How Much Does SEO Cost?
Even though many business owners understand the importance of SEO, the industry has such wide pricing variations that it is hard for many business owners to wrap their minds around the average cost.
Looking for the Average Cost of Link Building? Check Out Our Updated Link Building Pricing Guide.
Long gone are days of cheap outsourced SEO consisting of directory and article submissions.
In today’s competitive digital landscape, you need a comprehensive strategy if you are going to leave your mark.
Your SEO provider should be developing content, optimizing your website for speed, and user experience, as well as, ensuring that the technical elements of your site are properly optimized.
Links continue to rank as one of the most important ranking factors, yet many agencies fail to offer link-building services as part of their strategy, something to consider when comparing agencies.
An Ahrefs survey released the results of SEO agencies’ average pricing, revealing that the most popular average monthly retainer cost in the United States is $2500 to $5000.
This means the majority of agencies charge between $2,500 and $5,000, with the low-end of a good service starting at $2,500 and typically averaging at $5000.
Back in 2014, Website Magazine published our article outlining the average SEO cost at the time.
As you can see, around 9 years ago we suggested a minimum of at least $750 per month for SEO or $100 per hour as an agency’s minimum hourly price. While at the time, those price ranges could make a dent in many niches, the subsequent years of updates from Google have reshaped the role of an SEO agency.
In the past, SEO was less reliant on content, required less Web development expertise and there were still several “shortcuts” an unscrupulous agency could take to get users results at a low (under $500/mo) price point. To better understand why the average cost of SEO services has drastically increased, let’s look at some of the additional roles now falling under the umbrella of “search engine optimization”
- Website speed optimization
- User experience optimization (split testing)
- Comprehensive content research
- Text/video content creation
- Link audits
- Press outreach for links (e.g., HARO)
- Content marketing
- Link prospecting
The list could continue for quite a while as many SEO services offer integrated digital marketing campaigns. We will get back to the evolving role of SEO providers but first, let’s look at the average costs for a few other popular forms of marketing.
Television advertising is one of the most well-known and commonly used marketing channels for businesses of all sizes. In the United States, for example, a 30-second television ad on a national network costs $105,000. This is alongside the TV ad production costs averaging from $1000 to $50,000.
Radio is another go-to marketing strategy for business owners. So, let’s look at what this runs in a mid-sized market.
As you can see above, the average weekly cost for a streaming radio advertising campaign is $15,000 to $25,000. Is $2,500 to $5000 per month for SEO sounding better yet? If not, consider the following.
SEO Costs Structure
Depending on the type of search engine optimization service you hire, the pricing structure will differ. There are 3 primary SEO pricing models as seen below:
SEO Pricing Per Hour
When doing your research for the right SEO service for your business you will come across the per hour pricing model. This SEO cost structure is typically used by independent SEO experts, some SEO services, and freelancers. They charge you for the number of hours spent working on your project.
This model is used majorly for small businesses that can’t afford monthly retainers or enterprise-level fees. Also, most SEO services do not offer this option. For agencies that do offer this option, it opens up the possibilities for their clientele regardless of their current budget.
That said, if you decide to go for a per-hour SEO pricing model, you need to have clear expectations of how the time will be used.
This type of SEO cost structure goes for $125 on average per hour.
SEO Agency Pricing Monthly Retainer
Most SEO services and digital marketing firms use the monthly retainer pricing model to bill clients.
You would sign up for monthly access to ongoing SEO services for your website. There is usually a fixed price for services such as keyword research, link-building campaign, digital PR, website optimization, etc. That said, some agencies like Stellar SEO offer custom SEO services that are based on a unique offering hinged on the specific goal of your website. So you’re not just charged arbitrarily for general search engine optimization but website-specific needs. This is always the better option.
The average cost of monthly retainers is $2500 to $5000. However, as previously stated agencies that charge $2500 are on the low end of what a good service costs.
This means for SEO services that charge below $2500 you would have to worry about their offerings because it is undervalued. If they’re charging you too low it is because the agency does not think their service is worth it (you shouldn’t either). The typical rate of a quality SEO service is $5000.
