Being in the business of search engine marketing I sometimes get overwhelmed with the sheer number of hours necessary to fully market a site online. Actually, I can't even say there is such a thing as "fully" marketing a site online as there are truly an endless number of marketing options. There are so many things that can be done while also maintaining a budget both for the client and for the time involved.

Ninety percent of the online marketing services we provide are based on time. There are a few expenditures (directory submissions, etc) but most of the cost associated with our SEO services is hourly time going into each project: writing, analyzing, tweaking, optimizing, communicating, reporting, etc. Largely, I think it's hard for any client to fully understand all of this, especially those looking for something "less expensive."

When it comes to purchasing an SEO package, it all comes down to how much are you willing to pay per hour, and how many hours do you want to invest in your website's promotion efforts? While many SEOs charge a package price, how much goes into that package is determined by how many hours of their time the SEO is willing to invest, and for how much. When you consider the SEO package as a matter of hours, $1000/month will buy you anywhere from 5-30 hours of work each month. Those willing to put in 30 hours for $1000 either have very low overhead or are not skilled enough to charge more per hour. Those putting in 5 hours per $1000 either have high overhead or are exceptionally skilled, or both.

But still, 5 hours, or even 10 hours per month spent on an optimization campaign isn't a whole lot once you break down everything that goes into it. Here is a simple breakdown of what I would consider the average high-quality SEO campaign:

  • Keyword Research: Can take up to 10 hours initially, or more for extensive research, and perhaps another 30 minutes each month for additional research
  • Page Optimization: 3-6 hours (per page) for text and code development/optimization
  • Usability/Conversion Analysis & Reporting: 2-12 hours/month depending on depth of testing and reporting analysis
  • Link Building/Research: 10-40 hours per month depending on the size of the site Miscellaneous Campaign Management: 2-10 hours per month depending on size of site

Depending on how the SEO charges, the bulk of this can be an upfront payment for a predetermined number of pages with little ongoing maintenance, or it can be spread out into monthly payments and include ongoing research, optimization and link development. I grouped a lot of little things together above for brevity, but spending 20 hours a month (averaged over 12-months) isn't all that hard to achieve.

Assuming the average (quality) SEO firm charges $150/hour, you're looking at $3000/month or $36,000 for a year. That's no small chunk of change for the average small business. Not every SEO firm (including us) charges fees that high, but rarely is one person able to perform every aspect of an SEO campaign without hiring staff or sub-contracting out, and good specialized sub-contractors will charge anywhere from $35-$150 or more per hour. For the SEO to make any money they have to charge at least that much, if not more.

Undoubtedly, not every SEO will agree with all of my numbers above, but even looking at it conservatively, $10,000/year doesn't garner the client a lot of time put into their SEO campaign. As I said before, it all comes down to time. Every SEO must figure out how best to invest their allotted hours. Will more be spent on text development than link building? Does usability/conversion analysis take a higher priority over anything else?

For us SEOs, sometimes the hard part is convincing clients to invest in our time (package costs), but in reality we should be convincing them to invest in their website. It's not how much money the client is paying for SEO, it's how much time their money will allow the SEO to invest in their website.

The Spend-Cautious Client

I'm as cost conscious as the next guy, but there comes a point when pinching pennies is counter productive... especially in business. When I look at various on- and off-line marketing campaigns, I don't look at the cost so much as I look at the overall return. Sure, a big price tag makes me think long and hard before investing, but what I want to know is, will I get my return on that investment?

The bigger the price tag the harder it is to jump into an unknown investment. This is just as true with SEO as with any form of marketing, but perhaps even more true with SEO because the return is not instant. SEO requires a long-term investment and the money you pour into it today will not be returned for several months. This is even truer for new businesses just getting online.

The Internet has attracted many new business owners who thought (some rightfully and some not) that they could simply build a website and start making money in their spare time. Many people have become successful and probably a great deal more have not.

Any business, on- or off-line, requires investment. Investment of both time and money.

  • If you have neither time nor money, there will be no success.
  • If you have time and not money, success can come, but you may run out of time before it happens.
  • If you have money but not time, success may come, but it will be fleeting without proper preparation and planning.
  • If you have both time and money, success may come, but like any business, a proper business plan is required.

Obviously, the best position is to have both time and money. And if you want to optimize your site for search engines, you need both and you must be prepared to spend both as well. Look at your options, but don't consider pricing only. Price (high or low) is NOT an indicator of a more successful campaign.

Costly marketing will still fail, if the business plan is not solid. Cheap marketing will usually only produce cheap results.

It's not how much it costs, its the ROI (return on investment) that you get for your money. Look at the long-term goals. If you really want to succeed with optimization be prepared to invest, and like any good investment, allow it to fully mature. Only then will your search marketing campaign prove successful.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

October 13, 2006

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.

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