IN THIS ARTICLE:

    When marketing pros sit down to craft a plan to meet their KPIs, the first thing they do is consider the channels they can leverage to achieve their goals. There was a time, not long ago, when only a tiny percentage of them included search engine optimization (SEO) in the marketing mix. 

    According to Hubspot’s 2021 State of Marketing Report, an increasing number of businesses are adding SEO to their marketing plans (69% in 2021, up from 65% in 2020). But many marketers get tripped up trying to budget for SEO because of the lack of transparency in our industry about how much search engine optimization costs.

    There’s a lot of general information out there about how much you can expect to spend on SEO services. Some of it’s helpful, and to be honest, some of it isn’t. 

    At Victorious, we value transparency in our processes and our communication.

    So I’m going to pull back the curtain on SEO costs, discuss what you’ll find in the industry, and give you a line-by-line breakdown of a sample campaign, so we can talk about where the money goes.

    In the first part of this article, I’ll address some frequently asked questions about the general cost of search optimization services. Then, we’ll dig into a sample campaign and get real about how much you can expect to pay for quality SEO.

    How Much Does the Average SEO Project Cost? 

    It’s a fair question, and I hear it a lot. When someone asks me about the cost of an “SEO project,” it’s a tell-tale sign that they think of SEO as a discrete, one-and-done activity.

    In truth, any SEO worth paying for is an ongoing process that involves constantly monitoring analytics, responding to changes in the competitive landscape, and keeping an eye on whether Google algorithm updates have impacted ranking.

    (Fortunately, having good SEO practices in place means that algorithm updates usually positively impact search visibility.)

    Is There a Standard Cost for SEO?

    In a word, no. You’ll find a wide range of costs in the SEO industry. Most of the variations in how much you’ll pay for SEO boil down to these common factors:

    1. The SEO cost model. 
    2. What services are included.
    3. The urgency for results.
    4. The agency structure.

    Examples of SEO Cost Models

    There are as many ways to pay for SEO as there are SEO service providers. Generally, SEO cost models break down into these categories: 

    1. Hourly Consultation

    You might choose to work with an SEO consultant on an as-needed basis and pay them by the hour. While this can look like a cost-effective road to paying for only what you need, the question that begs to be answered is, how do you know what you need? Are you trusting an hourly consultant to prioritize SEO activities for you? How much communication is involved in developing a strategic approach to your search visibility? How much does someone getting paid by the hour care about building a long-term SEO plan that will benefit your business for years to come?

    2. Fixed Price Contract

    The fixed price model offers the opportunity to pay a set dollar amount for specific SEO services. For instance, you might pay for a site audit, 100 backlinks, or ten pieces of search-optimized content.  The SEO company provides a “deliverable” in exchange for a predetermined amount of your marketing dollars. Much like the hourly consulting model, fixed-price contracts might seem like an attractive way to pay for only what you need. 

    However, a model of picking and choosing from a menu of services presupposes that each SEO activity has value in isolation, and the value of each corresponds directly to the price you pay for them. 

    More importantly, though, this type of piecemeal approach ignores an essential part of building an SEO campaign that benefits your business objectives — a strategy.

    Without a unifying goal that drives each available SEO tactic to the same end, you wind up with nothing except a ticked-off checklist that serves no larger purpose.

    3. Project-Based Pricing

    This pricing model is similar to the fixed-price contract in that the customer pays a set price for a custom SEO “project.” Rather than picking services a la carte, like with the fixed-price pricing model, the project you pay for might include several different SEO services. For example, you might bring in an SEO expert to assist with a new site launch, which requires consultation on site structure, keyword research, and the creation of new content. 

    While this pricing model allows more flexibility to address issues with a strategic mindset, the narrow scope of these arrangements limits the value SEO can bring to your bottom line.

    There’s a tremendous opportunity cost to treating a discrete SEO project as isolated from more significant visibility concerns.