SEO One-off Pricing
SEO services may choose to take on an individual project and charge the client a one-off fee. You would typically reach out to the SEO agency and relay to them the goals and aspirations of your project then they would come up with a price that caters to such needs.
According to current data, one-off SEO projects cost on average anywhere from $5000 to $30000.
How Much Do Quality SEO Services Cost?
Quality SEO service depends on numerous variables. SEO services consider a lot before choosing a price for you. For example, for custom pricing options, agencies would look at your business goals, target audience, current website optimization, and much more.
But beyond what the job entails, SEO costs are extremely dependent on the expertise of the agency carrying out the job. This is why a cheap service reveals way too much about the skills of the agency.
So let’s see the quality of an agency concerning its pricing.
Low-Quality SEO Services
When SEO services are “cheap” just know it is too good to be true. Granted, it can be tempting for startups to opt for the cheapest option but considering that search optimization is an incredibly intensive and time-consuming endeavor, a cheap price could mean that the agency is using harmful methods (blackhat).
Plus, when it comes to SEO, using the backdoor is the dangerous route. The SEO pricing for such low-quality SEO services is usually in the $500 to $1500 range.
Think of it. If an agency is charging so little for a service that involves extensive keyword research, manually reaching out to link prospects and building relationships, and writing quality content (not spun or rehashed articles), something is up.
The reason such SEO agencies are charging so little is that they do not invest the resources or time required to produce quality results but instead cut corners for shabby SEO practices. Their approaches are detrimental to your website in the long run and can even ruin your previous SEO results and efforts.
So you would be literally paying to lose your rankings, waste time, and ultimately ruin your brand image.
Search engines are becoming wiser by the day and figure out such blackhat techniques quickly while penalizing all websites involved.
As always, if it’s too cheap, there’s a disturbing reason why.
Typical Quality SEO
If you have the budget and goals you want to achieve, investing in quality SEO services is worth it.
These types of agencies either have fixed SEO pricing that resonates with the services offered or offer custom services and pricing that align with specific business goals. Such services on average cost $5000 per month.
Agencies that charge this usually focus on mid-to-large scale businesses due to the seriousness of the work involved.
Most SEO services at this level have been proven trustworthy over the years and have a clear reason as to why they charge as they do.
You most definitely will get a breakdown of all SEO costs involved so you know what you’re paying for.
Exorbitant SEO Pricing
Beyond being wary about cheap services, you also have to think about overpriced agencies. This kind of SEO agency charges clients way more than the services they offer. The easiest way to pick out such services is that their SEO cost is way above the industry average without any meaningful inclusions to their service offerings.
So you’re simply paying more for what you would get in an established and trusted agency for less with no reason why. Most of such agencies are out to rip you off.
What Does an Average SEO Campaign Entail?
As we touched on above, the role of your SEO provider now requires knowledge of Web development, content marketing, technical SEO, link building, and general marketing. Even the most basic SEO campaign should include the following:
• Analytics implementation & setup
• Keyword research and mapping
• Technical SEO audit
• Technical SEO corrections
• Site speed optimization
• Website hierarchy (architecture) review
• Content research & creation
• On-page content optimization
• Link building & link outreach
• Campaign tracking & reporting
Now if we take the average hourly rates from above ($125/hr), how much do you think you are getting from an agency for $500 per month? For clarity, many agencies bill on a retainer model, not hourly.
Even so, if you think about the internal company breakdown on a retainer model, how much work do you think you get for $500, or more importantly, what quality of work will you receive? Chances are, not that great.
Maybe you are thinking, “Why not just do it in-house to save costs without compromising quality?” Good question and here is why.
Hiring in House for SEO Vs Hiring an Agency
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median yearly salary of a skilled copywriter was $69,510 in 2021, coming out to $33.42 per hour.
The median yearly salary of a Web developer is $77,200, coming out to $37.12 per hour.
If you were to hire either one of those as part of your in-house marketing team, it would cost you between $5700 to $6500 per month and they wouldn’t have all the skills needed to execute a full SEO campaign. An agency providing all the services listed above and many more for $2,500 to $5000 per month is a steal in comparison to the cost of in-house employees. Additionally, an agency doesn’t call in sick, need benefits, or have to spend time at your expense learning how to do SEO.
