"How much is this going to cost me and tell me why?"

This is typically one of the first questions I get asked by business owners or marketing people like you, once they’ve decided to go with SEO as their primary traffic strategy.

The answer is "It depends".

You hate that answer right? We all do. You hate it because you think it’s just another angle digital marketers use to squeeze more money out of your wallet.

The reality is that there are many things that go into determining the right price you should be paying for SEO services.

In this blog post I am going to provide you as much insight about the process as possible so you can make an educated decision about what to pay for SEO and how to work with your chosen agency.

I’m also going to give you my opinion about how SEO services will be bought in the future.

This post was originally provided here and is written by Edmund Pelgen. I have provoded my critique through the article to help provide our clients with our insights into this article. Feel free to comment below if you don’t agree or have your own opinion.


The Importance of SEO

In my time as a digital marketer I’ve seen “SEO” sold from anywhere from $499 a month to $40,000 a month.

Value can be found at each of these price points and anywhere in between – depending on your specific circumstances, but to make sure you are getting value you need to understand in detail what SEO is and why it’s important for your business.

Amongst business owners there continues to be a lot of confusion about SEO, with many people still confusing Paid search and Non Paid search.

With Google being the largest referer of search traffic, both paid and non paid, SEO is critically important if you want to have a steady, consistent flow of targeted traffic to your site.

SEO helps search engines understand what your page is about and how relevant it is to users. And if your pages are relevant and sufficiently authoritative, you will be rewarded with a high visibility search listing and traffic to your site.

Most clients when delving into SEO only seem to want one thing… lots of traffic. They don’t care where it comes from or what the visitor seeks – and this is a bad way to look at your analytics. What we teach our clients is that it is far more important to get 100 targeted visitors to your site vs. 1000 generic visitors. Targeted visitation occurs when you use specific keywords, search phrases, specific landing pages and conversion tactics to land sales and leads to the right visitors.

What do SEO’s actually do for their money?

When you engage an agency to “do seo” for you they traditionally do any or all of the following activities. This list is constantly growing along with the changing nature of the role of the SEO agency.

Some of these activities are one-off and might only occur at the commencement of a campaign; others are ongoing.

Read the list below and take the time to understand what your agency is doing for you. That way there will be fewer surprises and you’ll be able to ask more insightful questions.


Market Research

This involves researching your company, its competitors, your products, your industry and the online marketing tactics and strategies that are most effective in your space.

Your competitors may be known to you in the traditional world however you will be competing against other businesses of similar or smaller sizes in the online world. It’s crucial you measure both types of competitors given their marketing and advertising strategies.


In Depth Competitor Research

Involves researching your competitors and their marketing tactics and strategies in detail. Specifically their online marketing activities that assist with growing their visibility in search engines. This includes analysing:

  • Their link profiles to understand how they are acquiring quality back links, critical to strong rankings and visibility
  • Their on site optimisations to understand the keywords their pages are targeting
  • Their content marketing activities to understand how they are using content for link attraction – a critical element in the current Google environment.

Strategy Development & Implementation

This involves developing strategies for your business to help improve your sites’ performance in the organic search results. For most  small businesses these strategies are mostly the same.

Larger clients in competitive markets however, require a little more creativity to develop approaches that get results in the face of stronger competitors.

When you have a strategic engagement that costs many thousands of dollars, you are paying for the experience and creativity of the SEO consultant involved.

If you are investing a bunch of money in SEO you should expect a strategy that is more than just “We’re gonna get you these awesome links – 50 a month guaranteed.

Keyword Research

Keyword research is at the heart of everything an seo does.

In the past this was a simple process of researching the keyword phrases that prospective customers typed into the search engines, making an assessment of the relevance and competitiveness of the keywords, choosing target keywords for your websites pages and then drafting the require on site optimisations to help pages rank for these keywords. (Simple right?)

Even with the changes in Google where all searches are encrypted and the keywords people use to find you are not passed into your analytics, understanding keywords is still critical because they help you to understand your customers and how they search for you online.

This in turn helps your SEO team write compelling content, page titles and meta descriptions. (Those bits on the page that help Google figure out what a page is all about)

For smaller businesses with a small number of pages on their site, keyword research typically happens at the beginning of an engagement and helps the SEO team the preparation optimised page titles, meta descriptions and content improvement recommendations.

On larger sites such as e Commerce sites keyword research is typically an ongoing activity that drives monthly optimisations to help get more and more pages ranking in the search results.

Keywords are one of the most important elements to SEO – they hold the definition for Google on the subject of your site and the subject sections of your pages.


On site Optimisation and Recommendations

This involves anything to do with optimising the pages of your website.

Based on their research, your SEO agency will be drafting page titles and meta descriptions, recommending or making updates to content, creating new pages, improving internal linking, fixing duplicate content issues, setting up and configuring your blog, installing social sharing buttons.

Pretty much anything to do with your site that will improve the search engines ability to find your content and rank it is what they will be taking care of.

