Chris R Boyd

Chris R Boyd

Founder, Upspark Digital

SEO Made Simple: Part Two – How To Avoid SEO Cowboys

In part one of this two-part series on SEO I talked about what Search Engine Optimisation is and the underlying factors that influence search engine rankings. I also discussed the lack of awareness of how SEO works, even amongst marketing and web design professionals.

This major lack of awareness and understanding leaves the door wide open for people trading as an ‘SEO professional’ to exploit that fact and market services and results that either they don’t have the skills to achieve or that are simply flat out impossible.

I too have fallen victim of my ignorance in the past. In a previous business project, my business partner and I were paying £1000 a month for SEO services. After three or four months I started to smell a rat and began to monitor logins to the website amongst a few other metrics. It quickly became clear that the agency was doing very little for their thousand pounds and I had been convinced by someone who talked a good talk but had no interest in delivering. We were throwing a thousand pounds away each month and so we cancelled the service immediately.

After being conned I quickly upskilled myself in an area I knew I had previously been lacking, as I never wanted to be in that position again. Instead of having a shallow overview of SEO like most marketing and technology people I dived deep into the SEO ocean and was surprised how simple SEO can be, but also how many people are out there conning small business owners.

In part two of this SEO blog series, I am going to arm you with the knowledge to be able to spot an SEO cowboy when they come calling. But first I want to go over the reasons so many ‘SEO professionals’ continue to be able to get away with offering sub-par services. Here are six reasons:

1). Lack of regulation

There is not a regulator, trade association or any other body that would enable you to know who is credible and who isn’t. Anyone can set up a website, display some made-up testimonials and start selling SEO services claiming to be an SEO expert.

2). Lack of knowledge

As I’ve touched on, the lack of knowledge from the client means they are vulnerable to being persuaded to buy services by someone who knows more than they do on the topic but doesn’t have the expertise to deliver.

3). Long term win

SEO is a long term marketing strategy with tangible results typically beginning to show anytime between three and twelve months. This lack of a quick win / early results means you could be several thousand pounds out of pocket before you realise that the person working on your website isn’t delivering what you expected. Worst so, you could be suckered into paying for months or even years after seeing no results on the promise that results will come if you wait long enough.

4). Lack of accountability

There are 100’s of variables that factor into Google and Bing’s algorithms (i.e. how your website ranks). A lot of SEO’s will promise you the world but then use the excuse of variability within ranking for their poor performance.

5). Lack of transparency

A lot of SEO is hidden behind smoke and mirrors. They make SEO sound confusing and use jargon words to make you think the process is more complicated than it is.

6). The Google (and Bing) Secret Sauce

The above reasons are compounded by the fact that Google does so much to keep their secret sauce, well, secret. Their algorithm is such a closely guarded secret that no one outside a few people in Google know exactly how it works. That means the way it works is open to interpretation and speculation leading to the wide and conflicting ranking claims you see within the SEO space. This muddies the waters when it comes to you trying to work out who is a credible professional.

This isn’t to say that everyone in SEO is running around without a clue what they are doing or without any basis for their claims. After all, SEO is all about data and results so the companies who have access to the largest amounts of data on how websites are ranking will logically know more about how the ‘secret sauce’ works. They are ones that can see trends in the data and can test what works and what doesn’t. This information then tends to filter out into the wider SEO landscape where SEO agencies and freelancers can apply this knowledge to their client’s websites. Generally, through a mix of research, best practices and trial and error.

The tell-tale signs of a cowboy SEO

So now that you have a better understanding of how SEO cowboys get away with not delivering for their clients, I will point out the red flags you need to look out for so you too don’t become a victim of an SEO conman. Here are five things to look out for:

1). Too cheap

If you think the deal sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. SEO isn’t cheap, it is time-intensive and although it isn’t brain surgery it does require specialist knowledge in the subject. Good SEO will require time researching keywords, competitors, the client’s industry and their website. Depending on the type of SEO work involved it could also mean the involvement of content marketing such as blog posts or SEO outreach activities such as link building. All these activities require time and therefore if your SEO guy is very cheap then it’s a sure sign that they won’t be investing the time in your business that they should be to do the job properly.

2). Promise to deliver top-of-page-one ranking

You’ve probably had the phone calls from dodgy sounding call centres claiming they can get you to the top of page one on Google. The person on the other end of the call is a sales agent reading a script and doesn’t have any expertise in SEO. This type of conversation should be a massive red flag to you for three reasons:

  1. It means that the same script is being said to everyone they phone. So, everyone they phone is going to rank at the top of page one? Even for arguments-sake, they could legitimately offer that service how would that work in practice when they are offering it to everyone? There’s only one ranking space in your local area or for a certain keyword to be top of Google so how can everyone be number one? It’s impossible and complete nonsense.
  2. Due to the dynamics of cold calling and the volume of calls they make, the SEO company can’t have researched your business to know whether your website has the capability of ranking higher than your competition. For example, your competition might be a vastly better-known company with a very strong web presence where it may never be possible to rank higher than them for the most commonly searched terms.
  3. The most important point: It simply isn’t possible to promise to deliver a top of Google ranking. No actual SEO expert will ever promise this as there are too many variables that go into how a page will rank to ever be able to confidently claim this. If someone claims they can do this, it’s time to walk away.

