How much does SEO cost in 2021?

Geoff Karcher Learn

How much does SEO cost in 2021?

It’s fair to say that search engine optimization (SEO) costs vary widely, based on a number of important factors. In this post, we will give you some real answers and real SEO pricing that you can trust. Our goal here is to talk about lead generation for marketing-oriented websites. In a later post, we’ll discuss SEO pricing for e-commerce.

Factors that contribute to SEO costs

  • Competitiveness of your industry
  • Size and scope of your target audience
  • Architecture and SEO friendliness of your website
  • Geography you are optimizing for
  • Number of pages, products, services or categories you want to optimize for

First let’s dispense with the junk …

SEO pricing that is not realistic

We’ve all seen the ads or emails that hit our inbox: “Skyrocket your SEO for $99.” It amazes me that there are enough people who believe things like this that companies can still afford to push these messages out so aggressively. Any legitimate SEO company will tell you that honest search engine optimization is the process of making your website easier to use and more relevant to the people you want to serve. In what other area of your business would you expect to make true professional improvements for a hundred bucks? I hope none. No matter how small, local or niche your business is, I can tell you with absolute certainty that any SEO service priced in hundreds of dollars is a waste of your time and money.

What should you expect to pay for SEO services?

Unfortunately, for those companies seeking strategic SEO, there is no standard approach or price. Believe me when I tell you, I wish that did exist because it would save a lot of frustration, wasted money and pain for thousands of companies. Here are some general costs I believe are honest and relevant in 2021 regarding SEO pricing.

SEO costs for small, local or very niche businesses

The assumption in these numbers is that we are estimating for a company with revenues between $2 million and $10 million annually. For companies significantly smaller than $2 million in annual revenue, it is often difficult to justify the expense of hiring an SEO agency. As always, there are exceptions to every rule, so if your company is that size, don’t rule it out, just ask hard questions.

Another assumption in these examples is that the SEO company is providing search engine optimization services that are likely to include website usability and conversion optimization, on-page SEO and content creation for purposes of educating the market and turning your website into a thought leadership channel.

Estimated SEO investment for small businesses should be between $14,000 and $30,000 on an annual basis.

The core drivers for these numbers are time and skill. Let’s make the assumption that any SEO company you are interviewing actually has the team of at least 4 to 5 true professionals required to execute a real SEO strategy. At the low end of $14,000 per year, that investment is likely to buy you less than 100 hours of a professional’s time (based on an average rate of $150 per hour). So, the next time you are evaluating SEO costs and they come in under $1,000 per month, ask yourself this question: Would you trust an accountant or lawyer that operated for $20 or $30 per hour? I suspect you believe in your company too much to take a risk like that.

SEO pricing for mid-market companies

In this scenario, we are discussing mid-market companies, likely in the $8 million to $100 million annual revenue range. I realize that’s quite a wide range, however, I can tell you that in my 25 years of experience doing this, the needs for companies within that range are surprisingly similar. Of course, there are size and scale differences, but the investment ranges I’m about to share will cover that, at least in general terms.

Mid-market companies should expect to invest between $35,000 and $100,000 on annual SEO services.

I use the term “invest” for a reason. SEO should not just be an expense like IT services. If done right, it is a revenue generating activity, and the best SEO companies will not be afraid to help you draw a direct line between the dollars you invest in SEO and the revenue it generates. Not dissimilar from the SEO pricing for small business we discussed above, it’s easy to underestimate the time and energy needed to execute a professional SEO strategy that has a real chance of success driving revenue.

A typical industrial manufacturer’s website, for example, is made up of between 500 and 3,000 pages. Many of those are white papers, engineering docs, pdf files, etc. Unfortunately, these pages are usually accumulated over the course of years, added whenever someone has the time. This is true even in large companies. It’s usually a hot mess. When you start adding it up, it’s not difficult to imagine how a good SEO strategy focused on leveraging all of that content to grow sales in a systematic way can take a hundred hours per month. SEO requires work. But it pays.

SEO pricing for enterprise companies

We’re considering companies over $100 million enterprise for the purposes of this post. Let’s be honest about this one, most enterprise companies are too focused on other things to really focus on or invest in SEO. The few that do – we only work with a handful on this front – are the best in breed. SEO for enterprise organizations can almost seem insurmountable to a purist who wants to do it right. The reality is, most companies of this size have many websites – ad agencies love to create a new website for every idea. They have thousands of pages of content and many, many cooks in the kitchen. As a result, they are slow to make decisions.

All that said, it can be done. We have worked with and continue to work with about a dozen companies between $300 million and $2 billion. In those cases, we have had leadership commitment and a high degree of success. The key is not to try and solve it all at once. Break the strategy into attainable sprints and make a difference.

Because of these factors, companies of this scale who are willing to make the commitment to growth should expect to invest at least $100,000 per year in SEO. Of course, depending on goals, competition and internal resource availability, that can easily scale toward $300,000.

Hourly rates for SEO

I don’t typically recommend an hourly approach to SEO. It’s hard for both the SEO agency and the client to hold themselves accountable to revenue targets tied to hours. It’s also very easy for the client to become frustrated with the “timer starting” every time the phone rings. That said, I’m going to share some reasonable hourly rates that informed most of the numbers above. These are all based on my history with SEO companies or individuals that have real experience and expertise in the SEO field. In our case, the hourly rate we assign to a client goes down as their investment in SEO goes up. We feel like clients that make a significant commitment to us deserve a higher degree of effort and time allocation for their dollar.

  • One-person SEO shop: $100 to $300 per hour
  • Boutique SEO company (3 to 5 people): $75 to $200 per hour
  • Mid-size SEO company (20 to 50 people): $120 to $200 per hour
  • Large SEO company (50 to 200 people): $180 to $350 per hour

Is it worth it to pay thousands of dollars for SEO anymore?

I recently wrote a post on whether or not SEO is worth it in 2021. If you have a business with growth opportunity, the answer is likely yes. It’s more necessary than it has ever been. Google isn’t getting any easier to deal with, and people are relentless about going to Google first to find answers. The simplest way to answer the question regarding how much you should allocate to your SEO budget is establishing the value of a new client to your business. Once you know that number, you can work backward through your average margin, average close rate and website conversion rate. Using those metrics, you can estimate the value of a new lead.

If you are talking with an SEO agency and they are telling you about SEO pricing, traffic and rankings but not talking to you about your business and profitability, maybe you need to go back to Google and find a different SEO company.

If you’re ready to discuss how a tailored SEO strategy can help support your company’s growth and success, reach out to The Karcher Group today. We look forward to building an SEO plan that meets your needs and your budget.