Small Business SEO: Costs, Expectations & Realities

Filed in MY BEST POSTS, SEO by Matt McGee on June 23, 2009 72 Comments

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.

coins3.) 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.)

Final Thoughts

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)

Comments (72)

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Quora | May 16, 2011
  2. Facing The Cost Of SEO Services | New Blood, Inc. Blog | December 13, 2011
  1. ROI is a tricky area to get into especially for a small business that sometimes doesn’t even understand the importance of SEO and how it ties into growing the online portion of their company. The problem is that everyone’s idea of ROI is different and everyone rates success in a different manner.

  2. I think that this article is really helpful for small businesses to understand the value of an SEO. I’ve worked with a number of small business people, and a number of them wanted to negotiate and pinch every penny. I totally understand their desire to get the most for their money, but most often they really didn’t give SEO the proper value that it should. It’s nice to have a touchstone article to refer them to.

  3. Will Scott says:

    Matt, great post!

    We are one of those companies that has a recurring relationship. I often say when asked that we can stop working when we’ve driven all our clients’ competitors out of business.

    Luckily our clients tend to “get it” when we talk about ROI.

    And, part of what we do is we help them get it if not. We’re probably not right to help sell a $20.00 widget, but if we are talking to a contractor for whom each job averages to $1500.00 then the ROI is easy to demonstrate.

    Very simply, if each new customer is worth $1,000.00 and we have a high likelihood of bringing 10-20 new customers then it’s a no-brainer.

    In that context $300.00 / month is nothin’.

    And to your point on $300.00 / month, don’t think of it as $300.00 / mo. – think of it as $3600 / year – it then makes a lot more business sense for the provider. And, when well leveraged $3600.00 can go a long way for a local, main-street client.


    Again, great post.

  4. David Mihm says:

    Matt, this is truly the best post on this topic that I have EVER read. It is ALL about ROI. The problem is that for SMB’s who are getting sold crappy IYP products left-and-right (as you pointed out a couple weeks ago), all the money they’ve spent on the internet so far has just gone into a big black hole. So they have no confidence that a real SEO strategy is actually going to work.

    I am actually a big fan of the short-term contract / pay-for-performance model with the *right* clients, to get them comfortable with the process and the results. But that is awfully risky if you don’t have complete control of the website.

  5. Chuck Price says:

    Hi Matt – nice post. When i am faced with this question, I remind the prospect the SEO is a form of marketing. Like other forms of marketing, notably: TV, Radio and newspaper ads there are no guarantees. Unlike those forms of marketing, however, SEO is quantifiable in terms of tracking increases in traffic & rankings.

  6. Matt,

    Great post! The business of SEO, even small business, is more complicated than most clients expect. I appreciate posts like this that lend insight into other Small Biz SEO’s are going through. ROI. ROI. ROI. The new location.

  7. RKF says:


    As others have said, this is a great article and one that I’m tempted to frame and place on the wall right inside the door to our office.

    In defense of the $300/month model, this can be effective implemented with the right type of client. Very small businesses, especially when you have multiple clients in the same vertical, often have the same needs. There is less analysis involved and more implementation based on experience.

    We have learned to be very selective as to which clients are offered service at this price point. If they are handling big ticket transactions, they likely need more than anyone can offer at that price.

    Using our beloved florists as an example, you can research the vertical and apply the best practices repeatedly for each local client. In an industry with an average transaction of $50 that makes sense for them. Not so much for a B2B client, realtor, etc. πŸ™‚



  8. Matt Siltala says:

    #5 has actually GAINED me a ton of clients. When you are honest with them, show them your accomplishments with other clients and help them UNDERSTAND ROI – they will find it refreshing that a person is not going to “give them the moon” Be honest, in everything and it will pay off in the long run. Matt, killer post here!

  9. MikeTek says:

    Great post, Matt.

    ROI is everything. That’s the bottom line.

    The trouble most often is that a small business doesn’t know what they can afford to pay to gain a lead/customer. Some do, and for them calculating the ROI on SEO services is straightforward. For everyone else ROI can be tough to pin down – but it’s the only way to effectively evaluate a campaign.

  10. Ben Rush says:

    Really good post Matt.