    4. Pay for Performance SEO

    Pay-for-performance SEO, or performance-based SEO, is a payment model where customers only pay for SEO once they see results. Agencies that offer this type of pay-on-results SEO service typically focus on setting goals to improve rankings, traffic, or revenue. While this sounds great (especially for those who have been burned by SEO agencies in the past), there can be hidden risks to taking this approach. 

    When an SEO provider is focused solely on making quick gains to get paid, they will overlook essential SEO strategies that take longer to yield results and produce sustainable success. In the worst-case scenario, a results-based emphasis encourages shortcuts that might ultimately damage your brand reputation.

    Learn more about pay for performance SEO.

    5. Monthly Retainer

    A monthly retainer is usually part of a longer-term contract that’s focused on a larger objective. Specific tactics support an overall strategy designed to move the needle on specific business goals. 

    Retainer contracts can vary in length, but the longer the agreement, the more freedom an SEO provider has to recommend sustainable-but-slower-burn, results-compounding tactics like investing in quality content to demonstrate authority in your field and establish trust with prospective customers.

    What Does the Average Cost of SEO Services Include?

    I love this question because it gets to the heart of what differentiates good SEO from bad. Since hourly, fixed-price and project-based SEO are all specific to a one-and-done approach to SEO, I’ll discuss SEO services through the lens of a monthly retainer. 

    When you retain an SEO provider for long-term SEO, they should include a clearly defined set of services.

    Depending on what your SEO goals are, your SEO agency might lean more heavily on specific tactics. Still, all of these SEO services should be offered as options to improve your business’s visibility in search results.

    DiscoveryStrategic RecommendationsImplementationOngoingAs Needed
    Strategic goal settingCore campaign keyword themesContent creation or content briefsRegular site sweepsBad link disavowal
    Competitive analysisContent opportunitiesImplementation of technical improvementsMonthly performance callsManual penalty fix
    Content auditBacklinking strategyPlacement of quality backlinksResponsive support for industry changes or product launchesSite migration assistance
    Technical site auditIdentified technical barriers to search visibility  Content syndication backlinksContinuous strategic consultationAdditional keyword research to expand organic footprint
    Keyword researchConversion rate optimizationEnrichment of existing contentRobots.txt optimization
    Meta optimizations for core pagesMapping keywords to points of conversionXML sitemap creation & submission
    Google Analytics set-up & goal trackingKeyword cannibalization / duplicate content audit
    Anchor text research & analysisSite architecture optimization
    Redirect auditFeatured snippet optimization
    Backlink auditSchema review & implementation guidance
    E.A.T. Analysis
    Google My Business optimization
    Local citation audit
    List of SEO services

    The Urgency For Results Drives SEO Costs

    Another essential factor in how much SEO can cost is the level of urgency for results and the investment you’re willing to make in the name of a quick lift. Depending on the current challenges your business is facing, the amount of search optimization you’ve already done, and the competitive search landscape in your industry, you might opt to invest more heavily in tactics that can drive results on a shorter timeline.

    Let’s back up and dig deeper into the idea of “fast results.”

    If Good SEO Takes Time, How Does Spending More Yield Faster Results?

    I’m so glad you asked this question! If you’ve been paying attention to our oft-repeated mantra that good SEO takes time, you might be scratching your head, wondering why I’d cite speedy results as a cost factor for SEO.

    It is one hundred percent true that no one can (or should) promise overnight results from an SEO campaign.

    That being said…

    …when you focus your resources on specific tactics, they can accelerate the accumulation of topical authority in your industry and shorten the timeline within which you hit metric milestones on the way to your goals. 

    We know these two things about Google:

    1. Google is a curiosity engine that exists to serve high-quality content that matches the search intent of its users.
    2. Google assesses the quantity and quality of backlinks to content as a signal of its value.

