If you want to appear in relevant Google searches, you need to invest in SEO. But how much should you be paying for it? And how can you figure out who to trust to optimize your site? Today’s post will help you leart n how to evaluate and compare your options, how to spot low-quality knock-offs, and decide what’s appropriate to pay for quality SEO in today’s market.
SEO is a widely adopted online marketing strategy used to increase brand awareness, build targeted traffic, and promote your organization’s performance in the search results of Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search engines. Since almost 70% of all online experiences begin with a search engine, businesses have a vested interest in appearing in relevant search engine results pages (SERPs). And one of the best ways to do that is by optimizing a website for web users and search engines alike.
While the benefits of good SEO are clear, the cost of executing an SEO strategy can vary significantly depending on your goals, the services being offered, and the quality of deliverables. No matter your budget, the costs associated with SEO should be viewed as an investment for your business – and as with any investment, your top priority should be return on investment (ROI) over initial cost.
Prior to signing on the dotted line with any digital agencies, think about and write down what you want to achieve with your SEO strategy. When you’re realistic with your goals, you can determine an appropriate budget to spend on your SEO investment.
For example, if your goal is to increase sales by 15%, you’ll need to estimate how much you’re willing to pay for those results. That will impact your budget and how you’ll divvy up your marketing dollars. Generally, the loftier the goal, the more expensive it can be to accomplish – and you do get what you pay for. That said, SEO doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Let’s take a closer look at what you can expect to spend for SEO campaign services.
Hire for Your Goals and Pay for Results
After establishing the SEO and other marketing goals of your business, you’ll be better equipped to hire for your needs. When shopping for SEO, it’s best to consider all of your options – and the costs associated with each of those options – prior to making any decisions.
Typically, your choices will come down to hiring an SEO specialist or team internally, or contracting an SEO agency. Here are a few points to consider with each:
Internal Hires: Hiring an internal SEO specialist or team will be more expensive upfront due to training costs like training and wages. But if you have a larger organization or a long list of strategies to implement, this may be a worthwhile long-term investment.
Your ideal in-house candidate(s) should have a wide range of skills that should include link building, technical SEO understanding, content marketing, social media management experience, and an analytical mindset. Remember that the more skilled your candidates are, the more expensive it will be to hire and retain them. According to Glassdoor, the average SEO specialist makes around $53,000 a year – but these salaries can reach nearly $100,000 for seasoned experts. More than likely, you’ll need a team rather than just one employee; that means you’ll pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to equip your company with the internal resources it needs.
Independent Contractors: Rather than hire in-house experts, you can rely on freelance SEO specialists to get the job done for you. The upside here is that you don’t have to think about paying for benefits or training this hire. But there are trade-offs. While freelancers may charge a lower rate than you’d pay for in-house employees, the quality of services provided may be lower, too. You may also spend more time managing contractors than you’d like, which can take time away from your core business or even disrupt the client experience. It can also be tough to maintain the consistency required for SEO when you utilize an independent contractor. That said, some business owners prefer to outsource their marketing in this way for the potential cost savings and to avoid the headache of hiring.
Content Marketing Agencies: These agencies often offer SEO services as an add-on to their other marketing service offerings. SEO may not be their primary focus, so be sure to evaluate their technical know-how prior to contracting. These agencies may bundle their SEO services within other marketing packages, which can impact cost. You may find that you need a more dedicated SEO effort. However, this can be an excellent option if your business is looking to accomplish a variety of concurrent marketing goals.
Dedicated SEO Firms: Firms focused solely on SEO generally possess the up-to-date industry knowledge – and that’s good news for your business. Many bigger firms employ a wide array of specialists, which can also ensure you’re getting the experience and resources you need to succeed. You’ll typically see a wide variety of services and pricing options to cater to the needs of your company, such as monthly contracts, project-based contracts, and hourly consultations, as well as more in-depth SEO deliverables to address different priorities. If you have more technical, individualized, project-based, or ongoing SEO needs, this will certainly be the best route.
How Much Does SEO Cost?
How much SEO costs your company will vary greatly depending on the needs of your organization and the experience level of the service provider you choose. That said, there are some universal benchmarks to watch for. You should expect to see something akin to the ranges laid out below.
Monthly Retainers or Service Plans
Many times, you can expect to pay a monthly fee for SEO services. When you work with an external agency or an independent contractor, they may charge a monthly retainer for their services (meaning a set amount paid per month to cover expected services and estimated workload). Alternatively, they might charge a monthly fee for your allotted service plan (meaning you’ll receive a set number of deliverables per month for that cost).
But how much is too much (or too little) to pay for SEO each month? Below are our recommendations for different “tiers.”
Use extreme caution.
