How Much Does SEO Cost?


Nearly every business today must decide how much to spend on search engine optimization (SEO). This isn’t an if question. Robust online marketing is imperative for survival in a web-driven world.

The question every business professional must ask is, “How much will we spend on SEO?” Keep reading for all the information you’ll need to make that decision, plus some helpful tips on how SEO agencies work so you can be successful as you forge a crucial partnership with an online marketing firm.

SEO Payment Models

To understand the dollars and cents discussed below, you must understand payment models used by agencies. SEO agencies typically offer four main forms of services and payment:

  • Monthly retainer: In this model, clients pay a set fee each month in exchange for an agreed-upon array of services. The monthly retainer is the most common payment model, because it provides the greatest ROI. Monthly retainer arrangements usually include regular analytics reports, on-site content improvements, press releases, link buildingkeyword research, and optimization.
  • Contract services at fixed prices: Nearly all SEO agencies sell contract services. Often, before a client is ready to engage a monthly retainer, they will select contract services that they want to have completed. The services that an SEO agency offers are often advertised on their site, along with a price. A typical example of this is an SEO website audit which can help determine existing strengths and weaknesses in the client’s online presence, competitive analysis, as well as keywords that have the highest potential to return positive ROI.
  • Project-based pricing: Project fees are similar to contract services with the exception that they are custom projects created specifically for a client. Pricing varies according to the project. For example, a local cupcake shop may ask an SEO agency to help them with theirlocal online marketing. The client decides that they want the agency to establish their social media accounts. The cupcake business and the SEO agency will decide on the scope and cost of the project.
  • Hourly consulting: This familiar consulting model is an hourly fee in exchange for services or information.

Most SEO agencies use all of these payment models. Likewise, clients may work with an agency using more than one model. For example, a client may choose to enter into a monthly retainer, purchase a contract service, and engage in a special project with the agency, thus entering into three of the payment models.

Typical SEO Costs

So, what should you expect to pay? Here’s a survey of the range of the costs according to the payment models described above.

  • Monthly retainer: $750-5,000 per month. Within this range, the amount that a client pays depends on the size of their business and the extent of services provided by the agency. On the lower end of this spectrum are small SEO agencies that offer a limited range of services. On the upper range are businesses with greater needs working with full-service SEO agencies. Most businesses pay between $2,500 and $5,000 for a monthly retainer.
  • Contract services at fixed prices: price variable. Businesses that are just testing the waters in SEO usually choose a contract service as an entry point. Typical contract services include things like SEO copywriting ($0.15-$0.50/word), site content audit ($500-$7,500), link profile audit ($500-$7,500), and social media site setup ($500-$3,000).
  • Project-based pricing: price variable. Since there are a variety of projects, there is a wide range of prices. Most projects cost from $1,000 to $30,000.
  • Hourly consulting rate: $100-300/hr. SEO consultants, whether individuals or agencies, usually charge between $100 and $300 per hour.

(Some of these figures are taken from a 2011 SEOmoz survey of 500 consultants and agencies.)

Things You Should Be Suspicious of

Any discussion of SEO agencies and pricing isn’t complete without a few warnings. To help you guard against indiscriminate SEO agencies with unethical business practices, read and heed. Be suspicious of the following promises:

  • Guarantees. SEO firms generally can’t provide guarantees due to the constantly changing nature of the industry.
  • Instant results. True, some SEO tactics can get “instant results” by gaming the system. Be warned that these can hurt you in the long run. Instant results often involve SEO practices that are against webmaster guidelines put out by search engines. Invariably, Google seeks out these techniques and penalizes them, resulting in lost rankings that can take months to recover.
  • #1 spot on Google. If an agency promises you the number one spot on Google, it sounds great. Hopefully, you’ll be able to get it. However, it’s not something that a firm can promise to hand over to you.
  • Costs lower than $750/month. When it comes to SEO, you aren’t shopping for the lowest price; you’re seeking the best level of service. Be wary of rock bottom prices or “unbelievable deals.”
  • Shady link building services. Link building is a crucial part of SEO. You can’t have a highly-ranked site without inbound links. But there’s a dark side of link building. Link trust is gaining importance to appear high in the rankings. Before you enter into an arrangement with an SEO agency for link building services, ensure that their link building services are ethical, white label services. You may even wish to ask them where they may be able to gain links for a business in your industry.

