SEO is essential these days, but the way you go about it is up to you. Some people prefer to learn as much as they can and handle it themselves. Some people hire individual freelancers to perform a bunch of individual tasks, but manage the overview themselves. Many businesses, though, choose to hire dedicated SEO agencies to get the most out of their abilities without spending their own time.
Agencies, or SEO companies, can be very useful to businesses. They bring a lot of experience, tools, and resources to the table that you would have to spend a ton of time to accumulate and set up.
You don’t have to learn the ins and outs of web marketing. You don’t have to make connections to find writers and graphic designers to work for you. You don’t have to purchase licenses for expensive analytics, heat maps, and other SEO tools. The agency you pick comes with all of that, and while you definitely pay a premium for it, you save time and likely money in doing so.
A Deep Look at Pricing
All the way back in 2012, Moz ran a survey where they polled over 600 professional SEO companies about their fees and their service ranges. Now, this data is a few years old, and I’m sure many of those companies have changed their services, changed their prices, rebranded, or even completely folded.
However, in aggregate, I can’t imagine the data as a whole has changed too terribly much. For every company that folds, another one opens. For every company that raises their prices, a new one takes their place as a cheaper offering. Trends may be different, but I’m not here to look at trends, I’m here to give price ranges, and that’s perfectly valid coming from this Moz survey.
First of all, geographic location plays a significant role in pricing. By this point, I expect all of you are aware of India’s role as a cheap source of all manner of coding, copywriting, development, design, and marketing work. As a developing nation with a low cost of living, the people there can provide their services at a lower price than competitors in more developed nations.
The caveat to this is that quality levels are much more varied. People who pay $2 an hour for SEO work often don’t expect much, and will often get automated solutions possibly using out of date techniques. It’s the same way that paying for cheap copywriting in this manner can get you anything from copied content and spun content to ESL drivel to high-quality work from someone who simply has no need to charge more for their services.
One interesting thing about the Internet is that a lot of companies and a lot of pricing relies on the US Dollar, and specifically the way the Dollar interacts with other currencies. Moz found that Australia and New Zealand companies tend to charge on the higher end of the spectrum, and the US around the middle line.
So what is that price line? For SEO companies that charge by the hour, the price ranged generally from $75 an hour to $200 an hour. This is the middle line, covering 50–60% of the companies surveyed. Some were more expensive, some were cheaper, but this is the middle of the road you might expect if you hire an SEO firm that works by the hour.
The lower end of the pricing will naturally come with fewer perks than higher priced companies, though I hesitate to say that cheaper service is worse. There are certainly companies that charge a premium for sub-par service. Perks, in this case, include things like extended service contracts, warranties, dedicated account representatives and support, a knowledge base for learning on your own, tools to work with, white label reports, and so forth.
You might also see the scope of a project change. Low priced services might not write all of your content for you but will optimize the content you produce. They might promote the content you publish, but not create it. Higher priced services might produce and market your content, and they might expand into more complex types of content, like videos, ebooks, slide decks, and infographics.
Hourly pricing is not even the most common type of pricing, however. Some companies will consult with you and will analyze the scope of the project they’re getting themselves into. They will often create a customized project just for your site, with as much or as little of various services as is called for. They will optimize your existing site and content, they will help establish social profiles, they will work to solve Google penalties, and who knows what else.
The scope of per-project pricing varies wildly, and it is most commonly ranging from $1,000 to $7,500. For extremely large sites and extremely complex jobs, the price would be even higher than that. For simple jobs on smaller sites, it can be 25% of that or less.
Per-project pricing has the drawback of being an audit and revamp of a site, with some content editing and production, and maybe even with site redesign thrown in, but it isn’t an ongoing optimization project. They take your site and run it through the wringer, and then when it’s over they move on to the next one, leaving you to your own devices. Some companies offer continued services, and other companies only offer those ongoing services.
An ongoing SEO service might include content production as a primary focus. They will produce or edit content you produce, they will help publish it, and they will promote it with their contacts. This helps your SEO through content marketing, and if anything, this is the area where price will have risen the most over the last five years. Content marketing is on the rise, and will only give way to total content saturation when influencer marketing grows to surpass it.
Ongoing SEO services ranged in a much broader variety of prices in the Moz survey. The most common were the low-tier $250–500 per month, and the high tier $2,500–5,000 per month.