    Spending more to create relevant content and place backlinks from well-respected websites can help you build topical authority and earn top spots in Google search engine results pages (SERPs) more quickly than competitors that don’t make a similar investment.

    The good news is, using sound SEO tactics to build authority is a strategy that pays dividends over time. That initial investment not only offers a quick lift but lasting results.

    Tiered SEO Plans Can Meet Your Needs

    Different SEO companies might offer campaign tiers tailored for how quickly your business needs to gain traction in search results. Some customers may have goals that necessitate a high spend in SEO, while others can hit their metric milestones with a lower budgetary commitment. 

    SEO costs should flex to your needs and budget — to a certain extent. (See SEO costs  vs. results below.)

    SEO Costs vs. Results 

    A 2019 study conducted by Backlinko uncovered a direct correlation between the amount of money marketers invest in SEO and their level of satisfaction with service and results. This study has a limited data set (1,200 respondents) and focuses on small business owners, so the average SEO cost falls on the small side. Still, the trendline holds through to marketers spending several thousand dollars a month for their SEO services. 

    Why does increased spending on SEO lead to increased satisfaction? While you don’t always get what you pay for, there are economic realities within the SEO industry that make it impossible to deliver a high level of service and results below a minimum SEO cost per month. 

    If you come upon an SEO consultant who offers to “do your SEO” for $500, beware that there’s no way they can provide you the time and attention that delivers quality results for that amount of money.

    For more ways to spot bad SEO, read this article.

    The Cost of Cheap SEO

    Inevitably, as you research SEO providers, there will be someone who promises to deliver the moon at rock-bottom prices. Don’t be tempted. Being pulled in by the promise of big results on a small budget will not only not help your search engine rankings but could also destroy the credibility of your website and threaten your livelihood. 

    It’s a common tactic of unethical SEOs to purchase spammy links for their clients to create quick wins in search results. The practice of placing links, whether purchased or otherwise, without regard to their value to users is a short-sighted SEO tactic that won’t lead to the same long-term gains, and sacrifices the authority you could be building with high-quality links.

    Read this cautionary tale about a customer who came to us on the brink of losing their business.

    Where Does the Money Go in an SEO Campaign?

    Now that we’ve covered some of the general truths about how much SEO costs, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and break down a “typical” SEO campaign at Victorious.

    A Line-By-Line Breakdown of SEO Costs

    I say “typical” because although we have a standardized methodology, we make sure there’s enough flexibility for each campaign to be custom-fitted to the individual customer’s needs. 

    The SEO activities listed below are spread out through a 12-month campaign. 

    Some things to note:

    • Not every activity happens precisely within the same timeframe for each campaign.
    • We offer different plans designed to meet the needs of individual customers. The difference between each of our plans is in the amount of content and backlinks they include.
    • Customers can use “flex credits” for ad-hoc requests such as additional topical keyword research, more SEO content, or other services that aren’t included in the foundational campaign, such as featured snippet optimization or E-A-T analysis.

    Quarter One Campaign Activities 

    Victorious is unique among our competitors because we front-load our 12-month campaigns with strategic goal-setting, an aggressive audit and research schedule, and methodically mapping every SEO activity to a focused set of keyword themes that support our customers’ goals.

    Notice the flurry of services we provide during the first month of a contract that set our customers up for success from the very beginning of our relationship.

    Time FrameSEO Campaign Items
    Month 1Onboarding & Strategic Goal Setting
    200 Point Technical Site Audit
    Google Analytics Setup & Goal Tracking
    Advanced Google Analytics Optimization
    Page Optimizations – Title Tags and Meta Descriptions
    Header Tag Optimization
    Core Campaign Keyword Themes
    XML Sitemap Creation & Submission
    301 Redirect Audit
    Mapping of Keywords to Commercially Viable Site Pages
    Anchor Text Research and Analysis
    Keyword Research to Increase Topical Authority
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management
    Month 2High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    Implementation Development Hours
    Keyword Research Themes to Increase Topical Authority
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Backlink Analysis & Manual Disavow
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management
    Month 3High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    Syndicated Content Links
    Flex Credits
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management