    I believe the best option when targeting small businesses is still the “percentage of revenue” option providing you can have the access to their site to make the changes yourself.

    This puts your work on the line as you only get paid for success.

  11. David says:

    Great article, im going to forward this to my key clients as they are often asked by new clients as to if someone else can promise results for $300/month why can’t my agency also do the same for the $….. I charge.

    Also a big point is that if a client only does this as a test for a bit and your pricing model is 6 to 12 month campaigns, you cannot expect to have everything done in week 1 of the campaign. SEO is an ongoing process that often requires tweaks and improvements over time, while you can give large boosts, it needs to be continued to get the best benefit.

  12. Great review guys! Ultimately, many seo companies don’t do all that needs to be done. Either they don’t perform on-site optimization and just build links. Or else they do the opposite; or likely do very little keyword research. On regular occasions customers that inquire to me will choose a cheaper alternative and then they end up coming to me 1 or 2 years later…

  13. dave oremland says:

    Great post, Matt. Absolutely on target. We are business operators. We have had investments in businesses for a couple of decades. I used to be an outside consultant in a different line of work. In fact I often sold into the SMB market.

    Now one of my tasks in this group is to be the inhouse web guy. We do it to create a marketing presence. We don’t survive without it. We absolutely live off of visibility.

    Marketing and advertising are not areas where SMB owners and decision makers have expertise in virtually all cases. They farm out the work…or if they are big they have in house staffs.

    They need to pay for expertise. They always have, if only to place ads in the yellow pages or have a print or radio/tv station create ads for them.

    It is ALWAYS about ROI. If I spend $1,000 on any form of advertising I need a payback that is a multiple of that number: 5, 6,7, 10, 15 times the advertising cost…whatever works for that business. Geez, the perfume industry pays extraordinary amounts for marketing and and advertising, in fact a huge percentage of total business costs…in part because the cost of making, bottling perfumes is so tiny relative to what they can charge for it.

    ROI is the answer. Its not about the cost…its about the payback.

    Wonderful post.


  14. Scott Clark says:

    I have learned some *HARD* lessons in 2009. One of them is that you have to be the consultant, not the webmaster-by-default. I have made this mistake this year and got burned beyond belief.

    For many of my clients, saying “I only do advice” is a deal breaker – so I’d love to know your secret for keeping arm’s length from the code/websites.

  15. Matt,
    Thanks for an insightful followup to my post!

    If a small business can’t afford to pay for quality SEO they can do some of it themselves. See this article for a “how to”

    Even if you do that, having good solid keywords with a balance between competition and demand is key. It would be worth paying for that research from experts. Then you could apply it as described in the article.

    A lot of small businesses don’t understand how much time and effort it can take to rank for profitable phrases. You not only have to get there but maintain the rankings when competitors are going after the same phrases.

    True: “If you spend your money wisely on SEO, it should bring back returns that are substantially higher than the costs.”

    My only caveat: an SEO company can’t guarantee ROI. We can get you ranked well and you can get a lot of traffic but the site has to sell.

    To see how your site does: run paid search ads to see if your site converts to sales and what keywords work best.

    Thanks for giving people a realistic understanding of costs involved in an SEO campaign.


  16. Rachel says:

    I agree completely. Our company operates on a 6 month model and we charge based on the services provided. Rather than charging per hour, we charge a specific amount per package. We have already calculated expenses internally and know approximately how many hours it will take, plus what the expenses of any hard costs are. I’ve found this to be preferable to our clients because they know exactly what to expect and how much it will cost.

  17. Miriam says:

    Another totally awesome post from you, Matt. You’re having an exceptional blogging week!

    The highest ROI we’ve brought in for a client is an increase of 400%. Like you, I’m not bragging, but numbers like those should give the SEO confidence to charge what he/she is worth and the client utter joy at having found someone who can help them achieve real results.

    What a pleasure it was to read this.

  18. Ron Strauss says:

    Thank you for a clear, honest description of how this works. I continually tell clients and potential clients SEO must be an on-going effort and not a “set it and forget” effort.

