How Much Should You Pay for SEO and How Do You Choose the Right Firm to Help You?


Search engine optimization has undergone a transformation from a dot-com-era buzzword to an industry-wide marketing phenomenon. Huge gains await those who manage to attain top rankings on search engine traffic for their most important keywords, but SEO remains a mystery for many business owners and executives.

One of the main reasons why SEO remains opaque to so many is because the specifics that dictate effective SEO strategy are constantly changing. Many SEO best practices that were in common use five years ago are no longer relevant to today's Internet environment, and some are actually disruptive enough to get websites blacklisted by search engines.

This, combined with the ever-increasing need for better and more educative content online, points to SEO increasingly becoming the domain of purpose-built agencies that dedicated their time and energy specifically to producing ranking results for their clients.

What Do SEO Experts Actually Do?

To understand how SEO works in today's business context, it can be useful to point out exactly what SEO work is, what is isn't, and how SEO experts achieve ranking results for their clients.

The vast majority of web pages on the Internet are indexed by search engines. Learning how search engine algorithms index these pages lets web designers and developers create pages that are optimized for certain audiences searching for certain keywords – the fundamental promise of SEO.

The actual work that goes into getting a brand new website to rank on the first page of a Google search is multi-tiered and highly competitive. SEO breaks down into two broad categories, both of which combine to generate rankings.

  • On-Page SEO refers to all of the on-page elements that contribute to search engine ranking. These include meta titles, descriptions, page layouts, and header tags.
  • Off-Page SEO refers to all of the ranking-contributing elements that don't reside directly on the page in question. Backlinks, for instance, which come from other websites linking to yours, are off-page elements that have a huge effect on SEO. The average amount of time a user spends on your site is also an important off-page element.

SEO agencies work through their clients' webpages, ensuring that keywords are addressed in all on-page elements and that the utility of off-page resources is maximized. This is just the first step, however, to generating ranking results.

In order to actually compete with other websites that rank for specific keywords, SEO agencies need to produce content that speaks to the audiences’ needs. Good content shared effectively brings traffic to your site, encourages backlink generation, and improves off-page ranking.

Why Not Hire an In-House SEO?

Improving your website's search engine ranking is an open-ended ordeal. Even if your company hits the coveted #1 spot tomorrow, you must continually work towards producing better, more engaging content to keep that spot.

This means that for all but the smallest websites, hiring an in-house SEO is not as cost-effective as outsourcing to an agency. Recall that SEO involves both technical on-page elements as well as optimization of off-page elements – an agency that can leverage the skills of multiple employees is much better positioned to generate results than a single freelancer or onsite employee.

This becomes especially true when considering link submission for generating backlinks. Often, this time-consuming activity amounts to cold emailing blog owners and publications every time you generate new content.

Activities like this and metadata verification all take time, which makes finding a cost-efficient SEO agency of prime importance.

Trust Comes First Whether Hiring Local or Offshore

Many American businesses opt for SEO services from offshore freelancers who charge low rates. From freelance work portals to spam emails promising top rankings for $300 per month, businesses on a budget have options. However, at rates that low, it's difficult to place a great deal of trust in any agency due to the necessary and “white-hat” (i.e. non-shady) tactics that need to be applied.

An entry-level SEO plan for a small business starts at four figures – $1000-1200 per month, and goes up from there. Enterprises in highly competitive industries can pay upwards of $5,000 to $10,000 per month.

In many cases, the rankings you get out of these deals are only for your business name which is where the “We will rank you at the top of the search engines in 3 months for $300” comes from – not highly competitive industry keywords with significant search volume. A reputable SEO agency needs to put more work into generating real results, and you must trust that your partner is sufficiently motivated to do that work. In addition, every reputable firm will provide you with on-going reports of the keywords that will bring you business showing you on-going ranking growth.

It is hard to enjoy that level of trust with an agency that may be unfamiliar with your business culture and audience expectations – and even language barriers can get in the way.

Use a Questionnaire to Filter SEO Prospects

Developing a questionnaire for your prospective SEO agency can help you identify which one would be best for you. You need to filter out the agencies that promise more than they can deliver while finding out exactly what kind of expectations to have of the agency you choose.

Consider the following questions and the red flags that certain responses indicate:

  • When Should I Expect Results? No SEO campaign should promise results in less than a year, it’s possible for certain keywords and marketplaces, but it is not the norm. Be suspicious of any company that promises super fast results.
  • Who Provides Performance Monitoring? SEO progress can and should be monitored. Any reputable SEO agency will use industry-standard monitoring through a trusted vendor like Moz or SEMRush.
  • Do You Use Automation? Certain repetitive SEO tasks can be automated. A sophisticated agency will maximize its efficiency and keep their costs down by automating its most labor-intensive processes.
  • What Data Do Your Reports Contain? Any professional agency is going to offer detailed reports, both for keyword analysis and for monthly performance monitoring. Your company contact should be available to explain any unclear issues in your reports, for full transparency.

In the end, these questions are just the starting point for developing the level of trust you need to enjoy a healthy SEO relationship with a reputable agency. You will want to verify references and shortlist some of the most promising prospects before moving on and performing the initial ranking assessment.

Knowing that your first SEO campaign will most likely take 12-18 months to produce results, you want to ensure that your choice is a good one from the start. With the right approach, you and your reputable SEO partner will be able to earn your business a far greater presence online.