    Quarter One of a 12-month SEO Campaign

    Quarter Two Campaign Activities

    As we head into the second quarter of a campaign, we establish a steady rhythm of link building and content optimization and begin to fold in as-needed optimizations as we dig deeper into the nuances that are impacting your site’s SEO performance — things like keyword cannibalization or internal linking practices. We also begin to fold in a regular cadence of auditing services to provide a temperature check for ongoing site health and keyword research services to identify topics for new content you can add to your site to build topical authority and expand your organic footprint.

    Time FrameSEO Campaign Items
    Month 4High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    1,000 Word Optimized Content
    Advanced Site Sweep
    Page Speed Analysis & Recommendations
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Internal Link Optimization
    Robots.txt Optimization
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management
    Month 5High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    Keyword Research Themes to Increase Topical Authority
    Advanced Site Sweep
    Page Speed Analysis & Recommendations
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Internal Link Optimization
    Robots.txt Optimization
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management
    Month 6High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    Syndicated Content Link Building
    Flex Credits
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management

    Quarter TWO of a 12-month SEO Campaign

    Quarter Three Campaign Activities

    During the third quarter, the campaign progresses with continued reporting and consultation from a dedicated pod of strategists to make sure all efforts push the flywheel on specific campaign goals. At this point, we’ll be able to assess what’s working and identify opportunities to improve based on six months of site performance.

    Time FrameSEO Campaign Items
    Month 7High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management
    Month 8High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    Keyword Research Themes to Increase Topical Authority
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management
    Month 9High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    Syndicated Content Link Building
    Flex Deliverable Credits
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management

    Quarter THREE of a 12-month SEO Campaign

    Quarter Four Campaign Activities

    During the fourth quarter, we continue the quarterly cadence of activities and begin to plan for adding new areas of focus to the campaign. As we round out 12 months and look to the following year, we are able to assess our delivery on business goals and determine if there are strategic pages to focus on in the future. Most of our 12-month campaigns end with an extension into a 24-month campaign, so it’s important for us to look at how we can update our SEO strategy based on business goals that were achieved and new business goals that are important to the customer.

    Time FrameSEO Campaign Items
    Month 10High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Advanced Site Sweep
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management
    Month 11High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    Keyword Research Themes to Increase Topical Authority
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management
    Month 12High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
    Syndicated Content Link Building
    Flex Deliverable Credits
    1,000 Words of Optimized Content
    Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
    Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
    24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
    Online Project Management

    Quarter FOUR of a 12-month SEO Campaign

    So, How Much Does SEO Cost?

    A campaign like the one outlined above at Victorious usually costs $3-10k/month.

    What accounts for the broad range?  The primary difference between these tiers is the number of backlinks that are created each month, the amount of SEO content being created, how many flex credits are included to be used throughout the campaign, and the number of site pages that the campaign is focused on.

    Often, our customers that have started with a smaller monthly budget are able to see the ROI after six months or so and invest additional budget to get more backlinks, more content, and turn an additional spend into accelerated growth.

    Why Commit to Spending on SEO in the Long-Term

    I hope that laying out an entire campaign makes it clear why a long-term strategy works best for lasting SEO results. An SEO provider that you’re paying on a project basis won’t be able to amortize the upfront SEO audit cost and investment in the people-hours it takes to do the research needed to create your SEO strategy.

    Because we work on a 12-month cycle, we can front-load all that work to build a core strategy that will yield compound results for your marketing objectives. 

    Talk to an SEO Consultant

    Although I’ve tried to pull back the curtain on how much SEO costs and what you should expect from your budget, no single SEO approach works for all businesses at every growth stage. 

    If you’re at a point where being found in search has become mission-critical, reach out to us, and let’s talk about how to get your business the attention it deserves

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