  19. Matt: I agree with pretty much evertything you’ve written and I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting a few salient points at

    Just one comment regarding your points 4 and 5: yes, it’s great if you could “automagically” double every investment you made –you’d invest your last penny, and then some… The problem with SEO, however, is that the ROI is not guaranteed (for reasons you describe), so you can only know *after* the fact if you had a positive ROI.

    IMO, that implies that 1) one should not make a huge investment upfront, but rather proceed “gradually”, on a month-by-month basis; 2) one should have realistic expectations about when results could be visible (say: 2-3 months); and 3) one should *track* results religiously! πŸ˜‰

  20. Tyler says:

    I’m one of those guys that charges a monthly fee and I mess with the site to optimize performance. It’s led to longevity for me because the results are have always been improvements. I like to get commitment for a 3-month period, after that we decide what’s in the company’s best interests that’s worthwhile for me and I do a different bid and deal with each company.

  21. Mary Bowling says:

    Hey Matt,
    Awesome post! So many small businesses have been burned by “bad” internet marketing that it hurts all of us. However, there probably isn’t much percentage in trying to change their minds when they come to you thinking they are going to get ripped off.
    It’s probably best to send business owners that need to be “sold” on SEO and want guarantees to your competition.

  22. Matt McGee says:

    So I had NO CLUE this post would strike the chord that it apparently has struck, and never expected feedback like this. Thanks to all who’ve commented, tweeted, etc.

    @RKF – I suppose that’s a good point about multiple clients making it easier. I have a policy against taking on clients that might compete with one another, so haven’t had an opportunity to use scale/experience as you’re suggesting.

    @MikeTek — another good point. I bet there are plenty of SMBs who don’t know the dollar figure that a new customer equals.

    @Scott Clark — be glad to chat with you about that on email. I’m just completely accepting of the fact that I’ll lose some prospects because I don’t want to touch their sites.

    Thanks again for all the great comments, folks.

  23. Edward Aw says:

    Great article, Matt!

    I usually try to educate my client about the average life time value of a customer (ALTV). When they can see how much a customer can bring in over their life time with the company, my costs seems like nothing. Even better than ROI actually ROI on steroids!

    For instance, if a customer only buys $200 of product the first time, it may not justify my monthly rate. However, if that same customer has an ALTV of $5000 then my rate seems so reasonable.

    So the ROI is important. Lifetime Value makes the point even more, well, pointed.

  24. I agree with most of what has been said here. SEO is a form of marketing that can’t be guaranteed, but at least you can track what’s being done. Also, you can do a great job increasing a site’s traffic, but if they aren’t willing to make changes to their site so it will convert better then it won’t do a lot of good anyway! But if both client and consultant work well together, any SMB should be able to see a really good return from SEO.

  25. Great article. One of my small business clients is interested in SEO and told me he found someone who can do it for $200! I told him that sounds too good to be true. It indeed requires a decision between investing a lot of your time or a substantial amount of money.

  26. Tom Shivers says:

    Excellent post! “Focus on ROI, not costs.” A business considering hiring an SEO consultant usually has two major concerns:
    1. Confidence in the ability of the SEO consultant to do what he says he will do, and
    2. Fear of choosing the wrong provider, which could mean loss of investment, lost time, lost opportunity, or even loss of their position or job.

    I believe the issues boil down to effective communication between prospect and provider until trust begins to form. And that is what fosters confidence.

  27. Shawn says:

    I suggest that you dont dive deep into a long term contract with provider, if you have decided to hire someone else. Work with him for a couple of months and there should be open communication all through out. And it would be best if you have basic knowledge of SEO, and you have a solid picture of what your goals are.

  28. Jenny Molina says:

    Thanks!Such a very helpful article for a new online entrepreneur… I am considering hiring an SEO for my site, really good help,Thanks!

  29. Max Pool says:

    Really great (and timely) point about not going the performance based model because of the inability to guarantee that their staff will implement your suggestions.

    As the economy creeps downward and more clients have at least one horror story of an internet marketing company that ripped them off, they want to go this approach as much as possible, and for me personally it is just not feasible.

    Using the single point that you can’t support a performance model based on their employees completely deflates the client’s argument for this payment model.

