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How Much Does SEO Cost?

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You’re interested in pursuing an SEO campaign, or maybe you’re already doing SEO and you’re wondering if there’s something else better out there. Either way, you’re contemplating how much SEO costs—or should cost. It’s a big question, and I’ll warn you in advance that there isn’t a singular answer, but exploring the types of SEO cost structures and the value of SEO services can help you better understand the best way to pay for SEO and how to get the most bang for your buck.

Payment Models

There are a handful of different payment models, depending on how you’re looking to implement SEO services. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and offer their own price ranges. Over the course of this article, I’ll introduce the main SEO services you’ll need to enlist in a campaign, how much effort they take (roughly), and how those efforts are collectively priced in each of the following payment models:

  • In-house experts, who will cost you full-time salaries (or time, if you plan on doing the work yourself).
  • Freelancers and consultants, who will cost you hourly or project rates.
  • SEO agencies, who will generally cost you monthly retainer fees for ongoing services.
  • Hybrid models, which leverage the power of multiple options above.

A Question of Quality

It’s also important to recognize the “quality” factor in your SEO services. If an agency is charging far more money than another, it probably means they’ll be doing more work, and you’ll be seeing far better results by enlisting. This isn’t always true; you’ll find price discrepancies among identical services and service discrepancies at the same price level. However, it’s important to realize that SEO costs scale according to the amount of effort involved (and the amount of effort involved often correlates with your ultimate success).

On the other end of the spectrum, paying too little for SEO services can land you with a bad crowd—keyword stuffers, link spammers, and other schemers who will end up doing more harm than good for your site. If you find a price that seems too good to be true, it probably is.

You don’t want this to happen to you:

traffic graph

(Image Source: Moz)

With the background information out of the way, let’s start taking a look at how much effort an SEO campaign really takes, and how much each option to pursue that effort will cost you.

SEO Components to Consider

There are many working parts to an SEO campaign, so it’s virtually impossible to relegate all of them to a simplified description of “SEO services.” Some agencies and consultants may try, but it’s in your best interest to dig a little deeper and find out what they’re truly offering. Most practitioners will have a few key areas of specialization, and may generalize in the other areas. As you’ll need a little bit of everything if you want to succeed, I encourage you to look at options that guarantee you the best overall range of coverage.

I also haven’t covered the research and strategy components here, even though they are important, because you may already have a strategy in mind, and approaches vary too wildly to settle on an “average” amount of effort.

One-Time Onsite Optimization

onsite optimization

Image Source: Moz)

First, your site needs to be cleaned up. If your site isn’t in proper working order, or isn’t optimized for search engines, it isn’t going to rank. Fortunately, most of the changes you’ll need to make—such as restructuring your navigation, writing good titles and descriptions, and optimizing for mobile devices—are one-time changes. I’ve written a (nearly) comprehensive guide on the subject, so I’ll stay out of the weeds here, but know that there are many considering factors that you’ll have to implement only once.

Depending on what shape your site’s in, this could take a few hours or several days’ worth of effort, maybe even more if new development is involved. Most agencies and consultants will charge a “setup” cost for this work or otherwise include it for free as part of an ongoing package. For an in-house worker, this will mean a delay in beginning the “actual” campaign work.

Ongoing Onsite Optimization

Once your site is optimized for search engine visibility, you won’t have to do much on a regular basis unless something changes. For example, you might need to correct a 404 error, get rid of a duplicate page, readjust for new keywords you’re targeting, or change some design element to perform better. Still, it’s a good idea to perform a regular onsite audit, monthly or weekly depending on the magnitude of your campaign. This won’t take much time—maybe a few hours here or there, and shouldn’t factor much into the overall costs of services.

Ongoing Onsite Content

Your ongoing onsite content strategy is one of the most important and most intensive tactics to get SEO results because of its sheer scale. Onsite content is important for adding indexable pages, optimizing for keywords, improving user experience and customer retention, earning conversions (not technically part of SEO, but still), and earning backlinks, which pass authority. This is an area you don’t want to skimp on.

