SEO Management Cost: A 2023 Pricing Survey
We’ve written this guide to SEO management cost based on a survey of 31 SEO agencies across the US. There are 3 tiers that SEO agencies fall into based on their service offerings. They are:
|Tier 1: Full Service||Employs strategists to create a tailored SEO approach for your company’s industry and company type, combining customer persona creation, search intent analysis, and thought leadership content. Tier 1 agencies will keep up to date with the latest Google algorithm updates, adjusting their clients’ SEO strategies accordingly.|
|Tier 2: Content Marketing +||Produces blog content and landing pages with limited strategy consulting. Quality of content varies greatly, but is often good (well-written, 600-800 word all-text articles) rather than great (1,000+ word articles with tables, charts, and other graphics). SEO strategy is occasionally outdated.|
|Tier 3: Technical Only||No content production. Consists of a one-time website review to resolve technical issues and a rewrite of existing page meta titles, followed by occasional check-ins for maintenance. No focus on high level strategy, customer personas, or search intent.|
Within each tier, there are different pricing models. The 3 most popular are:
- Monthly Retainer. Almost all Tier 1 and some Tier 2 agencies will bill on a monthly retainer basis, with their pricing based on the quality of their work and previously agreed upon deliverables.
- Hourly Billing. Hourly billing is generally reserved for lower-end Tier 2 agencies and individual consultants.
- Per-Project. Many technical only agencies will charge a project fee for their initial review, before moving to an hourly rate for any ongoing maintenance or management.
Below, we lay out examples of these tiers, showing how they compare side by side. Afterwards, we discuss what sets agencies apart, and how they determine their pricing.
SEO Management Pricing Comparison
|Tier||Service Overview||Technical SEO||Content Creation||SEO Strategy||Reporting||Pricing|
|1a||Custom-tailors SEO strategy to your industry and business needs. Works with industry experts to create thought leadership content. Includes technical audits, keyword research, CRO, and reporting.||Yes||Yes, 8 pieces/ mo written with input from industry SMes + interviews your team||Custom strategy tailored to your specific industry and business. Strategy is constantly updated with Google’s algorithm changes and based on results.||Yes, with detailed analysis and updates strategy accordingly.||$10,000 to $15,000/mo|
|1b||Technical audits, keyword research, in-house (generalist) content creation, and link building. Only the highest-tier package includes everything.||Yes||Yes, but one piece per week and written by in-house generalists||General strategy based on SEO best practices. Strategy is updated at set check-in times.||Yes, included in higher-tier packages or upon request||$7,500 to $12,500/mo|
|2a||One-time $5,000 upfront investment for restructuring web pages and editing HTML tags, followed by monthly maintenance and link building.||Yes||No||Limited research to determine high volume keywords, no search intent analysis or strategy updates.||One report generated automatically and sent monthly. Does not provide strategy analysis using reporting.||$5,000 up front and $2,500/mo|
|2b||Personalized consulting model focused mostly on CRO||Yes, but minimal||No||One-time keyword research and limited search intent analysis.||Yes, custom and highly detailed.||$3,500 to $6,000/mo|
|2c||Does SEO with heavy emphasis on content & social media in conjunction||Yes, but minimal||Yes, 4 to 8 pieces / mo||Basic high-volume keyword targeting without analysis of what their clients are able to rank for.||Minimal. Generated automatically; and focuses their reporting on social.||$6,000 to $10,000/mo|
|3||Individual consultant working with a team who does technical SEO & keyword research.||Yes||No, attempts to leverage content creators at client company||Basic high-volume keyword targeting with limited search intent analysis.||Minimal. Automatic monthly reports with no analysis.||$135/hr|
Within service tiers, there is a spectrum of quality. In the next section, we discuss quality distinctions between different types of agencies.
SEO Management: What Sets Companies Apart
Separating a Tier 1 agency from a Tier 3 agency may be a simple task, but how do you distinguish the best from the merely good? The axes of quality in the context of an SEO agency are:
- Search Intent Analysis
Note: Technical SEO is a given for any reputable agency; with the tools available today, there is little skill needed to audit and improve upon the technical aspects of a website.
Here is a breakdown of each quality axis:
The best agencies understand that good strategy is the foundation of SEO ROI. Their first steps are creating detailed customer personas, debating keywords internally, and making an effort to deeply understand the search intent behind each keyword. One of their early deliverables is an editorial calendar outlining the campaign’s phases, expected results, and interaction with other marketing activities. Throughout the campaign, they rely on good tracking and reporting to consistently tweak their strategy to meet the campaign’s goals.
By contrast, many lower tier follow basic SEO best practices but their strategies are out of a 2008 playbook, involving unhelpful things like link-building, guest posting, and traditional, run-of-the-mill content marketing.
Search Intent Analysis
Your agency’s analysis of your audience’s search intent is the difference between getting a lot of empty traffic and getting qualified leads. The best agencies assess the transactionality of each keyword, prioritizing them by commercial value, and outlining the page and content type that will best convert visitors to leads.
Content is where the most variance occurs in SEO agency quality. The top agencies create genuine thought leadership content, treating it as a core part of their offering. They hold themselves to the standard of creating the best page on the Internet targeting each of your keywords, with the aim of those pages ranking #1. This approach also optimizes your website’s conversion rates by delivering useful information that builds trust with your prospects. These agencies will adhere to a strict publishing schedule in order to secure the News Website bonus.
Producing this content is a large part of the cost of Tier 1 SEO agencies, and leads to significant variance in cost, even within the tier. Less expensive agencies will rely on generalists instead of industry experts and publish less frequently, delivering content that looks like an average industry blog. In less crowded industries, this practice can produce initial good results, but when competitors invest in their own SEO, the results can recede quickly.
Many of the least expensive agencies don’t offer content at all, making their value much more limited. These agencies are best suited for smaller companies that already produce content as part of their core business model—for example, online media publishers—and don’t need help to produce excellent content.
There are two basic approaches to reporting: customized reports with detailed analysis, or automated outputs of readily available SEO tools. Lower tier agencies will rely on the latter, and exclusively show leading indicators such as organic traffic and search rankings. These reports will lack the nuance that is provided by a skilled content strategist or campaign manager and require that their clients have a working knowledge of SEO to interpret effectively.
The best agencies will instead customize their reports to reflect both the metrics that are most relevant to your marketing team’s needs and interests, and provide insight into the projected impact on your customer acquisition costs and overall ROI. This makes it easy for you to understand the exact value of your investment.
Hiring an SEO Management Company
Hiring a Tier 1 agency is expensive, but the results are easily worth the cost for companies that don’t manage their SEO in-house. While less expensive agencies may produce results that last for a few months or a year, only the best agencies will help you rank on the first page long-term.
To alleviate the cost, a common course of action is to partner with an agency for 2-3 years while building an in-house SEO team. If you’d like to learn more about doing so, you can reach out here.