  30. Gabriella says:

    Excellent, I love this post. You are spot on. I especially liked your “Focus on ROI, not costs” I cannot tell you how many times I have to interview clients to see if they are committed for the “long haul” of SEO.

    Many expect overnight success. They’re apparently not the clients I want…(not a perfect world yet) Let me explain I get at least 3 requests for SEO services per week on our website. I try to set up a phone”interview” (so I can save the headache of a bad relationship in the long run ) in order to verbally tell them we need a 6 month commitment, & we need to understand their marketing, SEO goals, etc… needless to say some never call back.

    We went as far as putting a sample “packet” to use with potential SEO clients only to see the deer in a headlight gaze & some never calling back. So you see I love your “limited” “services. We have been giving “ideas, reviews, Q&A” away only to find some clients take the ideas and go elsewhere. I could go on and on suffice it to say your post is something I will share with my colleagues and clients alike.

  31. Ross Dunn says:

    Matt you rock πŸ™‚ You hit the nail on the head.

    You also did a good job of shining a light on the one thing we still offer and that is a $350/mo maintenance service for very small businesses. Your statement “doesn’t understand the true value of his/her time” is dead on – it has been our achilles heel ever since StepForth started. For that amount we provide way too much work and admittedly we lose money on it but we do gain some bottom-line stability which has been a good trade off in the up’s and downs of the economy lately.

    That said, for a truly robust, no-holds barred, approach to increasing a site’s ROI we definitely require a minimum of $1000 per month. The trick is to educate the client about what they are getting and then once they are on board we work our butt off to show them everything we do for their money. Without the educational component, however, we would lose clients right, left, and center.

    Cheers Matt on a great post!
    Ross Dunn

  32. another great post related to this one would be… how to sell it properly.

    It’s hard for a company to pay for SEO knowing that there’s no guarantee.

  33. I purposely charge a lot to keep the little companies from contacting me. I immediately position myself to only work for companies who can afford me and appreciate the work I am doing. Maybe I have less clients but I work less and get paid the same as if I had more clients and charged less.

  34. Ismael Ahmed says:

    This post was very informative. It is true that no guarantee when paying a company for SEO, however, this is a type of marketing that is starting to explode more than ever. It is very important you as a customer do research on the different companies to see which one will fit your needs.

  35. Troy Scheer says:

    Matt, this is great stuff. Thanks for the post. My $.02

    A professional, experienced SEO (and just for the record, I hate narrowing down the title of the person as an SEO) should first and foremost, develop a strong understanding of your company and the business objectives you have in place. An SEO should understand how the overall interactive marketing picture integrates into other offline objectives and strategies.

    SEOs should understand the technical, content, and link building aspects of SEO. They should understand how to incorporate social media elements into the program. They should be able to analyze what competitors are doing and what other successful SEO campaigns are doing. They need to be able to analyze the overall competitive landscape for key words on which you are looking to rank.

    They should be able to gather information from existing customers to see what the “customers” see as the key words they are searching, not just what the client company feels are important. A good SEO should understand neuro persuasion and how to effectively persuade people to take action. SEO isn’t all about Google.

    They should be concerned with site usability and conversions. They need to help the client understand what works and why it’s working (and what’s not working).

    Then there is the tactical work of taking all of the above and putting it into action.

    When you look at all that is needed to develop an effective and integrated SEO program, each case is completely unique. We’re not selling hamburgers, here. This is a seven course meal prepared to the specifications of the individual. There are the “value meal” sellers out there. But I would make sure you know what you want before you “order.” πŸ™‚

  36. Excellent post Matt!

    I mostly deal with clients in the Walla Walla sized and smaller markets where it often isn’t that difficult to rank very well with just a little intelligently-directed effort. My biggest challenge is to provide the education small businesses need to understand that their current websites aren’t performing well and also to understand that their sites can do much better.

    Like you, I make recommendations for changes to a website, but I don’t implement those changes. My other challenge is to guide my clients to web developers who understand and can make these SEO-focused changes. The most prolific web developer in my area told me recently that the solution to SEO was to stuff meta keyword tags into a website. She charges her clients $30 an hour. The other web developer in this town of a little over 9,000 doesn’t show up in either the Google local listings or on the first page of local search results for “web developer,” but she has clients all over rural Texas. So part of my challenge has to be educating the local web developers or finding SEO-savvy, non-local developers who won’t induce sticker shock in my clients.

