Today, being a savvy business owner means you must have an answer when asked “How much are you spending on Search Engine Optimization?” The question is not going away, that much is certain. In the internet-dominated consumer environment of today, it is critical that businesses develop and implement a comprehensive digital marketing solution that drives valuable traffic to your website. The internet is a metaphorical ocean, and without SEO, your website is just a drop in the bucket.

If you’ve been questioning your business’ search marketing efforts, just continue reading. You’ll discover a wealth of knowledge that is aimed to help business owners make informed decisions with their digital marketing dollars, along with some valuable tips on how digital agencies handle SEO work. This information is invaluable when you are trying to develop a relationship with an experienced marketing agency like Zenman.

Paying for SEO

First off, businesses must understand the variety of payment structures used by agencies.  If you don’t understand how SEO is paid for, it is difficult to know which payment plan is best for your business. Here are some of the ways businesses commonly secure SEO services:

By The Hour: Most every business owner will be accustomed to this service payment model.  In our case, an SEO consultant can provide valuable information or services at a specific hourly rate.

Fixed-Price Contracts: Most any SEO agency will have fixed prices for contracted services.  As a client, you might be interested in exploring SEO contract services before you start paying for an ongoing monthly SEO campaign. A full-scale digital agency will often provide a list of available services on their website, sometimes with prices.

By the Project: It is normal for a client to be interested in a personalized marketing campaign. Custom SEO packages must be designed with the client’s goals in mind.  The agency and the client must work together to determine the range of the project and how much it should cost.  For example, if a local business would like to improve the quality of their blog by having an agency design and promote content for them, the agency would meet with the client to determine the scale and price of the service.

Retainer: There is something to be said about having an agency ready to help you on a regular basis.  This payment structure consists of clients making monthly payments in return for a specific set of services.  For agencies, a monthly retainer is the most common payment model, because it provides the best return-on-investment for clients. Commonly, a monthly retainer for SEO services includes monthly reporting and consulting, on-site search optimization, keyword research, business listing management, link building, content generation, and more, depending on the agency.

At Zenman, we are able to work with all of these payment models for our clients interested in digital marketing services. We want our clients to have the flexibility they need to secure the search marketing services that best suit their business model.  Should a client want a variety of campaigns, a dynamic set of payment models can simplify the process.

Understanding the Cost

Now, with a bit of information about how search marketing services are paid for, we can dig into the deeper question: How much should you be paying for SEO? Due to the dynamic nature of SEO campaigns, the cost for services fluctuates based on the business and their goals. But what should you be prepared to pay? Here is the basic range of costs as they relate to typical search marketing payment structures:

By The Hour: Expect to pay $100 to $300/hour for the services of an SEO consultant, whether it’s from an individual or an agency.

Fixed-Price Contracts: If you’re a business owner beginning to dip your toe into SEO, utilizing a contract service is a great way to get started without being bound to a monthly commitment. Contracted SEO consists of services like copywriting, social media setup, backlink profile auditing, content auditing and more. SEO copywriting can range from $0.15-$0.50/word. Social media site setup may cost from $500 to $3000 depending on how many profiles you require. Specific SEO audits are priced based on the size of the website and the type of audit, and can cost anywhere from $500 to $7500.

By the Project: Here, the cost depends on the client and the scope of the project. There are many types of projects, so the price ranges greatly.  SEO projects can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000 or more. Often, the cost of an SEO project is correlated with the client’s desired outcome. The more valuable the results, the more costly the project.

Retainer: An SEO agency can be retained for a monthly fee, but that fee depends on the size of the client’s business and the scope of their marketing needs.  Smaller SEO agencies are often more affordable because their service offerings are less extensive. Larger businesses require larger SEO agencies and more expansive services. Regardless of the size of the agency, an SEO retainer may range anywhere from $750-$5000 monthly.

It is clear that there is a considerable pricing variance between different SEO agencies.  As it’s been said, “you get what you pay for” is often the case. These particular numbers come from a December 2011 survey conducted by the dedicated team at Moz.  Of course, with a wide range of pricing comes a wide range of quality.  Be sure to keep your eyes out for SEO agencies that aren’t exactly ethical.

