I’ve been in the digital market space for 20 years and this question, “how much should I pay for Search Engine Optimization?” is perhaps the hardest to answer. The elements that go into SEO are highly dependent on variables that agencies or SEO service providers need to identify before they can provide a valid estimate. SEO variables can be overt or hidden and defining them is key to establishing a fair price.
Some of the common variables in SEO
- Level of Competition
- State of current website technical issues
- Current content
- State of Google’s assessment of site issues (ie, manual actions)
- Dynamic nature of subject area
- Internal support level at client
- Goals and objectives
There are cases of “unknown” variables. These are things that pop up during our scoping process that do not fall into the “normal” bucket and can have a big impact on the work effort for SEO.
Ranking for some industries or products can be exceptionally difficult while others have very low barriers to good rankings. Even with all other aspects being equal, the difference in the subject matter can have a significant impact on the effort necessary to get and improve page rankings on the search engines. Until the SEO provider examines the competitive landscape, it is impossible to know what you are up against; are you competing against the little league or pro players? Is it a tough industry? If so, do you have a lot of niche opportunities? Developing a price is heavily dependent on your competitors’ strength in organic search.
Is the industry dynamic? If the content is developed at a high velocity, then keeping pace in SEO requires more resources. New products, research, news stories, and other related topics can push their way to the top of the SERPS (and your site out). In industries where fresh content is the norm, staying competitive requires new, quality content is added to the website on a regular basis.
We have seen some great websites come to us that required very little cleanup. But, we have also seen some that require extensive work. In some cases, the base condition of the site was so poor that we didn’t even quote the project, we directed the prospective owner to scope out a complete site rebuild (we don’t handle sites builds of that size, so it was not a self-serving suggestion.) The point is, the condition of the website has a big impact on the cost of SEO, particularly for “setup” fees.
You should always write content with the intention of helping your target audience. Some sites have great content that needs some adjustment for SEO or needs better sharing activity. On the other hand, we may need to re-write entire pages or even sections of sites to improve their quality as well as their SEO visibility. Depending on the budgets, objectives, and timeframes, the content may be cleaned up all at once, or it may be spread out over months. Either way, the cost for the content clean up has to be covered.
Sometimes clients have great support for their websites and we only need to pass on the direction. Other times, the clients need us to implement all our recommendations, manage the site, and deal with any technical issues. The more the client relies on us to do this, the more resources we need to commit. It makes no sense to pay an SEO provider for recommendations that are not implemented.
We usually start the conversation with goals and objectives, as do most ad agencies. This gets us aligned with the client, and it also gives us an idea (along with all else) what resources are needed. Do we want to double the leads in 1 year or in 1 month? Huge difference. It may be the difference between reasonable, difficult, and impossible. If you are shopping for SEO services and you are quoted a firm price prior to a discussion of your goals, be sure to understand what the deliverables are.
So, clearly, I can not tell you exactly what you should pay for SEO services. But here are some things to expect
As I alluded to above, there may be a lot of activities that take place at the beginning of the engagement. For websites that are already well tuned, with analytics properly setup, GSC connected and with little technical cleanup, the setup fee can be nominal, or non-existent. There is setup for keyword tracking and reporting depending on reporting requirements. The extent of effort will depend on the size of the program.
What is tricky about the setup fee is that the on-going program cannot kick in until the setup is complete and this typically takes 4 – 6 weeks. Since most ongoing activity waits for this, the agency should not be adding setup resources on top of the monthly ongoing to determine the first-month fee. So, be sure that the fee for month one is truly the setup activity and not double dipping.
Ongoing SEO Activity
In today’s SEO, content for your site and for guest posting/sharing are some of the most resource intensive. Link building outreach is the second big consumption of resources. The more competitive your niche, the more content and content distribution will be required. This is not a 2 or 3 month activity. It is absolutely ongoing.
I bring this up because I am often asked if we can reduce the cost after month 4,5, or 6, because the ‘heavy lifting’ is done in the first few months. I’ve heard this referred to as “maintenance mode.” In SEO, there is no such thing as “maintenance mode.” You are either fighting to maintain position, fighting to gain position, or you will lose position.
SEO price range
Setup – $0 – $5,000.
Ongoing – $1,500 – $7,500.
I’ve seen SEO for less. I’ve worked on programs for less. These are the exception. The client has 100% technical support, has content creation is taken care of in-house, is not in a competitive marketplace…. Every one of the “hard” things is not hard.
They are paying so little that there will be no traction.
For more competitive categories, or programs with a lot of rich, quality content development, the upside cost can be much higher. But, these are unusual and are part of larger efforts for big companies.
Long term SEO
Many people look at the monthly commitment. This is convenient for cash flow purposes. But, SEO is a long game. Commit to 12 months, things do not happen quickly in SEO. There may be the fluke “big hit”, but that is unusual. I know this is cliche but think in terms of investments, not expenses.
Pricing estimates for SEO will vary a lot. When an agency or SEO provider is quoting the service, be skeptical if they did not first ask you a lot of questions. If they don’t, they will be surprised in a short time and so will you.