However, it’s also an area with a ton of variability. Content can range from a handful of few-hundred-word posts per month to much more massive, interactive, landmark pieces published on a regular weekly basis. It could take an hour or several hours to create a single post, and your various options may post any number of times on a regular basis. It’s hard to exactly quantify, but it’s one of the most important considerations for SEO cost—look at the quality of the work here, and don’t cheap out. Agencies, contractors, and in-house experts can all do good work here, depending on their experience.

Guest Content and Link Building

Guest content and link building is another landmark area for the cost (and value) of a campaign. Backlinks are responsible for passing referral traffic as well as domain authority, which you need if you ever hope to gain rank.

huffingtonpost backlinks

(Image Source: MonitorBacklinks)

Link building here can range from old-school tactics like simple link placement (which is as likely to get you penalized as it is to help you) to complex, intensive efforts like getting high-quality guest work featured on national publications. The key to remember here is time investment; it may take an in-house expert months to years to build your reputation to a level where high-level publishers are a feasible option for visibility. Experienced agencies, on the other hand, may already have well-established connections. Since they’ve already invested that time, they may cost a little more up front, but you’ll find their cost basis more rewarding when all’s said and done.

Monitoring, Analysis, Reporting, etc.

There are also some administrative considerations for your SEO investment, as your contacts won’t just be spending time on the actual execution of your campaign. They’ll also be in charge of keeping an eye on your site and your systems, watching for any unexpected drops in rank or search visibility and generally tracking your progress. They’ll need to analyze your results, report them to you, and make recommendations if necessary to see better results.

analysis report

(Image Source: Business2Community)

Agencies often have a critical advantage here because they have access to better tools and dashboards, and more collective experience to analyze the progress of a campaign. However, you’ll likely pay for that expertise. As the “admin” duties of a campaign aren’t imperative to its successful execution, it’s up to your personal expertise and comfort how much you want to shell out for these services. They’re generally not a major factor when it comes to calculating price.

Peripheral Services

There are dozens of peripheral SEO services that could feasibly help your campaign, one way or another, but may not be “necessary.” They may be included in a package deal, so watch for them and consider how they affect your price:

  • Social media marketing. Social media marketing is usually used to syndicate your content, earn more followers, and gain a peripheral mode of traffic as well as earning more potential for backlink building.
  • Local SEO. Local SEO is valuable for many businesses, but it functions on an algorithm separate from Google’s core national ranking system. It demands a separate set of strategies, including local citation building and review optimization. It’s going to cost you extra.
  • Paid advertising. Some companies will lump in paid search advertising, mostly because it gives you some immediate results while you’re waiting for the organic optimization results to kick in. However, don’t be confused—paid search ads have zero effect on your organic rankings.

In-House SEO Experts

Your first option is to hire a person (or team of people) to manage your SEO campaign. There are a handful of advantages to this, as you’ll see, but overall it’s a costly option.

Upfront Costs

The upfront costs for an in-house expert may seem minimal, but depending on your chosen candidate’s level of expertise, you may end up paying more than you expect. There’s no “setup fee” like there can be with an agency, but you’ll be paying this person’s salary as they learn your company, get acquainted with your systems, and start building the processes necessary to execute your campaign. Generally, independent contractors and agencies are better equipped to “hit the ground running,” so you may have a couple extra months of stagnation before you start to see growth.

Monthly Costs

Your monthly costs are going to depend on the level of experience and ability your chosen SEO manager has. According to GlassDoor, the national average salary is $61,933, with a range between $36,000 and $88,000 a year. If you take the average, that translates to a monthly cost of more than $5,000, plus benefits. Even the minimum cost is $3,000 a month, which is pricey considering the range of services you’re liable to get from an in-house expert.

