The buyer’s guide to SEO: An industry insider on what it costs, and what it can and can’t do

“How much is SEO going to set me back, and why?”

This is one of the first questions I get asked by business owners or marketing people once they’ve decided to go with search engine optimisation (SEO) as their primary traffic strategy.

I give them an answer they don’t like: “It depends.”

Business people are rightly sick of digital marketers trying to squeeze money out of their wallets.

But the reality is that there are a couple of things that go into determining how much you should be paying for SEO services.

The importance of SEO

In my time as a digital marketer I’ve seen SEO services sold from anywhere from $499 a month to $40,000 a month. There’s value at each of these price points and anywhere in between – depending on your specific circumstances.

With Google being the largest referrer of search traffic, whether you’re paying for its ads or not, SEO is critically important if you want to have a steady, consistent flow of targeted traffic to your site.

SEO helps search engines understand what your page is about and its relevance to users. And if your pages are relevant and sufficiently authoritative, you will be rewarded with a high visibility search listing and traffic to your site.

So what do SEO companies do?

When you bring on an agency to “do SEO” for you, they’ll do any or all of the following activities:

Market research: This involves researching your company, its competitors, your products, your industry and the online marketing tactics and strategies that are most effective in your space.

In-depth competitor research: Involves researching your competitors and their marketing tactics and strategies in detail; specifically, their online marketing activities that assist with their visibility in search engines.

Strategy development and implementation: This involves developing strategies for your business to help improve the performance of your sites in the organic search results. For most small businesses, these strategies are mostly the same. Larger clients in competitive markets, however, require a little more creativity to get results. When you have a strategic engagement that costs many thousands of dollars, you are paying for the SEO consultant’s experience and creativity.

Keyword research: The heart of everything an SEO expert does. Understanding keywords is critical because they help you to understand your customers and how they search for you online. This in turn helps your SEO team write compelling content, page titles and meta descriptions (those bits on the page that help Google figure out what a page is all about). On larger sites with many pages, this is typically an ongoing activity.

On-site optimisation and recommendations: This is where some of the biggest gains in rankings can happen. It involves anything to do with optimising website pages. Based on their research, your SEO agency will be drafting page titles and meta descriptions, recommending or making updates to content, creating new pages, improving internal linking, fixing duplicate content issues, setting up and configuring your blog, and installing social sharing buttons.

Content strategy and development: Quality content plays a big role in getting found online, so most SEO companies now offer content development or strategy services.

Setting up Google Authorship: This helps Google know you’re writing original content, which boosts the visibility of your content in the search results and, in the very near future, will most likely be a key part of the way search rankings are determined.

Reporting and insights: To figure out how all the above is working. At a minimum, this will include sections on traffic and ranking. Better agencies will also monitor the effectiveness of whatever goals you have for your website – signups, sales, or anything else.

Account management: Broadly speaking, this is the cost of taking care of you, the client. It includes the time an account manager spends talking to you about your campaign goals, briefing the SEO team and meeting with you to discuss your report and results. If you are investing under $1000 a month don’t expect to be talking the ear off your account manager unless you want to reduce the time spent on actually working on your account.

SEO pricing models

To do all the above, SEO companies use a few different models. What will work best for you depends on your specific needs, and the size of your organisation.

Hourly rates

Hourly rates are often used when the work can be broken into many discrete tasks and you just need those specific tasks done. The benefit is you can easily allocate a discrete cost to each activity and make sure you are not getting charged for inefficiencies. However, expect to pay more per hour to compensate the consultant or agency for the costs associated with managing time and billing at an hourly rate.

Fixed price services

Most SEO agencies have a list of services they offer for a fixed price. Typically these are the component tasks that make up a larger SEO campaign, like keyword research, conducting an SEO audit, and drafting site optimisations. Fixed price services are an ideal way of testing out a new SEO agency before committing to a longer term retainer.

Project-based pricing

Where your needs are more complex or you have a fixed-period project, like a new mini site to build, SEO agencies are open to quoting on a project basis. Project-based pricing is good when you already have a creative agency or web design company doing most of your work and you need the services of a real SEO specialist for the life of a specific project.


The retainer model is the most common form of pricing model in the SEO industry.

Retainers make sense because of the broad ongoing nature of SEO work. Most SEO campaigns have a discrete set of activities which logically follow a set order. In the beginning, agencies do the research. They make and implement recommendations about fixing technical issues on your site. Then they move onto ongoing marketing activities.

By using a retainer, each month, the agency works on the next thing you need. And each month you can assess how much it’s helped.

Needless to say, agencies like retainers because they allow them to know their revenues and activities months ahead.

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