How much does SEO cost?
Starting a new SEO project can be intimidating. There are thousands of options to choose from, whether it's an agency, a freelancer, or an in-house SEO team. The decision is important and one that you want to get right so you're not wasting time, resources, and money on a digital marketing strategy that is not producing results.
The cost of SEO varies depending on multiple variables; agency or freelance (SEO consultant), and the scope of your project. With so many options, the cost is often difficult to pin down. Luckily, we've been in SEO for decades and with that, we've employed multiple pricing models.
So let's jump into the multiple pricing models and costs.
- Monthly Retainers
- Hourly Pricing ($100-$150 per hour)
- Per-Project Pricing ($501-$1000 per project)
- SaaS Pricing
- Result Based Pricing
- Contribution-Based Pricing ($4,000-$15,000)
- How much should SEO cost?
SEO Pricing Models: Freelance vs. Agency
Freelancers and Agencies have drastically different pricing models and there are various pricing models for each category. Most agencies work hourly or on a flat retainer. Some also work per project. If you search the web long enough, you'll find a website that offers "per result" SEO. Each approach presents significant issues.
Again, your costs will depend on a number of variables but this is what we commonly see.
Monthly retainers mean poor accountability. It's simple to understand but eliminates the expectation of when and how the work is getting done. You never know where your investment is going.
Both freelancers and agencies use monthly retainers and according to an Ahrefs study, monthly retainers are the most popular pricing model. Ahrefs surveyed 348 SEO providers and found that 23% of monthly retainers fall within $500-$1,000 per month, 19.23% of monthly retainers fall within $251-$500 per month, and 24% of monthly retainers are $2,001/month or more.
Within the U.S., the most common pricing range falls within $2,501-$5,000.
Now we have multiple ranges, but what should you expect from each range?
$250-$1,000 per month
I can't think of many situations where this price range is effective. You should expect low-quality deliverables and multiple strategies that lean on the side of Black Hat SEO.
This range could work for a hyper-local company that only operates within a very small radius. I can't tell you how to spend your marketing budget, but if you're considering a provider in this range, please, do your due diligence.
There are a lot of SEO horror stories and I'd estimate that a majority of them are from this price range.
$2,001-$5,000 per month
This range works well for small to mid-sized businesses. Great SEO companies will build a custom, scalable strategy for your business that focuses on your business's weaknesses. This requires resources and as you move up the pricing scale, you're buying more resources (although this is not always the case and depends on the agency that you're working with).
From our own experience in the industry, it's hard to allocate the appropriate resources to projects on the lowest side of this scale ($2,001), and without the appropriate resources, you can quickly run into quality issues.
You should see great results in this price range if you're a small to mid-sized business, but remember: price alone is not indicative of quality. You have to vet your provider to make sure that the scope of your project is clearly defined.
In this price range, you're probably an enterprise company that is operating on a national/international scale. You'll be able to make a significant process within a short period of time (depends on how competitive your niche is) at this price range.
You'll have access to additional resources that allow your service provider to move faster but again, vet your marketing agency, ask for case studies, check their social media pages, and look at third-party reviews.
I've seen companies charge $5,000+ and outsource all of the work to low-wage workers and the quality of that work is not going to produce any results.
Hourly Pricing ($100-$150 per hour)
Hourly rewards poor efficiency and skill. Sometimes, we can get a great link after a few minutes of work. Other times, there are weeks of struggle. The value is important, the hours are not.
Hourly pricing is popular among freelancers, and some agencies do use this pricing model. The Ahrefs study showed that $100-$150 per hour is the most popular pricing tier. In the U.S., more than a third (35%) of all hourly rates fall within this range.
The second most popular hourly pricing model is $75-$100 per hour, which accounts for 20% of all hourly rates.
This price range will vary based on the location of your SEO company, but you should be skeptical of any deal that sounds too good to be true. SEO is an investment and takes resources and time to see results. Avoid cutting corners and following "rank quick" trends -- these are like "get rich quick" schemes.
Per-Project leads to poorly informed decisions. One-off projects have a fixed direction without a closed feedback loop. This provides no room to learn and adapt. It's a process, not a project.
You'll be a good fit for this pricing model if you have an in-house SEO team and need extra resources to complete a project. The goal here is to augment your in-house SEO team. You may only need a forensic SEO audit, link building services, content help, etc.
The scope of your project will impact how much you'll pay when it comes to per-project pricing.
According to Ahrefs, $501-$1,000 is the most popular pricing tier for per-project pricing. A quarter (25%) of all projects fall within this range.
Thankfully, this pricing model is losing popularity. This pricing model is based on most SaaS pricing models where the SEO provider will offer multiple "packages" or "SEO plans" with varying features.
