I was talking recently with a friend who's been trying to hire an SEO to work on her company's website. She was surprised to find out how much it could cost to hire a good SEO (by "good" I mean those people I was willing to recommend to her because I know they do a good job).

"You always say SEO for most sites isn't rocket science," she complained. "How is it these people can get away with charging so much for something so simple?"

Here's what I told her.

A man worked for years as a maintenance technician at a manufacturing plant. His job was to keep the antiquated production machines running, and he was very good at it. Despite the age of its equipment, the plant hadn't suffered any downtime in years.

The company was sold, and the new owner wanted to cut costs. Unfortunately, the new owner was a bit "penny-wise and pound-foolish." He noticed the plant had never had any downtime due to machines breaking down. He reasoned if the machines were so reliable, why did he need a maintenance technician on salary all the time? Despite the production manager's protests, the new boss laid off the maintenance guy.

Others in the plant knew how to take care of minor maintenance issues, so all went well for a few months. The new owner was patting himself on the back for having made a wise decision, when one of the most important machines in the plant suddenly broke down completely.

Without this machine, all work at the plant came to a standstill. With all the employees standing around and all the other equipment idled, the plant was losing money by the minute.

Worse still, nobody in the building had any idea how to fix the machine. And the company who manufactured the machine had gone out of business decades ago.

Everyone told the owner the only one who knew how to repair that machine was the former maintenance technician. With reluctance, the owner called him.

"Oh, yes, I know that machine well. I'd be happy to come in and help you out," said the maintenance guy. "But since you laid me off, I've gone into business for myself as a consultant. If I can get the machine up and running for you, you'll have to promise to pay my invoice on the spot."

The owner didn't have much choice at that point, so he agreed.

An hour later, the maintenance tech walked through the door. He strode to the malfunctioning equipment, opened his toolbox, and carefully selected a small hammer. He opened a door in the side of the machine, reached in and whacked something inside with the hammer.

The machine started right up.

The man replaced the hammer in his toolbox, wiped his hands, and presented the owner with a neatly typed invoice. It read:

Repair of equipment..... $10,000

"Ten thousand dollars?!" sputtered the owner. "All you did was whack the machine with a hammer! That's outrageous! How could you possibly expect me to pay ten thousand dollars for five minutes of work?"

The man took back the invoice, extracted a pen from his shirt pocket, and scribbled a few words on the paper. He handed the invoice back, and the owner could see what he'd written:

Whacking equipment with hammer........ $100
Knowing exactly where and how hard to whack... $9,900

The plant manager paid the invoice.

Knowing what to do is important, of course, but frankly the what is usually pretty easy to learn. The former employee could have told them the what in 30 seconds over the phone: whack just the right spot with a hammer.

Likewise, most people can grasp the basics of what needs to be done to optimize most small business websites fairly quickly. As my friend pointed out I've said on more than one occasion, most of SEO isn't rocket science.

The hard part, though, is the how. Telling the folks at the plant the machine could be fixed by whacking it with a hammer would have told them the what... but without the how that knowledge would do them little good. Knowing which hammer to use and precisely where and exactly how hard to whack with that hammer -- therein lies the skill.

It's one thing to understand, for instance, you need a unique title tag for each page. It's quite another to know how to write title tags that effectively incorporate each page's most important target search phrase and encourage maximum click-throughs from the search results. Simply recognizing you need "search optimized web copy" is a far cry from knowing how to write it. Realizing you need more high-quality links pointing to your pages is not the same as knowing how to go about getting those links.

The what you can learn in minutes. The how takes considerably more time, effort and skill.

It's the how you pay for when you hire an outside expert, whether it's an accountant or a lawyer or an SEO or whatever. Those who have devoted the time, put forth the effort and learned the skill sufficient to be considered "experts" are entitled to charge appropriately for their hard-won knowledge.

Absolutely, if you have the time and the desire, you can learn to do it for yourself. But you have to decide whether that's the best use of your time and energy. For some, it may be worth it to learn. For many others, it's a better idea to hire an expert and focus their attention on their core business.