SEO Manager Salary

(Image Source: GlassDoor)

This doesn’t even account for the fact that you may need to hire multiple people to manage your campaign efficiently. Think about it—is one person going to be a true expert in writing, onsite optimization, link building, and all the peripheral strategies you’ll need? You’ll likely end up relying on contractors as well, which can drive the price up further.

Working Style and Expertise

There are some advantages to working with an in-house expert, however. Once they get going, they’ll learn your brand inside and out, so you won’t have to worry about the misalignment of goals. You’ll have ultimate transparency and an immediate line of communication. You’ll even have an outlet for managing communications with outside firms.

However, you’ll also have to consider the level of expertise of the expert you bring in. You’re going to get what you pay for here; if you want your campaign to be managed and executed effectively, you can’t hire someone on the lower end of the salary spectrum. You’ll also have to decide between a specialist or a generalist, who will offer different skills at different salary levels.

Ultimately, in-house experts are costly for small-time operations. Unless your SEO expert is capable of handling other responsibilities, or you have enough disposable revenue to keep several experts on salary, this is one of the most expensive options you’ll face.

Independent Contractors and Consultants

Independent contractors and consultants are a diverse crowd, so it’s tough to categorize them all into one group. Some of these variables include:

  • If you though the salary range for an in-house expert was bad, prices here fluctuate on an entirely different level. You’ll find freelance writers working for as low as $10 an hour and professional consultants asking for thousands of dollars for a one-day workshop.
  • I refer to this as separate from “cost” because it’s all about how costs are presented. Some work hourly, some price their work per-project (or by volume) and still others operate on retainer.
  • Though you will find some generalist consultants, most freelancers are specialists, with one key area of expertise. That means you’ll need to hire multiple freelancers at once to keep your campaign running smoothly (or use them in conjunction with another approach).

Upfront Costs

There aren’t much in the way of upfront costs for a freelancer or consultant; they’re used to doing this for multiple clients, so they’ll probably jump in and start working as long as you have some direction for them. Since you may be paying per project, it may cost you a few hundred to a few thousand extra dollars at the start of your campaign to get your site set up properly (depending on its current condition).

Monthly Costs

The monthly costs for a network of freelancers is difficult to predict, since it depends on what freelancers you need, how experienced they are, and how you’ve pieced them together. Finding freelancers is a bit like finding furniture at garage sales; you’ll have to look closely to make sure they’re in the right condition, and possibly haggle to get the best prices.

Ultimately, if I had to put a number on it, this approach will probably cost you at least $1,000 a month for any reputable strategy. If you’re paying less than that, I’d start taking a hard look at your strategic approach or the quality of the freelancers you’re working with. At higher levels, prices increase linearly, but it becomes harder for all the moving pieces to work together—so you might end up paying $5,000 to $10,000 a month or more for a loosely connected series of moving plates.

Working Style and Expertise

Freelancers are nice because they usually specialize in one area, and you’ll never have to worry about their quality of execution because you’ll pay them based on their output. However, it’s hard to find good ones, and even harder to find all the good ones you need to succeed.

SEO Agencies

Finally, you have SEO agencies. And though I might be biased, agencies have a number of advantages over both the in-house model and the freelancer approach. Everything’s in one place, so you don’t have to worry about hunting anyone down, the agency will be on the hook to get you results, they’ll hit the ground running when they start your campaign, and best of all—for the services you get, they’re comparably very affordable.

Upfront Costs

You generally will have some kind of upfront cost with an SEO agency. Some offer a “setup fee,” usually between $500 and $2,000, to optimize your site (some even offer setup at different levels), while others offer standalone products and packages like “onsite optimization” that exist outside ongoing work. In any case, you’ll have a minimum upfront investment, but it’s a one-time deal.

Monthly Costs

Monthly costs are where you’ll see the biggest discrepancy. Different SEO agencies offer different types of services, levels of expertise, and of course, different packages for you to choose from. Most reputable agencies these days offer the same fundamental services necessary for growth—ongoing onsite content, link building, etc.—but at different volumes for different prices. You may even find specialty packages that fill a niche role that you need.

