SEO is charged and based generally in these models:
- Hourly Engagement | $75 - $150 per hour via RankPay
- Retainer Model | $750 - $5000 per month via WebFX and Search Engine Journal
- Performance Based | Flexible
- Project Based | Flexible
So as an actual SEO...how do I work and how does it work for me?
Here's my Upwork profile for reference. I've generated many clients and done over 93 jobs and 2,607 hours of work on Upwork to generate a nice living on Upwork alone (hint to any SEO entrepreneurs or wantrepreneurs who want to dive in).
From the profile though, you can see the models I primarily work off of - hourly or retainer.
Why I off the hourly or retainer model is sometimes clients are NOT good clients. Like any business relationship, partnership is required from all sides to make things work and go smoothly. Too often I've had clients who are unresponsive or do not take the advice I give them or will not allow the changes to a page we need to help improve the rankings.
Models 3 and 4 would actually create a liability for me, especially with new clients.
So I'll go into the costs both to me and to the client now below, looking at each model.
1. Hourly SEO Pay Model
This is the model most popular with people who need consulting, small jobs, want to see how I work or don't have large budgets.
My hourly pay has gone up over the years after starting at $50/hour and going up to where it is now at $100. Above I mentioned the average is $75/hour - $150/hour but that was mostly the rate agencies would charge. Many SEO's in the US range from the $25/hour - $75/hour range and can be found on Upwork with similar fees. You can see the range here although they don't have very good reviews:
The hourly SEO model works for maybe things that are more technical or a technical audit, questions or strategies people have or looking into competitive analyses. Generally I would budget about 10 hours for this model so take their hourly rate and budget for 10 hours as your top end budget. Typically a competitive analysis or a site audit on a small site can be conducted in that time frame.
As an SEO, I would sell 10 hours or have the client budget out about 10 hours. Often times ancillary questions or needs come up and to provide a complete service you want to bake in phone calls and follow ups so the client has a number in their head that you can fulfill on for any extras they will have (and they have them).
2. Retainer SEO Model
This is model that many of my clients have and the range for this goes from $500/month - $3000/month with the average being $1250 - $1500/month. This is also the model for people looking to rank keywords in the top spots of Google versus looking for advice, strategies, competitive analyses and technical reviews.
The model for this can be looked at as a multiple of the SEO freelancers or agencies rate but these typically has additional costs that go into it (primarily content creation or backlinking). Upwork is generally where I will see hourly engagements but the retainer model will be sourced more often from more stable and successful businesses.
For SEOs, I often get those clients through my "Los Angeles SEO", "San Francisco SEO" and "New York SEO" pages. Having and ranking a local SEO page to attract larger businesses is where many of my retainer clients come from.
The real reason why the retainer model is necessary is the time and costs can vary month to month but this variance is necessary. Content creation and link building or external PR is what will help boost your sites ranking and both of these come with a cost in terms of time or actual money.
For a $1000 per month retainer, easily $250-$500 may go to outgoing expenses in terms of content creation and external PR. The balance then will still be time that is being spent on the account.
So I may be spending fewer hours (if my hourly rate is $100/hour) than the value of the contract but the costs of ranking in the retainer model bring down the end value to me as the SEO. So maybe I spend 5-7 hours on the account each month but I only have $500 left in take home from a $1000/month contract after expenses.
This is why the retainer model works the way that it does - costs unknown to the businesses that the SEO agency or freelancer has to account for and impacts overall profitability.
3. How Should Clients Budget for SEO?
If you want tech, competitive analyses, overall reviews or strategy sessions, book a freelancer or agency for 5-10 hours but have 10 hours in your head as your top level cost. Make sure to get their hourly and negotiate deliverables and a follow up as part of the package.
For ranking initiatives, think 3-9 months at least for most keywords with this varying depending on your site stats, where you are ranking now and how competitive that keyword is. So if the SEO retainer is $1500 then you're looking at $4500 - $13,500 over the value of the contract.
Then look at how much each conversion value is to you and if there is an LTV - lifetime value you can calculate. If I do SEO for a real estate agent in Vancouver (I'm really talking to one at the moment), 1 conversion is worth $10,000 - $30,000 depending on the value of the home and the commission rate / split they have.
So $4500 - $13,500 investment becomes rooted in reality as SEO is ongoing - they should have the rankings for a long time. If 1 sale can basically have them break even and then it's profit moving forward, it makes sense.
This is how you should look at SEO and consider the value or return on ranking. Just seeing keyword rankings or keyword volume is not enough. If you're able to generate X amount of traffic and convert Y% into business, how much is that worth to you? If you get ongoing conversions, what's the value of a year? Do those people buy again or is there a lifetime value?
SEO is expensive and bad SEO is even more expensive.
Really look at your business and see if it is important and what your business can afford. I generally stay away from startups or businesses that are strapped for cash as SEO takes time. They should invest money into ads to get instant cash flow and an instant ROAS (return on ad spend) so the can keep growing the business.
Depending on what you need, the hourly or retainer model will attract likely the better SEOs unless you can work out a deal for an entire project that they feel confidently they can deliver on or feel so strongly they can do a deliverable based model that they take that.
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