Everyone wishes there was a simple answer to this complicated question. Small business owners want to be able to buy SEO like they buy a POS system. At the end of the day, there is a cost, it is a known cost. You pay it and it is done. You’ve added the SEO module to you website and now you no longer have to thing about it. Sadly, that is not the case.
SEO is a process with a lot of variables attached to it. There are different types of SEO – On page SEO, off page SEO, technical SEO, and local SEO are just 4 of the most common types. And each of these can break down into different processes as well. Off page SEO is also known as link building or link acquisition and can involve everything from writing blog posts for other websites, adding the website to different online directories, blogger outreach, public relation campaigns, press releases, event sponsorship, hosting events, and good old fashioned emailing everyone who has a website and asking for a link.
Hopefully from the small example I showed, it is easy to see the difficulty of putting a fixed cost on SEO.
What follows is a summary of costs with wide ranges. Keep in mind some of the variability in the pricing of SEO services depends on the size of your website, the competitiveness of your industry, the technical debt of your website, and the skill/reputation of the SEO agency performing the services.
Local SEO Services
First, let’s break down what you are getting when you are sold local SEO. Local SEO is all about the small group of businesses showing up in Google search before the search results. This is referred to as the Local Pack or the Snack Pack, the 3-Pack or 5-pack. Personally I like to keep it simple and call it the local search results, but I sometimes lack the flair for creative names.
Local SEO optimizes your website to show up in those local search results when it is relevant to your business. If you own and operate an auto parts supply store in Smallville, a suburb of Metropolis, you will not – no matter how hard you try, show up for a search “auto parts supply store in Metropolis” or show up when someone in Metropolis searches “auto parts supply store near me”. Okay, there are WAYS in which you can try to trick Google into doing it, but the customer will not be happy to find out they have to go to Smallville to get to your store.
Beyond the exact geographic location of your business, the other factors controlling appearance in local search results depends on 1) does Google feel confident your business is real? 2) does Google feel confident your business is a good fit for the search being made? 3) does Google feel your business is a business someone doing the search would consider a good business?
You might notice I made it seem like Google is a person, who is “feeling” one way or another about something. We know Google is actually a bunch of math doing calculations, comparing and contrastic one set of number against another. Optimization efforts are about trying to affect those numbers in the best possible way for a website and business.
Is Your Business Real or Spam?
Local SEO focuses on sending Google the signals it needs to consider your business as real. This means verifying the business on Google maps. Updating and completing Google My Business listing. And making sure the business is listed in appropriate directories across the web. If you sell bird seed and most bird seed companies are on the Bird Seed Web Directory and your company is not, then Google will see that as maybe your business isn’t as legitimate as the others. Building out those listings, otherwise known as citations, is a critical aspect of local SEO. These citations along with verification sends the signal to Google you are a real business.
Is Your Business Relevant to the Search Query?
The information on your website and the information you use to fill out the Google My Business listing are used to determine if your business is relevant to the search being made. If you sell bird seed but your website doesn’t mention “bird seed” at all, then the math behind Google won’t be able to determine if your website is relevant. There are other ways Google might be able to determine it, like listing every component of bird seed, listing brands of bird seed, but if “bird seed” doesn’t appear, your website will be at risk of being removed from the local search listings if a competitor does a better job at optimization.
Is Your Business Reviewed Well By Others?
A final component of Local SEO is improving how Google sees the business in terms of quality. This means getting positive reviews. The more current positive reviews your business has will improve your business’s position in the local search listing. A study conducted in 2017 by Revenue Jump (https://www.revenuejump.com/local-search-analysis/) determined the quantity and quality of the reviews given affected a website’s ranking in the local search listing.
How to get more positive reviews for your business is the subject of a whole other blog post, but suffice it to say your business needs to claim listings on all the major review sites (e.g. Yelp, TripAdvisor) and respond to reviews. Always respond to negative reviews and if able to address the issue in a satisfactory way, ask to have the review adjusted. Turning a 1 star review into a 3 star review goes a long way when trying to improve your business’s reputation. Responding to positive reviews show’s readers someone is listening. Most of the time when a customer praises a company in a review, they want to praise a particular person and want to know the praise will be heard. By responding to positive reviews, you are letting people know you are listening.
What Goes in the Pricing?
How to put a price on all of these services? The first step is to determine the value to your business. For most brick-and-mortar businesses this is the most effective form of SEO. You are competing with other similar businesses in a more limited area instead of across the entire Internet. There is a bigger bang for the buck in terms of results, as well. Building citations as a project can take a long time and could be a bit of a money pit. How many citations are enough? Which citations deliver value and which citations are ignored by Google? For businesses just starting out, it may make more sense to use a citation building service.