3). Promise to increase ranking overnight (or in the short term)

SEO is a long term strategy that takes thorough research and continuous analysis to see improvements over the medium to long term. It isn’t a quick fix and those that claim to offer quick improvements are people to be avoided. Improving rankings does not and cannot happen overnight. Google, intermittently sends a bot (a  piece of programming code) to your website to look for changes since the last time it viewed it. Depending on the popularity of your site will dictate how often Google visits your website. For a small business, it may be months between scans of your website. Even after that, Google then needs to monitor and assess how these changes to your website should make an impact to your ranking. This is part of the reason SEO is a long term strategy and can’t be implemented quickly.

4). Offering to help your ranking quickly through backlinks

There are terms like ‘White Hat’ and ‘Black Hat’ in SEO. White Hat is a term describing SEO experts who follow Google guidelines and use best practices to influence search engine ranking. Conversely, Black Hat refers to those within SEO who bend and sometimes break the rules in order to gain an advantage in SEO. When you speak to someone using Black Hat techniques they will typically talk to you about providing backlinks to your website.

Backlinks are links on other websites that when clicked lead to your website. For example, on the HETAS website, they link to many retailers, installers and chimney sweeps via their search tool. These backlinks will help the ranking ability of those businesses.

Backlinks are important is SEO because they influence how Google and other search engines view the importance of your website. If your website is being linked to on other reputable websites then Google looks favourably on your website as it uses the quality of these backlinks and the volume of them to work out how important and credible your website is. That might sound confusing so I’ll break it down further. Your website will rank better if Google can see that other influential websites are mentioning your website, most likely with a link.

The White Hat practice of getting more links is time-consuming as it involves talking to other businesses and building relationships in which they would want to put a link from their website to yours.

The Black Hat method is very different. They will sell you backlinks to existing websites, typically websites that they have artificially created to make Google think the website is important. For example, they could build a blogging website and create a lot of content that begins to rank well over time. They then use this ranking advantage to sell links on that website to businesses.

Whereas the White Hat SEO technique of talking to real businesses to get links takes time, the Black Hat technique can be done overnight. You pay them, they add the links. This can sound very appealing and if the website they are using to link to yours is a well-ranking website then it may well improve your ranking too.

The problem with this method, Google may eventually get wise to the fact that the Black Hat’s website is trying to cheat the system and down-rank all the websites associated with that website. Google, can go further and take you off it’s ranking system completely as a penalty for not following its guidelines.

My opinion, it’s simply not worth the risk.

Two things to look out for

  • SEO’s who can add backlinks to websites overnight
  • SEO’s who won’t tell you what websites they are adding links to

5). Keyword Stuffing

I talked about Keyword stuffing in part one. To get a fuller understanding of why it doesn’t work anymore you should revisit part one. However, I’ll provide an overview here too.

Keyword stuffing is essentially the process of placing many of the same word combinations into a webpage to allow for that page to rank well for those words on Google. For example, you might want to rank for ‘Fireplaces Leeds’, therefore, someone using keyword stuffing would mention this phrase countless times throughout the webpage. This is what a lot of people still think about when they think about SEO. They think about keywords and making sure the right ones are visible on your website. Although this is still important, the truth is that search engine algorithms don’t want you to stuff your webpage full of the same words. Why? Because it makes for poor user experience. A few mentions, sometimes only one reference to a word will be enough to rank for that search term. It depends on hundreds of factors influencing search ranking, and keywords are only one.

This is different to the SEO landscape of years gone by where keywords were far more important and it was easier to rank simply by having the right keywords on your website.

A lot of SEO services will still try to oversimplify SEO and reduce SEO down to keywords. This should be a red flag as anybody who knows what they are talking about or who is going to deliver for you would not talk about SEO in this way. They know SEO is far more complicated than keywords and would talk about an overall strategy rather focusing on keywords alone.

This is doubly true if the so-called SEO expert talks directly about stuffing keywords into your website. As mentioned above, keyword stuffing is no longer required as search engine algorithms are far more sophisticated now, meaning a few references to keywords is typically enough to do the job. Anybody who knows SEO would be aware of this. Time, to walk away if someone tries to sell you SEO like this.


My aim with part two of this SEO guide was to arm you with the knowledge to know an SEO subject matter expert from a cowboy. Hopefully, you can use the above points as a guide to avoid an experience like the one I mentioned at the top of the post. I hope with a better understanding of SEO, and the pitfalls to avoid it makes you feel more confident about exploring how Search Engine Optimisation can have a positive impact on your business.

Till next time, all the best.


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