Beyond these, here are 3 ways hiring an agency is more beneficial.
SEO Companies Offer Scalability
Every business owner trying to grow their business knows that an in-house team is a lot more expensive and challenging in such scenarios. Employees have a limited amount of time and workload they can manage.
If you want to increase the amount of work they do you will have to hire more team members, which will increase your expenses.
But with SEO companies, you will have access to as few or as many SEO professionals as you require to boost your organization’s growth. Also when you retain a service, you would agree on a price and won’t be blindsided by unexpected costs.
SEO Firms Offer Creativity
Your in-house team works with your brand over and over again. Such repetition and routine with regards to the same tasks result in sending team members into a creative rut.
An SEO company, on the other hand, offers SEO specialists that work with a diverse set of customers. This keeps their creative juices flowing and makes them more aware of happenings in the SEO space.
SEO agencies function as outsiders looking into your company with an objective point of view. So while they understand your company, SEO companies maintain their creativity.
Agencies Offer Increased Capabilities
An SEO company typically comes with a skill set that in-house employees simply cannot match. This is especially true for in-house SEO teams within midsize and small businesses.
Some of such capabilities include processing data on impactful SEO strategies or accessing beta features for a particular technology.
For example, if your business requires a particular link-building strategy that demands data from a tool that you simply cannot afford now, hiring an SEO agency will give you access to that solution.
Let’s look at how an agency might use 20 hours to promote your website.
Understanding How Your Budget is Being Used
According to the same Ahrefs survey referenced above for average monthly retainers, An hourly rate of $100 to $150 was the most common rate. This percentage leaps by 35% in the United States. That said, the average hourly rate is $125.
If an agency bills hourly, you would get about 20 hours per work each month for $2,500 (the low end of a good service cost). As also indicated above, the most common billing is retainer-based, not hourly. The retainer pricing model is so popular because it combines value for the customer with the internal ability to accurately budget for expenses. Let’s look at what the budget breakdown looks like for a $2,500/month retainer.
Content Research – 2 hours to review the top 5-10 posts about a particular topic, identify areas that could be improved, and identify an angle for your content.
Content Creation – $300 – $500 per 1,000 words of premium content created by freelancers knowledgeable in the field. Some in-depth content can cost several thousand dollars but for this example, we will stick to “average” awesome content.
Link Prospecting – 3 hours per month to identify resources, skyscraper opportunities, broken links, and guest post opportunities.
Current Total Expense: $930 – $1,130 (depending on cost of content)
Link Outreach – 10 hours per month of outreach link building comes to $1,260 per month.
Current Total Expense: $2,190 -$2,390 (depending on cost of content)
Now from the remaining budget of $110-$310 per month, an agency also usually covers analytics setup and tracking, on-page optimization, technical site audit and revision, page speed optimization, client reporting, and 2-4 hours per month on the phone with a client. That is before the company takes into account its overhead or customer acquisition costs.
Now, I know what you are thinking – “We pay SEOs to get results and to do so efficiently.” Your point is well understood by the industry and in attempts to satisfy customer expectations of productivity while cutting costs, some of the most damaging strategies were born.
Spinning content, automated link building, submission spam, and even low-quality guest posting were all a result of companies trying to cut costs and expedite the ranking process. By now, most of you should know how that ended!
What to Consider Concerning SEO Service Pricing
Opting for the right SEO agency demands in-depth research to make sure that you partner with a service that can generate results. So when scouting the market and filtering out options look for the following:
Incredibly Impossible Guarantees
Regardless of how great an SEO expert, agency, or specialist is, they shouldn’t make you overnight result guarantees. Real SEO can take up to several months before really affecting your campaign.
When you choose a good SEO provider they usually explain the steps and stages involved as you inquire how they intend to achieve their goals.
If their pitch involves a cheap price, plus crazy results without meaningful actionable steps, you have the recipe for horrible service – so run!
