One of the most common questions from a business owner about SEO is “How much does it cost?”
It’s not surprising that people struggle to wrap their head around SEO pricing (or any digital marketing for that matter) because it is (unlike many other things you buy) an intangible purchase. When you buy marketing material for your business, you can see it, touch it, feel it. Even if you buy a consulting service, you get the professional’s time which makes you feel like you got some tangible value out of your dollars. But when it comes to SEO, what exactly are you buying? It may not “feel” like a purchase for months when your rankings finally start kicking in.
Furthermore, every SEO agency prices their services differently. There is no standardized pricing model or method. The only commonality is that it is almost always an ongoing monthly expense. So looking from the outside and without knowing anything about SEO, it can be a little difficult to discern dodgy SEO agencies from the professional quality ones that actually deliver on their promises. So let’s look at the Pricing in more detail and see if it can help us distinguish between the two.
The very first thing you need to understand about SEO is…
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SEO is an Unregulated Industry
There is no central governing body or authority in digital marketing. No regulation or mandatory education or certification. Anyone can claim to be an expert. As such, Agencies have their own methods of pricing.
Here’s the damage that poor-quality SEO can do to your business:
- Get Google to impose a penalty on your website that will significantly reduce your positions in the search engine
- Deindexation. In other words, completely remove your website from Google (very difficult to reverse)
- Stagnant rankings i.e., getting perpetually stuck on lower Page 1 or Page 2 for competitive keywords (generally the result when the actual SEO work is outsourced by the agency you hired to overseas companies who can only afford cheap links, so they can make a profit)
- Shortcut tactics that might get you some traffic in the short term but will eventually lead to one of the above scenarios.
SEO Pricing Models
Now, let’s get into the specific pricing models and how they can indicate if you’re going to get what you’re paying for.
Certainly, the most common pricing model. You and the SEO company agree on a set of keywords and you pay a monthly fee till those keywords are ranked in the top positions in Google.
This model does make perfect sense because there is no set formula to rank that applies to all websites (well, there is but Google’s never going to reveal it… imagine if they did!), so SEO Specialists have to constantly test what works and what doesn’t to stay on top of algorithm updates.
Due to the number of variables involved in the ranking process, the hands-on nature of the work and the ongoing expenses of clean link-building, the service requires an ongoing monthly fee. This fee can range from $800 per month for lower difficulty keywords to $4000 per month (or over) for high-competition keywords. The higher your per-sale dollar value is, the more competitive your keywords are likely to be.
But this does not necessarily apply to all industries and locations.
The more niche your industry is (and the more remote your location is), the less search volume there will be for your main keywords and thus, competition is bound to be lower. In that case, paying a monthly retainer may not be necessary. You could purchase one-off SEO packages and may well end up getting ranked at the top.
Let’s say you’re not in a remote town but a major city and you have several competitors that are going after the same keywords. How do you know if that monthly retainer fee is actually going towards your rankings or a company that never intends to actually rank you for your keywords?
One way to find out is to see if they are quoting you based on the number of keywords or the quality/difficulty/search volume of those keywords?
You see, SEO is very much like real estate. If you want to buy a 3 bedroom house, the price doesn’t just depend on the size of the house but also largely on the location. The exact same house in one of the top suburbs of the city is going to cost significantly more than some run-down part of town. So what would you think of a real estate agent who offers you 2 houses in these very different suburbs for the exact same price? Scam alert, right?
Well, SEO works the exact same way. If a company offers menu-pricing for keywords such as $500 per month for 5 keywords, $800 for 10 keywords and $1000 for 20 keywords without even knowing what the keywords are, they have no intention of ranking your website.
Contracts vs Open-Ended Agreements
Everyone hates a contract. Several SEO companies will ask you to sign 12-month contracts to get started. Most “horror stories” you hear about SEO come from business owners who were disappointed with what they were getting for their money but weren’t able to get out of their contract.
Without knowing the quality of the work you’re going to get, signing a contract is quite a risk when it comes to SEO. When it comes to Google, “bad SEO” doesn’t just mean lack of results for now. It could potentially mean not ever getting any results (by getting a penalty or invisible filter applied to your website that can keep you stuck on page 2 perpetually). Penalties are a rarity but these filters are quite common and generally the result of unsafe link-building.
A lot of SEO companies that get you to sign contracts mostly focus on sales and once they sign you as a client, their focus is on getting more clients while they outsource the SEO of your website to offshore agencies. These offshore agencies get a very small percentage of the fee and the only kind of links you can afford to get for those small amounts are spammy directory links.
In the world of the Internet, a link is an endorsement. In the same way that you would trust a recommendation from a friend or a family member, Google trusts you based on the websites that are linking to your website. The cheaper your links, the lower your trust (and rankings) will be. Check out our SEO 101 video about powering up your website to learn more about how links work and how you can build some good quality foundation links to your website.
Hourly SEO Consultation
The average rate for SEO consultation in Australia is $120 to $300 per hour. Not every SEO Agency offers hourly consultation. The rates can vary a fair bit, as they depend on the consultant’s experience and expertise.
This option may only be the right fit for you if:
- you have the means and the knowledge to implement the changes and the strategies the consultant will advise you about OR
- you are in the initial planning stages of your project or website and you want to know the right foundation to build your site on, such as URL structure, keywords etc.
In-House SEO Specialist
Some companies prefer to hire an SEO specialist in-house rather than outsource it to a digital marketing agency.
According to listings on Seek and Indeed, hiring an SEO specialist can cost you on average between $80,000 to $110,000 per year (plus other employee benefits, of course)
Even IF these numbers were exactly the same as the cost of outsourcing, hiring an in-house SEO specialist is likely to yield a lower ROI on your investment. As stated above, SEO is an unregulated industry. Unlike doctors and lawyers who are obligated to attend educational events and conferences for their professional development, an SEO “specialist” is not required to do any of this. They don’t even have any official qualifications.
The amount of time and energy it takes to do the R&D in SEO to see what is working and what isn’t is too large for one person to keep track of, let alone studying anchor text ratios, link-building and a hundred other factors that come into play.
- Agencies that have an office location in a major city are likely to charge you more as they have higher overhead expenses.
- Cheap SEO is a good indication that the person you are hiring or outsourcing to has very little experience with ranking websites.
- Tracking your investment in SEO is equally as important as the investment itself.
- Understanding the tasks being done to improve organic traffic to your website can help you make better decisions. If all your SEO Agency is doing is create content and publish blog articles because they claim “content is king”, don’t be surprised when you don’t see an increase in the number of phone calls several months into the campaign
- While content is very important, your website needs to have a certain amount of authority for that content to attract traffic. If you have ever hired an employee, think about an applicant who can talk a lot and say all the right things, but cannot produce any verifiable references. That’s what your website looks like to Google when you focus on blog articles and content production but don’t have any links. So make sure that strategic (but safe) link building is part of the package.
There are many ways of investing in search engine optimization. Google’s algorithms are constantly evolving but it is almost a certainty that we’re not going to go back to an algorithm in which you could rank for competitive keywords in a matter of days or weeks. In most cases, SEO takes time to work.
That means several months of waiting after you start investing in it and doing all the right things. So your best chance of getting an ROI on your investment is the monthly retainer model of pricing.