When you’re considering implementing a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, choosing the right person to optimize your site is crucial.
Conducting an audit and coming up with a plan to optimize your site for each of Google’s 200 ranking factors could result in a list of thousands of potential SEO tasks. Some will be worth the time and effort of implementation, and some won’t.
Mistakes in prioritization can be costly. Focusing on the wrong tasks can require tremendous effort that—in the end—yields sub-par returns. And ineffective, expensive results aren’t even the worst possibility.
If Google interprets your optimization tactics as black-hat SEO, you could be removed from search results altogether.
Good SEO requires time, effort, and expertise. Exceptional SEOs are experienced and learned. They’ve spent years implementing SEO strategies, have gained valuable insights from their successes and failures, and have taken the time to review studies and gain insights from other industry experts.
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Finding the right SEO provider takes time, research, and effort. But when the decision could result in either increased traffic or a complete loss, it’s worth the upfront investment.
Why you should hire an SEO agency
When considering adopting an SEO strategy, you have three main options. You can try to do the work yourself, hire a full-time SEO specialist, or work with an SEO company or agency.
Hiring the right SEO firm is a lot like hiring the right auto mechanic. It can be confusing, but knowing a few key points of information will help. —Josh Steimle, CEO at MWI
Here are the pros and cons of each.
1. Optimize your own site
Doing SEO yourself may work. Especially if you’re just getting started online or if you manage a small website. It’s certainly possible to learn the basics of SEO and use what you learn to optimize your content for keywords or build backlinks. It’s also the most affordable option.
However, the low cost of DIY SEO is a trade-off. You’ll avoid the costs of hiring a professional. But you’ll also forego a lot of expertise. And that could potentially result in lost revenue. Professional SEOs can optimize your site in a way that guides true business growth.
Additionally, effective optimization is time-consuming. If you divide your time between running your business and optimizing your site, you’ll inevitably end up neglecting important tasks in one of the two areas.
2. Hire a full-time SEO specialist
Another option is to hire a full-time, in-house SEO specialist. The advantage of this option is—if you’ve hired the right person—your specialist will have the expertise required to identify and prioritize tasks appropriately. They’ll also be able to dedicate 40 hours a week to optimizing your site.
Having a dedicated SEO specialist certainly has advantages over doing the work yourself. But it can also be costly. By hiring in-house, you’ll take on the expense of a full-time salary and benefits. And you’ll incur those expenses whether there’s valuable optimization work to do or not.
3. Hire an SEO company or agency
Like in-house specialists, SEO companies and agencies bring the advantage of experience. In fact, SEO agencies likely bring more experience than specialists.
Agencies that neglect new optimization tactics and trends rarely stay in business for long. SEO agencies operate on successes and referrals, so they have a vested interest in knowing their trade inside and out.
The other major advantage of hiring an agency is that you only pay for work completed. Reputable SEO companies will conduct an audit of your site and provide a proposal for recommended tasks, reasons for their recommendations, and the cost of completing those tasks. You pay for the work you want to have completed, which can be less expensive than keeping someone on staff.
The cost of working with an agency can be daunting. However, make sure to consider the potential revenue growth that effective optimization will drive over time, and compare the cost of hiring an agency short-term to the ongoing costs of hiring in-house. Comparing the long-term costs of the three different options will help you make the best decision.
What SEO services do agencies provide?
The services an SEO agency provides depends largely on the type of agency you choose.
Some SEO companies are full-service digital marketing agencies that offer SEO as an option. Others are boutique or niche agencies that specialize in a specific aspect of SEO. They might be experts in link-building or local SEO, for example.
Additionally, some SEO agencies will simply recommend tasks, while others will recommend tasks and perform the changes.
Types of SEO services you might need
Before you start the process of looking for an SEO agency, you should understand the different types of SEO services available so you can get a feel for the services your business needs:
- On-page SEO. On-page services focus on optimizing your site, its pages, and its content for search. It includes technical SEO tasks like improving load speeds, metadata optimization, and mobile usability. It also encompasses content, media, and internal navigation optimization.
- Off-page SEO. Off-page SEO refers to the optimization of external signals that impact search rankings. Generally, off-page SEO services focus on link-building. But social media marketing may also be part of an agency’s off-page offerings.
- Keyword research. Keyword research is the process of collecting a list of keywords, determining relevancy, user intent, and competition, and using that information to produce a list of keywords that a site should be optimized for.
- Content planning. Content planning typically goes hand-in-hand with keyword research. The agency recommends—or creates—blog posts, landing pages, and other content types that are designed to drive quality organic traffic to a site.
- Analytics. Analytics services may include installing tracking software, setting up custom reports, teaching business leaders how to read and interpret metrics, and/or mining analytics for optimization insights.
- Pay-per-click (PPC). Some agencies provide services that are focused on driving both organic and paid traffic. These agencies may offer optimization services for ads hosted through AdWords or another PPC advertising platform.
- Local SEO. Local SEO is a specialized service that caters to businesses with customers located in a specific and confined geographic area. This type of SEO requires a different approach and typically includes optimization of Google Maps and other directory listings.
In addition to these SEO-specific services, many SEO companies—especially large agencies—offer related services like content marketing, social media marketing, email marketing, asset and ad design, website design, and website development.
