Experts Blog

SEO Pricing 101: What should you charge?

By Casey Markee on Oct 06, 2011 - 12:31 PM

Recently we received a question from a new SEO. They wanted to get our opinion on how to most effectively charge for SEO services. Specifically, they were asking for insight on how I and other Planet Ocean SEO experts here approached client pricing. This is a great question and one that I know will be of interest to most of you reading this post.

SEO pricing is an interesting topic because there are a number of cost pricing approaches out there. Whether you are a private individual SEO consultant or part of a larger firm, how you promote and bundle your pricing services can make or break your success.

So with that in mind, that begs the question: how do current SEO firms charge for their services?


Here, is a brief examination of the six most popular pricing models currently being used by a majority of the SEO industry in some variation:

  • 1. Hourly Consulting: This is the most common and simplest pricing model available. Work is based on how long it takes for you to complete the assigned tasks. Rates can vary widely from a $40-$60 level for entry-level SEOs to a mid-range of $100-$200 for mid-tier consulting assistance, to a high of $300-$500 for the most in-demand firms and consultants.

  • 2. Contract or Month-to-Month Services: This may be the most popular form of pricing in the SEO world these days. Clients pay either a fixed contract covering a predetermined amount of months OR sign-up for a recurring monthly campaign that usually involves a required number of months on the front-end. Since most SEO campaigns need 2-3 months to show results, this kind of SEO pricing structure is popular in getting customers to 'stick around' for the endgame.

  • 3. Pay for Results (Rankings or Traffic): This is another common pricing structure. Many sites only want to rank competitively at the top of Google for specific keyword phrases, or are interested in reaching certain pre-defined levels of targeted traffic. Firms decide where in Google they wish to rank (Position 1, 2, 3 or on Page 1) or how much traffic they need to achieve. They then pay a price to get there. This type of pricing can cause problems, however, (especially in regard to traffic) if detailed quality benchmarks aren't negotiated right from the start.

  • 4. Monthly Retainers: This method is a favorite of mine. This type of pricing uses predetermined package deals that cover a lot of deliverables at a fixed price. The best firms use this as part of an escalation package in which the retainer changes on a month-to-month basis to keep clients long-term. If you have a client who is on a 'tight budget' the Monthly Retainer model makes good sense since it can be raised or lowered based on negotiated deliverables.

  • 5. Profit Sharing: This one isn't nearly as common as it once was. Under this pricing model, the SEO accepts a smaller upfront payment to market the site in exchange for a larger backend payment of either site sales, ad revenue or company ownership compensation. Unfortunately, these have waned in popularity since in most cases you can't control ALL of the offline metrics necessary to really make sure you get a good return on your SEO services expenditure.

  • 6. Project-based Consulting: This approach is my personal favorite and the one we use exclusively at Planet Ocean and at Media Wyse. No project is the same. Thus, under this pricing model you evaluate the project in its entirety by estimating time, efforts, personnel and required deliverables then quote a price based on those variables. As many can attest, it's much easier to move some sites to the front page of Google than others. There is no one-size-fits-all model in SEO and this approach insures the client received individualized attention on their campaign. You can see the Planet Ocean approach to project-based consulting by visiting our SEO Services page and scrolling down to the Complete SEO Campaign Management section.

What is not represented in the above list, but what we here at Planet Ocean feel is absolutely important to getting off on the "right foot" with potential SEO clients, is the all-important Initial SEO Consultation.

Unlike several in the SEO industry, we think the free quote is overrated and a waste of resources. If someone is REALLY serious about improving their site then investing in a 90-minute detailed Site Review and Initial SEO Consultation should be a no-brainer! Not only do site owners receive a full and complete site audit, but they get to pick the brains of an experienced SEO consultant and ask them any and every question about their site or SEO in general.

Here at Planet Ocean, that option costs you $500 (see SEO Services page for more info). As someone who has done dozens of these, this is the BEST money a site owner can pay all year. If you've ever suffered a Google penalty, or had your site traffic suddenly grind to a halt, or just need to be pointed in the RIGHT direction when marketing your site, the Initial SEO Consultation can save you both time and money by telling you where to best concentrate your efforts.

So we've got the pricing overview out of the way. We've reviewed some of the most important SEO packages out there and given an overview of how we approach things here at Planet Ocean. Now, let's hear some feedback from Planet Ocean-affiliated SEOs and how they approach client pricing with their own firms and clients:

"Basically in regard to pricing for SEOs, it's whatever the market can bear. If you're not keeping busy, you're too high; if you have business to turn away, you're too cheap." - John Heard, Beyond Engineering
"I personally feel that there should NOT be a standard pricing because not all clients are the same. For example, if I'm doing a smaller proposal for a local flower shop in town I calculate what a new client means to that business. If on average a new customer brings in $35 I would charge them less than say a dentist where every new client is worth $525 on average. I've learned that this approach keeps clients happy AND it makes it easier for them to continue to work with you." - Kristi Hagen, Planet Ocean
"I like to approach each project individually. I listen to what the client wants and estimate how much of my time will be required to deliver it to them. Then, I give them a price range, based on an hourly rate that the work will fall into. While this is probably not scalable for agencies, it does work well for me as an independent consultant." - Mary Bowling,
"The approach I take depends on the client's budget and what they need done. Basically, I provide three options: Hands-on SEO, priced at a fixed hourly rate; specific packages, such as site audits, social media promotion, or a one-hour phone consult; or monthly retainer fee campaigns." - Esoos Bobnar, Kua Bay Media
"As an agency there are a lot of factors involved in how we approach SEO pricing. Not only do we provide on-page and off-page monthly contracts but we provide a competitive hourly rate. Our target demographic is mid-sized B2B organizations so our average contract is relatively high but we do offer lots of different packages (including an SEO blueprint) that even the smallest sites can implement." - Barry Bowman, SmartSearch Marketing

As you can see when reading these real-world testimonials, the SEO pricing strategies used by our own professionals run the gamut. And this is the norm; there is no industry standard for SEO pricing.

Further, because search engine optimization is a constantly changing field that must continually be refined to meet the algorithmic changes of the major search engines, pricing can't be defined by a set number of resources. It's fluid and thus can't be fully quantified.

So, how much is too much to charge your clients for quality SEO work these days?

Going back up to the quote of my associate John Heard, I believe he hits the proverbial nail on the head when he says, "t's whatever the market will bear. If you're not keeping busy, you're too high, if you have business to turn away, you're too cheap." Truer words have never been spoken!Planet Ocean article end