If you’re seeking SEO services, you may have already spoken to a few companies, agencies, or individuals. And you may have learned that the price for SEO varies widely. The average cost for SEO services may not make much sense to you. This is an area where people tend to be either upfront about pricing for a specific aspect of SEO, and charge a la cart, or they take you through a sales process which ends with a retainer recommendation. Let’s talk about how the pricing structure works, what you should avoid, and the best way for you to approach any sort of SEO services and what you should be paying for them. If you want to skip on down to the numbers, go to the bottom. In this post, we’re going to focus exclusively on retainer pricing.
The average cost of an SEO retainer is going to vary. Here are a few things that may affect the final bill:
- type of work performed
- whether expenses are included
- level of expertise
- number of estimated hours
- growth goals
- the agency’s target profit
- competitiveness of market
You can see that many of these items that are taken into consideration are subjective. Because it’s such a judgment call, many professionals either overprice or under-price themselves. But speaking of pricing, let’s talk about what you should not do.
Do not underpay!
Although it may seem like you’re getting a deal when someone offers to do SEO for $500/month, let’s talk about why this is dangerous for you.
In the best case scenario, the guy takes your $500 and runs away with it, doing nothing. In the worst case scenario, he actually tries to do some SEO and gets your site penalized, preventing you from getting any traffic from Google at all. Remember that in this business, many people are offering “services”, and relying on your ignorance to sell. When done incorrectly, SEO can actually impair your website and harm your business.
The low end for a legitimate SEO professional is somewhere around $1200/month on retainer, based on my personal experience. That price may be too low for you. If you don’t get results because you didn’t invest enough, then $1200/month is a nearly $15,000 mistake. In the current market, I don’t often see retainers this low anymore either. Several of my contemporaries have told me recently that they won’t take any contract less than $5,000 per month.
Hourly rates for SEO
A low end hourly rate for SEO is $125 per hour. On the high end, I’ve seen $300 per hour. Using my example above of $500/month for SEO services, that gives you about 3-4 hours of effort each month, which is why I say you don’t normally want to underpay. It’s possible for someone like me to be efficient in that timeframe, however just onboarding a business in the first month normally takes more time than that. SEOs also subscribe to tools that let us do our jobs, and it’s difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to do a good job without access to high quality tools. It would not be uncommon to see $100/month or more go to those tools, further reducing the amount of time you can spend. Other pricing models include flat fee, project based, per-link fees and monthly retainers. Of these, the hourly rate is going to be your most cost effective option on paper. However, a monthly retainer often results in better quality work. If you develop a good relationship with your SEO, it’s not uncommon for the consultant to put in more hours than they’re contractually obligated to in order to provide solid results. In practice, you’ll come out ahead on flat fee monthly retainers almost every time.
But there is a way to get around some of these expenses and avoid overpaying. That method is detailed below.
Understanding SEO Consultant Expenses
I’ve alluded to expenses that SEO Consultants have above. Let’s continue with our example of a $500 SEO retainer. If we use a cost effective all-in-one tool like SEMRush, we see that it’s at least -$100 to gain access to the tool. Other tools that may help us do our job have additional expenses. For example, on one client I have an additional -$20/month. In our example, a contract of $500/month becomes $380/month in gross income for the SEO, and only 3 hours of effort for you each month, assuming you’ve hired one of the cheapest SEOs in the market. You need to be cautious about hiring at this price point because this is what scam artists start at.
So how much do SEO services cost? How to price it right
I have a broad background that includes other marketing channels and marketing strategy. I advise clients on the right mix of tactics to hit their growth goals when requested. And throughout my consulting career, I’ve found that going back to basics on ad spend is extremely useful here. By following a simple process, you can avoid overpaying on SEO services, and also on other marketing as well.
Your total marketing budget should be based on a percentage of your annual revenue. Let’s pretend you make one million dollars per year in revenue. An old fashioned standard is 5% of annual revenue, meaning you would have a marketing budget of $50,000. Now that’s your total marketing budget, not your SEO budget. But let’s say ACME has a growth goal that’s a little more aggressive, so they increase their marketing budget to 8%, at $80,000.
For reference, McDonald’s has a marketing budget at about 3% while the consumer services industry averages 15%.
$80,000 for marketing is not much. You can spend all of that on radio and it would be a drop in the ocean. So take the time to determine what marketing you’re currently doing and where you’re seeing success (you don’t have money to waste here). Maybe you set aside $30,000 for vehicle wraps and local sponsorship because that’s been successful for you previously. You could put the other $50,000 towards digital advertising. A mix of Google Ads and SEO is a popular marketing investment. Splitting it 50/50 would allocate 25,000/year or just over $2,000 per month. Speaking from experience, $2,000 per month for a smaller-medium sized local business in both ad spend and SEO is competitive in most markets. You want to avoid splitting your budgets too much, or it won’t be effective, but you could go even a little lower on those. It’s realistic to spend a combined $3,000 per month on SEO & SEM and set aside the rest for things like a new website, influencer campaigns, youtube ads, or paid social.
If you do this simple exercise before you meet with an SEO or other marketing professional, you have the power. You’re in control of how much spend is going out the door. If you leave this up to the marketer, they’re going to make a recommendation that usually does not align with your business goal. They may ask for too much, or not enough. Using the above scenario, let’s say you get a quote for $2,500 per month. That’s problematic. Your budget does not include that additional $6,000 per year, and would mean that your marketing spend would inch up to 8.6% of revenue. Or they may low-ball themselves, and cut corners on service to cover the cost. This is an even worse situation, because you will miss your growth goals more often than not in this scenario.
Many SEOs ask upfront what your budget is, and this is because we have minimums as well. Once a reputable SEO knows your budget, they should be able to work with you on expectations and level of service, and let you know whether or not it’s realistic.
But not all people claiming to be SEOs are actually trustworthy, so you should vet the individual first to decide whether or not you will work with them. If you follow this process, you’re evaluating the professionalism and competence of the SEO, because you have already set your price. This is a powerful way to start a relationship. Your focus is entirely on the right things – setting goals, expectations, and understanding each other’s processes and priorities.
Discussing the Price
Finally, when the subject of pricing comes up, don’t ask the SEO to give you a figure. Tell them what your budget is, and that you can’t go higher. It’s common for negotiation to occur, but when you have a fixed price and remain firm, it eliminates all haggling.
I hope you have a greater understanding of some of the strategies you can use to help determine your SEO budget. If you’re in the market for an SEO consultant, I hope you will consider me a candidate. I would be honored to help you with your SEO budget as well if you would like some assistance determining what appropriate spend would be for your unique situation. Feel free to contact me through any of the forms on this site.