How Much Does SEO Cost?

Feb 28, 2012 by

As I’ve written before, SEO is not optional and should be included in virtually every digital marketing strategy in order to be successful.  Search Engine Optimization is as fundamental as the concept of having a website or a business card.  Bottom line:  You can’t not do it.

grand rapids internet marketing

Image: Stuart Miles /

One of my business philosophies is to work within most any budget a client has at their disposal.  While most accounts consistently are within the $500 – $1500 monthly range, I also support those with more modest resources – which could be defined as less than $400 per month.  All diligent business owners are aware of the state of their financial situations at virtually all times – and the costs of SEO and Web Marketing services as a whole is always at the forefront of their focus when initially discussing these types of services.

It’s always a challenge to answer the question accurately when it comes up in conversation because SEO is an ongoing activity and you’re never really ‘done’.  So much of it depends on the competitive nature of the online space in which the client is trying to compete.  For example, let’s say you’re running an ecommerce site in a fairly uncompetitive niche.  Getting a site to rank favorably in search engines for the handful of keywords that are relevant to your site would be challenging, but certainly attainable.  However, if you’re trying to compete in a much more saturated profession, such as a real estate agent or an attorney, then getting a site to rank well for the important keyword phrases is a considerably more difficult task.

In the latter example, it’s important to consider not only the amount of competition, but the level of optimization that those competing sites have attained.  In occupations where the average professional entity is rather financially endowed, they possess a distinct advantage in that they usually have the resources to invest in SEO and understand it’s importance and the nature of the activity.  This creates an uphill battle that can be very difficult to climb.

The biggest challenge in guestimating the cost of what it will ultimately take to achieve the desired ranking in Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) is the fact that it’s impossible to predict how long it will take after a sustained effort.  I’ve seen results after only a few days and just a basic amount of optimization, and I’ve seen situations where continuous positive actions produced almost no favorable improvement for the most prominent keywords.

The problem is that there are many factors that are out of our control.  In all reality, there are a finite amount of spaces available and many more companies competing for those spaces. The amount of time it will take for search engines to index your content, the display in in the SERPs at all varies greatly and depends on dozens of factors.  To even attempt to predict what it will take to accomplish this and the amount of time it will take is unprofessional to the point that anyone who makes claims or promises about the behavior of search engines’ algorithms with respect to their efforts is someone to be wary of.

So how much does SEO cost?

grand rapids internet marketing

Image: Stuart Miles /

I know what your thinking: 500 words into this post and you still haven’t gotten to the point.  Well here it goes: The cost of SEO is whatever your budget is, multiplied by how long you are willing to commit to the task in terms of months.  Honestly, establishing this is actually the easy part.  The difficult part is predicting what the results will be.  At the time of this writing, my billable rate is $50 per hour and a typical contract is 10-20 hours per month.  Generally, the contract goes as follows:

First Month: Keyword research and analysis of web presence to determine course of action for future months.  This varies greatly from one client to another.  Some clients’ web presence are so lacking in the fundamentals that getting those elements in place is an automatic place to start.  Others have already achieved some level of optimization.

Months 2 & 3: Implementation of tactics developed in month 1.  At the end of the first three months, analytics are evaluated, and the marketplace is re-examined to see what the results have been so far.  Usually by this point there will have been some progress.  Sometimes things are considerably more progressed than we anticipated, and occasionally we encounter a situation where almost nothing has changed since we started.

From this point we either stay the course or re-evaluate our strategy.  If we’re happy with the way things are going, we continue the activity as before.  If it looks like things are not working, we look at different tactics to implement to hopefully accomplish a better result.

Months 4-6 are generally spent either perpetuating the efforts from the first 3 months, or researching and developing new strategies.  At the end of the six months, we re-evaluate again to see where we’re at compared to when we started, look at what worked, what didn’t, etc.  From there we determine a course of action going forward.

So what about smaller budgets?  A quick case study.

Generally speaking, monthly retainers of 10 hours or more are mostly hands-off for the client.  For those types of projects, I typically handle everything and simply keep the client abreast of progress.  Like I mentioned before though, I try to work within most any budget because it’s my goal to help as many people as possible.  The biggest consideration for smaller budgets is that the less money you have to invest, the more you are going to need to handle yourself.

When I work with a client whose budget is smaller – or simply fixed, I take the following approach:

First, we establish a total budget.  We know that Search Engine Optimization is an ongoing activity and the amount of money a client throws at it initially isn’t actually as much of an influence on success as one would thing.  For example, during our initial discovery meeting a client told me he had $2,000 total to spend.  We decided the best approach was to spend $600, or 30% of his total budget to research keywords and develop a strategy.  Without researching how to get to where you want to be,  you first need to find out where you’re at.

From there, we looked at where the remaining money was best spent and what the client could handle internally in terms of tactics.  It turned out that he has a 19 year old son with enough web savvy to learn to implement some of the simpler, data entry types of tasks.  We decided that he should contract 8 hours for the following month to get things jumpstarted, then 5 hours for the next 4 months.  My role at first was to get the fundamentals established, then remain in place in a sort of coaching/consulting role to provide guidance until his son could take over completely.   It turned out to be the best use of his budget and he is doing quite well now.

For budgets that are more modest, I recommend that you try to learn as much as possible about doing this yourself because it is extremely unlikely to get any real results for just a few hundred dollars (or less).  It’s unfortunate but the truth is, SEO services can be as high as $750 an hour.  Even with more reasonably priced firms and freelancers, a few hours of retainer time doesn’t buy or accomplish a whole hell of a lot.

If you’ve got a budget such as that, you’re best bet is to either hire a consultant to give some basic advice and maybe do a little research as to how you can get yourself to the next level, or possibly invest in a conference or something like that.  Do whatever you can to get the most bang for your buck.