How Much Does SEO Cost? 3 Analogies To Help You Determine Its Value

“Why can’t you just give me a straight answer?” Johanna’s voice showed a trace of irritation.  “All I’m asking is how much you charge for SEO services!” I smiled. This was familiar terrain. As an SEO consultant, almost every client asks me a similar question. My answer is always the same. “It depends. On many […]

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“Why can’t you just give me a straight answer?”

Johanna’s voice showed a trace of irritation.  “All I’m asking is how much you charge for SEO services!”

I smiled. This was familiar terrain. As an SEO consultant, almost every client asks me a similar question. My answer is always the same.

“It depends. On many things. Because SEO is not a turn-key solution you plug in to play.”

“Wait.  You’re an expert – and you can’t tell me what you’ll charge?!”

That’s when I explain why and when SEO matters, and the dynamic process of fixing my price for SEO consulting.

Broadly speaking, here’s what I share – and 3 analogies I use to make it easier to understand – buying a car, an iceberg or a dam!

Why SEO Matters

Every client likes to save money while getting great results from search engine optimization. But by always looking to save money on SEO, you’ll take your eye off the more important issue of intelligently allocating your marketing budget across various tactics, of which, SEO is often the most cost effective.

SEO isn’t simple or easy. Google itself rates websites based on over 200 ranking criteria – and keeps tweaking the algorithm constantly, up to 600 times in a year.

So if an ‘expert’ takes one look at your site and quotes you a “complete price” for SEO, run for the hills (or at least exercise extreme caution). Sure, they may fix some glaring weaknesses, or help you pick the low hanging fruit – but deep and lasting SEO is about a lot more than that.

Simple ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’ packages don’t work for SEO. SEO isn’t something you install or plug in to your website. It’s not a ‘one-time’ operation. Good SEO is a process. Research and planning are critical components of it.

That’s why no SEO consultant can make an off-hand estimate, or set a ‘price per site’ for their services. Everything depends upon your goals and targets, the nature of your business, your audience, and more.

There’s good reason why, as a client, you shouldn’t focus on the cost alone. It’s better to concentrate on the key performance indicators (KPIs) of your business such as the cost per acquisition, profit per sale, conversion rate and others.

A cheap SEO service may save you a little cash, but you won’t earn a lot from it either. In fact, it’s more likely that you’ll “save yourself into the poor-house!”

So ask yourself these critical questions first:

  • Why are you even thinking about hiring an SEO consultant?
  • Is SEO merely going to be your alibi instead of your ‘secret weapon’?
  • Are you looking for SEO help just because everyone’s doing it, or your marketing department insists upon trying it?
  • Or are you developing an SEO strategy to skyrocket your rankings, and along with it your profit?

Then, depending on the type of client, I introduce one (or all) of the 3 analogies.

Analogy #1: SEO Is Like Buying a Car, Your Price Will Match Your Needs

Johanna kept nodding her head, listening attentively to all that I said… but she still wasn’t convinced.

“Well, that’s fine,” she continued. “But I still want to know what it will cost to get my site optimized for search engines. How much does SEO cost?”

I asked her, “How much does it cost to buy a car?”

Johanna was a little confused. “Why, that depends.”

“Exactly” I said.  “The price you’ll pay for a car will depend on the make and model, its size and purpose, where you’ll drive it, and with whom. A sturdy station wagon for your family will be priced differently from a sports car you want to show-off!”

SEO services also range in price depending on what you want from it. The best SEO strategy begins by evaluating needs and problems of your prospective clients. It then deploys SEO as a magnet to attract only the most relevant leads out of the vast ocean of online Web surfers.

Setting up your website to do this effectively and well isn’t easy. Building laser focused landing pages targeted at sub-segments of your audience can draw a flood of relevant traffic that converts nicely into customers. But getting this right takes time and resources.

Cheap SEO is like bargain hunting. You might save some money. But you won’t earn much either. The way I practice SEO is not qualified guesswork that endangers a client’s business. Research and analysis come first, often followed by a face to face meeting with clients to gather all relevant information.

There’s nothing “turnkey” or “standard” about this kind of SEO. You can’t buy it, install it, and sit back. It is dynamic and constantly evolving. The ranking signals are in constant flux, and are impacted by various external factors, not just on-site ones.

SEO is also not about “fixing” things. Viewing SEO as a quick fix for reduced sales or traffic is a big mistake. You’ll only end up leaving money on the table (a lot of it!)

Good SEO must deliver a huge ROI. It is not just about getting high rankings and more traffic, clicks and page views. It’s about converting those visitors into paying customers. What happens before the landing page has a major impact on conversion rates.

SEO consulting of high caliber will help you:

  • find your customers’ intent, needs and pressing problems
  • identify their expectations from your business or website
  • decide how you will deliver value (on the landing page)
  • uncover areas of profitability
  • pick triggers that convert visitors into customers
  • personalize the experience for each visitor

Getting all these elements of SEO right takes a lot of time. Knowing where to begin for the best, fastest results will takes tremendous research. But the investment is worthwhile, because it will earn you a high return.