Moz Local is a solid service priced in a way fitting within most budgets. Brightlocal, Whitespark, Yext are all services that can build and maintain citations. Yahoo Small Business uses Yext but could be a budget friendly way to start using Yext.
There are one off services you can use as well. FatJoe.com has a cititation building service. This is a bit more hit-or-miss and I have never used it for citation building so I cannot speak to the effectiveness of their service. They build out citations at about $1 to $2 per listing. It is at least a benchmark you can use to judge other pricing.
Optimization of the GMB listing and the website is usually covered by On page SEO and that pricing is usually affected by the size of the site. This range usually begins at $300 and can go up dramatically from there. SEO agencies will want to sell this as part of a package. A freelancer will do it as a project which they have figured out a base hourly rate for.
Review management is sometimes a specialized service often falling under social media management or its own category of reputation management. It is usually sold along with other services but this is the one aspect of local SEO easiest for a small business owner to address personally or do in house. Review management is hard to do as a project because you never know when a review will come in. That is why it is good to have someone already working with your business in a customer service capacity to handle these reviews. If you don’t have someone in house, then you can contract with someone to do reputation management but they will want a guarantee of a certain level of business per month to make it worth their while.
On Page SEO Services
On page SEO is the traditional SEO you often hear about. This is the writing of titles and descriptions for your web pages. It is about going through the content of the site and making sure it is using the words and phrases commonly used in search and in the industry your business is related to. The content analysis makes sure you don’t have pages competing for the same search queries and the best converting page is the one ranked highest by Google where possible. On page SEO looks at internal links to make sure your content is adequately supporting your best converting pages.
Put simply, the goal of on page SEO is to bring in traffic to your website and direct it to your best converting pages. Digital marketers talk a lot about search funnels and classify search queries as Top of Funnel, Middle of Funnel, and Bottom of Funnel. Bottom of Funnel queries are most likely to convert, but don’t necessarily have a lot of search volume. Top of Funnel searches have large search volume but low intent to search.
On Page SEO requires content to be effective and often On Page SEO is sold with blogging and landing page services. Content creation plays a huge role in bringing in new relevant traffic to the site. These services add on writing and editing costs to the keyword research and optimization cost. As a project this could range anywhere from $300 to $1000 per landing page/blog post depending on the amount of research required.
Even if buying this as a retainer service, there will be a limit to how much content will be provided per month. Good on page SEO is an ongoing service, though. The SEO should be reviewing the reporting, tracking how the pages are performing in search, looking for additional optimization opportunities with the pages already on the site (maybe adding a paragraph here or there will improve the performance in search), or planning the next piece of content to add to the site to support existing pages with internal linking or widen the search funnel by going after another set of search queries none of the current pages could reasonably rank for.
In terms of SEO services, the On Page SEO should be bundled with on going audits and reports to be the most effective. This will drive up the cost. Look to partner with an SEO who can give you quarterly contracts to start, which limits your exposure to a partnership that won’t work but gives the person doing your SEO enough time to actually have an affect on the site performance. Then as the trust is built, you can move to longer contracts which will allow the person doing your SEO time to do bigger content projects.
Technical SEO Services
Technical SEO is specialized and should not be taken on by someone who is inexperienced in doing it. One mess up in redirecting pages or providing instructions to bots crawling your site and your entire website could be unusable by visitors or completely delisted from Google. Technical SEO deals with all the fiddly bits on the web server and backend of the website.
Technical SEO also addresses broken links, pages needing to be redirected, URL structure (though this is also informed by keyword research), and URL depth. The Technical SEO looks at potential duplicate content issues created by a bad implementation of your htaccess file. If someone types in www.yourdomain.com and yourdomain.com do they come up with the same content or does one redirect to the other? What about if it is yourdomain.com/ versus yourdomain.com? Or yourdomain.com/index vs yourdomain.com/index.html or .htm or .php etc. Each variation, while bringing up the same page is a duplicate content issue and this is caused by an issue in your .htaccess file (or the ApplicationHost.config on a Microsoft webserver).
The correct implementation and redirection of SSL certificates to make your site HTTPS vs HTTP is usually a developer task but the clean up of internal resources still pulling http versions of assets (CSS files, images files, etc.). If an https page pulls in an https asset, then the page gets flagged as having mixed content issues and is not considered secure by Google which means the slight boost the page should get in search for being https doesn’t happen.
Technical SEO Can Be Project Based
Technical SEO isn’t something you need to have as a month-to-month service but can be done as a project at least once a year. An audit should be run and then a project outlined to address any issues. Obviously if you are migrating your site or making some structural changes to how your website is organized, then you will want to enlist the help of a technical SEO to run audits, offer advice, and fix server errors and redirection issues as they come up. Broken links, broken images, and poorly redirected pages are not only a bad user experience but sends the signal of poor quality to Google and other search engines.
