The Cost of SEO: How Much Should You Pay?

As with most service-based industries, there aren’t any “guidelines” about what SEO should cost. It’s built on market demand, the competitive landscape and what makes sense for the individual business. And as a business, there are obviously different factors at play. A one-person organization based from home with an Internet connection and cell phone has a different cost structure than a large service-based agency. So the factors that go into the guidelines must account for the significant cost differentials.

A Handmade Sign Selling Search Engine Optimization
Watch for the warning signs when shopping for quality SEO.

Add to that the fact that there is no set of agreed-upon “standards” for service and the measurement of performance. This becomes confusing to the potential client on what they are supposed to be buying.  I have seen a lot of sites that have a long list of deliverables without any quantifiable set of measurements.

“I will edit eight pages per month” is not ROI, and is obviously easy to perform. That said, there are many companies claiming to do SEO that simply punch down a list of tasks without any results other than that you paid for the tasks to be done.

As a consumer, it is a matter of risk.

If you’re in the research stage of shopping for SEO, this post is meant to give some insight into the cost of SEO, and what you’re buying when you pay for search engine optimization.

First, reputation is earned, and that reputation takes expertise, and that expertise is based upon significant investment. Not everyone has 10,000 hours in this field (this is what many people consider “expert” level). Thought leadership is a consideration as well. Do they have a “voice” in their community. Do they consistently work to demonstrate it?

If you’re considering off-shore SEO, you’ll find that a company with potentially hundreds of SEOs is unlikely to have anyone on your project with significant knowledge at the low fee they are charging. That said, experience and knowledge can be expensive.

Next, let’s think about the costs of a typical day at an SEO company. There is research time, education time and project management time factored into every client’s plan. As a client:

  • Do you expect answers?
  • Do you expect reports?
  • Do you expect service?

If you want all of this, expect a time investment by the company. To make a real impact, your SEOs should be spending significant time on the things that matter to a great SEO service. Anything less than a good chunk of hours towards the components that go into a stellar SEO service will likely produce a less-than-satisfying experience.

A quality SEO spends at least a few hours each week keeping current on the industry and trends. Google changes its algorithm about 500 times per year, and has buildings of people just “inventing” new things for its search product.

Think about the time and costs that go into keeping knowledge up, such as:

  • Continuing education
  • Additional training
  • Conferences and workshops
  • Hands-on research

There is no boiler template for applying Web marketing, so things must continuously be learned, tested and reported. Having a well-rounded SEO is critical, and so, you ultimately pay for that.

Each company has its own commitment to expertise and developing it. And each company has a different opinion of the value of your business and the commitment to quality versus just “punching a clock.” These things must be taken into consideration when paying for SEO.

What to Watch for When Shopping SEO

Here are just a couple of signs to watch out for when shopping for SEO:

  • Any company stressing links as the main selling point of their SEO. Of course, there are companies who work to gain organic links through quality tactics. Or companies that specialize in analyzing link profiles to get rid of bad links. These are typically fine. But any company that is in the business of buying or selling links is not one you want to be involved with.
  • Any company where work is performed off-shore by an army of SEOs, where the target native language and culture is not the company’s first language/experience.
  • Any company charging dirt cheap for SEO; they might be under-committed to education and service.
  • Any company promising “top rankings”; this is extremely difficult for any company to guarantee, and the promise itself is essentially cheapening the discipline of SEO.
  • Any company not reasonably ranked for their major keywords themselves (the “cobblers child” excuse is invalid).

And, make sure you always:

  • Ask for references if you’re not familiar with their reputation.
  • See if they have had a lot of complaints filed against them.
  • Find reviews about the company online.

A Note to SEOs and Agencies on Pricing and Service Models

In the market for SEO are both small and large businesses. Looking to the future, think about how you can assist the demand for quality SEO. Consider the following:

  • Big business and status: We see often that larger companies will not buy from any company that does not have a solid reputation in the industry. What this can ultimately mean is that the large companies that can afford expertise and service will gain higher rankings faster than any small company buying cheap services from companies with no track records.
  • Small business and accessibility: We have a strong belief that most of the future growth of the Internet will be with local businesses. As in, small businesses with small budgets. Our experience shows that small companies do not care about reputation; they buy based upon price.

So even if you’re a well-known firm at the higher end that’s targeting large companies, consider creating accessible services for small businesses to be able to access your expertise. Plans priced with very little margin assumes there is a volume opportunity.

There is a great opportunity in local SEO, where a business can hire by reputation, and also receive well-priced, high-value SEO services sufficient to beat the cheap low-quality SEOs.

Remember, you’re not trying to beat Google, and you are not really trying to beat the large companies, you are trying to beat your local competition. And that battle can be won.

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay Inc., a global digital marketing firm providing search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media marketing, SEO-friendly web architecture, and SEO tools and education. Connect with him on LinkedIn or through the website.

See Bruce's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (8)
Filed under: SEO
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8 Replies to “The Cost of SEO: How Much Should You Pay?”

I completely agree with your article. One of the hardest things with the industry is educating clients on the work that’s involved in creating good long term results in SEO. I will be directing my digital marketing clients to this article.

Hey Bruce, great post! I’d like to give my two cents here in terms of how companies should shop for SEO.

Important to know: be careful with what the payment method you’re looking for easily leads to. Examples:

– Pay for results (per top ranking, per keyword, etc.): this easily invites companies to do black hat SEO so you’re #1 for a couple weeks at best, you pay in the mean time, and then your rankings evaporate or worse: you’re banned.

– Pay per hour: invites inefficiency, after all, why do it fast when you get paid more for doing it the slow way?

In my experience it’s thus best to go with paying for a project with predetermined goals (example: SEO review, make a custom 404 page, etc.)

Great article Bruce, I wish this information was common knowledge for those out there engaging in SEO. These days I strictly work with larger organizations but always found it hard to help smaller guys understand what it is they’re buying, how it works, dodgy guarantees etc. etc.

Exactly! If SEO companies don’t even rank highly for their own chosen keywords that should ring alarm bells. Also teams of people from India might not necessarily be the best option. One immediate difficulty they face is bit just language but culture. What might be acceptable to some (an idea, phrasing, etc) may not be acceptable to others. Very good post in outlining the difficulties in SEO in showing its bit a simple service.

Great post, we have a couple of options available for our clients, we look at local SEO, which basically has fixed costs per keyword + Area (we liken this to the cost of advertising monthly is a local magazine but we are able to quantify ROI as monitoring ROI in a “local” magazine is difficult for most unless you have a unique code/phone number etc) then we undertake individual SEO projects, with the core aim of generating ROI, for example if we optimised the word “golf clubs” we would theorize on how many additional sales we believe we could achieve and this features as one of the many factors in our SEO prices.

I promise top rankings, it helps me get the business and if I dont, then I’ll blame Googles algo :) – Just being honest here!

Insightful. I also agree that the localization of companies on the Internet will mean that local place searches will become stronger and stronger and that competition will become more niche whilst still adding value to the consumer.


I mostly agree except for the low margin make it up in volume angle at the end. There’s just too much work on any client’s site that needs to be done right taking up so much time that simply adding more will force a reduction in SEO quality, and building a reputation without meticulous attention to quality first won’t fool people for long.


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