Janet Meiners wrote a good article Monday on Small Biz Trends: Practices of Top SEO Companies for Small Businesses. It’s designed to help small business owners understand the basic/minimum services that an SEO company/consultant should be providing.
But what about the cost of small business SEO? What should a small business expect to pay when hiring an SEO consultant?
In the comments on that Small Biz Trends article, a man named Jeff says this about the cost of SEO services:
“…many companies that offer SEO services charge an arm and a leg, usually monthly (anywhere from $300-$1000/monthly) and many don’t provide any kind of guarantee on results.”
There are a couple things in there that probably represent a fairly common view of SEO services for small businesses. I’m nowhere near the most expensive SEO consultant around, yet on phone calls with prospects, I’ve been asked: “Why do you charge so much?” There seems to be this idea that SEO shouldn’t cost much more than your satellite/cable TV bill.
Here are five points that I hope will help small business owners understand more about SEO, pricing, and services.
1.) The price you’ll pay for SEO depends on the consultant’s business model. My business model is to do consulting only; I don’t change my clients’ web sites. I analyze and provide specific recommendations, but it’s up to my client to implement my ideas or not. I generally charge an hourly rate for consulting, but I also have some pre-arranged services (like a Site Review) that have a fixed price. My clients pay for my time, my expertise, and my experience.
There are other SEO companies/consultants who charge differently. Some also serve as webmaster — not only recommending improvements, but also going in and changing your site. Some of these SEO consultants might even do performance-based contracts, where the small business owner pays a percentage of the revenue created by the SEO work. I could never do that because I can’t guarantee that my recommendations will be implemented. The point for small business owners is this: your SEO costs will depend in part on the type of consultant you hire.
2.) The price you’ll pay for SEO services sometimes depends on geography. If you hire a local consultant, a small business in Seattle is probably going to pay more for SEO consulting than a small business in Walla Walla. This isn’t universally true, but it is generally true that many services are more costly in larger cities. The Seattle market can support a higher cost for SEO consulting, just as it supports a higher cost for web design services, attorney fees, and many other types of services. This should color your expectations when looking for an SEO consultant.
3.) I generally wouldn’t trust an SEO company that only charges $300/month. $300 is closer to the hourly rate, not the monthly rate, for a good SEO consultant. An SEO that’s only charging $300/month probably isn’t doing much for you, doesn’t understand the true value of his/her time, and may have a very basic, limited definition of what SEO is. My approach to SEO projects is summed up in the SEO Success Pyramid. I can’t imagine a way to offer those strategies and tactics — five levels worth, 15 different blocks — for only $300/month.
Are there small businesses who can’t afford $300/hour? Of course. If that’s you, then you’ll have to spend time learning the basics of SEO yourself. There are a lot of great blogs and web sites where SEO knowledge is shared freely, not to mention several SEO e-books that cost less than $100 and offer terrific information. I sell one that costs $25 so that small biz owners who can’t afford my services can still learn to do SEO themselves.
4.) Focus on ROI, not costs. Much more important than the cost of SEO is the return. $1,000 per month may seem like a lot, but what if you get $5,000/month in increased revenues? Seems like a good deal to me. SEO, like any marketing, is about ROI. If you spend X and get back 3X or 5X or 10X, the actual amount that X is really doesn’t matter. Let’s use real estate as an example:
For Sally Smith, each client transaction means about $5,000 income, on average. Sally hires an SEO consultant to fix up her web site and make sure she’s listed on all the right local search engines. She also learns how to blog, how to use social media to make connections with local people, and more. This takes about six months and costs Sally $15,000.
Over the next year, Sally starts to get a lot more leads. Out-of-town real estate agents are also finding her online and sending referrals. Here are three scenarios:
* If Sally starts doing one more transaction every two months, that’s six more transactions per year and an additional $30,000.
* If she starts doing one more transaction every month, that’s an extra $60,000 per year.
* If she does two additional transactions per month, that’s $120,000 more income.
All that from a $15,000 investment over six months. That $2,500 per month seemed like a lot, but it was money well spent.
A few years ago, before I was a solo consultant, we had a medium-sized retail client that sold products nationally. Their SEO campaign was close to $22,000 for six months of work. They later told us that revenue from natural search traffic had gone up more than $120,000 in the months immediately after we started the campaign. I don’t mention this to brag. I mention it to point out that what you spend on SEO is not nearly as important as what you earn from it.
5.) No SEO can guarantee results.
The search engines could drastically change their ranking algorithms tomorrow. The new visitors that you get from SEO might decide they don’t like your product or service. Your competitor could be spending even more on SEO and online marketing than you, and might be buying links or doing other things that search engines don’t like. Your webmaster or IT department might implement the SEO recommendations incorrectly, etc., etc. The point is: SEO doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are a number of factors outside of your control that will determine the success of an SEO campaign.
When I work with a client, I don’t make guarantees, but I do say, “If you take my advice and correctly implement my recommendations, you will get more traffic from natural search than you’re getting now, and you should increase revenues from natural search, too.” That’s about as close to a guarantee as I can give. (Note: As I explained above, there are SEO companies who operate as more than consultants; they take over your web site and make the changes themselves, thereby giving them more confidence in guaranteeing certain results.)
When considering SEO and what it should cost, please keep this in mind:
- You have to invest either time or money.
- You usually get what you pay for; if you invest only a little time or a little money, you can expect little success.
- There are no shortcuts to true, long-lasting SEO success.
- Nothing matters more than ROI.
- If you spend your money wisely on SEO, it should bring back returns that are substantially higher than the costs.
My goal with this post is to shine a brighter light on what small businesses can and should expect where SEO campaign pricing is concerned. I hope I’ve succeeded, but the comments are open for any questions, constructive criticism, or other feedback.
(top photo courtesy AMagill via Creative Commons)