That’s why SEO should never be viewed as a cost. It’s an investment. One that pays off for a long time.

Analogy #2: SEO Is Like An Iceberg, Mainly Hidden But With Massive Impact

It is said 90% of the mass of an iceberg is under the water, hidden from view. SEO is just the same.

While you might see only the attractive top ranking on Google as the impact of your SEO, there are a hundred unseen elements at play, all working in concert to deliver the collective impact of intelligent optimization.

Like icebergs, SEO has some serious risks to balance the great opportunities it creates. Boats, ships, cruisers and even ocean liners have run aground on hidden rocks under the sea. And countless businesses have paid a steep price for wrongly executed SEO campaigns.

Mainly, such campaigns were put together by amateurs. Business owners wrongly assume that any Internet consultant is capable of “good enough” SEO, and hand it over to a Web designer or developer.

Just because they’re already in there coding or designing your website is not a reason to thrust SEO upon a Web designer or programmer. That’s like saying you’ll just get your plumber to do the wiring because he’s already working on the walls! Web developers are great at developing. SEO experts are best at SEO.

Sometimes, through sheer good luck (or even accident), you may own a great business with top search rankings and a steady flow of traffic coming in. That’s “good enough” – but with SEO, it can become so much more. And only a specialist can deliver great results.

SEO is well known to be one of the most cost-effective forms of marketing. For this reason, SEO should have a larger budget. Yet even after Web analytics data prove beyond doubt that SEO is the absolute winner at driving more traffic, many companies pay little attention to it.

In today’s competitive online arena, SEO cannot be relegated to the status of a secondhand job any longer.

It is not a trivial task to be handed over to a friend or distant cousin who knows how to “fix it”. It shouldn’t be put off until the site is ready to launch. SEO should be the first thing to focus on. And there’s a reason for this.

Not everyone will arrive at your website through the homepage. Search engines will not ask you which of your landing pages you wish to have listed in their directory.  Generic searches on business critical keywords will throw up different entry points into your website. Many visitors will enter through these back doors.

Knowing why they landed at your site, what they expect to find, and what motivates or drives them to seek your solution is critical information if you are to capture their attention, retain their interest and gain their trust.

How will you optimize every page on your large website later on?

It’s far easier to plan for it in advance. This is something I insist upon with SEO clients. After all, if your website (or any section of it) is not important enough for you to do this, why does it even exist in the first place?

Analogy #3:  SEO Is Like a Dam – Open Flood Gates & Traffic Just Keeps Flowing

Dams across massive rivers store water. Think about search engines like Google as huge dams that store your targeted visitors, and your listing on SERPs (search engine results pages) as holes in the dam. Punch enough of them, and you’ll be drowned in a flood of traffic!

That’s a great reason to start optimizing your website right now – and not take it in small steps, but go for a massive overhaul.

No matter what niche you are involved in, there are ‘evergreen’ search phrases with the potential to drive a large amount of traffic to your website for years. And this traffic is free! It will continue without any dent in your ongoing or proposed marketing budget.

But optimizing just one page on your website will only deliver one extra traffic stream. What if you opened the flood gates?

Keyword research will reveal that many searches are carried out on business related and highly relevant ‘non-brand’ generic keywords. These are used by people who have never even heard about you, but are focused on their needs and problems, actively seeking out solutions. That’s the ‘water’ behind the ‘dam’ that you can tap into through SEO.

Or if you don’t like the idea of punching holes in a dam, think of your keyword research as finding a pinata, the decorated papier mache container full of candy, that you can break open to get a treat. SEO is the candy king!

Speaking of candy, a website without strategically planned design is little more than eye candy. If all it does is look nice without providing any value, then it’s like playing trick-or-treat with kids – but keeping all the sweets for yourself!

Elements other than SEO are important. You should use SEO as a way to convert and engage your visitors. Knowing the intent behind keywords that lead visitors to an individual page on your site will be valuable for your Web designer.

But don’t let your designer start outlining your site or your programmer begin coding your pages before you’ve finalized an SEO strategy and done your keyword analysis. That’s the platform upon which you can build your future success.

You may get everything else right. Your inbound marketing strategy may cover all the bases – heavy SEO, social search, local SEO, mobile optimization – and may integrate nicely with other parts of your offline and digital marketing. But without diligent keyword research underlying it all, you’re only building a superstructure upon quicksand. That’s just not smart or effective.

In 2012 or 2013, I’m guessing that search and social media will meld. Researching generic long tail keywords and merging them with local terms like cities, place names and more will become important. The growth of mobile search and the rising awareness and experience of search engine users in general will power this trend.

When you know what savvy searchers are looking for, identify the exact keywords and combinations they use, and map them to individual pages on your website, it will make the difference between a 1% and a 20% conversion rate.

Do you think it might be a good idea to raise earnings from an individual page by 20% or more? Definitely, yes!

Do you think it’s quick and easy work to do this for each page?  Absolutely not!

An extensive e-commerce website with thousands of products for sale will have prospective buyers with totally (or at least slightly) different tastes and needs. Optimizing your site for each of them is important.  The text on your site, the visual appearance, the products and services you present to them – all need to fit into the concept of an “ideal solution” that your visitor has in his or her mind.