The plant was dead in the water without the help of the former maintenance tech. Your company's website might well be dead in the water without the help of an experienced site optimization expert. If you can afford to let it languish for months and you're able to spend time away from your core business while you learn the how of optimization, that may be a viable option for you. Otherwise, like the plant manager, your best bet may be to hire the expert.

That's why the good ones charge what they do for their services, and why their clients willingly pay the invoice.

February 26, 2008

Learn more about the ways Diane can help improve the performance and profitability of your business web site, or request a no-obligation personal consultation, by visiting www.NineYards.com.


Great article, Diane. I couldn't agree more, and I actually wrote something similar on my blog about remembering to charge for the advice you give! So many SEOs forget that the time they have spent learning everything they know shouldn't be overlooked when it comes to charging for that short consultation.


What a great analogy!! I am always looking for a good story to share what helps define the difference between a real estate expert and a national firm that rebates commissions.

Do you mind if I use the story?

Brilliantly put! So many people do not understand what exactly they are paying for when it comes to SEO. This is a perfect way to explain it as the time that one would dedicate to reading up enough information to know EXACTLY what they are doing and be most effective, would be far more costly than hiring someone who is an expert in the field. Good post!

@pratt: I agree -- and I think it's a problem for many small-business service providers, not just SEOs. We all have trouble sometimes remembering what we're selling is our expertise (and how long it took us to acquire that expertise), and charging accordingly.

@Kathy: It's actually a slight adaptation of an old story/joke that's been floating around for years, so feel free to use it in good health! :)

Great post. This reminds me of the Picasso story where he was asked to paint a picture, he did so in five minutes. He charged $10,000 and the woman replied that took you 5 minutes how can you charge so much? He replied nope that painting took me a lifetime.

When you hire a top notch SEO you are paying for his creativity, ingenuity, and experience.

Very, very good Diane. Now I have something to point callers to who always seem to cry about fees. It's hard for the average joe to grasp things, but your post spells it out in layman's terms nicely. :-)

They charge so much because they've made an effort to brand themselves or because they can convince people to pay that much. The quality of an LV bag isn't that much greater than a $65 bag from Macy's.

The difference between $40/hr SEO and a $15,000 contract to do some title tags and copy writing, directory submissions and bookmarking is pure salesmanship, and nothing more in most cases.


Excellent! Agree totally that we, as SEOs, tend to be overlooked at times to the fact that we devoted our time and this causes us to for-go other "opportunities" that came knocking on our door.

Great analogy, and well put. Give yourself a pat on the back. How hard, and exactly where, is up to you...!

Great article - i'm always amazed by people that pay good money for a website but then won't pay to promote it.

Brilliant post!
A lot of people think they know a bit of seo en they think that a real seo know a little bit more than them so it could not cost a lot....
It 's sometimes hard to explain why you ask the amount of money.

As someone fairly new to the industry, I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated your approach to explaining why SEO can be so costly. I also appreciate it even more because my dad has been a maintenance supervisor for a large plant for almost thirty years now, and I know first hand that he's had similar situations as in your story happen to him. Good read! Thank you.

Wow, that was a great analogy. Thank you for taking the time to write that all out.


Great post, Diane. Kudos for a relevant and well-written piece!

absolutely fantastic analogy and input. Working at an agency we get this question(s) posed time and time again and, even worse, we are often 'laid off' after achieving initial results (as the story goes). I think it is important for sales people, upper management and SEOs alike to be able to explain their fees in such a simple and non-jargon filled manner.

Kudos for the post! You have a new follower:)

Outstanding post Diane! Simple yet brilliant!

Great article. People ask me this question all the time, I love the way you simplify the answer.

Thank you all for your kind comments!

This is excellent! A truly great read for all newbie SEOs out there and those in need of SEO services.

it is the asymmetrical distortion of information between the expert and his client.

that is what we pay for

This post really hits the nail on the head as do the comments. My experience is in the UK only.The public hasn't grown with online marketing at all. When it comes to small business awareness of SEO and PPC is very low. It's also very difficult to educate potential clients who automatically assume everything on-line should be cheap if not free. The thing is if its hard enough to explain what SEM is to friends and family then its even more difficult to explain that spending a small part of your marketing budget with me is going to get you far more returns than spending thousands buying mailing lists and sending mail shots.