On site optimisations are where some of the biggest gains can happen. The simple act of including the right keywords in a well crafted page title often sees pages suddenly jump into the rankings now that Google knows what it is about.

Density factor of keywords and phrases also plays a crucial role in search positioning of your website. Ensuring your keywords sit within title, meta and heading tags provide Google with an indication of the main subject of the page.

Content Strategy and Development

With the importance that quality content now plays in getting found online, most seo’s now offer content strategy and or content development services.

This can be as comprehensive as a Content Marketing Plan for your business or as simple as sourcing blog posts for your blog.

Most agencies now offer content marketing as a separate service that they want you to purchase in addition to SEO.

The reality is, given it’s importance, content strategy and development should be considered a key element in any ongoing SEO engagement.

If your SEO agency is not doing this for you then you need to be asking hard questions about why not?

Google Authorship & Rich Snippet Optimisations

Google Authorship is a way of letting Google know that you are the creator of a piece of content. It’s important to make sure your content, like blog posts, gets visibility in the search engines and Google knows that you are the original creator; not some spammer who is stealing your content,

You can see this in the search results with authors pictures appearing next to the content that gets listed.

If you are blogging in any capacity, then your SEO agency should be advising you on how to correctly implement Google Authorship.

Rich snippets simply refers to the extra bits of text and images that appear around your content in the search results. Google Authorship is a type of rich snippet. Others include star ratings on product review ratings, recipes, videos.

Reporting and Insights

Reporting is an activity that can vary greatly in terms of what you get and the time invested in producing the reports for you.

At a minimum you will (or should) get a set of standard SEO reports that might be as simple as some traffic reports and ranking reports.

Better SEO agencies will provide information on goal conversions (whether they be sales, sign ups or other goals) and the contribution that SEO or organic search made towards these goal conversions.

Larger clients with more complex businesses should get more than just a data dump. They should receive “insight” into what is happening, why and what this means in light of your business goals.

Information about which traffic sources are driving the best (or lowest cost) conversions, information on competitors and about updates in Google’s algorithm and what it means for your strategy.

Expect to pay extra for additional reporting or insight above the standard reports that everyone receives.

Account Management

Broadly speaking this is the cost of taking care of you, the client. It includes the time an account manager spends talking to you about your campaign goals, briefing the SEO team and meeting with you to discuss your report and results.

If you are a small client you will typically get only nominal account management which might be at the on commencement of an SEO campaign and monthly when the report is delivered.

If you are investing under $1,000 a month don’t expect to be talking the ear off your account manager unless you want to reduce the time spent on actually working on your account.

Get better educated and ask better questions and you will get more value from your account manager.

I’ve seen agencies where this role is done by a dedicated account manager and agencies where the account management role is taken on in part by an seo campaign manager; that is a technician who knows a lot about SEO.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. With a dedicated account manager, the agencies SEO team spends more time actually “doing SEO” for you while the account manager answers your questions.

However in the situation where you are an enterprise level client you expect to be able to ask questions and get insightful responses quickly. Sometimes having to go through the account manager results in miscommunication via Chinese whispers and wasted time.

If you are a big enough client ask to talk directly with the seo campaign manager to get your technical questions answered directly.

Just be aware that as an enterprise client, you will be paying for the account managers time whether you are aware of it or not.

Remember from the agencies perspective, this can be a massive time and cost sink if not managed correctly.

As long as both you and the SEO agency are aware of the account management cost and both of you have matching expectations, any friction can be minimised. You can get the information you need while the agency can get on with doing the work needed to get you results.

Our SEO services use the retainer format and we can also provide you with our log sheets of time spent and on what areas of SEO. This provides you with a sound and solid foundation for trust and results. Unused time also rolls into the next month too!

SEO Pricing Models

Now to the Meat n Potatoes.

There are various pricing models for the delivery of SEO services. The choice depends on your specific needs and the size of your organisation.

Hourly Rates

Hourly rates are often used when the work can be broken into many discrete tasks and you juts need those specific tasks done.

The benefit is you can easily allocate a discrete cost to each activity and make sure you are not getting charged for inefficiencies.

However expect to pay more per hour to compensate the consultant or agency for the costs associated with managing time and billing at an hourly rate.

If you are using hourly rates for anything make sure you review the output after an agreed upon set of hours to make sure you are getting value.

Fixed Price Services

Most SEO agencies have a list of services they offer for a fixed price.

Typically these are the component tasks that make up a larger seo campaign.

Good examples of these services include:

  • Keyword Research
  • Conducting an SEO Audit
  • SEO Migration Planning
  • Drafting On site optimisations such as page titles and meta descriptions

Fixed price services are an ideal way of testing out a new SEO agency before committing to a longer term retainer.

Project Based Pricing

Where your needs are more complex or you have a fixed period project like a new mini site to build, SEO agencies are open to quoting on a project basis.

Depending on your projects needs they will provide you with a custom proposal to conduct specific SEO work on your behalf.