Because technical SEO requires more technical knowledge it has a higher cost attached to it. Ideally your web developer is working directly with a technical SEO whenever they do something on your website. You should inquire about this if you are building a new website. A developer who isn’t including SEO in the design from the start may be giving you a beautiful website but isn’t giving you a functional website.
Older websites and brand-new websites built without SEO in mind have what we call “technical debt.” This is the work the needs to be done to bring the website up to a baseline standard before any real work on growing the site can be done. It is the worst thing to have spent thousands of dollars on a website only to be told by an SEO that thousands more need to be invested to actually make it work in search. So much money can be saved if you make sure your web designer/developer is working with an SEO right from the beginning.
Off Page SEO / Link Building Services
I am on the record that I while links are vital for SEO, a concerted effort to build links is usually time and money wasted. People link to content. Create content first. Spend time and money on making the best content.
Here is the thing… easy links are worthless links. If you can just add your link to a website, most likely Google isn’t using that website to determine the value of content. Paying someone to include your link on their site is against Google’s terms of service and if caught will bring a penalty. You will spend the money to get the link and then pay someone to have the link removed or disavowed. Real link building relates more to relationship building. Having client’s link to you is good. Building links into website templates so every client page links back to you is bad. Asking people for links is okay, but the effectiveness of those outreach campaigns is pretty hit-or-miss. You might end up paying a lot of money for no results.
My other concern about paying for link building efforts is how do you know it is doing anything? If you are doing other SEO activity and paying for link building, how is the SEO agency justifying the time and money spent on acquiring those links in terms of traffic and conversion to the site? Ideally those backlinks should improve the site’s authority and ranking for critical keywords, but there are so many variables at play, you will never be sure. Meanwhile, that time and money spent on developing content and promoting that content through normal distribution channels (social media, linkedin, medium, etc.) will have a similar result.
In my book, the only link building that is worth a damn is blogger outreach, guest posting, and public relations.
Blogger outreach is when you find bloggers who write about your industry and ask them to write about your business. This could be reviewing a product or service or something tangential to it. In one situation I worked with, a hotel had hired local artists to paint murals in some of their rooms. An outreach campaign was created to get local influencers to visit the hotel and write about the rooms. This got Instagrammers and bloggers into the hotel and writing about the hotel, thus linking to the hotel.
A similar project that I was not part of had a hotel inviting blogger groups to use their public areas for blogger meetups. These weren’t travel bloggers or food bloggers, but bloggers of all types coming to the hotel to meet other bloggers writing on similar topics. The hotel was the backdrop to their meetups and some of these bloggers writing about the meetup included links to the hotel.
I’m going to sound a bit machiavellian here but the truth is people like to feel special. All you need to do is make sure the bloggers you are contacting feel special. This means personalized outreach. Explain why that particular blogger has value to you and offer them something to make it worth their while. This can be something as simple as an invite to a happy hour if you are a bar/restaurant. A ‘craft blogger appreciation’ day if you are an art store. A DIY seminar on fixing a leaky faucet to home/lifestyle bloggers if your are a plumber.
Public relations, and I’m most likely using this term incorrectly, but revolves around your communication with the public at large. Involved in this is a relation with press. Like bloggers, there are reporters writing stories about every industry and business out there. There is local press writing about businesses in your area. There is industry press writing about businesses like yours. Contacting and developing relationships with these reporters is a way to build your authority.
HARO.net helps reporters find sources for stories. It can be a time suck to wade through the daily emails looking for requests where you can contribute and then making the pitch. You have to be quick and you have to have some semblance of luck. But if the dice fall your way it is a way of getting links from some high authority news sites. I won’t go down the confusing path of co-citation and co-occurrence but basically (like super basic) any mention of your business is as good as a link to Google.
The question then is, how much is a link worth to you? If a link won’t ever send you traffic naturally, it probably is a worthless link. So looking for actual sources of traffic first and then worrying about how it will affect your site’s ranking second is a good strategy. There are services, and I will mention FatJoe.com one more time (they are not a sponsor, I have no affiliation with them) but I’ve used them twice now to build links. They get bloggers to write on topics and link back to the pages you want.
This skirts the ‘paying for links’ line tightly so I would not recommend relying on them, but it might be a good way to boost a brand new website. There are agencies devoted to blogger outreach. It is not cheap to do and comes with mixed results. I’ve been apart of a blogger outreach campaign where the client paid $450 for us to reach out to 25 bloggers. Only one blogger took the offer and did something with it. From my end, the client was paying for the hours of outreach and response, the graphic design work put into the the infographic we were shopping around, but from the client’s point of view, they paid $450 for 1 link. If I was them, I’d be disappointed and would wonder if that $450 wouldn’t have been better used in creating another landing page or running more PPC ads.
