Can Small Businesses Really Afford SEO?

Lately, around the Pole Position Marketing office, we’ve been discussing the cost involved in providing top quality search engine optimization. All too often we find value added services or strategic improvements that require more time than initially anticipated. How much additional value can we provide without increasing fees?

While those questions continue to be bantered around, it got me thinking about the cost of SEO in general. As more and more avenues arise within the search marketing landscape, costs of total inclusive SEO services can be quite hefty. And that’s not even considering the SEOs that charge $500-$1000 per hour. The sheer number of hours involved in SEO can make it an expensive venture, whether you’re doing it yourself, engaging a consultant or hiring an all-inclusive firm to manage it for you.

Can small businesses really afford SEO?

That’s the question that many small businesses are asking. And depending on who you talk to, you’ll get answers from “yes” to “no” to a qualified “maybe.”

The trick to keeping your SEO costs down is efficiency. That can mean different things to different people. Finding the most efficient balance between time, budget and what is absolutely necessary for success, is the only way to keep your SEO campaign affordable.

Investment of Time: Time is one of the primary investments of SEO. You’re either spending your own time, paying for someone else’s time or a combination of both. With the vast amount of work that goes into SEO it all boils down to how much time one has, vs. how much time any particular task takes. Depending on those two factors, you then need to factor in which tasks are more urgent—more worthy of the time being invested. Focus on those first and then start working your way down to the less important tasks.

Another component of time comes into play regardless of who performs your SEO and that is simply one of waiting. Very few sites can become an overnight success. Any investment you make into SEO must consider the period of time it takes for SEO changes to work through the system. The length of this time can vary on a number of factors so you should have understanding of this ahead of time.

Investment of Budget: The next consideration to balance into SEO is your budget. Budget can help you determine whether you invest in your own time or someone else’s. But budget itself should not be considered without understanding the value behind the work being performed. Such value should be determined by the quality of the information gathered, the skill of the person implementing the information and the ability of the implementation to achieve positive results. Paying more does not necessarily mean that you get more value. On the other hand, rarely can you find great value on the cheap.

Investment In What Is Necessary: There are a lot of components to SEO, not all of them necessary for every campaign. By and large I would say that the most successful SEO campaigns utilize all possible forms of online marketing, but success itself is not determined merely by doing everything possible. Success comes from doing the right things at the right time, in the right way. If you can determine what avenues of SEO need to be pursued for your campaign, then you’ll ultimately reduce the “cost” involved in getting results.

SEO can always be affordable

SEO doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, expense is just relative to the return. To some, anything more than a few hundred dollars can seem expensive. But if the value returned is several thousand dollars, then it’s not so expensive after all. The same holds true if you invest several thousands of dollars. It’s only expensive until you get multiple thousands in return.

A little can go a long way. But since SEO often has much more value than the sum of its parts. The more time, energy, knowledge and skill you invest, the more exponential the returns tend to be. The idea is to invest what you can, where you can, when you can. And when the returns come, reinvest that even further to expand your campaign and your return on investment. As long as your marketing campaign is returning a positive ROI, then the true cost of SEO is affordable.

Stoney deGeyter is CEO of Pole Position Marketing. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | SEM Industry: Outsourcing | Small Is Beautiful


About The Author: is president of Pole Position Marketing, a leading online marketing strategy company established in 1998 and currently based in Canton, Ohio.

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  • David

    I offer an affordable service – very affordable.

    If I make $750 a week I’m happy.

    I don’t get cheap skate customers either and I know what I’m doing.

    I am a one man op out of my home office and do not have a fancy sales pitch so my overheads are very low.

    SEO is affordable it just depends whose door the customer knocks on!

    I avoid idiots and clever b**s like the plague and have built myself a nice little customer base – I see no need to expand – I’m affordable if you’re nice (and don’t have a crap website ;) )



  • identity

    Stoney, great article. Over the last year especially, I’ve seen more and more small businesses recognize the importance of SEO. There is obviously a lot of focus at the agency level on the “big” clients, but as more and more small businesses open up to SEO and recognize the value of the services, this will likely become the largest sector with the greatest growth opportunities. And in many cases, these smaller businesses may gain as much or more as the giants.

    Part of the beauty in SEO/M is that it can be so flexible, and from a business expense/investment… easily one of the most flexible of all expenses.

    Services can range from as little as a one-on-one consultation for an hour or two up to a full-fledge, project team-based, ongoing engagement. There really are services for nearly every budget. But businesses need to realize that, like in everything else, the focus shouldn’t be on spending the least amount of money, but on getting the most value to meet the needs at hand.