    If an SEO/Web Word of Mouth consultant wants to help small businesses outside the major metro areas, the major hurdle to overcome is education.

    Again, great post! I’m a big fan of your blog.

  37. Nick says:

    I am one of those SEO people that is vocal about people trying to get something for nothing. I will never accept a percentage of sales project. I basically accomadated my small business clients by giving them a package that they can afford, and tell them outright that there is not much to this package.

    I agree with the $300 per month. My company charges $300 for the first month and $50 for each additional month. However, this plan does not include any new content or link building which is crucial in SEO. It only includes on-page optimization of existing content and meta tags, submitting search engines, and monitoring the rankings. It gives me a way to upsell the client later on in order for the small business owner to justify the increased expense.

  38. Nick says:

    I also agree that no small business can afford $100 per hour for SEO consulting. However, small businesses, which are the backbound of this economy, need a form of SEO that is affordable for them. I keep my SEO prices affordable for the little guy by helping them focus on local search, because that is all my Starter SEO package can give them.

  39. Matt McGee says:

    Nick, there are countless small businesses that can and do spend more than $100/hour on SEO. And they should. Not sure you read the post at this point, because I stated my opinion pretty clearly on what you can possibly get for $300/month. If all you’re doing is fixing meta tags, submitting to search engines (which isn’t necessary in this day and age), and monitoring rankings (which is borderline useless) … well, I don’t think that’s worth $300/month.

  40. Nick says:

    Matt, I actually do charge $1,000 per month for SEO. However, companies have told me that they can’t afford it. Before that, I have turned away a lot of the cheap clients who can’t afford my services. I always educate these people that SEO takes time to see any results.

    I just created a new starter seo package that is $300 for the first month, and $49 each additional month. I explicitly tell them that they are not going to get much but meta tag optimization, rewriting of existing content, and submitting to search engines.

    Right now, the economy is not supporting $1,000 per month. Have to go with the economy.

  41. David says:

    @Nick how can you explain such a wide range in your charges, its like McDonalds selling caviar or giving out champagne…

    I can understand if you are working on a project closer to pro-bono work but how can you value your time at $49/month.

    I know automated solutions that cost more than that, if you are not going to do 100% it is not worth it, the client will become angry when they are not getting the same results as your other clients.

    If you are respected and charge such a small figure how can you then turn around and ask for $1000 if they grow or expand their budget.

    It is a race to the bottom and not one that is good for anyone in the web dev industry…

  42. David says:

    As for the idea that the economy is not supporting $1000/month campaigns they are out there you just need to sell yourself more than a simple “you give me money you rank go up” mentality.

  43. I think the issue we’re stuck on here is what’s a small business. There are lots of very small businesses that don’t have a website and can’t afford to hire a $100/hr consultant. I try to help them by volunteering for free and low-cost seminars sponsored by the local Small Business Development Center. There are lots of other small businesses, like realtors, medical clinics, dentists, car dealers, and gun shops (we’re in TX) that can afford to pay $100 an hour. Those are the folks I’m marketing to.

  44. David says:

    @Paul you are correct there has been a blur of the lines of what is a SME. The interesting point is how much time they may actually request as my accountant bills in 15 min blocks at $280/hr, their main clients are SME operators. But i will try not to burn up too much of my accountants time because I find it expensive/valuable…

    So if a small business wants to be successful they will pay $100/hr but you maybe more flexible as what the hour includes. Maybe you dont charge for reporting, travel & preparation for the meeting but you still charge $100.

    If they can find $280 for their accountant why not for online? Ask them how much they spend on their phonebill or radio ads…

    I think working with local chamber groups are a great way to educate more people in the same amount of time during free/low-cost seminars.

    If they are so small that they dont have a website and cant afford one atleast explain to them other options such as TrueLocal (in Australia) can give them a free landing page and is already optimised…

  45. Aditya says:

    Excellent article! Thanks for sharing.