Lower-tier campaign packages run as low as $500, but these are mostly reserved as options for brand-new companies or ones merely testing the water of SEO. The main packages tend to run between $1,000 and $5,000 per month, with the goal of manageable growth for small- to mid-sized businesses. Bigger businesses will likely opt for packages $5,000 or higher, and depending on their level of competition they may spend even more. You’ll notice these costs are more or less in line with freelancer rates, but you’ll tend to get higher quality and more streamlined services at these rates.

Working Style and Expertise

Agencies will communicate with you frequently, and all in one place, so you don’t have to worry about the logistics of managing freelancers. You’ll get clear reporting, and since they’re forced to stay competitive to stay alive, they’ll be able to make recommendations on how to change your campaign when the inevitable search technology changes do roll out.

There are only a few logistical hiccups that might throw you. For example, most SEO agencies offer a “suite” of services that are hard to isolate, and package levels that are hard to gauge in terms of relevance for your business. You may also be unable to work with individual practitioners—like writers or link builders—directly. Still, if you’re willing to make those compromises, SEO agencies are probably the most cost-efficient route you can take as a standalone option.

SEO Agency Services

A Hybrid Model

A hybrid model may be your best choice, because it guarantees you the greatest amount of flexibility. Rather than settling on just one option or just one pricing bracket, you can piece together the services you need from different providers. For example, you might use an agency for some baseline services, consulting, and a one-time optimization cleanup, but rely on a rock star freelancer to handle your ongoing content strategy. You might have a dedicated in-house SEO expert to handle the majority of your responsibilities, but outsource some of the work he/she can’t handle effectively, like link building.

There are no rules here, so start with a firm budget, and work to allocate it in ways that seem to lend you the best possible results. Remember the key advantages of each working relationship, and use those in your favor to get the best possible cost. If you want a good collection of services, you’ll still have to spend at least a few hundred dollars a month

Final Considerations

Before I delve into a “final” financial analysis, there are a few other considerations I’d like to address:

  • There’s room for negotiation. For the most part, you can work with your contacts to find a better rate or find a better package of services. Even though your agency may list set packages with set figures, if you call and talk to them, they may be able to help you put together a custom package that suits your budget. You’ll also be able to negotiate with contractors and consultants (for the most part).
  • It takes time to see results. Remember that SEO is a long-term investment. During your first few months, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a positive return on what you’re paying. If you’re receiving quality material, it’s going to benefit you in the long-term, so don’t worry if you don’t see results right away.
  • You can always change your mind. Though agencies may try to lock you into a long-term contract, there isn’t much stopping you from changing your mind at some point in the future. You can switch service providers, change your chosen package, or mix things up with new services any time you want.
  • Working relationships matter, too. In the first section of this guide, I covered the nature and value of several services related to SEO, but there’s a value to the intangible services as well. How your contacts talk to you, how transparent they are, and how available they make themselves are all important considerations for your price as well. It pays to save yourself stress and hassle.

With those considerations on your back burner, I can give you a final rundown of how much SEO costs. If you’re paying less than a few hundred dollars a month, you probably aren’t building anything substantial—in fact, you’re probably doing more harm than good. Though it’s hard to pinpoint an exact figure, I’d say it takes $500 monthly, at a minimum, to see any meaningful results as a small business or startup. For most companies, $1,500-$2,500 is a much more realistic figure, with added benefits as you scale up your budget. Assuming you’re getting multiple great pieces of content (which can earn you hundreds of dollars of new revenue by themselves), multiple new links (which can send hundreds of new visitors your way), and you have proper keyword targeting to earn solid ranks for relevant traffic, you’ll earn far more than this in new revenue.

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Jayson DeMers

Jayson DeMers is the Founder & CEO of AudienceBloom. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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