Questionable Link-building Strategies
Most low-quality SEO agencies use strategies that will ultimately ruin your website’s reputation. When it comes to link building, this is one of the most powerful and potentially harmful SEO ranking factors.
When calculating SEO costs, quality custom link outreach will generally use a decent portion of your overall budget.
Good SEO services will focus on doing things the right way so that you get long-lasting results. When it comes to link building, the quality first approach is imperative.
Below Average Market Pricing Options
While a low-cost SEO service solution looks like a viable option initially this is a clear indication that the agency is typically lacking in proven results and experience.
As we’ve already seen, if an SEO agency is offering a monthly retainer of $500 to $1000 when the average is $2500 to $5000, it says a lot about the quality of the service.
Now while this isn’t always the case, sometimes you will find a start-up SEO agency that wants to build their clientele and reputation first by offering SEO services at a cheap price. This can lead to finding some decent services at below-average pricing, just be sure to find out directly or indirectly why their SEO pricing is less than the acceptable average.
High Costs with No Experience
This is a huge red flag. While it is certain that some SEO agencies will cost more than others, the price difference should be within reason (in the upper range of a price bracket).
When you encounter a service with above-average pricing, ask them to clarify what makes their offering unique and more valuable than the competition. For example, at Stellar SEO we have done a ton of penalty recovery work for clients of all sizes. This gives us unique insights and a proven framework to troubleshoot advanced SEO issues while having the experience to trust our process – and the proof to back it up.
There are lots of areas that an agency might excel in, so find out if that aligns with your needs before paying extremely high prices for the expertise you might not need at the moment.
An SEO company may attempt to verify its pricing with the results of previous clients. However, while this is great it isn’t enough. You must never think that a particular SEO solution will perform well for your brand just because it did for other companies in your space.
This is why a custom SEO solution and pricing model are always the best. Every business requires unique SEO goals and needs. So their SEO strategy and pricing must fit in perfectly with your brand’s needs.
For example, if an SEO company used digital PR for a crypto brand and it worked does not mean it will for an eCommerce store. So if their pricing covers a fixed digital PR fee it shouldn’t be included if it’s not going to work for your brand.
So overall, the agency’s pricing structure isn’t based just on their previous results but on how their strategy satisfies your goals.
At Stellar SEO, we take a custom approach. We take the time to understand your goals and create a strategy that helps you reach them efficiently and effectively.
What About ROI?
Let’s discuss the most important factor in determining an SEO budget and measuring success, ROI. The biggest breakdown I have seen in this industry is the understanding of cost versus value among customers. If you doubt it, just search for “cheap SEO” or similar terms and look at the offers.
Now, for the record, I don’t know these companies or what they offer, but, if you think about everything discussed up until this point, what could they really be doing for $100 or $150 per month?
Even so, people buy cheap packages every day. Many times, because they don’t understand SEO or exactly what is involved. Put yourself in the shoes of an uninformed consumer for a moment, if someone offered to “rank you” for $100 or $5000, which would you choose? Plenty of folks would go with the cheaper one since these types of services have been around for years.
Let’s step back for a second and think about this, aside from used car sales, which industry gets the most criticism? SEO, and it is because of low-value offers being pushed to consumers who then think that SEO must not work for their business rather than understanding that “cheap” SEO was the real problem.
To avoid falling into that cycle yourself, you must access the ROI of SEO and budget accordingly. A recent survey shows that the ROI of SEO services is $2.75 for every dollar spent. This is a 275% ROI.
Another recent survey stated that the ROI for SEO is 748% over a period of 3 years.
The old saying “actions speak louder than words” holds true in marketing budget allocation too.
As you can see, companies are experiencing crazy ROIs from SEO services. I could talk all day about the ROI of SEO and how to calculate it but, like your strategy, it is best determined by discussing your specific goals with one of our SEO consultants.
A Wakeup Call
As a business owner, I hope this opens your eyes to the evolving landscape of digital marketing and more importantly, why you should run when you get a cheap offer that seems too good to be true. Quality SEO work is time, knowledge, and resource-intensive. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to make a quick buck at your expense.