Quality SEO isn’t cheap.
No matter how much traffic you gain, how many new leads you close, and how much total money your SEO strategy makes you, none of that matters if your recurring revenue is still less than what you’re spending on SEO pricing.
That being said, a greater SEO budget, if spent wisely, generally leads to greater results.
When considering the question “how much does SEO cost?” you would be wise to understand the correlation between SEO costs and SEO results:
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 for the cost of hiring a good search engine marketing expert, we typically advise a minimum of $500 per month for local SEO or any small business or startup.
For most companies targeting short-tail keywords on a national level, $2,500-$5,000 per month is a much more realistic minimum figure, with added benefits as you scale up your budget.
The more competitive the niche, the larger your budget will need to be.
So how can you tell whether it’s time to increase your own SEO budget?
Here we explore payment models and differences in SEO strategies that can affect the price you pay for SEO services.
Table of Contents
SEO Pricing Structure
There are a handful of different payment models, depending on how you’re looking to implement digital marketing services.
Each pricing model for SEO has its own advantages and disadvantages, and offer their own price ranges.
Over the course of this article, we’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 SEO experts
In-house employees will cost you full-time salaries (or time, if you plan on doing the work yourself).
SEO Freelancers and consultants
Freelancing SEO consultants will cost you hourly or project rates.
An SEO agency will generally cost you monthly SEO retainer fees for ongoing, managed SEO.
Hybrid services typically leverage the power of multiple options above.
SEO Cost vs. SEO Quality vs. SEO Speed
It’s also important to recognize the “quality” factor in your SEO company 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 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 for organic SEO 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.
SEO Pricing Components to Consider
There are many working parts to an effective organic search campaign, so it’s virtually impossible to relegate all of them to a simplified description of “SEO services.”
This makes answering the question of “how much does SEO cost?” that much more complex.
Some SEO agencies and digital marketing 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.
We also haven’t covered the research and strategy components here, even though they are important, because you may already have an SEO strategy in mind, and approaches vary too wildly to settle on an “average” amount of effort.
1. One-Time On-site 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 on Google.
Fortunately, most of the changes you’ll need to make—such as restructuring your navigation, writing good titles and descriptions, fixing site speed and optimizing for mobile devices—are one-time changes.
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 SEO agencies and consultants will charge a “setup” cost for SEO or otherwise include it for free as part of an ongoing SEO package.
For an in-house worker, this will mean a delay in beginning the “actual” campaign work.
2. Ongoing On-site 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 perform keyword research, correct a 404 error, get rid of a duplicate page, readjust for new keywords you’re targeting (with the help of expert keyword research), or change some design element to perform better.
Still, it’s a good idea to perform a regular on site SEO audit, monthly or weekly depending on the magnitude of your campaign.
A regular SEO audit will not be time-intensive, shouldn’t factor much into the overall costs of SEO services, but will be critical for long term rankings success in the search engines, if nothing more than a monitoring tool.
3. Ongoing On-site Content
Your ongoing onsite content strategy is one of the most important and most intensive tactics to get SEO results because of its a matter of sheer scale.
Onsite content is important for adding indexable pages, optimizing for keywords from your keyword research, improving user experience and customer retention, earning conversions (not technically part of SEO directly, but still), and earning backlinks, which pass authority.
Quality, optimized SEO content 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.
Digital marketing agencies, contractors, and in-house experts can all do good work here, depending on their experience providing quality SEO.
4. Guest Posts, Blog Content and Link Building Services
Guest posts, off-site content and link building are other landmark areas that can fluctuate the cost (and value) of any marketing campaign.
(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 online to a level where high-level publishers are a feasible option for visibility.
Experienced SEO 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.
It has been our experience that roughly 90% of the on-going cost of SEO is couched in the cost of link building.
Did you know you can check your backlinks for free right now using our backlink checker?
5. 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 rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs), report them to you, and make recommendations if necessary to see better results.
(Image Source: Business2Community)
SEO agencies often have a critical advantage here because they have access to better market research tools, backlink checker software, dashboards, and more collective experience to analyze the progress of a campaign.
However, you’ll likely pay for that expertise. As a campaign’s “admin” duties 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 how much you should pay for SEO.
6. SEO 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 SEO services pricing:
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.
How much does local SEO Cost?
Local SEO is valuable for many businesses, but it functions on an algorithm separate from Google’s core national ranking system.
But local SEO demands a separate set of strategies, including local citation building and review optimization.
It’s a separate cost, so Local SEO will be extra.
But if you ONLY want to rank for local geographic terms in a city or region with minimal population density (e.g. NOT New York City), then ranking locally is easier and less expensive.
Otherwise, it’s much less expensive to push on local search campaigns because the competition for local keywords is typically less (unless you want to rank for “personal injury attorney” or something similar).
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 search rankings.
Cost of In-House SEO Experts
Your first option is to hire a person (or team of people) to manage your marketing campaign.
There are a handful of advantages to this, as you’ll see, but overall it’s a costly option.
Upfront SEO Costs
The upfront SEO 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 SEO company, 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 SEO Pricing
How much does SEO cost monthly?
Monthly SEO costs are going to depend on the level of experience and ability your chosen search engine optimization 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, backlinks, and all the peripheral strategies you’ll need?
You’ll likely end up relying on contractors as well, which can drive your SEO pricing up further.
Working Style and the Cost of “Real” SEO 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 SEO Contractors & SEO 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, SEO pricing here fluctuate on an entirely different level. You’ll find freelance writers working for as low as $10 an hour and SEO professionals asking for thousands of dollars for a one-day workshop.
- I refer to this as separate from standard SEO pricing because it’s all about how costs are presented. Some work hourly, some SEO pricing here is billed 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 SEO Pricing
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. However, they may have an initial cost for an SEO audit and keyword research, similar to that required by an SEO agency.
Since your SEO pricing is completed 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 SEO Cost
The monthly SEO pricing 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 your SEO costs 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 individualized 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.
Upfront SEO Pricing
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 perform an extensive website audit, do keyword analysis and generally 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 SEO Costs
Monthly costs are where you’ll see the biggest discrepancy.
Different marketing agencies offer different types of services, levels of expertise, and of course, different SEO 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 SEO 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 typical SEO pricing 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 SEO 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.
A Hybrid SEO Pricing 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 search engine optimization 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.
How Much Should You Pay for SEO?
Following up on the “how much does SEO cost?” question, we to consider the uniqueness of each business vis-a-vis the competition.
No two websites or industries are the same and estimating an SEO company’s cost without a full assessment would be reckless and irresponsible.
If you’re looking to hire an SEO agency, it’s also important to consider that no two digital agencies are the same either.
Some SEO companies might focus their SEO services on completely different industries and have relationships with very different webmasters and niches.
Some might specialize in lawyer SEO while others help scale software and SaaS companies.
The cost and scale of national SEO companies are going to be much different than a local SEO campaign.
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