For example, you may see a pricing table with three pricing options. We'll use a real-life example of this pricing model.
Personally, I will never recommend going this route. Providing a holistic SEO strategy is not the same as pricing a SaaS application and you will never compete in a moderately competitive market paying $299/mo.
Even the $1199/mo package is not going to get you very far. I know it says "aggressive," but this pricing plan will not produce quality results for your business.
Result Based Pricing
Result based pricing sounds attractive for a number of reasons and the main one is no results=no payment. Even though this sounds attractive, result based pricing encourages and attracts poor ethics. Success is a team effort and external forces exist.
This creates a short-term mindset that damages brand and search engine reputation, long-term.
Contribution-Based Pricing ($4,000-$15,000)
At Northcutt, we employ a contribution-based pricing model. Our contribution model solves all of the flaws listed above by incorporating the best elements of each model.
Contribution: All Northcutt work is delivered as Contributions. Contributions are like tokens or credits for work that:
- Is significant enough to have a measurable impact on the business.
- Is small enough to keep time and resource estimates simple.
- Has a scope that's as clear as a Project.
- Reverts to Hourly only when value can't be defined in advance.
- Is discussed in weekly updates and reported in one end-of-month digest.
Agreements are based on a minimum number of contributions.
At 20, this means one measurable accomplishment for every business day in a month. Every day, we do something of distinct value; either implemented directly or via detailed action plans from our consulting.
This influences revenue, which we relate to contributions and maintain or scale where profitable.
We attempt to plan 110% of our contributions in advance at the start of every month. As each month progresses, we're likely to change, expand, scrap, or displace some plans to meet new opportunities based on new information or to satisfy incoming requests and new ideas from your team.
A digest with all marketing contributions completed and planned next gets delivered near the first of the month. This is accompanied by a hand-written Executive Summary that relates to the impact of our work on short-term and long-term goals using a set of pre-agreed metrics (KPIs).
How much should SEO cost?
This is a frustrating answer, but it depends. What I can tell you is that you should expect to pay a minimum of ~$4,000 per month for quality SEO.
In our experience, it's impossible to take a holistic approach to SEO if a provider is below that floor. Not only will you run into quality issues, but it will be almost impossible to scale.
In the end, make sure that your SEO services provider is transparent and presents a clear outline of how they will hit your goals. If you decide to work with them, hold them accountable and make sure you have access to the KPIs that they are tracking.
Remember, SEO is not a one-time project. It will take time for you to move up the search results.
What about SEO cost calculators?
These calculators are neat, but they don't provide a lot of value. As we mentioned before, the cost of your SEO campaign will depend on a number of factors and any SEO agency worth its weight should build out a custom strategy for your business.
There isn't an SEO calculator on the market that will give you a realistic quote on holistic SEO. The calculator isn't going to know enough about your market, your goals, your competitor, etc. If the provider is offering packages there's a possibility that the calculator could be accurate. But as I mentioned before, you should avoid packaged SEO.
What should you avoid when looking for an SEO agency?
Avoid Cheap SEO
Who doesn't like a good deal, right? You should avoid "cheap SEO services" for a number of reasons, but the biggest issues are that these solutions lack resources and talent. As an agency, we know first hand that it's expensive to build a high-quality SEO team and it's impossible to offer "cheap SEO" and hire high-quality SEOs.
If it's too good to be true, it probably is. Remember, SEO takes time and if any agency/freelancer is offering you results in less than four months, you should proceed with caution.
If you decide to work with a "cheap SEO" provider be sure to ask them for proof via case studies and ask them why their pricing is so low.
"Google Partners" for SEO
Like most agencies, Northcutt is a Google Partner and you shouldn't avoid an agency because they display the Google Partner badge.
This badge has everything to do with Pay-Per-Click (PPC) and nothing to do with Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Google Partners are agencies that have passed the Google Ads test and manage a number of "successful" ad campaigns. This badge has no relationship with SEO and if an agency is pretending that it does, run for the exit.
Nothing in life is guaranteed and this applies to SEO as well. Quality SEO takes time and requires an investment. As tempting as it may be to hire an agency for $29/mo with a shiny guarantee of ranking you on page one, this is something you should avoid like the plague.
You'll cut your costs, but you'll spend more time playing clean-up than actually advancing up the SERP. You want to work with someone who is transparent from the initial introduction and keeps you in the loop during your engagement.
There are a number of variables that come into play when you're thinking about investing in SEO. Any successful SEO strategy involves evaluating multiple variables and creating a holistic strategy to maximize your organic reach based on these variables. Much like "How long does SEO take?." "How much does SEO cost?" doesn't have a clear cut answer because it depends. It's more important to do your due diligence and avoid common SEO scams.
If you're thinking about investing in SEO let's talk!