How much does SEO cost? That's the first question that comes to mind for people considering hiring for an SEO campaign.
The problem is that when you start searching online or start calling SEO agencies, pricing is all over the map. A company in India will quote you $150 a month and promise you the moon while an SEO agency might quote you 2K a month with no promises of SEO glory. So how do you make sense of it and know who has the potential to deliver a lot of SEO value for your business and who is just full of crap?
The term, “SEO”, or search engine optimization is a loosely used term. Wed designers claim to do SEO on your website when they are designing it, social media experts will claim they are doing SEO for you when they work on your social media campaigns, even online directories like the Yellow Pages will sell their listing to businesses as an “SEO solution”.
Are all of these offerings actually SEO? Partially, but not really. The search engines use hundreds of different factors in determining how a given page will rank in the search results, so only focusing on a few of these factors will likely return poor to mediocre SEO results if other factors the search engines use are not being considered.
So today we are going to discuss what SEO really is, how pricing works (at least for me), and what you should know when looking to hire for an SEO campaign.
What is SEO?
SEO is when you work on optimizing your website or web pages in the hopes to rank them high in the search engines results when someone searches for a given search term.
So how do you do this? In a nutshell, SEO is 3 things. I like to call it “TLC”, which is a simple explanation.
Technical – The technical part of SEO is having clean code on your website so the search engines can find things easily and your website loads nice and fast. It is also optimizing meta data on your site (information usually only the search engines tend use) like you Title Tags, ALT Tags for images and structured data markup language. You probably don't know what most of this stuff is, but a good SEO does and will optimize them according to the SEO strategy that has been set.Links – When another website links to your website, the search engines look at this as referral or trust signal. The more quality the site linking to you, the more credibility
Links – When another website links to your website, the search engines look at this as referral or trust signal. The more quality the site linking to you, the more credible your website becomes in the eyes of the search engines. Links to your website is the #1 single biggest ranking signal the search engines use. It is also the single hardest SEO activity to do well, which is why many people selling SEO services disregard it completely. Links can be from blogs, the media, social media, local organizations, etc.
Content – Your written content, your blog, service and category pages, will most likely make up the bulk of your content. But content is also video, images, PDF documents, etc. The more content you create for your website, the more opportunities you have to rank in the search engines. A good SEO person or agency will have a good understanding of what type of content needs to be created as part of your SEO strategy.
So the way I usually explain “TLC” is like this. A good piece of content will give that page an opportunity to rank in the search engines. Links will help boost that page towards the top of the search engine results and the technical aspects will make it easy for the search engines to find and index your content as well as giving your web page a boost in the rankings if you have optimized your page with proper meta data and structured data markup formatting.
And what brings all of this together is having an SEO that has experience, knows how to do research and can formulate a proper SEO strategy for your business. Otherwise, you may spend all of your time and resources barking up the wrong tree, which happens quite often and why many people feel that SEO does not work.
How SEO is Priced
SEO can be priced in a few different ways.
Monthly Retainer – You pay a set fee each month for an SEO agency to deliver agreed upon work each month. It usually encompasses a range of SEO activities that you have agreed upon to be delivered each month as part of your SEO strategy. This is usually how most comprehensive SEO campaigns are priced since an SEO campaigns will likely last at least several months and involve lots of different kinds of work. You may not start with this payment structure right away, but reserve it once you trust your SEO agency and are ready for a longer SEO campaign.
Hourly – I hate metering my time, I find it ruins the client relationship when they are always watching the clock and I am always having to keep track of time. You find this less and less as an SEO pricing model, but some still use it, especially when it comes to SEO consulting projects. You may choose hourly if you are brining someone in for a specific purpose and you have an idea of how long it will take to complete.
Project Based – This is when you have a specific SEO project with a start and stop date in mind already. The price would be based on the entire project, start to finish. Maybe you just opened a new location and need someone get it some local SEO visibility, you may agree to a customized 3-month SEO project for a set price and specific deliverables.
Contract Services – This is where an SEO agency offers a set list of deliverables for a fixed price. An SEO agency might offer a Website Auditor Competition Analysis report, for a fixed price. Usually these offerings are smaller parts of what would make up an SEO campaign, not a full SEO campaign.
How SEO Pricing is Determined
I can't speak for other SEO agencies, but in general, this is how I price my SEO services.
The first thing you have to understand is that you are buying time and expertise. SEO is time-consuming, technical and tedious. It also requires good strategy as it is easy to waste a lot of time and money if you are focusing on the wrong things.