Project based pricing is good when you already have a creative agency or web design company doing most of your work and you need the services of a real SEO specialist to take care of your SEO needs for the life of a specific project.


The retainer model is the most common form of pricing model in the SEO industry.

Retainers make sense because of the broad ongoing nature of SEO work.

Most SEO campaigns have a discrete set of activities which logically follow a set order. In the beginning agencies do the research. They make and implement recommendations about fixing technical issues on your site. Then they move onto ongoing marketing activities.

This way each month specific activities are conducted by the agency for you. Then each month you get to assess how much this activity contributed to the online performance of your business.

Agencies like retainers because they can budget revenues and costs and plan activities for the months ahead.

Heres how to make retainers work:

  • Collaborate with the agency in the development of a 6 or 12 month campaign.
  • Take the time to understand what the agency will be doing for you each month
  • Make sure you are aware of your commitment in terms of resources, providing answers promptly to questions and implementing optimisations when requested
  • Involve the agency in your traditional marketing plans for the year ahead so they can tailor their strategy to leverage any offline work being done.
  • Get clear about how long things take to happen. SEO takes time so in those early months track the agreed upon activities in the absence of high search visibility and sales which might take a few months to kick in.

This gives both you and the agency visibility into what is going to happen and when. That way they can plan their activities around your traditional offline marketing activities while you can manage your expectations as to what the results will be and when.

Retainers are typically offered as Packages at different price points. In the next section I’m going to discuss these in more detail.

This is our structure if you were wondering!


SEO Ranking Guarantees – Real or False

I’ve always disliked SEO guarantees. Many (not all) of them prey on the ignorance of the customer and their trust in the agency to do the right thing.

Typically an SEO ranking guarantee says “We guarantee to rank your website on page 1 for your keywords within 3 months or else your money back”

Here’s the problem with that statement.

Which search engines?

The guarantee typically does not state in which search engine so it could include Yahoo or Bing which provide very little traffic when compared to Google.

Which keywords are they targeting?

The agency offering the guarantee typically selects easy keywords that might have very little search volume or competition and are easy to rank for.

Why are they easy to rank for? Because they are completely irrelevant and no one else in their right minds is chasing them.

Some of the keyword phrases they include as evidence of the guarantee could have been ranked for by simply publishing a blog post with the keyword in the title.

Furthermore, keyword rankings in and of them selves have long since lost their position as the number 1 KPI or metric.

There are broader metrics that are better aligned to your business goals or are better indicators of improved organic search performance such as Non Paid Organic Conversions or the # of unique keywords bringing visitors to your site.

So take SEO guarantees with a of salt and don’t rely on them for assurance that you are getting a no risk deal.

How to Get the best out of your SEO Agency

I bet through this blog post you’ve been waiting for this section right? How to I keep my agency accountable?

Most areas of conflict arise because of issues around expectation management.

That is you did not get what you thought what you were getting or the agency thinks you are demanding more than they promised or sold you.

Key areas around which conflict arises include:

What are you doing for me?

If you don’t understand what the agency is doing for you then you will get frustrated when their bill arrives.

Make sure before you start you have a detailed campaign plan that breaks down the proposed SEO activities by month.

If you don’t know what these activities are, make sure you ask your account manager in advance.

How do I know this is working?

If you are looking at the wrong metrics or your expectations about how long positive results are going to take are misaligned then you are going to get really frustrated.

Before the campaign starts make sure both you and the agency are clear on what your business goals are and how the SEO agencies activities are going to contribute to helping you achieve them.

Decide on the metrics that you are both going to track and make sure the metrics tie back to your business goals.

Create a simple report tracking these key metrics and just focus on them.

Chasing vanity rankings is no longer a viable goal. SEO is now a much broader more complex activity now than ever before.

This SEO thing is taking far too long?

If you need or expect instant traffic then SEO might not be where you should be investing your online marketing dollars.

Safe, sustainable SEO takes time to implement and get results but once your site is performing well it’s the gift that keep on giving.

If you need instant traffic then you might be better served by using Paid Traffic such as Google Adwords rather than SEO.

To learn more about the discussions that occur between agencies and clients watch this discussion between @rand and @dejanseo about the future of SEO and agencies.


In Summary

SEO as a service you buy has evolved massively in the last two years. So should the way you engage someone to “do SEO” for you.

In all likelihood, the retainer model will continue to be the most popular way to engage an agency to deliver these services for your business. However what will change is what you get for your money. More content marketing, more social media, more education and consultation.

As a business owner and manager you need to get more educated about what is being done for you and how long it will take to deliver a return for your business.

Totally agree with almost all on this article. It provides a very broad and uncomplicated outlook of SEO. I k now a lot of companies that do very little for a lot and you need to be sure you enlist SEO talent that also knows their way around code, databases and complexity with larger sites. A lot of SEO needs to be integrated into the website and what is why we can assist our clients quicker and with less costs due to having resources in house.

Ask about our SEO retainer arrangement today! Call 03 9500 9998. Response by Jay Boston

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