Great analogy. I used to use the one where you compare some SEO work to doctor/surgeon work. Takes them a half of an hour to wokr on your arm and charge you and the insurance company 3K.

Well done. I think the market is slowly beginning to understand this. Though there are the do-it-yourself'ers who wouldn't pay more than pennies on the dollar. Our challenge in the short run is to convince these people too...


Thank you for posting this. I had last night a conversation on a networking meeting and someone asked me for packages of SEO at less price to get first page. I was looking at him and told him "You want me to do the samething for less price. That is not packaging".

He was argumenting exactly what you exposed here. He said "Sometimes it is a matter of a little change, that should be cost less because it does not take long time for you". I was in shock and I did not have and argument to fight back his thought, until now!

Yes, it is not a matter of knowing the WHAT TO DO but HOW TO DO IT...and that is ART!

Thanks again.

I use the analogy of gem cutters. It takes just a few well-placed blows to make a gem from a rough stone but it takes years of knowledge to know how and where to make them. That's SEO in a nutchell.


I not certain that I have found the good one that this article references. I've found many that thought that they were that good, but when push came to shove they took out the cook book and did what an average or below average SEO would have done but charged higher prices.

I have asked very pointed questions of several SEOs and all that they proved was that the algorithms used by Google are so complicated and change so frequently that the only recourse is the old standard, more content and more links. Both can be obtained by hiring a high school student and setting them on the task of building content and links.

How about this for an analogy -- Paying the best surgeon in the world to cure your headache doesn't make much sense if all you need is asprin.

@Gary Helwig Yes, a high school student can be turned loose to write more content if all you want is "more," but if you want "better" I'd suggest hiring a professional copywriter. There's a lot more to writing well-converting copy than just churning out a few articles.

Ditto with getting links. Professional link builders have resources and experience few high school students (or grown-up webmasters, for that matter) can match.

Again, it comes down to the "what" versus the "how." I can tell somebody in a matter of minutes "what" I want -- better converting copy, high-quality inbound links -- but knowing how to produce that copy, or how to approach the owners of other sites to maximize my chances of getting the links I want... that's what the professionals bring to the table.

As you correctly point out, though, high prices are not a guarantee of quality. And not all optimization projects require a top performer in the field. It depends on your market, your competition and your business goals. No point in paying for a Ferrari if a Honda Civic will get you where you need to be.

Very nice! That was one of the best explanations of the subject, or any other tech expert, that I have ever read! Thank you!

It's nice to see that old story revived again, but in this case it may or may not apply. We do SEO work for $70 per hour, but if you break down what other companies charge by the hour it may be far below or far above that.

Our average SEO project is about $1,500. Is that a rip-off when you look at a company that charges $500 for the same size project? Then what about the company that charges $5,000-$10,000 for the same thing???

All a customer can do is shop around and try to learn as much as they can about the process and the companies and then make the best choice they can.

Great article.

I've recently had the dilemma of what to charge clients. Not just for SEO work, but for projects as a whole.

I wondered why many companies/freelancers charged so much money for the work they do, when others (let's call them "cowboys") claim they can do the same work for a much lower cost. Well, I say that I wondered why, but really it was my customers who were enquiring.

This story would be an excellent answer to that question - it's not the what that they're paying for, but the how, along with the time, money, effort and experience that we needed to be as good as we are.

Unfortunately SEO awareness among potantial employers is very low. They expect it will last for 5 days and cost $100. Thats not it. It takes time for everything, experience and hard work. Why it takes so long to explain people what you have wrote in your post? Why its so hard to explain to them what SEO is about. And because its not rocket science, it makes it even harder. People ask: if its not so hard, how come its so expensive?
Anyway, very good article :)

One small aspect of the analogy that isn't true is that the hammer blow in the right place produced instant and visible results. With SEO there is a time delay between carrying out the work and seeing the results and that makes it more difficult for the SEO expert to prove his worth. Also by the time his efforts do produce results, other variables may have changed and may have contributed to making his work appear more or less effective in the eyes of the client. Having said that, any decent analogy is a useful reference.

