Determining the cost of SEO is minefield! Whilst cost shouldn’t be the primary deciding factor in choosing your SEO agency, it is a key consideration. With prices being quoted at an hourly or daily rate as well as monthly retainer rates and one-off project prices, even comparing costs can be tricky.
Back in 2012, SEO tool provider Moz, conducted some research into SEO pricing across agencies in a variety of countries. This, coupled with our own research with clients, prospects and industry friends shows how wide-ranging SEO agency pricing is. With prices from as little as £20 per hour up to £185 per hour and monthly retainers varying from as little as £185 a month to £3,500 or more, you can see why the question of how much SEO should cost does not have a simple answer.
So, what should you be paying for your SEO and what can you expect in return?
SEO Pricing Models
To understand how much SEO costs, you first need to understand the range of pricing models both agencies and freelancers use. These vary from hourly rate to single project costs and how you wish to pay may determine your best fit in terms of provider.
This is common amongst freelancers, single owner and operator SEO businesses and small SEO agencies. Hourly rates allow for greater flexibility and are more attainable for smaller businesses that are unable or unwilling to commit to a long-term retainer.
Fixed retainers are a set cost per month over an agreed contract length. This is often based on a day rate and number of days per month. There is usually a minimum commitment required per month which varies from agency to agency. Fixed retainers are the most common pricing model amongst the mid-sized and larger agencies.
This pricing model is more often used by mid-sized and large agencies. It sets out the scope of a project or single piece of work at a set cost and you will see elements broken down into component costs. This cost can be determined based on an internal day rate and number of days required or a more complex internal pricing mechanism.
This pricing model is far more likely to be seen on PPC projects because there are too many variables outside of an agency’s control for them to be willing to do this. Anyone offering guaranteed results or paid-on-performance contracts are likely to be operating outside of Google’s guidelines and we’d recommend to avoid them at all costs.
An emerging pricing model we’re seeing more and more is based on credits. Clients buy a number of credits to suit their budget each month and these can be redeemed against a ‘price list’ of activities as and when required. The benefit is the flexibility of buying credits as and when you want rather than being committed to a monthly fee, however the caveat is that this approach only enables the agency to plan your project on a month to month basis so you may lack a long term strategy.
What Type of SEO Provider? The Pros and Cons
Not all SEO providers are the same and often the size of the business can play a role in how their pricing structure is determined.
Freelancers are typically the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to SEO pricing. They work directly on your account and therefore will likely need many accounts to run a profitable business, so be aware they are likely to have a lot of other commitments.
However, they value clients and their reputation is vital to generating revenue so they can potentially go above and beyond in the pursuit of maintaining happy clients.
Pricing Model: Typically hourly rate or very low monthly retainers
Price Range: £20 hour or up to £200 a month retainer
Pros: Great for businesses with a very small budget looking to take first steps into SEO. It can help to get basics in place and a campaign up and running. It also offers a direct relationship with the business owner who is likely to be the person working on your account.
Cons: Low cost often means low value. If you’re only willing to commit up to a couple of hundred pounds a month, don’t expect amazing results. Be wary of cheap shortcuts to generate quick visibility that don’t really follow Google’s guidelines. They may also lack the budget for more sophisticated tools and may not be able to advise on other channels connected to your marketing activities.
The Small Agency
Small agencies consist of teams of 3-10 people including support staff. They will usually focus on a very small number of keyphrases within an SEO project and the emphasis will be on on-page SEO with a small amount of low level link building and occasional content.
Whilst there may be progress, it will often be slow and the emphasis will be on the tasks delivered rather than the value generated.
Pricing Model: Hourly rate or smaller monthly retainer
Price Range: £50 hour or up to £500 a month
Pros: At this size, they are likely to be a specialist agency who solely focus on SEO and do not incorporate other channels. They are a small team with a very clear focus on what they do and don’t do. They have shared knowledge and skills that come with having a small team of people and are agile in responding to client needs.
Cons: Single channel only agencies lack the wider understanding of how channels fit together. Whilst there are good agencies at this level, this is typically the band where you find a large proportion of those that deliver low value for money as expectations and outcomes don’t align.
The Mid-Size Agency
Mid-size agencies can either be specialists in their channel or offer a multi-channel approach with teams covering different disciplines of search marketing. There is greater investment in tools and training, therefore the knowledge level and insights are likely to be greater compared to small agencies or freelancers.
They will be highly strategic but flexible in their approach and pricing so expect to see them quoting in days, monthly retainers or on a project cost basis for a specific piece of work.
Pricing Model: Usually monthly retainer based on day rates or project cost.
Price Range: Day rate vary from £500 a day with minimum commitment of at least £1,500 a month.
Pros: They have larger teams with individuals that specialise in distinct elements of SEO (Technical SEO, Content Marketing, Link Earning). They use more sophisticated tools and adopt a more strategic approach to projects, deliverables and outcomes. Measure of success is more likely based around delivering value and return on investment rather than keyphrase rankings.
Cons: Larger teams means that these will usually be made up of varying degrees of experience with some learning on the job so be aware of who is working on your account. Smaller clients that are looking to step up to an agency may find themselves as a small fish in a big pond if they’ve previously been using smaller agencies or freelancers.
The Large Agency
Immensely strategic in their approach that puts your client at the centre of the strategy. Expect to see an all-encompassing approach that recognises SEO as a component part of your wider marketing and digital channels and the role it plays in each.
Expect to see audience profiling, user need analysis, a heavy weighting around the content marketing required to satisfy user needs and how all of this fits into the journey from initial Google search to customer and brand advocate. They will be keen to put KPIs in place and may take a campaign sprint approach across the duration of the contract.