Things to Keep in Mind

As you begin shopping for SEO agencies and making your decision, be mindful of the following points:

  • SEO takes time. A monthly retainer is best. Think of SEO as a long-term investment. Aggressive campaigns and major pushes may have their place, but the most enduring SEO results come from a long-term relationship. In SEW’s Mark Jackson wrote, “The real value of SEO efforts are, generally, not realized in the first month(s) of the effort.” It’s true. SEOs don’t wave a magic wand and get instant results. Instead, they perform extensive operations that will produce results months down the road.
  • SEO changes, and your rankings will change, too. The field is full of competitors, and rankings rise and fall with the changing of algorithms and the entrance of new competitors. One-and-done SEO tricks simply don’t work. It takes constant monitoring to keep your website ranking well and performing at top-notch levels.
  • Not all SEO services are created equal. Again, SEO isn’t about shopping around for the lowest prices. It’s about finding the finest agency you can. Look for an SEO agency that defines its scope of services, and takes the time to educate you.
  • SEO is important. Do it. The point of your website is to increase and/or improve your business. Unless people are finding your website, it’s not even worth having one. The smart thing is to pay what it takes to keep your site findable by the people who are looking.
  • Hiring an SEO agency is best. You may be thinking, “Can’t I just do this SEO thing on my own?” A tiny percentage of business owners or professionals have the skill and savvy to do their own SEO. Even so, comprehensive SEO takes way more time than most business owners can afford. Even an employee who “knows a lot about SEO,” will be hard-pressed to deliver the level of services and excellence found in a SEO agency. You’ll rarely come out on top if you try to go it alone, and you’ll never get the same level of ROI that you would with a competent SEO agency.

You Decide

For most businesses today, SEO is the highest ROI marketing effort. The benefits it provides exceed the value of other marketing approaches – direct mailing, broadcast advertising, online ads, etc.

No longer do businesses decide whether they need SEO services. Instead, they decide how much they’re going to spend. As long as they choose a quality SEO agency, their decision will lead to incredible amounts of revenue.

You can decide how much that’s worth to you.

I ‘ve recently spoken with a number of prospective clients who are interested in SEO and I’m finding a common theme that’s pretty disturbing… it seems that the scammers are working overtime claiming they can deliver “top rankings for a low price”. RUN!!! I cannot begin to tell you the problems with this proposition. SEO is not advertising or a way to fix your website, it’s an in-depth marketing strategy that crosses over and works in tandem with your other marketing initiatives and key business goals. Here are a few reasons why real SEO isn’t cheap, and a few facts about some of the most common SEO options being offered out there.

Why good SEO isn’t cheap…. Even if the price is.

cheap seoThere are a lot options for the business owner who wants “SEO” for their website. I have spoken to 5 potential clients in Denver over the past week who are spending $150-$400 per month for some kind of SEO program.

I found that in 3 of the cases the on-page SEO was performed but no real link building had been done, so they remained on pages 2/3 and receive virtually no traffic. With some of the right high-value links they could be ranking on page 1 of Google for relevant high volume searches!

In 2 of the cases there was absolute neglect, 1 of which is a large insurance company that was paying a web development firm who had launched the site without even performing the most basic on-page SEO (see below section on web developers providing SEO).

If you don’t see the point here it is; while they saved on their monthly marketing costs, their money was wasted and real opportunities were squandered because someone offered them a cheaper option and they took it. You get what you pay for folks.

