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

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.

Which SEO package should I choose?


When it comes to retainers, SEO companies usually bundle these up into different packages. The bigger the monthly fee, the more work you get, and typically the more competitive the market or geography you can rank in.

The more educated you are about online marketing, the better you will be able to choose an SEO package that suits your business needs and the less chance of mismatched expectations between you and your agency.

There are three broad price points.

Small – generally up to $1000

This is suitable for companies who sell to just one geographic area, or who are starting out. Think local retailers and service providers. You’ll get local SEO optimisation to help you rank for searches in your area. 

Medium –$1000 to $4000

This is suitable for businesses with an established online presence that target a national or international audience or operate in more competitive niches. You’re talking your large online retailers, wholesalers, and large brands making the move into online marketing.

Large or Custom – $5000 and above

Budgets beyond $5000 are typically for enterprise businesses targeting national or international audiences in very competitive markets. Things like car insurance, life insurance, travel brands, education institutions and the like.

SEO is a process – don’t believe the guarantees


Many SEO guarantees prey on the ignorance of the customer and their trust in the agency to do the right thing.

Typically an SEO ranking guarantee will say something like: “We guarantee to rank your website on the first page for your keywords within three months, or you’ll get your money back.”

They don’t typically say which search engine that’s in. It could be Yahoo! or Bing, which provide very little traffic compared to Google. And they often select easy keywords which have very little search volume or competition, and so are easy to rank for. They’re easy to rank for because they’re completely irrelevant and no one in their right mind is chasing them.

And anyway, keyword rankings aren’t all that matter – there are broader metrics you should be targeting, like audience numbers or the number of organic conversions you get.

So take any SEO guarantee with a grain of salt, and don’t rely on it for assurance that you’re getting a no-risk deal.

How to get the best out of your SEO agency


That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your agency accountable. In my experience, most areas of conflict arise around expectation management. If you don’t understand what the agency is doing for you then you will get frustrated when their bill arrives.

Make sure before you start you have a detailed campaign plan that breaks down the proposed SEO activities by month.

If you don’t know what these activities are, make sure you ask your account manager in advance.

Think about what metrics you want to focus on. Your SEO agency should know what your business goals are, and make clear what they’re going to do to help you achieve them.

Chasing vanity rankings is no longer a viable goal. SEO is a much broader more complex activity now than ever before.

Why is this SEO thing taking so long?


If you need or expect instant traffic, then SEO might not be where you should be investing your online marketing dollars.

Safe, sustainable SEO takes time to implement and get results, but once your site is performing well it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

If you need instant traffic then you might be better served by using paid traffic such as Google AdWords rather than SEO.

Takeaways for business owners and marketing managers


Here are the key things you need to be doing as a business owner to help ensure a successful SEO engagement with your agency.

  1. Educate yourself: A more educated business owner or manager can make better decisions. Too busy to learn? With all the great content out there on this issue, that’s not an excuse anymore.  
  2. Have better discussions with SEO providers: The ideal SEO agency should be trying to educate you about why you need to invest in content, blogging, audience development, the lot. If they’re just talking about tactics like comment spamming or rankings then walk away. They haven’t kept up with the times.
  3. Demand and work to a detailed plan: Have a plan in place so you know what is being done each month. The plan will help manage your expectations and give you assurance that you are getting value each month.
  4. Embrace content marketing and social media: Miss the old days when you didn’t have to invest in blogging and content? Too bad. It’s how you reach your customers these days.
  5. Choose the right metrics: This is worth your time. Agree on the metrics with your agency from the start, and there’s far less chance of disagreements down the track.  

Edmund Pelgen is a former SEO agency head of search and content, where he worked with clients like RACQ, Super A-Mart and Lorna Jane. He is the founder of online marketing blog Online Kickstart.You can connect with him on Google+ or on Twitter at @edmundpelgen.

This is an abridged version of a post that first appeared on Online Kickstart


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