  46. You really managed to sum up the key points of seo that business owners have the most difficulty understanding. Specifically the focus on ROI rather than cost. It seems like such an elementary concept yet I am amazed at how many people can’t grasp the idea. Great post! You’ve got a new subscriber!

  47. Jack says:

    There are some DIY SEO tools out there, such as Lotusjump, that can make SEO affordable so you dont have to fork out $5-1000/month.

  48. Ritika Bains says:

    You bring up some interesting points and destroy many of the myths small businesses and new website owners have about search engine optimization. Thanks so much for posting this. It’s a valuable resource.

  49. Vinnie says:

    Matt, great post man, I always point clients to this article and also the pyramid.

  50. Bob says:

    While I agree on your focusing on the ROI and not the cost. I do disagree with you on your opinion of not being able to get a quality SEO for $300 a month. Each client is different of course but $300 a month is a fair price for a client with a business in a little/no competition industry.

    • Larry Launstein Jr says:

      My big problem has been trying to determine how much to charge a client without scaring them away. Many of the prices being bandied about here would scare away just about all my clients. I definitely believe I’m not charging enough, but how do I raise my prices without the “sticker shock?” Should I phase it in? Should I just start charging what I want to charge and risk losing most of my clients? My primary work is web design, but those who have purchased my SEO services have gotten high listings (and no I don’t use unethical practices. I try to keep up on all the latest techniques). I’m just afraid that if my clients were charged the amounts being talked about here, that I would have no clients at all.

      • Larry Launstein Jr says:

        Or should I charge them when the need arises for them to have the SEO services provided – an as needed basis?

  51. Ryan Dael says:

    There is a question that confuses my mind for quite some time now regarding SEO. How long does it takes to rank a keyword? This is always what clients ask me. I only answered them 3 months because I know this is the period where Google updates.

    Can you answer my question please at njbabay @ yahoo . com?

  52. Doug says:

    I think your article was very good but at the same time there are many things $300/mo can buy for a small localized business. You are right if talking about a national presence for major KW’s. And with everything going to the internet all companies should be doing something, even if just a little to establish an internet presence. Good SEO needs to be part of every businesses advertising budget. We all know what happens when a business does not advertise….”nothing!”

  53. Mi says:

    Great post and I agree across the board. I’ve been looking at different SEO service provider to learn how they put packages together and determine value. There are a lot of simularities, but the differnce are there too. Business owners want guarentees, while it is difficult in the industry people are doing it and I’m guessing they are getting the most clients.

  54. Joshua Chan says:

    despite being an article from 09, still very relevant. Maybe even moreso now than before especially on points like #2, since google’s localisation etc.

    time or money, more you spend more success you get – so simple! Great read, cheers.

  55. Thomas Zickell says:

    I think as a 25 million a year (gross not net) business owner. If I trust you and you say pay me $1,000 and I will make $1,500 you have a deal. I am a B2B company I wish you wold explain to the buyer the that there is a big difference to companies that after year you feel like you know everyone and selling something to just one person. B2B only is as large as your industry like selling shoes where everyone is a posable sale. I am using Omniture SiteCatalyst on one sight and HubSpot on another I like them both and let me tell you money as you said even $300 a month counts to all companies. It was not easy to get the bord to agree in SEO & Analytics. It did not help that firefox 4.11 now has things designed to keep Analytics from working that is very bad for most of us honest companies you included.

  56. Kathy Long says:

    I can’t thank you enough for this, Matt. Well said, and I hope it helps small business owners understand that 1) high-end SEO consultants are quite likely not overcharging and stealing from them, and 2) low-end SEO consultants could be.

    However, I do agree with Bob. Many small businesses with little competition could go far with little expense. I also have an attorney client for whom I did SEO about 5 years ago. He’s been sitting in the #1 spot for almost all his keywords all this time and we haven’t had a retainer for almost that long. I let loose of the string and his kite is still flying. πŸ™‚ And that in a competitive market.

    As a rule though, it bothers me that so many small businesses can’t afford my services, but if I said I’ll give you $300 worth of my time each month if that is all you can afford, I’d feel like I’d be cheating them because I’d accomplish very little.