How Cheap SEO Could Sink Your Boat!

I used cheap seo

Quite simply, without the proper resources to run a real SEO campaign the only way to get any results is to cut corners. This can be using spammy link networks, outsourcing SEO, automated directory submissions, spamming forums, and other kinds of black hat SEO. If you are being offered results for a few hundred dollars a month one of two things is likely to result. 1.) You get few results that actually turn into customers and hopefully get to see your site higher in the rankings to make you feel better (this is the better of the two). 2.) You pay for the service and get actual traffic and maybe even some real leads!! “Holy cow this is to good to be true!” It is. If you have been getting results for little money in a relatively short period of time chances are the person or company you are paying is gaming the search engines to get you results. Maybe it will work temporarily, but only until the search engines win the game… and they always win. While not common, if the links built to your website are spammy enough your website could be de-indexed from the search engines. If this happens your looking at 10X the cost just to get your website listed back in the search engines for your company name.

Here’s what Search Engine Land Contributor Jordan Kasteler had to say about The Hidden Cost of Cheap SEO & Social Media Labor, he’s spot on and details some of the specific consequences that can occur when going super saver on your internet marketing.

Outsourcing your SEO.

SEO outsourcing

There are some outsourced (outside the country outsourcing) SEO companies that you can use to perform basic and possibly even intermediate SEO, however I would argue very few countries can offer advanced link-building service internationally because at some point you are developing real relationships and the skills required are more in line with sales than any technical expertise.

There is a clear issue with language barriers, especially when you are talking about direct conversations on the phone to get a link. The hardest links are often acquired through direct contact and require some level of trust and faith in the person on the other end. Just manually building links to low-quality sites will usually only pass enough value to compete with other websites also using the cheap and easy strategy.

All the inexpensive outsourced companies I have had direct experience with are a few years behind the SEO industry here in the US/UK, and are using old techniques that don’t really work anymore. (Prospective clients have provided me with the links that these SEO companies are building for them). A few companies are good, most are not.

Web Developers and Marketing Firms Providing SEO Services

marketing seoIt’s important to note there are digital marketing firms, web development agencies, and general marketing firms that have invested significant resources into developing advanced SEO programs. These companies offer high quality, custom-built SEO services that provide real value to their clients.

Unfortunately for every one of these companies there are 10 that add the words “SEO” to their offerings and throw out some jargon to make you think they provide real SEO. Most web development companies don’t really do SEO, they do a version of it that touches on the first 5% of real SEO. SEO isn’t something that someone can do on the side, even web developers and advanced marketers. It takes a completely different skill set and background, most developers don’t have the marketing skills required, and many marketers don’t have the technical expertise (many of them actually sub out SEO to companies like us).

How much should SEO cost?

seo_monkeyIt depends. Here is a great article from Search Engine Land contributor Trond Lyngbo on how much SEO should cost. The bottom line is you get what you pay for, there aren’t any short-cuts that don’t pose risk. Real SEO requires careful strategy and planning by an expert who has a deep understanding of SEO and it’s influencing factors. At our firm we offer a wide range of SEO options generally starting at $1,000 per month, but have clients that spend as much as $5,000 per month. We have found $1,000 /month to be the minimum that most professional SEO providers can perform SEO services for (for most small businesses/websites with average competition).

Outside of that we do a starter program at $600/month, and have seen some companies that offer limited SEO services in this range; if you are a small company in an uncompetitive industry/market you could do well with a program around this cost. This price range could be sufficient to cover most critical SEO needs allowing a website to rank naturally over time. I don’t see real SEO being performed for less than $600/month, that’s our minimum and there’s really no way to go lower without being unethical.

We generally do packages to keep it simple but the actual SEO hourly rates for many SEO companies can range from $60/hour to $300/hour, and even up to $750/hour. These are market rates based on consumer demand, and the SEO firms that perform for their clients produce extreme results that move the bottom line in a big way.

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