Search engine optimization (SEO) is a powerful form of content marketing that can yield an incredible return from a relatively small investment. Unlike marketing strategies that rely on Pay Per Click (PPC) and social media ads, where your costs scale up in direct proportion to your reach, SEO can build on itself, creating a flywheel with the potential for huge returns for years from a single investment.
However, the competitive nature of SEO means you can also spend a lot of money trying to rank higher and never get anywhere if you’re using an outdated strategy or your content is simply not good enough.
I’ve noticed that a lot of companies who could benefit from SEO avoid it because of all the unknowns. How long will it take to rank on page one? Does the cost fit into our marketing budget? Can we even expect to rank at all, since we’re a small company?
In this post, I’m going to share some insight into the cost of SEO, including how much you should expect to spend per year in order to see the kind of results that actually drive growth for your business.
Here’s what I’ll cover:
- How much does it cost to do SEO in-house?
- How much does it cost to hire an SEO agency?
- How long does it take to see results from SEO?
- How to evaluate an SEO Agency
How much does it cost to do SEO in-house?
When I say “do SEO,” I mean the process of creating an SEO strategy, creating and publishing content, building backlinks, and dealing with technical SEO issues. This, in my opinion, is a full-time job for most companies, or at least two-thirds of a full-time job.
So I’ll use that as a baseline to help you estimate the cost of doing SEO in-house, using average pay rates in the U.S. If you’re based in a place with a much lower cost of living, the costs would likely be lower.
A full-time digital marketer salary in the U.S. is around $80K (if you want someone good). This person will need to have a combination of technical SEO expertise and amazing writing skills. People like this exist, but as with all other specialized positions these days, they’re hard to find. So the total cost of that employee, with taxes and benefits, will probably be around $104K.
But your expenses don’t stop there. Most people will need to pay for promotional services like link building and/or PR campaigns in order to get their pieces to rank. These range anywhere from $300 per article to $10,000 per campaign. Your full-time marketer should be able to crank out around 4 to 8 SEO campaigns per month, so add at least $20K per year for promotion (on the low side).
You might be thinking, can’t the full-time marketer do the promotion as well? Well, sure, if they’re also an expert in public relations. But now you’re looking for an SEO specialist, amazing writer, and PR whiz, all in one. You’re getting into unicorn territory, my friend.
Bottom Line: I’d estimate it would take at least $125,000 a year to do SEO in-house.
How much does it cost to hire an SEO agency?
If you’re a small business, and $125,000/year is outside your SEO budget, don’t worry. That’s why SEO consultants exist.
Now, you can easily find an agency that will run you $125K or more in a year for SEO services, but there are options available at a lower price point.
Take a look at the monthly retainer costs for a few reputable SEO companies that post their SEO pricing models online (note, this is not an endorsement or recommendation, I’m just saying these guys aren’t hacks using black hat strategies that will hurt you more than help you).
Virayo: $5,000 to $30,000+/month
This agency is very SaaS focused, and when you look into their case studies and SEO plans, you can tell they’re very focused on driving organic traffic and conversions.
SimpleTiger: $7,500 – $150,000/month
This is another SaaS focused marketing agency, but they seem extremely focused on traffic.
Coalition Technologies: $1,500-$3,000/month
All of their case studies comment on traffic growth, impression growth, and occasionally they mention button clicks. They don’t talk about how many page one rankings they got, or how they drove business growth for the client. That’s what you should be looking for.
Olivia Barrow Communications (That’s me!): $5,000/month
I break down my services in detail at the end of this article, but here’s the gist of what I offer:
- B2B focused
- Rankings & Conversion-focused
- SEO strategy
- Content Creation
- Link Building & Technical SEO
To be clear, my monthly retainer isn’t equivalent to hiring a full-time SEO strategist and content writer, but it’s meant to produce strong SEO results at a price point that meets the needs of smaller businesses.
How long does it take to see results from SEO?
An important factor to consider when estimating the cost of SEO is how much time it will take before it generates a return on investment. For all SEO projects, there’s a startup period where you’re laying the groundwork and unlikely to see much of a boost in rankings. The longer that startup period, the higher your investment before you see a return.
The length of time it takes to start seeing page one rankings for new content (or newly optimized content) depends on many factors, but one of the biggest is the strength of your website at the start of the project. In general, the longer your website has been around and the more links you’ve accumulated from other reputable websites, the quicker you’ll see results (as long as you’re following an effective SEO strategy).