These things are taken into consideration when it comes to pricing SEO.
Your Market – Are you looking to compete worldwide, an entire country or just a region/city? Is it a major city like New York or Toronto or a smaller one? There will be big differences in competition and the work involved depending on what market you are looking to compete in.
Your Goals – What are you looking to improve? Specific products or service offerings or are you looking to improve everything? You may have 10 different services you want to rank #1 for but only have a budget to optimize 1-2 of them. SEO involves optimizing individual pages on your site, not just your website as a whole. So when you say you need SEO, you have to think in more specific in terms than your website as a whole. An ecommerce store might focus on certain product categories or a law firm may focus on specific legal services they offer.
Your Competition and Your Website – How well are your competitors doing from an SEO perspective? If they have been optimizing their websites for several years and you are just starting out, it will require a much larger budget than if you were all starting out brand new. Think of it like a race. If your competitors started a marathon and are running a 10-minute mile and you start 2 hours after them, how long will it take to catch up to them if you are running a 10-minute mile as well? Or worse, a 12-minute mile? Exactly. So if your competitors have been doing SEO for 2 years now and spend 3K a month with a quality SEO agency, your 1K budget may not get you very far. You may have to scale down your ambitions so that 1K a month can get you results.
Your Industry – Some industries are much more competitive than others. If you are in the finance or legal industries, competition is fierce and you will usually have to pay top dollar for quality results. Everything is in relation to your competitors and how your website stacks up against them. Some industries spend lots of money on SEO in general, while others may not.
These are just some examples based on previous projects and speaking to business owners who pay for SEO services.
Plumbers – A plumber in Toronto might pay 3-4K a month for local SEO while a plumber in Columbia, SC might only pay 1K a month because the city is much smaller and with less competition.
Mortgage Brokerage – A national mortgage brokerage might pay 12-20K a month for SEO services for a nationwide campaign while a local mortgage broker in Boise, ID might pay 2K a month for that city.
Physical Therapy Clinic – In NYC, you may be paying 2-3K a month for SEO services but 1-1.5K a month in a smaller city like Providence, RI.
These are just some examples, but you can see that industry and the size of your market play a role in costs. SEO agencies also have different pricing structures, so you may have to get a few quotes to get an idea on pricing, just be sure the deliverables are similar.
Some Questions to Ask
What exactly do you plan to deliver as part of the SEO campaign and can you show me examples of your work?
This will give you idea of what type of work they will be delivering and give you a chance to ask questions you may not have thought of. Ask to see an example of a monthly report if possible. Will they be doing link building? Will they be creating content for your site or will you? Will they be fixing the technical issues on your site? Find out exactly what they will be doing as part of their SEO services.
Who will be working on my SEO campaign?
While they may not be able to tell you the exact person who will be handling your account, you should get an idea of how they structure their SEO operations and will give you an idea if entry level hires (and sometimes interns) will be working on your account, or more seasoned SEO veterans. This usually has to due with the size of the SEO agency you hire as well as your budget. A small monthly budget with a larger agency usually means you will be stuck working with a new hire that knows little more about SEO than you do.
What will communications and reporting be like?
Will you receive a monthly report with little insight or will there be monthly or quarterly phone calls to discuss strategy? Communication is a big issue and one of the main reasons people become dissatisfied with their SEO agency. If you are having trouble with communications before you sign on, it may not get any better after.
What will success look like?
You should agree on what metrics will be used to determine the success of the SEO campaign. It might be organic traffic growth, keyword rankings, or a combination of user metrics and rankings. Just have an idea so you can monitor progress.
Things To Keep In Mind
Seo takes time. It is not like paying for advertising, you most likely will not see immediate results, but when the results do come, they will be long lasting. If you decide to invest in SEO, you need to commit for a minimum of 6 months, but 12-24 months realistically. SEO is a long term strategy that can bring long-term results.
SEO is not cheap. You pay a pretty penny for good SEO because it can return some serious ROI once it gets going. The cheapest option is almost never the best option. If you are planning on spending $200 a month on SEO, do yourself a favor and spend that $200 on a fancy date with your spouse or loved one, you'll get a much better ROI on your money than paying for garbage SEO services.
SEO is not a mystery. It's not rocket science, but it is doing a lot of little things right on a consistent basis. Make sure whoever you work with isn't a one trick SEO pony that only does social media or only writes content, these are components of SEO, but it is not SEO.
Still have questions about SEO? Contact me here.