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.
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:
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 link 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:
(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.
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.
(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.
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 SEO 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.
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 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.
(Image Source: MonitorBacklinks)
The quality of link building services 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.
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.
(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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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 are a diverse crowd, so it’s tough to categorize them all into one group. Some of these variables include:
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).
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.
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.
Finally, you have white label 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.
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 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 $250, 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.
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.
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
Budget is one of the biggest considerations in an SEO campaign. No matter how much traffic you gain, how many new leads you close, and how much total money your strategy makes you, none of that matters if your inbound revenue is still less than what you’re spending on a campaign.
That being said, a greater SEO budget, if spent wisely, generally leads to greater results. So how can you tell whether it’s time to increase your own SEO budget? These seven questions can help you figure that out:
Here, the key word “positive” can be taken to mean a few different things. Have you seen forward momentum in your keyword rankings since the start of your campaign? Have you seen an increase in organic traffic? An SEO campaign doesn’t need a big budget to start things off—you should be able to see some momentum even with a small budget and a reasonable understanding of the basics. If you’ve achieved that, you can consider moving on (even if your recent months have been volatile or stagnant). If you haven’t achieved that, focus on that foundation before you try to ramp up your spending.
If you’ve seen several weeks and months of consistent growth in terms of rankings and traffic, only to find a level of stagnation across the most recent few months, it means you’ve hit a plateau. You aren’t sliding backward, but you aren’t moving forward, and your budget could be the factor to blame. The fact that you aren’t losing ground means you aren’t doing anything explicitly “wrong,” and the fact that you aren’t gaining momentum means you aren’t doing enough to take your campaign to the next level. At this juncture, increasing your budget is almost always a wise decision.
Take a look at all the free resources you’re currently using and determine if there are any you aren’t. For example, are you syndicating your content across as many social media channels as possible? Are you submitting your content to enough external blogs? Are you leveraging the power of user-submitted content? All these things are free and can help boost your campaign. Before you look to increasing your budget, you should consider giving them a try. You might find yourself able to sustain a campaign with even a limited budget this way.
This question is more subjective than the ones I posed above. It has everything to do with how you feel about your role in your current SEO campaign. Do you find yourself spending all your time on SEO, even though you have other responsibilities in your company? Are you working nights and weekends to keep up with the workload your SEO strategy demands? If so, you probably aren’t operating efficiently, and the best course of action is to increase your budget and put that money toward an assistant, a freelancer, or an agency who can help you out—especially if you’re seeing good results so far.
When you take a high-level look at your current strategy, are you satisfied with its implementation? For example, what kinds of topics are you posting about? What channels are you using the most? If you aren’t targeting the audience you want to target or you aren’t leveraging the channels you want to leverage, the solution isn’t to throw more money at the campaign. Your first job has to be to fix the campaign as it exist today. Think of it this way; if your house was built on a shaky foundation, would your first goal be to remodel the bathroom?
Just increasing your budget isn’t enough. You have to know where your campaign would (and will) expand once that money comes in. For example, do you see an opportunity in posting twice as often as you currently do? Do you see an advantage in producing more videos or infographics? If you have a handful of new directions or strategies in mind, that’s a good indication that you’re ready to increase your budget. Otherwise, you might be increasing your spend for its own sake.
If you were to increase your budget, think about how you would actually spend it. Would you hire someone new to shoulder a new branch of responsibilities? Would you bring in a freelancer to help you handle the overflow work? Would you contract with an agency for a single core competency that you happen to lack? Or would you use the money to find new, high-profile publishing opportunities? Before you start funneling more money into your campaign, develop a loose plan for how you’re going to spend it.
If you can answer these questions confidently, it’s a good indication that you know where you stand in terms of your current SEO strategy and budget. With that knowledge, if you feel like greater spending is the solution to getting more traffic and leads, then you should definitely increase your budget. As a general rule, you should never increase your budget if you don’t know what you’re doing (unless you’re using that money to consult an expert). Otherwise, any budgetary moves are fair game.
Before I delve into a “final” financial analysis, there are a few other considerations I’d like to address:
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.