Everyone’s website needs SEO but how do you know how much to pay or who to trust with your website? Learn how to set expectations, spot low-quality knockoffs and learn some of the price ranges you should expect to pay for quality SEO in today’s market.
SEO is a widely adopted online marketing strategy that is 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, all of which are sought after by many businesses interested in scaling their product or service offerings.
While the benefits of good SEO are clear, the cost of accomplishing an SEO strategy can vary significantly depending on the goals of the company and the type of strategy being implemented. No matter what your budget, the costs associated with promoting SEO should be viewed as an investment for your business and with any investment, you should be concerned with building the best possible ROI.
Prior to signing on any dotted line with any digital agencies, carefully contemplate and document what you look to accomplish with your SEO strategy. Focus on being realistic with your goals, which will help you determine an appropriate budget to spend on your SEO investment.
For example, if your goal is to increase sales by 15 percent, estimate how much you are willing to pay for that result and how that will affect your budgeting and marketing options in the future. Generally, the loftier the goal, the more expensive it can be to accomplish.
Hire for Your Goals and Pay for Results
After establishing the SEO and marketing goals of your business, you should 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.
Choices can include 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, but if you have a larger organization or a long list of strategies to implement, this is an option that you can consider for the long term. When finding the ideal candidate, note that they should have a wide range of skills that should include: link building, technical SEO understanding, content marketing, social media know-how, and an analytical mindset.
However, this can get very expensive and it is not uncommon for a veteran SEO to make over $100,000. In addition, you’ll generally need to hire a team to handle all of your SEO needs and not put all the responsibility on one employee.
Content Marketing Agencies: These agencies often offer SEO services as an add-on to their other service offerings, but since SEO is not their primary focus, you should ensure that they have the technical know-how prior to contracting. SEO costs associated may be more expensive, because their SEO services could be bundled within content marketing packages, but this can be an excellent option if your business is looking to accomplish a variety of marketing goals concurrently.
Dedicated SEO Firms: Firms solely focused on SEO, generally have the most industry experience as they tend to consistently use and practice the latest SEO techniques every day across different industries. Some bigger firms employ large staffs with specialists in many areas, which can help ensure that they can solve your SEO challenges.
In addition, these firms often offer a variety of services and pricing options to cater to the needs of your company, such as monthly contracts, project-based contracts, and hourly consultations. This option may be better if you are handling very technical, individualized, project-based, or ongoing SEO specific needs.
How Much Does SEO Cost?
How much SEO costs your company will obviously vary greatly depending on the needs of your organization and the experience level of the service provider you choose, but you should expect to pay within these price ranges below based on service type you decide to move forward with.
Monthly Retainers and What You Get:
This is perhaps the most popular pricing model and the cost increases with the needs of your organization.
Unless you are a hyper-local company that has little competition and your site is very small, you should be careful when purchasing SEO for less than $500 per month. Most companies that work in this area automate a lot of their link building, use overseas labor for content, and only do basic on-site technical work.
This might work for a local pizza shop looking to rank for their name and show up in some local listing sites like Yelp and Google Local, but if your goal is to rank for a keyword that has competition, you should probably look into DIY SEO courses.
Smaller companies with low to medium competition and less complex websites can usually get by with paying this amount, but should understand that prices at the lower end of this scale could indicate inexperience or a lack of proven results. SEO requires consistent quality content creation, high-quality link building, and a strong focus on optimizing conversions, usability, and accessibility; it’s difficult to find all of these services, correctly performed, at the lower end of this scale unless you are working with an agency that has been in business for a while and knows how to produce quality at scale. Hiring a smaller company or individual at this rate can also be effective, but there are usually tradeoffs with quality or the amount of work that can be done every month, and it can be very difficult to find and vet those individuals.
In this price point, you can expect to find more established SEO companies with a proven track record of success in competitive markets. This price point can often give 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 that will ensure success and give you the support you need.
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 get access to a senior SEO team at this budget, but this investment is likely to drive substantial results since the entire project is well-funded, providing more opportunities for your search partner to perform.
If the market you are trying to dominate has lots of competition, you can expect to make this type of investment 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 the most lucrative keyword spaces.
À La Carte and Fixed Price Contracts (Contract Dependent):
Your SEO needs will vary depending on where you are with SEO today, the size of your site, your competition, and your goals. Contracted services include: link profile audits ($2500-$7500) or higher depending on size of link profile, SEO/Website Audits ($1000-$3000) or higher depending on the size of the site and the depth of the audit, link building ($250-$2000 per link) depending on the quality and the tactic, per page optimization and implementation ($100-$250), and copywriting ($0.75-$1.00/word).
For example, if you have a solid strategist on staff and the resources for excellent copywriting and content, but your technical and link building capabilities are lacking, hiring an à la carte service may be the most effective solution.
Hourly Consultation ($100-$300/hr):
If you are considering working with an SEO consultant, you should expect to spend over $100 an hour for a professional worth your time that can generate results for your business. Certainly this price point will vary on the competitiveness of your market, but you should be wary of any consultant that seems “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 and attention to deliver the performance that you need. 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.
Employee Costs ($50-120k+/yr):
Your organization may have ongoing needs that require specific attention that can only be handled internally, in this occasion, hiring an SEO strategist or manager may be the best option. SEO employee salaries, not unlike other 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. 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.
Some of these solutions may not fit within your budget or be correct for every business, but remember that any options you choose should generate results based on your goals and over time produce a positive ROI.
Keep in mind the caveats that I mentioned above. In many cases it makes sense to have an SEO or marketing manager on staff, but if your goals are hefty, you can expect that your manager is going to need to outsource some of the work. That is especially true with Web copy and link building, since those tasks tend to be very specialized and time consuming.
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 as we discussed above, we are frequently asked how much link building costs on its own. So let’s explore!
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.
Ok, so how much does a link cost then, you’re probably asking yourself.
You can find in-content, off-page links for $5 all the way up to $1,000 per link. So just go with the cheapest, right? Wrong! 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 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 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.
Looking for more pricing data? Check out Credo’s 2019 Digital Marketing Industry Pricing Survey.
Risks and Considerations When Choosing a Solution
Choosing the right SEO solution requires careful research to ensure that you are matched with the correct service partner to drive results. When shopping the market, look out for these red flags:
Instant Results or Overzealous Guarantees
No matter how top notch the SEO specialist, agency, or consultant, they should not be making any guarantees about overnight performance or quick, guaranteed results. Good SEO can take up to six months to begin positively affecting your campaign.
The SEO provider you choose should explain the details while you talk with them on how they plan to 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.
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.
Google and other search engines look for suspicious or SEO activity and if discovered, they can penalize or even blacklist your website. Make sure they provider you are working with has experience with dealing with penalties and knows how to spot sketchy backlinks.
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 will know how to quickly repair any issue.
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 employee, consultant, or agency 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.
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 agency for past and present client references and look for proof that they have generated success with campaigns that align similarly to your goals. Ask them for an in-depth proposal based around your goals and have them articulate why their services are more beneficial 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, doesn’t necessarily mean that those same techniques will work for local retailer.
When choosing an SEO solution that is right for you, price should not be the only consideration, but because we are often motivated by financial figures, it is important to weigh the cost of good SEO prior to making any decisions.
To be better prepared to make the correct decision for your business, find a solution that fits within budget, strategically aligns with the needs and goals or your organization, and can provide 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.
Originally published April 18, 2018 by Brian Honigan. Updated January 29, 2020 by Abby Smith.