@Pawel, that is a good point. A large (and difficult) part of getting a fair price for any skilled service lies in getting potential employers/clients to understand how much skill and practice it takes to make it look so easy.

@Ewan, you're right, of course. And I think that's part of the difficulty of "selling" SEO: getting clients to understand there's no "magic switch" the SEO can flip to instantly make the client's pages start ranking better, and making sure they give the SEO due credit for his/her work when the effects do kick in. Excellent point.

Thanks again to all for sharing your thoughts!

- Nice going Diane...

It's nice to hear someone else tell the World.

I didn't know you until this article, now I'll be watching for more.

Great Job!

- Scott

Diane -

Great post and a very good analogy. Thank you!

grate info!.. another good tip on seo is to have well tagged inbound links such as plumbers for ratemytrade.co.uk

Anyone who would hire an SEO to use a magic hammer to hit a magic spot is insane. SEOs can destroy a site as easily as they can help it. Here's how I do it: First engagement: (1) Look over the site and tell me what's wrong and what you would change, and why. Second engagement, which I might hire the first guy to do, or might do in house or hire a different person to do: (2) Implement the recommendations that I like and don't think are risky.

I'd never hire an SEO to do some black box mystery meat stuff that is not fully transparent to me.

What everyone is missing is "What is the customer's ROI on your SEO work?" It doesn't matter how much it costs if you are able to present clear data showing not just better SERP results, but a proportionately greater income/awareness/leads.

I liked the post and as a small business owner the analogy applies not only to SEO providers but to all suppliers. After having our site optimised and getting results we made a change without checking first and our rankings dropped. A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.

What a great perspective for those who feel optimization experts are over-paid.

I loved this. The problem is client/employee education... People tend to think that their websites don't need optimization, also they usually fail to recognise the potential marketing power of an optimized website

Awesome article ... and thanks a lot for the encouragement.

This is an analogy very well presented. but I still find myself lost within the wealth of information on SEO. I have a body jewellery website, done optamizing myself for many years, and as the time goes by I learn about SEO. I have been well ranked for ,many years, and then the site went progressively lower in searches, despite my efforts to keep it there. I am thinking today "paying" the bill for the maintenance guy, but HOW TO PICK THE RIGHT SEO GUY out of the thousands ?
Is there any site that rate them ?

Even if there were, Patrick, it wouldn't tell you if you're going to get on with them and be able to develop a comfortable working relationship. Much successful SEO is achieved by co-operation, you contribute content, the SEO contributes knowledge of how best to display that content. You have to be able to rub shoulders together, and league tables won't tell you that :-)


Here's a very good aid to selecting the right SEO provider, prepared by bigmouthmedia, at http://www.bigmouthmedia.com/live/articles/seo-customer-guide-13.asp . Ewan Kennedy, AdJuice.

Hi Diane,
thanks for the story - I remember sharing this one with fellow civil engineers years ago, but the story was a squeaky floor and the old-time carpenter who knew the exact place to add a nail. I have always loved the story and the meaning behind it!

However, I have to disagree that this analogy is applicable to SEO. I don't think that SEO requires years of experience or a lot of foreknowledge akin to the factory old-timer or Picasso. To the contrary, I think that the best SEO services require an approach of experimentation and an iterative, ongoing approach. And let's face it - this is a new industry. Most of the people that are highly qualified, if not experts, today have been doing this for 5 years, or 10 years max.

That's not to say it's cheap, by any means. But I think that the reason good SEO isn't cheap is that good SEO is very *time-consuming*. Even at a low hourly rate, it's difficult to imagine how much a provider could do for $500. Just getting the lay of the land - what is the competitive landscape, what are the best keywords - has to take quite a few hours. Since no two businesses are the same, there is no amount of experience that can eliminate the need for a major investment of time.

Thanks for the article and keep up the good work!

Gradiva Couzin

Nice one Diane! I can't help but chuckle when comes the time the invoice is handed to the owner of the company. He's a little bit surprised of the way the technician charged him of the job.

Normally, its the "HOW" that increases the value of any practitioner in a their field of expertise. It's the education and skills that they have acquired warrant them to charge that much because they did not picked them up overnight - it just means that they are working on it as time goes along.