Does any of this answer the original question of how much a small business should pay for SEO?
Taken as a whole, it is a mess. The clear answer is “it depends” which is the most annoying response you can get for any question. So let’s break this down based on the needs of a small business.
A Small Business Needs Local SEO
First, the small business needs to be found in local search. An investment of $129 to $299 a year ($11 to $25/month) as of July 2020 will get you Moz Local which will build out your citations, help cleanup duplicate listings. It will monitor if anything is changed on this listings and alert you. All that is needed is someone to build out your Google My Business listing and maybe your Facebook page for maximum effectiveness which could be a one-time project done for $120 to $500.
A Small Business Needs On Page Optimization
Second, the small business website needs to be properly optimized. This would mean a discovery process and keyword research. Adding analytics to the site if not already there, setting up reporting, and potentially rewriting or writing brand new titles, descriptions, and alt tags for images while editing the content of each page to make sure it is using the right words and phrases relevant to the business and how people search.
The discovery process, keyword research, setting up analytics and reporting could add an additional 3 to 7 hours to the price which for this sake we will call 5 hours, putting the cost near $500 to $1500, making the final total $1300 to $3400.
A Small Business Needs a Working Website
Third, the small business needs to have a website that is mobile friendly (Google indexes pages based on how they appear in mobile search, this was part of the Mobile first indexing), fast, and technically sound. Fixing the problems found in the audit is where the cost comes in. I cannot even begin to set a price range on this as there are too many variables at play. I will say for most small business websites a yearly technical audit will catch issues that need to be addressed. Technical SEO projects deliver affordable results for your website.
Using a service like SEMRush’s Site Audit to run monthly audits [this is an affiliate link, if you follow this link and pay for SEMRush, I will be paid for it] on your site will also make sure nothing slips through the cracks and give you a sense of control. A good audit can run from $120 to $600.
A Small Business Doesn’t Need to Invest in Link Building Right Away
Fourth, the small business does not need any link building services to start. The citations the Local SEO builds will serve as the initial boost of links for your site. Specific link building services that will do guest blogging for you or get your links placed in other people’s blogs can be used on occasion. Looking for community based opportunities for links is a better way of supporting your community and getting links. Look to sponsor events, charities, or get involved in organizations related to your community or business. These are often places that generate great natural links, don’t require anything but your time and money, which is immediately put to use within your community.
In standard terms, there are reasons why businesses sponsor little league teams, bowling teams, volleyball teams, and the like. It is an advertisement for their business and it builds relationships with the community. Working with charities, sponsoring fun runs, and generally being a good neighbor will go a long way in getting people to link to you.
And the total is…
$2149 to $4799 per year plus special project costs and not including fixing any old issues that need to be addressed before attempting to grow the site. How accurate is this? Not very. I wouldn’t use this as a document in a negotiation since the real answer is “it depends”.
It depends on the actual work that is being done, on the work the SEO is capable of doing, on the SEO who is doing the work, and the competitive landscape. In one industry related to mosquito abatement, the company paid well over $2,000 for a single landing page. I worked a lot with hotels and was always trying to pitch to them the idea of writing a definitive local guide for visitors to the city. The price to creating that guide is extremely high (over $5,000 as it would have to include custom non-stock photography) and since no one has done it, the pay off is unknown. The pont is, these costs are rough benchmarks for your to start wrapping your head around how to budget for it.
One of my first jobs I had was a clerk at a shipping store (before UPS stores) and while talking to the owner I found out she did not own the sign for her shop. She leased it. I wish I could remember how much it was, but it was a reasonable amount per month, but in my mind I was like “why not own it?” The sign shop charged a crazy amount to buy the sign because they charged what it would be to lease it for, I think, 5 years. That is how they judged the value of that sign. And if you buy the sign and it breaks, they will charge to fix it. If you lease the sign, they fix it for free. Could the small business go without the sign? Maybe, but that is a pretty big risk.
Now thinking about digital marketing, could the small business go without it? Maybe, but I can guarantee that business is leaving money on the table. SEO is part of the maintenance of a website and if ignored becomes something you are paying for (hosting costs) that isn’t doing you any good. Talk to others in our area about who they use for SEO and digital marketing. Get references and recommendations on who to use. Talk to the agency or freelancer and make them walk you through everything they plan to do step-by-step so you understand what is being done and why. Don’t accept a cookie cutter approach to your marketing. If they are selling a package to everyone are they making a distinction between an auto parts store, a bird seed store, a hotel, or a plumber?
If you have questions related to small business SEO or want to discuss your current digital marketing needs, I would be happy to discuss them with you. I can provide you recommendations on services, as well.