Neither one was over 14% of the total survey responses, however, and as such, the price for a monthly service can range all over the map. It really depends on what you need out of your SEO company, what the company offers, the quality of their service, and what you’re willing to pay.
Some companies are firm, some can accept negotiation, and some might not be worth it at all.
Interestingly, a lot of SEO work is being done by companies that provide more than just SEO. The practice of auditing a site, fixing it, and moving on isn’t really sustainable. As a business, it means you’re signing up to have to constantly find new clients. Whereas with ongoing services, clients can last for years, allowing much more stable growth.
As such, the companies providing SEO work are providing it as an add-on or as one of many offerings from their company. A lot of businesses that do web design, for example, will also offer marketing and SEO services for the websites they design. They’ll use a hybrid pricing model in these cases, charging a project price for the site itself and an ongoing retainer for the SEO work after the fact.
One thing to note, by the way, is that if you’re a small or medium-sized business and you feel like it’s difficult to approach a company because you’re small and you’re not a high-value client, put those thoughts out of your head. The majority of SEO work is done on relatively small sites.
SEO companies aren’t servicing the likes of Coke, Forbes, or Facebook. Those companies, if they care about SEO at all, simply hire internal teams to do it for them without the possibility of corporate espionage or other issues.
No, the majority of SEO work is done with small companies. In fact, if you have a few thousand customers, you might be at the high end. A lot of SEO work — 41% as of the 2012 Moz survey, possibly even more by now — is performed with hyperlocal small businesses. We’re talking restaurants that serve a few hundred people a day, not even retail stores.
The reason for this is simply because sites have less of a need for focused SEO when they reach critical mass. Sure, massive content creators like Forbes or the Huffington Post have a bit of a focus on SEO in their editorial requirements, but they don’t really need someone to audit their site. It would be virtually impossible for them to lose their market share and drop down the ranks.
Small sites, meanwhile, need to struggle to compete. They can’t hope to out-power a site like Forbes, but with SEO they can attempt to out-maneuver it. All the while, they are fighting against their competition, on their level and above it, all of whom are trying to out-maneuver them. It’s a vicious battle for supremacy where the winner gets a few hundred views and a few conversions more than the loser.
SEO from a high-quality agency can be the difference between victory and defeat here.
Pros and Cons of Pricing Methods
So, when you have hourly, monthly, and per-project pricing models, how do you choose which is best for your site?
Starting with hourly rates, you have the positive side, which is transparency. In order to charge you per hour, you need to get an itemized timesheet with what is being done and how much it costs. This makes it easy to predict the number of hours necessary for your project, and thus how much it will cost in total.
On the other hand, paying a company by the hour is paying for the work, not the results. You don’t necessarily have accountability; the company can say they’re doing their best, but your competition is also doing their best, and you’re left with little tangible progress. It’s also possible that you get less efficient work because the workers assigned to your project are looking to fill hours, not to achieve results.
Paying a monthly retainer is a bit more objective-focused because you can see the results after a month and compare it to the cost you’re paying. You also tend to forge a better relationship with your agency, because you’re working together without the awareness of a time clock in the background.
On the other hand, you’re going to have to pay one large lump sum for, typically, six months at a time at minimum. SEO takes time, and most companies don’t want to get a month into the foundational work and be dropped because there are no immediate results. We all know that SEO takes time, so they guarantee they have that time.
The project-based model is more likely to get you efficient work because the better the employees work, the more per hour they make. You also know the results you’re getting, typically in terms of tangible onsite optimization rather than numerical growth. However, project-based SEO is typically inflexible and it’s always possible you’re paying more than the service is worth, with no way of canceling early.
There’s also the performance-based model, which has been taking off in recent years. It’s much like pay per action advertising on a site like Google or Facebook, where you run ads for free and only pay when the objective — like a click or a signup — happens.
Pay for performance SEO is potentially the most valuable because you can get work done for a low cost or for free, and if the work doesn’t show results, you don’t have to pay. On the other hand, it’s always possible that their results exceed your expectations and, unlike with PPC marketing where you have a budget cap, you can’t just pay some of your bills when you get results.
Pay for performance can also be scammy if you don’t know what to watch out for. Some companies will try to have you pay them based on your #1 rankings for various keywords, and will then target a lot of easy to rank, low volume keywords that have no value.
You pay for “performance” that doesn’t perform. However, by understanding keyword research, you can avoid most of those problems.