I used to own an Audi, which is to say I had a close relationship with my auto mechanic. His name was Bob. He knew my first name, too. When Bob told me what it would cost to repair or replace the timing chain, CV boot, or ball joint, I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no idea what such things should cost, but I knew I could trust Bob to treat me right.
Having a mechanic you can trust is to live with your mind at peace. But finding a good mechanic can be a nightmare. One mechanic will look at your car and give you one price, and another will give you a price that is twice as much. It would be easy to choose the cheaper one, but then you start wondering whether that guy knows what he’s doing, or if he’s using cheaper parts that are going to break and land you back at the repair shop the next week. Hiring the right SEO firm is a lot like hiring the right auto mechanic. It can be confusing, but knowing a few key points of information will help.
So, what should hiring a SEO firm SEO cost? I could tell you it won’t really “cost” anything, that SEO is an investment that will yield a positive return and therefore your cost is zero. I could tell you that it depends on many factors. I could string you along by giving you analogies to explain why I can’t simply throw out a price, and eventually you would pull your hair out and scream “Sweet fancy Moses, just tell me what it costs!” But the truth is that SEO pricing does depend on many factors. Asking what SEO costs is a bit like going to a car dealership and asking the dealer “So, how much for a new car?” The natural response is “It depends. What are you looking for?” Then the dealer would ask you what you’re going to use it for, how much you’ll drive it, what you do for a living, and a number of other questions so that he can find the right car for you. If you need a BMW you’re going to pay a substantially different price than if you need a Hyundai. The good news is that I am going to give you actual prices below. But first, let’s look at factors that affect the price of SEO services.
One-Time Project Or Ongoing Relationship?
The first thing to determine about your SEO needs is whether you have a one-time project or you are looking to develop an ongoing relationship. If your needs are temporary (e.g., “I need an SEO firm to manage 301 redirects for the launch of our new ecommerce website”), then the question is not “How much does SEO cost?” but rather “How much will my SEO project cost?” and the pricing is going to be per-project. That is, the SEO firm will tell you that your project is going to take two months to complete and cost you X dollars. If your needs are indefinite in nature (e.g., “My company needs to sell more widgets”) then you’ll be entering into an ongoing relationship and you’ll pay a monthly retainer, or Y dollars per month which will cover all the needed services. Occasionally services, both those that are temporary as well as those that are indefinite, will be billed hourly.
According to a December, 2011 survey by Moz, most SEO firms offer project-based pricing. Slightly fewer offer monthly retainers. Even less charge by the hour. I’ve found that SEO services are most commonly provided under a monthly retainer in the United States, while in Asia project pricing is more common. This is due, at least in part, to a cultural leaning in Asia to do things in-house, rather than outsourcing to a vendor, whereas in the US, many companies are quite comfortable handing the keys to their website over to an SEO firm and letting them run with it. Your company’s policy about outside vendors having access to your website may play a role.
Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to hiring an SEO firm, just as McDonalds isn’t better than your local fine steakhouse simply by virtue of having more locations. Both large and small SEO firms have their place, and it’s important to know which type will be a better fit for your business. Large SEO firms, meaning those with 100 or more employees, tend to provide one-size-fits-all services for small, local businesses that have similar needs. This can be a great fit for a small business with a limited budget and limited SEO needs. Small SEO firms, meaning those with 5 to 50 employees, tend to offer high-end, customized services. If SEO is a critical ongoing piece of your marketing strategy and you value hands-on, personalized service, more than likely you’ll end up working with a smaller firm.
“Are you ready to tell me what it costs yet?” No, not quite, but we’re getting there! We still need to talk about your target market. The audience you want for your product heavily influences what you’ll pay for SEO. The larger and more competitive your target market, the more expensive SEO will be, with some exceptions. If you sell a commoditized online service that has no geographic boundaries, like high-end web hosting, you can expect to pay a fortune to get results. On the other hand, SEO will be quite affordable if you are a dentist in a small town.
Alright, So What Does SEO Cost?