High Domain Authority: If you have a strong website (domain authority of 60+), it takes at least 6 months to see results from SEO.
Medium Domain Authority: If you’re between 30 and 60, it’s more likely going to take 9 months.
Low Domain Authority: If you’re a new website with really weak DA (below 30), it could take up to a year before you start to rank on the first page and see any significant traffic boost from your efforts.
SEO is a long game, but if you’re planning to be around for more than a year, you should absolutely start planning for how you want to leverage organic search as a marketing channel.
How to evaluate an SEO Agency
Here are three questions business owners should ask when evaluating SEO providers.
Do they have a proven track record of getting page one rankings?
A lot of SEO experts are great at following a basic SEO checklist. Very few SEO professionals can actually prove that they’ve gotten results for other companies.
Most marketing agencies that include SEO services in their monthly retainers are just checking off a bunch of boxes with the content they create, but they’re not actually following a dedicated SEO strategy, and they’re not held accountable to any overall SEO goals.
The most important thing you should be looking for is whether the agency can get you on page one of the search engine results pages. How can you tell? Read their case studies, and see if they talk about things like conversion rates and SERP rankings, or if they just talk about traffic.
Look at these headlines from real case studies:
- “597% Increase in organic traffic to the primary page target in 2 months.”
- “Organic sessions increased 291.67% and new users are up 182.35%”
It’s relatively easy to increase traffic, and most SEOs focus on it because it’s the easiest way to look like you’re making an impact. But there are a lot of ways to increase traffic that don’t lead to an increase in sales. This is simply not a useful performance metric when evaluating an SEO agency.
You’ll also see things like “+1320 Total ranking position increase in the first 2 months”. Sure, that’s an impressive number, but watch out for manipulation of the numbers. They could have taken 50 pages from ranking at position 99 to position 73. The impact of doing that on the business’ goals or bottom line? Zilch.
Are they a cheap SEO agency?
Be wary of anyone charging less than $1,000 a month. This is hard work that requires a lot of mental effort and time. It cannot be done well for that little. This kind of SEO work may end up hurting you more than helping you.
Do they offer SEO copywriting services and do they produce the content in-house?
Don’t hire anyone who doesn’t include content creation in their SEO packages, because you can’t improve your SEO rankings without creating new content. There’s no magic wand they’re going to wave over your existing content to make it suddenly rank. The way to improve your website’s rankings is to strategically create high quality content that ranks no. 1 for specific search terms that your target audience is typing into google when they’re looking for a solution like yours.
I go into the reason for this in more detail in my article SEO explained in ONE SENTENCE.
If they’re not creating SEO content for you, you’re going to have to do it in-house or find freelancers (for an average cost of $500 per article, and even at that rate it can be really hard to find good writers, trust me).
And if an SEO service provider is not creating SEO content for you, what are they actually doing? They’re probably maintaining a profile for your business on a website like Ahrefs ($99 to $199 a month equivalent cost for you) and clicking a few buttons to let the software auto generate reports about your rankings. If you just want to monitor your SEO performance, get your own Ahrefs account and watch a few YouTube tutorials.
Boost your rankings, leads, and traffic with an SEO consultant
Ready to rank on page one for keywords your target audience is actually Googling when they want to buy your product?
I have more than three years of experience getting page one rankings for clients that include professional services firms, technology consultants, and SaaS companies. My monthly SEO strategy & content creation retainer includes the following services:
- Keyword Research & Strategy
- Content Creation (2 to 4 articles per month) with On-Page SEO
- Technical SEO Audit & Monitoring
- Link Building
- Rank Tracking
- Lead Generation
I also offer a few other services that might help you meet your SEO needs:
- One-off SEO content creation: If your business needs occasional help or additional writing capacity on a monthly basis, I can typically help with one to three articles per month, although my capacity to help non-retainer clients varies from month to month.
- SEO Strategy Consulting: If you just have questions about your SEO strategy, my hourly rate for strategy advice is $150/hour.
- One-Time SEO Strategy Engagement
- Provide instruction on SEO best practices for 2023
- Create a 2-3 year SEO strategy roadmap for your business
- Identify and prioritize top 25 best keyword opportunities for your business
- Answer any questions you have about SEO
If you’re interested in growing your business through SEO, I hope you’ll reach out for a free consultation.