Avoiding the Snake Oil

There are plenty of fly-by-night SEO agencies out there who espouse indiscriminate business practices.  Business owners must be vigilant. Many have been taken in by impossible promises and rock-bottom pricing. Protect yourself from unethical “snake-oil” SEO agencies. You should be highly suspicious of any search marketing consultant or agency offering these results:

Instantaneous: Yes, there are SEO agencies who may be able to achieve “instant results” by manipulating the system. However, this strategy is perilous in the long run.  Rapidly generated search visibility generally consists of SEO practices that blatantly violate search engine guidelines for webmasters. Without fail, Google and other search engines eventually find websites that leverage these sketchy tactics and penalize them. The result: lost search engine traffic and visibility.

Guaranteed: Any real SEO agency knows they cannot offer any guarantees thanks to the dynamic nature of the industry as a whole. Need more explanation? Check out this article from Moz regarding the relationship between SEO & “guarantees.”

First Place Rankings: Wishful thinking is the only thing you’ll find behind this promise. Should an SEO firm claim to guarantee you the #1 spot on Google search results, you should be wary of their practices. There is no marketing agency that can ensure you obtain first place ranking for your keywords. The industry changes too rapidly.

High-risk Link Building: No inbound links means no site rankings. Link building is a vital part of a comprehensive SEO campaign. However, you want to make sure you avoid less-than-reputable link building providers. Spam linking is dangerous and is a fast-track to earning a search engine penalty that can negatively impact your website’s traffic well into the future. When you are preparing to solicit link building services from an SEO agency, it is important that you perform due diligence: make sure they are engaging in ethical practices and are not utilizing risky tactics that might harm your site.

Cheaper than $750/month: “You get what you pay for” absolutely applies to SEO agencies.  When your business’ online reputation and image are being modified, you want the best level of service, not the lowest price. Steer clear of those offering “cheap” SEO solutions without much substance.

Any reputable SEO agency will steer clear of these sketchy business practices. As a business owner, you need search engine optimization results that last. This means you must perform due diligence and find an SEO agency who will help you stay afloat on the endless river of search engine algorithm updates.

Be Mindful

By remaining mindful of those pitfalls while shopping for an SEO agency, you will put yourself in a much better position to be successful.  There are many aspects of a successful search engine optimization campaign that you should keep in mind when shopping. Here are a few of the most valuable tips for businesses looking to get the most out of their marketing dollars:

SEO is a long-term investment. It takes time to optimize a website and propel it upward through the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). You may have experienced the benefits of an aggressive search engine marketing campaign, but the SEO that sticks is the SEO that comes from a strong relationship between you and your marketing agency.  SEO is not a smoke-and-mirrors illusion for business success. It is a complex and expansive project that is designed to produce results several months down the road.

SEO is a dynamic field. Essentially, there is no one-time turnkey solution to your SEO needs. Quick SEO is an oxymoron, and a dangerous one at that.  The competition for organic search placement is intense, and your rankings will change along with the algorithm’s updates.  To keep your website at the top of the SERPs (and ahead of your competition) takes regular attention and evaluation.

SEO Services vary widely. If you go around searching for the lowest prices, you will undoubtedly end up disappointed with the service you receive. Find the best agency you can afford to work with. Businesses need agencies who clearly define the scale of their service and are willing to spend the time necessary to educate and inform you about their work.

SEO is required. The sole goal of your website should be to grow or enhance your business. If people are not finding your website, the site isn’t doing its job. The better way is to spend a little bit of money and time making sure your website is able to be found by anyone who may be looking.

An Agency is best. Perhaps you’re considering tackling the complex task of SEO on your own.  Virtually no professional business owners have the time, skills or technical savvy to manage their own search engine optimization. Even if you’re a business owner with SEO skills, to properly implement a full-scale search marketing solution requires far more time than most business owners can afford to spare. You might even have a person on staff who has ‘done some SEO’ in the past, but it is unlikely that they will be able to implement the same concise SEO processes you would find in an agency.  If you try and tackle this beast alone, you won’t ever get the same returns that you would expect to receive from a search marketing agency. It’s that simple.

Ultimately, it’s your decision.

Among businesses who utilize SEO as part of their marketing plan, it is by far the highest return-on-investment available.  Once you see and understand the long term benefits of properly implemented SEO campaigns, it poses clear advantages to other marketing tactics.

Savvy business owners no longer decide whether or not they need SEO. They determine how much it will cost. If their decisions and due diligence leads them to an experienced SEO agency, that effort will produce serious value. At the end of the day, the choice is yours, and yours alone.

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