First, let’s eliminate some outliers. If you’re Dell then you’re spending hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars per month on a broad swath of activities related to SEO. If you’re one of the two Chinese restaurants in Rexburg, Idaho, then you need nothing more than a simple overhaul of your website, and some light work making sure your Google Maps and Yelp profiles are set up correctly. Total cost–perhaps a few hundred dollars. Most clients fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Below, I show pricing arranged by the different pricing models. Bear in mind these are all approximations based on my own experience in the industry. Actual pricing may vary significantly based on the factors listed above, and the experiences of other SEO professionals may differ from my own.
- $250-$500 per month. If you’ve got a small business that is limited geographically (e.g., landscaping company, dental office, self storage facility, restaurant, auto repair garage) then you may be able to get by with a budget in this range. However, it’s at this level the most SEO snake oil is sold, so buyer beware.
- $700-$1,500 per month. If your market is limited geographically by the nature of your business, but it’s a larger population you’re targeting, then this budget should work fine for local marketing. $500 per month might work for a self storage company in a town with a population of 5,000, but will not get the same job done in a town of 50,000. You may be able to pay $1,500 per month and get a decent national campaign if your business is extremely focused without too much competition. One of our clients sells a certain type of solar power component to the companies that put complete solar power systems together. We run a global campaign for them, but it’s a pretty niche audience we’re targeting which keeps the price down.
- $2,000-$6,000 per month. If your target market is regional (e.g. intermountain west, west coast, east coast, midwest), national, or international you’re looking at a minimum of $2,000/month, and that’s if you’re selling a niche product or service without much competition. The more mainstream the product, the more you’ll have to pay to rise above your competitors.
- $10,000+ per month. For a national or international campaign that isn’t focused on a niche audience, expect to pay more than $10,000 per month. There is virtually no end to what you can do, despite some hype over the past year about over-optimization penalties. You can never create too much high quality content, and for some companies a constant stream of new content is the SEO strategy for success, even if the cost of producing that content is quite high.
Once again, what you pay depends on what you’re buying. I’ve listed a few common projects and the prices I’ve seen SEO firms charging for them.
- Basic SEO audit, $600 to $2,000. This might take an SEO firm 5-10 hours to produce, depending on the number of pages on the website and amount of content on the pages. It involves looking at URL structure, HTML code, content, layout, and a number of other factors and then writing general SEO guidelines with some specific examples of changes to be made. The deliverable is a document that is valuable for a company that already has a technical employee on staff who can implement the changes and merely needs a little direction. For a company without a technical employee on board, the deliverable would do little more than prove that the SEO firm seems to know what they’re talking about. It can be a good way to test out an SEO firm to see how responsive they are and how you might like working with them.
- Detailed SEO audit, $3,000 to $20,000. A detailed SEO audit can take quite a bit more time than a basic audit. More than just general guidelines and examples, a detailed audit is a step-by-step manual on what needs to be done on every page of a client’s website to optimize it. It removes all guesswork, and the final deliverable is effectively a how-to book on SEO, custom tailored for the client. This document can number hundreds of pages. I would not recommend a detailed SEO audit for a client unless they absolutely could not grant my firm direct access to their website. It easily takes twice as long to explain all the changes needed on a website and how to make those changes than it would for an SEO firm to just make the changes.
Moz’s aforementioned survey shows most SEO firms charge between $76 and $200 per hour. My personal experience is that firms generally charge between $125 and $200 per hour. I have heard of some high-end firms charging as much as $500 per hour.
Finding The Right Firm For You
Once you’ve determined whether your needs are temporary or ongoing, what size of SEO firm matches your business, and whether your target market is niche or broad, local or global or somewhere in between, you’ll be in a position to better understand what you can expect to pay for SEO and why.
When searching for an SEO firm, in addition to cost, you’ll want to consider whether you trust and like the people you’d be working with, whether they’re local and available for face to face meetings if that’s your preference, and whether they have worked with your type of company before and know exactly what to do without having to become educated about your industry. Those are topics for another day. Knowing what SEO costs and what you should pay for it is a big piece of the puzzle. Hopefully the information above will help you as you make your decision.
Do you work with a great SEO firm? How do the costs and services detailed above match up with your experience?
Joshua Steimle is the CEO of MWI, a digital marketing agency with offices in the U.S. and Hong Kong.