If you add value to their lives based on uniquely individual needs, you will boost sales.

Who Should Be In Charge of Your SEO?

Definitely not the information technologists.  The project should be owned by your marketing department.

At a local conference on SEM a few years ago, I heard the term “Business Prevention Unit” applied to the IT department! There was a brief stunned silence. A few seconds later, everyone burst out laughing.

During breaks and in other presentations, people talked about this remark. It’s especially appealing to me because so many of my clients start out thinking about SEO as a purely technical challenge. That’s so wrong!

SEO is about becoming a detective, a hunter, an explorer. You’re out looking for opportunities hidden inside the psychology of your prospects and customers.

This is a mindset that’s totally foreign to an IT manager, server administrator, programmer, Web designer or other technician. If you want to put food on the table, hire a hunter!

At the same time, it is wise to keep in mind that SEO is a team game. One of my clients runs a large website with over 10 million pages indexed in Google. Optimizing each one of them individually is simply not feasible. It would be too costly in time and money. Manually tweaking every page isn’t practical, even if it’s the ideal solution.

Therefore, an SEO strategy is critical.

Where is the highest profit lying hidden? Where should we focus to reach business goals set strategically for the long term?

The answers to those questions are important. And automation is important. So is optimizing the website structure and coding. A comprehensive plan to work on such a big site is mandatory. Having an expert programmer and great server administrator as part of the team is helpful. With literally millions of page views each day, it won’t help to hire just a great SEO strategist.

It also pays to keep in mind that your website is probably the best salesman in your company. But you’re locking him up in a closet! Release him right away.

Knowing that SEO is one of the most cost effective forms of marketing out there, it’s surprising that more companies don’t invest heavily into this. Is it because it “looks too good to be true”? Probably, because so many of my clients seem to think so.

Explaining to them that it’s real, and possible, is quite a challenge.

A part of the problem is technical language, jargon and lingo used by SEO specialists to outline the benefits of their craft to regular business owners.

So, What Does SEO Cost?

If you’ve been watching closely, you’ll notice that I still haven’t answered Johanna’s initial question…  What does SEO cost?

I’ll stick to the same response. It depends.

How high are you willing to jump? How fast are you going to run? I need to know this if I am to estimate how much energy and resources you’ll need.

Pricing SEO is equally difficult. It is complex. There are many rich opportunities. Several external factors and ranking signals skew the scenario further. And then, there’s the natural skepticism of a client to overcome.

Is SEO too good to be true?  Are SEO consultants snake oil salespeople who are out to trick and cheat you?

Yes, there are charlatans and cheats out there, and you ought to keep your eyes open and your feet firmly on the ground.

But any Internet marketing manager or business owner who is still not taking SEO seriously should consider stepping down. Because, let’s face it… the most dangerous person is yourself! Especially if you’re a frugal penny pincher looking for cheap results. Remember, in SEO as with life, you reap what you sow!

In the construction industry, there used to be people who dug with shovels. A company that invented and used the “digging machine” made results happen faster, easier and at lower cost.

Effective SEO is just like that. It can bring you better results faster and at a lower cost. That’s why you shouldn’t even consider letting anyone else handle your SEO tasks.

What does a rope cost?

Asking how much SEO will cost is like asking how much rope costs. It will depend upon how many meters you need, the quality of the rope, what you plan to use it for, or how long you want it to last. You can buy the cheapest rope you find, but will it be good enough?

Hiring an SEO consultant is similar. Just like rope has its per meter price, SEO has a price too – maybe a per hour rate. How many hours you will pay for depends upon all these factors we’ve discussed earlier.

And what you pay for is not what it costs you. That is defined by the return you get on your investment. If an SEO consultant delivers a boost in sales and profit that’s 5, 10 or 25 times what you paid, it didn’t cost you anything!

So that’s how I answer Johanna’s question – which is the same question many clients ask their SEO consultants.

I’m sure you’ve faced some frustrating challenges while trying to explain the value of what you do, to a client who can’t see it as any different from the dozen other marketing and designing tasks underway. Or when you’re called in as an SEO specialist to fix things after the entire website is built and running. Got any interesting stories that come to mind?  Go ahead and share it in a comment.

What do you do when you’re asked about pricing your SEO services? Do you have any personal experiences or favorite analogies you use?  What happens when you’re asked to give a ‘fixed price quote’ upfront? Tell us how you overcome price objections.

As a customer, what do you look for with SEO consulting? What parts do you wish your SEO consultant explained better or insisted upon more firmly? Please let us know, too.

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Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Trond Lyngbø
Trond Lyngbø is the founder of Search Planet and a senior SEO Consultant. He has over 20 years of experience in SEO, e-commerce, content strategy and digital analysis. His clients include multinational Fortune 500 corporations and major Norwegian companies. Trond has helped grow businesses through more effective search marketing and SEO strategies. He is most passionate about working with e-commerce companies and web shops to develop and expand their omni-channel marketing initiatives.

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