How Much Does Good SEO Cost?


I was having a conversation with a venture capitalist here in San Francisco today and we were discussing SEO pricing. I shared our company’s average monthly fee with him, and he commented that our range seemed in line with what a venture-backed startup or established small business should expect to pay for SEO. This prompted me to mention that we get several inquiries each week from companies that are a bit too small for us – either consultants or businesses with less than ten employees that want the caliber of service we offer but aren’t there yet in terms of revenue.

“I’d love to refer them somewhere,” I said. “But I don’t have another SEO company that I trust enough to recommend.”

“That’s because there’s only 3 types of people in the SEO world,” he shot back.

I was leery, as I always am about generalizations. But I was listening.

“First, there’s the career guy,” he began. “These are talented young people who realize they have a knack for SEO. They end up applying for a junior marketing position at an agency or big brand, and rise up the chain until they’re running the department. They use their SEO expertise to guide the company’s organic growth and end up making a good career out of it.”

“Then, there are the guys who tried to make it at an agency or larger company and never really made much headway. Or, they skipped the step of getting job experience in SEO altogether and started a small consultancy. These are the guys who are charging the prices that some of the companies that are too small for your agency want to pay – $1,000 – $3,000 per month, usually. Because their prices are in a sweet spot for many solopreneurs and small businesses, these consultancies are able to maintain a business for some time. But at the end of the day, if you don’t move the needle for clients then the whole thing is a short term proposition. These guys can’t really raise their prices because they aren’t getting the results.”

“Finally, there are guys like you. They’re entrepreneurs who have built successful businesses using SEO and they decide to open their own SEO company. Fees start off pretty low as they’re getting their footing, but since they’re making their clients a lot of money, prices eventually get up to market.”

I found this gentleman’s opinion interesting, and generally agree with it. As a venture capitalist, it’s his job to size up industries quickly, just as he had done with SEO. But there are always complexities. For example, I’m sure there are a few people in this world who are able to do excellent SEO work inexpensively. I was one of those people myself once, before I realized that producing millions of dollars in ROI for companies justifies my earning a bit more. Conversely, there are probably many marketing agencies that charge a lot but don’t deliver very good results.

In the end, the amount you pay for an SEO campaign isn’t just a function of market rates. You are paying for experience, dedication, creativity and a firm knowledge of content-driven SEO. If you work with the right company and view SEO as an investment rather than a short term play like advertising, you stand to benefit tremendously.

Now then, as you know, I am a big fan of specifics. So if you came here seeking actual market rates for SEO, here are the ranges you can expect to find:

~$500 / month. Companies in this range are typically engaging in some sort of automated solution such as submitting your site to directories. They may even put some keywords into your meta tags (hopefully the right ones) but you’d be better off investing that money in a PPC campaign since it won’t buy any sort of decent SEO.

$1,000 – $2,500 / month. Companies in this range tend to be able to talk convincingly about their abilities but can rarely deliver results that justify the cost. Here’s why: SEO today requires excellent content to be produced, high-quality links to be obtained, and, if you’re really doing it right, an expertise in conversion. Doing all that either requires 4 savvy, hard-working people (writer, editor, outreach specialist, conversion optimizer) or 1-2 really hard-working people. Then if you factor in customer service, which I’m sure you’d expect, it’s hard to picture hiring all those people for a campaign that is costing only $1,500 or so. Either the principals of the SEO company have to be paying their staff very little or doing so much themselves that they can only reasonably handle half a dozen clients. Obviously you don’t want to work with a company that is underpaying their staff, and few companies are content to stay small, which means quality is bound to suffer as they take on more clients.

$2,500 – $5,000 / month. We’re beginning to get into a range where you can do quality SEO. If a company’s fees are smack in the middle of this range, they can probably afford to pay reasonably for content, and maybe a little bit for someone to help pitch news organizations for links. But it’s hard to picture having the budget for talented editors, good account executives, a conversion optimizer, or an analytics expert to keep a laser focus on ROI. Who knows, though; some of the aforementioned may be possible.

$5,000 – $15,000 / month. It may seem like the range has broadened out a lot here, but that’s on purpose. Only slightly more established companies can bring on a vendor in this range, and these companies are seeking a campaign that makes a real impact on their business. If you are investing in SEO at this level, you should expect that your investment, if handled by the right firm, will show impressive results – perhaps even results that transform your business over time. Therefore, where you are in this range should not make a big difference. ROI is ROI, no matter the investment size. Another important point about this fee range is that, especially on the upper end, it allows all of the above positions – writing, editing, outreach, conversion, account management,  and analytics – to be filled with people who are incented to do a great job. If the SEO company’s leadership and management structure are sound, the sky is the limit.

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  • Preben Olsen

    You are onto something here. Being an SEO consultant and having worked with SEO since 2005, I know the game. But there is one piece of the puzzle missing here, in my opinion. That is the piece of delivering medium priced SEO to small businesses that do business in a low competition area.

    In this case, the client has competitors, but as of now there is not very much work to do every month to rank them in the top 3 spot for their main phrases. Of course, over time the competition may rise due to the fact that other companies hire good SEO consultants also, but at least as of now it is a very open market.

    I am by no means talking down this post, as the market I’m speaking about is marginal. But some of us make a healthy living out of this, on the way while the company grows.

    Myself, I have helped quite a few companies to the top spots on Google for their medium competition phrases, and kept them there, and some times very easily. The know-how is a very important role in this. Sometimes it doesn’t take days of work, but just a few hours a week.

    For bigger keywords there is a whole other game, and it pays off to pay a really good SEO company to do the work – as long as the results give better economy than the cost of the SEO. That’s just basic math.

    Paying some cash for no results are bad business… I do agree. 🙂

  • Ben Wynkoop

    The points you make in each price range are spot on. I’ve made the mistake of taking on ~$500 in my earlier days, only to not produce enough results due to lack of hours. Contrary to low budget SEO, the power of gaining links through outreach in a $5,000+ month SEO budget can not only transform a business as you’ve mentioned, but leave competitors unable to figure out your strategy because they only understand old school/ low quality link building tactics.