And the undying truth is, "Everyone's value normally increases as they grow older considering also that their skills tag along with it."

You could not have said this better! Thanks for such a great post!

Randy Zlobec

Well put Diane!! I am a small business owner in the market right now for a (good) SEO company. I found this website while searching on the internet for help. It seems that this would be a great place to ask for some direction on where to start.

Fantastic article Diane, fancy a job? I think you would fit right into our sales team!? ;-)

Seriously though, some people out there simply can not be convinced, but this explains perfectly why outsourcing is such an effective solution for businesses of any size.

If you want a job done properly, ask the experts!!

Great article Diane! I find that some clients have been burned by SEOs that do not produce results or use black hat methods to gain traffic. A lot of what goes into pricing is educating on the value a client should expect based on experience. Good SEOs should be transparent in their approach, fees, etc. If someone is rather new to SEO, then the fees should reflect that level of experience but this is not always the case.

that's a splendid job.. analogy was simply awesome..

You did write a great article, but this site has way too many image ads on it. The Firefox add-on "NoScript" had to block 7 ads that use javascript in the page.

I wouldn't expect to learn great things from a site that can never make enough in advertising and creates reduced content in the process.

Thanks for the read though

Great article! Now if only we can send this to our prospective clients. haha.

Hi Diane,

Terrific analogy - you hit it right on the head. Some of SEO certainly consists of knowing the rules, but there is a certain art to it that you can only learn from experience and really getting to know a site. Plenty of people offer SEO services, but many of them don't understand how to truly make it effective.


I just have set up my web site. and i need some help with seo on it...

if anyone can help with this it will be nice. Hope to hear from you,

check my web site.




I would overall agree with everyones comments above, but as I have just created my first web page for my wife's crafting and sewing(not paying someone to design, because on my limited military salary, I didn't have the 5k to dish out) and as someone with very limited funds, SEO although very much needed is unachieveable for me because of the cost. I as with most small businesses that start up have limited funds in the beginning and with zero guarantee that your funds will increase with the SEO provided, it is difficult to fork over money with zero ROI. I've sent several emails to SEO firms, and haven't heard back from any of them. I haven't even been given a figure to go off of. How do you find someone who is willing to work with you. I'm not putting my url here for advertising, but moreso to say, look at my site and let me know how much it would cost to drive the traffic my way to suceed. Currently I'm averaging about 1,200 hits per month with a 55% bounce rate. Thank you well in advance. www.cutiepatootiegifts.net

excellent article to explain the craft. its incorporating the data into a way that works for the people visiting the site. too often poorly done SEO can be spotted a mile away as the words and sentence structure make no sense. h

That was a GREAT analogy and story. Its so true too. You have to also not only look at the money spent, but time too. i find time just as valuable as money. Is learning to do something and do something WELL worth XXX amount of hours to you? Time is precious!
Erin from Illinois

I agree 100%.

Having an experience just like this one is what prompted me to learn how to do my own SEO optimazation on my websites. My experience was so traumatic that I took several months to learn how to do it myself.

Even if you don't want to become an expert at SEO, it still pays off to know the basics

Yes I agree but its part of a good sales process to tell the customer why your skills are worth paying for.

Well put Diane. Unfortunately, a rarely comprehended principle of common sense.

Great topic on the title, Good SEO costs for knowledge and time spent :)

I've used that story a few times when cleints do not want to pay up.

Honestly, if they mess you about, just walk. I only accept work from trusted/known Clients who I know will pay up. I've wasted too much time with messers I 'felt sorry for' and ended up doing twice teh work for nothing. I've come to the conclusion that if a prospective Client has a poor quality business, any amount of SEO effort won't fix it and they've got a poor quality business for a very good reason! They'll end up blaming you and refusing to cough up. Avoid.

An SEO expert is no longer able to keep up with the Google changes like he used to. As far as I'm concerned,it is money down the drain nowadays.

In response to Mr Jason Stephenson's comment, I would say that yes the workload in keeping fully up is indeed substantial and has grown considerably, but a top quality Organic/Ethical/Natural/Meritus SERP focused SEO will make it their business to be completely au fait. Their role is compromised if they don't. Much like a Lawyer must be fully up to speed on precedent, prevailing law and regulation/legislation for his practice discipline. If anything, it's all the more critically important to hire the best SEO you can nowadays as competitors get smarter in their marketing ROI.