  • emmchild

    Sure a small business can afford to pay for SEO IF AND ONLY IF there is a clear understanding of what is being purchased. $500 – $1000 is outrageous for any small business to pay. Lawyers, stock brokers, and even hookers don’t cost that much. The fees charged for services rendered have to fall within an acceptable limit. The same folks gouging businesses with ridiculous fees will only increase the demand for automated solutions to seo/m. It kills me to see anyone pay so much more than something is actually worth.

    Why not charge a retainer fee on a monthly basis? A six month minimum would help ease the client into the space and hopefully pave the way for other services. A customer could build a marketing plan based on data gathered from the initial trial.

  • st0n3y

    All I can say to that is that SEO is not lawyering, stock brokering or hooking. It’s marketing. Lawyering and hooking doesn’t make a person money (except those providing the service). SEO does make businesses money and therefore there is no reason they should not expect to be compensated for their knowledge and skills appropriately.

  • Neuro

    emmchild “re $500 – $1000 Lawyers, stock brokers, and even hookers”

    I think you will find that lawyers do cost that much (I can’t comment on the Hookers and stock brokers :-) )for example an Industrial Tribunal using lawyers will cost around £20-30k in the UK even though 99% of the time a competent HR person shoukd be able to do this them selves.

  • sportsguy

    I’d have to say yes, SEO can be afforded by small businesses.

    They may have to get creative about how they cover the costs associated with the work, but yeah, it can be done.

    Many smaller consultants may be open to contra deals – you have a product they want, so trade the product for their time and work.

    Becoming an in-house SEO is simple enough as all the data exists in the form of paid-for training (SEMPO Institute comes to mind (yeah, I’m involved with that…)). Also, pretty much everything needed to learn the basics is out there for free.

    The tough part is the usual – finding the right place to hang and figuring out what questions to ask. So, nothing new there – we’ve all been learning about that combo since we were in the sandbox (pre-school, not Google’s. ;) ).

    Now, as mentioned above, there are consultants with modest fees available to those who can actually afford to pay someone. As to the comment on a couple hundred being too much (paraphrasing there), well, I charge $350 an hour for my time.

    Sure, folks can go find it all for free – but if you want MY help, base don my experience and knowledge, that’s the price. I’m an in-house SEM by day, so this price point also helps limit tire kickers, too. I’m not interested in wasting my time reviewing a site and building a quote to have someone tell me they can get it cheaper ‘over there”. Then go for it and good luck.

    My technique is simple – I review the site first and make my list of basic recommendations. Then I spend time on a call with the client to walk them through what’s needed and how they can do it themselves. An hour’s fees typically net clients closer to two hours of my time because I’m not interested in short-changing them. If we run long, meh, no biggie (to a point, obviously).

    It seems to work, too, as I have clients come back every month looking for another hour here and there – just the volume of work I want as a sideline. ;)

    My biggest beef is the massive crop of “instant experts” out there trying to cash in on SEO work because they have a software tool “that will optimize any site and submit it to thousands of search engines world wide”.

    Folks that have been taken advantage of by those sorts of scammers have my sympathies and I typically give them even more time for their money.

    So there are lots of options for small businesses that range from self-teaching to paid-for consultants.

    See, this is what happens when a large agency quotes you $10,000/month with a 12 month contract…you learn to do it all yourself, then start offering the same advice to others at much better rates. ;)

    In the end, no matter if you’re a big business or a small business, one thing remains the same:

    No one will do quality work for you for free – and if you want to do it yourself, the cost is your time to learn it all.

    No matter what, there’s going to be a cost…better dust off the change purse…

  • Randy Duermyer

    Stoney – good piece. You’re right – it’s all about time. I work with the small guys all the time. They appreciate that I’m flexible and don’t require “minimums”. I know myself, if I’m having a tight month or just lost a major client, my SEO budget for next month would have to be cut back temporarily.

    The problem with the get SEO now for $49.95 crap is that’s what some of the micro guys want to spend, so they get what they pay for – crap. They would be much better off learning from reliable sources and making the time to stuff themselves.

    The comment about reinvesting is one I need to convince my clients on. One client wants to cut way back because he is coming into his “slow” season. I get that, but what he forgets is that now that a year’s worth of work has been done, his “slow” season now means he has 4 times the sales revenue he had last year. Reinvesting some of that would surely pay off.

  • pittfall

    I don’t think that small business can’t afford not to do SEO! It is all about promoting yourself. If a small business owner is not talking up their products/services in offline social situations it appears that they have little confidence in the products/services they offer.

    Being a small business, you have to do a lot of research to build your business offline, and if the expectations are that this is not the case online, then I would suggest that they stop paying to host/maintain their website because it is an investment, not a shot in the dark.

    Great piece!


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