t hold a candle to the power of quality, handcrafted content. They have an in-house team of writers or a stable of active freelancers ready and able to craft tailored content for any site.

Packages and Programs

Cowboys sell packages. Buy 30 links for the low price of $500! Buy an instant infusion of 10,000 social likes, shares and followers. Buy your way to the top; an infusion of cash it all it takes to bring in the numbers that put you up among the giants.

Professionals know that SEO is an ongoing process, not a one-time infusion. They don’t sell packages, they contract for programs. There’s no talk of buying followers or paying for links. The money goes towards their services and advertising campaigns.

Beginning to see a trend? Cowboy search marketers will promise the world, but they have no history and no influence to back it up. They’ll use tactics and techniques that are on the edge of utility at best. You’ll see results, almost immediately, sure. After which your site will be penalized and you’ll be deep in a hole with no support to climb out. Avoid the cowboys; go with the pros.

Written by James Parsons

James Parsons

James Parsons is a blogger and marketer, and is the CEO of Pagelift. When he isn’t writing at his personal blog or for HuffPo, Inc, or Entrepreneur, he is working on his next big project.

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