I absolutely loved this post and could not agree more! People are not recognizing good help when they have it, and if youdon't you shouldn't get paid for it!

Davide @ Tattoo Equipment

Yes Mark, it is surprising how many Clients prove grateful right up until the invoice needs paying, then suddenly there's a problem. They usually live to regret losing the services of a good SEO and pay the price many times over in lost trade.

The truly switched-on businesses are snapping up the talented consistent performers to strengthen their market positions. The PPC crowd is thinning as poor ROI in difficult trading conditions forces a review of spend.

Yes, I agree that many potential clients do not value the service, due in the main to inexperience and ignorance of why it's essential to survival on the web. These are usually the same folk who complain about their poor revenues from their customers and ultimately fail.

It really is a life or death decision.

You really had great insights, SEO may seem to be an easy task but knowing the right process is the big deal and it's the price most people are paying for..

What precise analogy! I was amazed at how fascinating and truthful the given story is. Moreover, this is the perfect example that should be given to people who willingly spend good money to purchase a website, but hates to spend a single penny for promoting that website. Very well put!

If there's any doubt, the acid test is stop providing the service and when their rankings evaporate, they'll come back waving money at you soon enough!

Interesting to see Murray's input here, as I'm aware of Murray's Meritus S.E.O. work through my I.T. Consultancy work, and if he's working for you on a Site, think yourself lucky!

Excellent article Diane. Well done. Clearly fired up some lively debate.

SEO experts may seem to be doing an easy task but paid with lots of bucks, even though, it is what every website should have and need in order to gain success, only the right SEO knows where to post and what to do in order to make you achieve what you wanted for your website, even though it may seem like a little whack of a hammer on the side.

Great story. SEO is a form of internet marketing, marketing drives the sales for most businesses. Without marketing many companies will cease to exist.

To add to the hammer/seo analogy; to hit the machine in the wrong spot or too hard can have devastating penalties in terms of SEO.

SEO not only takes a long time to perfect but it is a constantly evolving field that requires a dedication and time commitment to stay on top of.

Thanks for an entertaining story.

Heh, very nicely described. SEO takes a good deal of time, and the results a top SEO can bring are definitely worth it.

Although they are the most expensive (due to skill, experience, time and effort intensity involved), an SEO that utilises ethical/best practice/organic ("white hat") techniques to gain high/top positions on the SERPs, is usually the best and safest bet.

An SEO that is obsessively focused on user content relevancy and appropriate content/meta rules compliance, and has a proven consistent track record of successful performance, will ultimately prove the best investment (ROI) and is less likely to make mistakes. The ultimate best practice technique is of course the Meritus methodology of SEO best practice application and 100% compliance. Expect to pay $100/£100 and hour for such expertise.

Those of little or no experience are highly dangerous. The old adage of a little knowledge is dangerous, is truly apt in this context. Applying any kind of trial and error tactics is very high risk, and usually short term. The application of dubious tactics and unethical cheats ("black hat") can often have catastrophic results and is usually only entertained by low quality businesses, with no long term view or a valuable reputation to uphold.

As with all things in life, you get what you pay for.

This is an amazing post. I love the analogy. I can tell people what they need to do to their site to make it rank higher in the SERPS but they are just going to call me back to do it for them. That's when you hook a big fish.

I have so many clients lined up that I have to turn them away and they end up paying even a higher price.

Hi Diane,

I enjoyed your article. It's accurate, but it's only half the story.

As an SEO, yes, part of it is knowing where to whack the machine. A good SEO doesn't just whack a machine and leave a huge bill (I should be so lucky!), a good SEO will work long hard hours. Most of SEO is determined by link-building, and link-building campaigns are VERY LABOR INTENSIVE! An 8 hour day may get 10 good links that will actually make a difference in ranking.

How much would you pay someone to not only know the right spot to whack, but to find 100 other "right spots" and spend 40 hours whacking them? Depending on the industry, $1,500 may be a cheap price.


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