Many companies that work in this price range automate a lot of their link-building, use overseas labor for content, or perform only basic on-site technical work. In some cases, they may even try to get away with black hat SEO tactics, which can lead to Google penalizations.
The basics might work for small-town pizza shop looking to show up in local listing sites. But if your goal is to rank for competitive keywords in a saturated market, you probably won’t move the needle with bargain basement prices. You might even put your business at risk if the provider engages in shady behavior.
That doesn’t mean every company that offers cheap SEO is bad. But you should ask yourself how they’re able to pass those savings onto you. If they can’t be transparent about their practices, keep looking.
SEO requires consistent quality content creation, high-quality link building, and a strong focus on optimizing conversions, usability, and accessibility. It’s difficult to get all those services at the lower end of this scale – unless you’re working with an established agency that has both the existing resources and a lack of overhead to keep prices low and quality high.
That may not always be the case with agencies offering these prices. While that monthly rate might sound like a lot, it’s actually on the lower end. In fact, it could indicate a lack of experience or consistent results. You’ll want to evaluate deliverable quality and ensure that the provider can consistently meet deadlines for all services offered before you sign up.
At this price point, you can expect to find more established SEO companies with a proven track record of success in competitive markets. You may find that this expenditure tier can grant your company access to a dedicated SEO team that employs professional copy editors, content managers, conversion specialists, web development experts, link outreach specialists, account executives, and analytics experts to give you the support you need and set you up for success.
Companies with ambitious goals tend to work at this level with an SEO partner that manages the entire process from start to finish. Not only does your business receive access to a senior SEO team with this budget, but this investment is likely to drive substantial results; since the entire project is well-funded, you’ll have more opportunities for growth.
If you’re in a competitive target market, this tier should be your earmark for at least the first year or two. In fact, it’s not uncommon for companies to spend well over $100,000 a month on SEO if they are targeting highly competitive keyword spaces. For many businesses, the investment payoff is well worth it. For smaller businesses just getting started with SEO, however, this budget may not be realistic.
À La Carte Services
Whether you sign a contract for month-to-month services or you’re buying a la carte services, you’ll typically have less chance for sticker shock here. That said, the costs of these services may be more in the end – especially if you’re inconsistent with your efforts.
On the plus side, this can be a great way to supplement your existing efforts. If you already have a robust technical team but your website content is lacking, hiring an à la carte service may be the most effective solution.
You might expect to pay $2,500 to $7,500 for backlink profile audits, $1,000 to $3,000 for SEO/website audits, $250 to $2,000 per link for link-building, $250 or more per page for onsite optimization and implementation, and up to $1 per word for copywriting. Costs will largely depend on your needs and expectations, the qualifications of the provider, and what already exists on your website.
Hourly Consultation ($100-$300/Hour)
If you’re considering working with an SEO consultant, you should expect to spend more than $100 an hour for their expertise. This price point will depend on your market’s competitiveness and the caliber of the consultant, so don’t be swayed by someone whose prices seem “too good to be true.”
Remember, working with an SEO specialist is an investment and you shouldn’t cut corners. Look for a consultant with a proven track record. There are cheaper consultants out there, but they tend to be much less experienced and will likely take longer to get results (if they ever do).
Internal Hires ($50-120k+/Year)
Your organization may have ongoing needs that require specific attention that only an internal hire can provide. In these circumstances, hiring an SEO strategist or manager may be the best option. SEO employee salaries range primarily on experience level and geographic location.
For example, an SEO director for a large tech company in San Francisco can make upwards of $200,000 a year. Conversely, an SEO specialist in Syracuse, NY may bring in a much more modest salary. To get a better idea of what you should pay, search for SEO specialists using career sites such as Indeed or Glassdoor for your specific area.
Which Option is Right For Your Business?
Some of these solutions may not fit within your budget or be correct for every business. Remember that any options you choose should generate results based on your goals and over time produce a positive ROI.
In many cases, it makes sense to have an SEO or marketing manager on staff. But if you’re working with lofty goals, they may need to outsource some of their workload anyway! For highly specialized tasks like copywriting and link-building, you may want to explore a la carte outsources services or work with an agency that can offer their expertise in several different areas while scaling with your needs.
How Much Does Link Building Cost?
Authority is a pillar of search engine optimization strategy and high-quality links give your site authority. While link building will likely be a part of the retainer model discussed above, we’re frequently asked how much link building costs on its own.
Like with retainers and hourly models, there is no precise answer to how much you’ll pay. Your overall investment depends on your industry, competitiveness, history, and how fast you want to grow. This will all inform how many links you’ll need monthly.
But how much does each individual link cost? That varies, too. You can find in-content, off-page links for $5 all the way up to $1,000 per link. But resist the urge to go with the cheapest option. Links, even of the same domain authority (DA) aren’t apples-to-apples.