    The solution I’ve come up with is to provide a base service that accomplishes some of the technical tasks for them that they can’t do, and then advises them on a month to month basis. I’ll also do some things for them as their budget allows. If it’s not enough time and the results aren’t there, then we negotiate more time. My first goal is to make them money first on the low hanging fruit. Then they can see it works and they have more money to put into their budget.

  57. Deryn says:

    Great post Matt,

    ROI is the most imperative aspect on seeing whether an SEO firms tactics are working for the client. It’s best to trust reputable companies and review their model.

  58. Deryn says:

    Great post Matt,

    It’s imperative to review an SEO companies model. ROI, Geography and the SEO pyramid are essential in determining a good SEO consultant.

  59. Its hard to tell if pay per click or Search Engine Optimization is the way to go? The thing I like about Pay Per click is that it does garentee results. In fact as we speak I am fighting the urge to run a high pay per click add and think about long term seo and organic results

  60. Zach says:

    Great article. I am just getting into the SEO world and this was an amazing article to help. Trying to structure a business and don’t know where to start. THanks

  61. The article covers a lot for charging as a consultant and the bit that stuck out for me is that most when someone is charging USD 300 a month, they normally don’t understand the value of their time or aren’t doing anything for you.

    I personally like to charge for consultation on Web Site Changes, including providing excel sheets for clients, with URL, Title and Description per page, I will also recommend on page changes to already low hanging fruit.

    Moving Forward, I would recommend a high quality link building service with a good understanding of trust and reputation. It’s very lacking in Malaysia, most companies will do 1000 directory submittion followed by using software like UAW and some social Book Marking but no deep linking etc.

    Great article, i actually showed a SMB client this and he hired me =)

  62. Michael says:

    There are quite a few small businesses that pay only 300 bucks for quality SEO. Some smaller SEO companies are often willing to work with the smaller businesses out of…well, a variety of reasons, really.

    • Matt McGee says:

      That may be the case, Michael, but I suspect we may have different definitions of “quality SEO.” In even a remotely competitive industry or location, I don’t see how an SEO consultant can offer much of real value for that price. In very competitive industries/locations … never.

    • Sean Hecking says:

      Completely agree with Matt. Anyone charging clients 30-50 p/hr for ongoig SEO is likely a junior resource just starting out or doing it “on the side” of a full time job. I’ve found 10 hours a month to be a good starting point for a small biz. Any full time consultant with more than a year or two of experience is going to have to charge 800-1000 per month to make it worth their time.

  63. Matt,
    If a small business owner is willing to blog, take pictures and do video herself with the SEO consultant as a backstop information resource, it’s possible for that business to do very well in a competitive environment at low cost. I have clients who only want an advisor — they manage their websites in house and they have people assigned to social media, YouTube production, and blogging. I can help these clients with keyword and link research, review their website updates, review their analytics, and then suggest changes based on my experience, what I learn by attending SMX and Local U Advanced, and what I’m reading on Search Engine Land, your blog, and other trusted sources. I try to get my clients to understand that effective SEO in a competitive environment is work, and if they’re willing to step in and shoulder a part of the load, they can save some money. One of the benefits is that when a client works as a member of the team, the client shares in the success of the team.
    This is the blog thread that keeps on giving!
    Thanks, Paul

  64. Sean Hecking says:

    $300 per month is very low, even for just basic SEO recommendations for a small business. That type of client should be sold a basic setup package for say $2,000 over 3-4 months to get the basics in place. ROI is almost out of the question with a budget below $1,000 per month. Most small businesses need lots of foundation work that isn’t going to pay off until months down the road and after many hours of ongoing SEO work to promote the site. With a budget below 1k, they may be better off dumping that into a small PPC campaign they run themselves.

  65. Jordan Local says:

    Great post! Yes, $300/mo is a little fishy. You do get what you pay for. Keeping under $1,000 a month is a good plan if you are a small business.

  66. Joseph says:

    It is easier to think in terms of how many hours you are spending on seo each month. $300 might be the equivalent of three days for a lower paid employee. So if a firm is actually doing the right work and the right amount of work, that price is pretty cheap. I know our lowest plan where I work is $500 just because of the amount of work my employer makes me do.

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