Pricing Model: Monthly retainer based or project cost
Price Range: Retainer of at least £4,000 a month or project cost
Pros: Immensely strategic approach that puts your client at the centre of the strategy. They often attract the best talent and knowledge level, experience and ability levels are high amongst the senior staff. They have a client portfolio that would make most agencies green with envy because they consistently deliver results.
Cons: Expensive, prohibitively so for a lot of companies but that is part of their brand positioning; we can’t all drive a Ferrari can we? Do they deliver significantly more for those larger fees or are they simply charging this to cover the cost of the fancy central London office space and staff perks? Only their clients will know for sure.
What Determines the Cost of SEO?
Irrespective of the size of your SEO provider or their pricing model, how do they come up with that quote you’ve just been sent? SEO encompasses a diverse and sometimes confusing array of factors; it can be hard to determine everything that is required from an SEO project and therefore how much it may cost. However, there are some key considerations that can significantly impact this.
Your Current Situation and Objectives
The cost of SEO could be seen as the financial bridge that takes you from where you are to where you want to be. Most SEO proposals are based on an analysis of your current organic position, website and link profile as well as many other factors. This helps to determine the starting point for the project.
The qualification and initial meetings help establish where it is you want to be as a company over a set period and the price is based on achieving these objectives. The worse your current situation or the bigger your objectives, the larger you can expect that cost to be.
The Competition Level
The sector your business operates in can play a direct role in costing up an SEO contract. Niche sectors where competition is less fierce, and improvements are far easier to achieve may require less time to achieve objectives than highly competitive sectors such as fashion, insurance or hotels.
Whilst a 100% increase in organic revenue in niche sectors may be more easily achievable and in shorter space of time, the more competitive sectors will require significantly more time invested into the project over a longer period of time and this will be reflected in the cost of your SEO.
Your Specific Needs
The price of your SEO could depend entirely on your specific need. Not every business is looking for a long term contract to outsource their SEO requirements. Sometimes there’s a specific need, be it technical, link clean up or a consultancy for example that is driving the prospect to contact an agency. A good agency will question needs and motivation as part of the qualification process and structure a project, and price accordingly.
As Anicca Digital has grown as an agency, we’ve begun to see far more of this type of project as we’ve started working with larger clients that often have their own in-house teams working on SEO day to day.
Urgency of Work
The immediacy of a client’s need can impact on price. Many agencies will have a large proportion of their potential billable time allocated out months in advance, so if a client needs everything dropping to deal with an urgent need then this will be reflected in the price.
Your Account Manager
In larger agencies, you may find the price of an SEO project varies based on the level of account manager you demand. It’s not uncommon for larger agencies to have higher billable rates for senior members of the team and if you insist on one of those people handling your account, you can expect to pay more. This should then be reflected in the quality of the work.
Beware of the Warning Signs
The Good, Quick and Cheap Paradox
The old adage of “you can’t have quick, good and cheap” really does apply to SEO. SEO projects and results are rarely quick and if you can find an agency to deliver at speed it certainly won’t be cheap. Cheap SEO is more often than not slow and ultimately not that good. And whilst expensive doesn’t guarantee a better project, it is unlikely that a provider is able to charge those rates if they didn’t have a history of delivering successful results for clients.
We’d always advise prospective clients of avoiding pay-on-results projects. Whilst there’s a temptation to only pay for what you get, the need for them to achieve instant results often leads to the temptation to stray into techniques that have short term benefit but potentially long term consequences for your site.
There Are No Guarantees in SEO
I also can’t stress how much you need to avoid anyone “guaranteeing ranking number one”. Not only is there not a set number one ranking spot anymore, anyone saying they can guarantee this are either lying or they are cheating the system at great long-term risk to your site. The same goes for those promising immediate results. Unless you have a significant issue with your site that is suppressing your current organic visibility, it is very rare to be able to have an immediate impact that delivers sustained results.
Price Isn’t Everything
Also, be wary of being tempted for an SEO price that you feel is too cheap. We all love a bargain, but rarely does cheap SEO prove to be so. You’ll often find those competing on price are simply not delivering a service of value or are outsourcing the work to cheap off-shore labour centres where the quality of the work proves to be significantly off what it needs to be to have any impact.
The pricing of SEO projects is an extremely complex process so push for transparency on what your agency is planning to do with the time your budget is buying. Don’t be scared to ask questions or for a breakdown of how this time is going to be utilised, even at a very top level. This will allow you to compare different quotes you may receive from your chosen prospective agencies.
A good SEO provider should be keen to talk to you about your requirements, objectives, growth plans, site history, competitors and other marketing channels. This is all part of their process to understand what your project may encompass to allow them to tailor a quote to your specific needs. We often find clients can be a little cagey on the question of budget, but if you only have a set figure you can spend each month or on the project it’s best to be up front and tell them.
We aren’t asking because we want to know how much we can get away with charging you, we’re asking because it serves neither party that well for us to cost a project up that is significantly beyond your means or set unrealistic expectations based on your budget.
SEO should cost what it requires to take you from where you are now to where you want to be. Ultimately, whether that is billed at an hourly rate, day rate, monthly retainer or project cost is not that important. What matters is the value they deliver for the investment you are making in them and the return it makes for you.
If this has got you questioning what you’re paying for your SEO and the value you’re getting from it, get in touch with us and we’d be happy to chat about your requirements.
You might also be interested to take a look at our article on “How much should I pay for an agency to manage my AdWords and PPC marketing?“