How to choose an SEO company
The first two steps in choosing an SEO company to optimize your site are
- determining what type of provider you want to hire (a specialist or an agency)
- determining what types of services you need
Next, you need to decide on a budget. Determine how much you can afford to invest in SEO upfront as well as on an ongoing basis. Figuring out what you can afford to spend on SEO before researching your options will help you eliminate potential providers that exceed your budget limitations.
With these three steps completed, you can begin compiling a list of potential providers. Your initial inclination will likely be to conduct a Google search and see who pops up. The best SEO companies will likely be those that appear in top results, right? Not necessarily.
Why searching for an SEO agency might not be your best option
The reality is that SEO companies that rely on search traffic are often those that are unable to secure clients through referrals. The best SEO providers usually don’t need to find clients through search. Their existing clients refer new clients frequently, so they grow their client base through word-of-mouth advertising.
There are a few alternative resources you can use to find reputable SEO companies:
- Ask for recommendations. If you have friends, family members, or other connections that own digital properties, they may be able to recommend SEO companies they’ve worked with that produced positive results.
- Take advice from industry experts. Moz—one of the leading publishers of SEO industry content—maintains a list of recommended SEO companies and consultants. Companies must be nominated to get on the list, and they’re only included if they’re determined to be expert practitioners and positive contributors to the SEO industry.
- Look for local providers. There’s nothing wrong with working with an SEO provider remotely. But sometimes it’s easier to judge a company’s reputability when you can meet with them face-to-face. For this reason, you may want to browse Google Maps or another directory to find SEO companies in your area.
Review the websites of the companies you’re considering, and choose a few that you want to investigate further. Once you have a shortlist, you’ll be ready to set up consultations with the companies you’re considering.
We recommend vetting between three and five agencies. The consultations will help you narrow down your list even further.
Resources for interviewing SEO providers:
- Don’t Get Fooled: 17 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an SEO Company
- 12 Questions You Need to Ask Before Hiring an SEO Company
How much does SEO cost?
The costs of SEO services will depend on several factors. Things like the types of services you need and the size of the company you choose will influence the cost. So will the amount of work that needs to be completed. As will the reputation and location of the agency.
Asking what SEO costs is a bit like going to a car dealership and asking the dealer ‘So, how much for a new car?’ The natural response is ‘It depends. What are you looking for?’ —Josh Steimle, CEO at MWI
Well-known agencies operating out of Silicon Valley will inevitably be pricier than smaller regional shops with fewer clients.
However, there are some general guidelines you can reference to set expectations for what you can expect to pay.
Most SEO providers will charge an upfront fee to conduct a site audit. From there, a number of pricing models may be available.
- For an upfront site audit, you can expect to pay between $600 and $2,000 for a basic audit, or between $3,000 and $20,000 for a detailed audit (source: Forbes).
- If you’re paying by the hour, expect a reputable SEO company to charge an average between $75 and $150 per hour (source: RankPay).
- Monthly retainers, on average, run between $750 and $5,000 per month, depending on the size of your digital property, the amount of work being completed, and the complexity of the work (source: Search Engine Watch).
- Per-project rates are the most variable as they are entirely dependent on the details of the project. Prices range from less than $100 to more than $250,000, though the majority fall between $2,500 and $5,000 (source: Moz).
How much you might pay for SEO services
For a small business website that needs just a few SEO services, you may be able to find an agency for as little as $9,000 annually ($750 monthly retainer for 12 months). That doesn’t include the upfront costs of a basic or detailed audit.
Mid-sized or e-commerce websites will be looking at higher annual costs. Possibly more along the lines of $60,000 (a $5,000 monthly retainer for 12 months).
Comparatively, the average salary for an SEO specialist is $42,535, and the average salary for an SEO manager is $63,795, according to PayScale. To compare the cost of an agency to that of an in-house SEO, combine both the average salary and the cost of employer-paid benefits to determine which model offers the best value.
Hiring an SEO consultant vs. a company
One final consideration is hiring an SEO consultant. This is a compromise between hiring in-house and going through an agency.
Consultants are independent SEO experts who offer individualized attention like an in-house SEO. But they’re paid as contractors rather than full-time or salaried employees.
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Pricing for consultants will likely be similar to that of agencies, but a consultant may be in a position to offer more detailed attention and provide more personalized recommendations.
One scenario where a consultant could be a preferred option is if you have the resources on staff to perform the work, but you don’t have the SEO expertise to know what work to do. You could bring in a consultant on contract to conduct an audit, help you prioritize tasks, and teach your team how to optimize for search on an ongoing basis.
Keep in mind, though, that SEO usually takes at least four months before you begin to see results. In some cases, it could be up to a year.
If you bring in a consultant for three months, he/she may be long gone before you see the outcome of optimization efforts. If you make a poor hiring decision, you could incur a huge expense for underwhelming returns and zero recompense.
Getting started with SEO
Launching an SEO campaign is no small initiative. DIY SEO is rarely effective, and making a poor decision when hiring an expert can be both expensive and detrimental.
Unless you have the budget and the energy to really commit yourself to SEO, it might be a channel you consider later down the road. —Rand Fishkin, Wizard of Moz
Google takes harsh action against companies that engage in black-hat SEO tactics. They’ll apply manual penalties, which will plummet your rankings and potentially remove your site from search altogether.
Finding the right SEO provider takes time and effort, but due diligence up front pays off in the end with increased rankings and revenue.
Have you paid for SEO services in the past? What advice do you have for people looking for an SEO contractor? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below!