Here’s generally what you can expect from different pricing tiers:
$5 – $100 per link
Run, do not walk, away. Good link building requires manual outreach, which requires a ton of time. Someone charging cheap prices is either scamming you completely or tapping into a low-quality private blog network (PBN), which can lead to a penalty. Expertise is also a concern at this level. Even if they do manual outreach and avoid PBNs, it’s easy for an inexperienced link builder to make a mistake, like over-optimizing keywords.
$101 – $250 per link
Be wary of link quality at this price range. Smart scammers will set their prices slightly higher, but still post to bad PBNs. That’s not to say everyone falling in this range is intentionally reckless or scamming you. However, it’s important to realize that at this price range, they’re not likely taking the time to create a strategy, monitor uptimes, and track real results. They’re also likely putting you on lower quality sites.
$251 – $500 per link
Now we’re talking! But don’t just jump on board because they’re charging enough to seem reputable. You should be looking for a company that creates a custom strategy for you, does manual outreach, uses a variety of tactics, avoids PBNs, guarantees uptimes and provides you with reports on real results. Yes, this is a huge range, but that’s for a good reason. Natural-looking backlink profiles have sites with a range of DAs, and higher DAs require more effort to earn.
$501+ per link
At this price, you should expect the highest DAs, such as media placements, from a reputable company with all the elements discussed in the previous tier. Make sure to do your homework and check that the links truly are worth the cost.
Looking for more pricing data? Check out Credo’s 2019 Digital Marketing Industry Pricing Survey.
Risks and Red Flags
Choosing the right SEO solution requires careful research to match you with a partner that’ll drive your results. When comparison shopping, look out for these red flags.
Instant Results or Overzealous Guarantees
No matter how experienced the SEO specialist, agency, or consultant claims to be, they should never make any guarantees about overnight performance or quick, guaranteed results. Good SEO can take up to six months (or longer!) to begin positively affecting your campaign.
The SEO provider you choose should explain the details of their services while you talk about how they’ll help achieve your goals within a given timetable. For more complex campaigns, you can expect that it will be closer to 12 months to start seeing significant returns. Run away from anyone who makes promises about SEO results.
Suspicious Link-Building Techniques
Be wary of any strategy that recommends purchasing large quantities of links, followers, or email lists. In the short term, these techniques can accelerate your SEO efforts, but this could actually damage the reputation of your website in the future.
Google and other search engines look for suspicious SEO activity and if it’s discovered, they can penalize or even blacklist your website. Make sure your provider knows how to avoid and deal with penalties, can spot sketchy backlinks, and makes every effort to play nice with Google.
It’s not uncommon these days for competitors to use some of these bulk techniques to negatively affect the SEO of their competition. A good SEO company will know how to protect you from these problems – and if the worst happens, they’ll know how to quickly repair any issue.
For more on this subject, check out the 8 questions you should ask a link building agency before you hire them.
Under Market Value Cost Options
Although a low-cost option appears to be a good value at first, this is generally an indication that the provider is actually lacking experience or a background of proven results. This isn’t always the case, as some up-and-coming SEOs are looking to build their track record and reputation by offering their services at a lower price point. But it’s enough of a risk to proceed with caution.
Be sure to ask them why their prices are lower than average and about their previously successful clients to help better inform you in making a decision moving forward.
Expensive Solutions Without Proven Track Record
It’s a given that some SEO options are going to be more expensive than others. But these solutions should have a reason to be within a higher price bracket. When considering these more expensive options, ask the SEO provider for client references or case studies. You cna also request an in-depth proposal based around your goals and have them articulate why their services are more valuable than other SEO options in their market.
It’s Worked for Other Businesses
You should never assume that a specific SEO solution will work just because it’s worked for other businesses in your industry or other companies that you’ve worked with in the past. Each business has unique search needs and goals to accomplish and limiting your options by sticking with a single solution may be a mistake.
For example, just because content marketing worked great for a tech startup, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those same techniques will work for a local retailer. The tactics, goals, and budget will likely differ greatly – so it’s not a fair comparison to draw from.
SEO Cost Isn’t Everything – But It Matters
When choosing the right SEO solution for your business, price shouldn’t be the only consideration. But as any business owner knows, it does matter. You’ll just need to consider cost within the context of your potential return on investment and the inherent value of the services offered.
Ultimately, you’ll want to work to find a solution that fits within your budget, strategically aligns with the needs and goals of your organization, and provides measurable ROI over time.
With 17 years of SEO experience, Digital Current can help you uncover the right strategy for your business to accomplish your goals within your budget. If you want to learn more about what an agency can do for you, we’d love to talk about how we can help.