Updated: May 2023
If you’ve been doing search engine marketing for your company in-house for more than a couple years, you’ll know it is becoming harder to see results. Plus, if your company is growing, you get asked to do one project after another including those SEO tasks. Whatever the reason may be, you may be looking to outsource some or all of your digital work. How much should you expect to pay for search engine optimization and for that matter consulting?
“There is no one correct answer for how much you should pay for search engine optimization or other digital marketing services”
What Level Of Service Do I Need?
There are several different options, levels, and types of service. Which option makes the most sense for you often depends on where you are with your business. If you’re a small company with just a handful of employees, you may need to outsource most of your marketing to keep up with business demand. If you’re a larger company that can afford to take on salary, you may want to keep some of your search marketing work in-house and hire an outside consultant for their expertise.
Let’s take a look at each type of service to see how much you could or should be paying.
- Freelancer – Typically very specialized, lower cost, managed resource
- Consultant – Typically less specialized, moderate cost, independent resource
- Full Service Ad Agency – Typically less specialized, higher cost, multiple independent resources
- International Outsourcing – Typically lower quality, lower cost, managed resource
A search marketing freelancer is someone who is relatively new to the craft of search engine optimization and Google Ads management. This person typically has an expertise in one area of SEO; copy writing, website programming, HTML, keyword research, link building, etc. A freelancer may be a great option for a company who has experience in search engine marketing and is confident in their ability to manage a Google Ads pay-per-click marketing campaign. A freelancer will bring some valuable work experience to the table that may not be available in current employees or part of the digital marketing manager’s role.
Ideally, a freelancer should bring muscle to a campaign but should not be responsible for organic improvements or specific keyword rankings. If your company fails to improve their Google organic search performance using outside freelance help, it’s not the fault of your freelance copy writer making $30 an hour.
“A freelancer should bring muscle to a campaign but should not be responsible for organic improvements or specific keyword rankings”
A freelancer with a few years of experience can help write copy, perhaps do some keyword research and support your internal team. A freelancer does not make sense if you have no in-house marketing manager or internal resources to help manage a campaign. Part time workers can support your campaign but will generally lack experience building and running a search engine marketing strategy. Growth with freelancers alone is often a result of chance. Companies that hire freelance-only marketing help run the risk of spamming Google which can lead to severe organic search penalties. Proceed with caution when hiring part time talent on the cheap.
Price Range: $35-125 per hour, non-retainer, project based pricing, based on expertise
Total Monthly Spend Range: $500-3,000 based on your campaign needs
A level above the freelancer is the consultant. A consultant might manage or hire other freelancers to help run their campaigns, or they may do all of the work needed on each client. Within consultants there is often a wide range of expertise and skills. You may have experts that do SEO alone and will not touch Google Ads pay-per-click advertising. You may have some that do Google Ads management, social media marketing, email campaigns, and more. Consultants are a great match for a company with an in-house marketing team or a small business with limited resources.
“A consultant is generally only as good as the resources you put behind them.”
What a consultant should bring to the table is experience and strategy. They should be able to direct a strategy along with your in-house team or freelancers. Your consultant may also manage their own contract resources to fill any gaps in your campaigns based on your budget.
A consultant is generally only as good as the resources you put behind them. Since consultants are not an agency with salary employees (although some do have several employees), they rely on your internal or external resources to execute on campaigns.
A consultant generally asks for a set retainer of hours each month to help manage a campaign. What most consultants charge is generally based on their level of expertise. Someone new to consulting who just left the corporate world might charge as low as $50 per hour. Someone who has been in the marketing industry for several years or has worked several years at a large advertising agency, might charge upwards of $200-300 per hour. You should be able to find a competent search marketing professional in the $75-150 per hour range.
Beware of companies or services that charge ultra-low monthly fees like $199-499 with no contract. It’s very likely your work will be outsourced to cheap international service providers. There are very few good options at a low price range that offer a return on investment. It’s likely you will be throwing your money away at sub-par work that can damage your brand. Keep in mind at the $750 per month spend level, your consultant will be very limited in how much hands on work they can execute each month. In a competitive market, giving your consultant too few hours per month can prevent growth.
Price Range: $75-200 per hour, retainer based pricing, project based pricing, based on level of need and budget
Total Monthly Spend Range: $1,000-5,000 per month + internal/external resources, most ask for a base of 16+ hours per month based on campaign size and scope of work
When your campaign has reached the limit of using freelancers, you may need to hire a full service marketing agency. There are different types of agencies based on their size and level of expertise in digital. A boutique ad agency may not have anyone with strong search engine marketing skills in-house so they could hire an outside consultant to fill that gap. A larger agency will likely have one or two organic search experts available to help run your campaigns. Most digital agencies will provide several other marketing services outside of search engine optimization like website design, PR, banner ads, print marketing materials and more.
If you’re a company with several different marketing needs in a less competitive market or a local company, a full service advertising agency might be for you. If you’re in a more competitive market with a national focus, an experienced consultant or digital firm that specializes in search marketing might be a better choice. Most local PR or traditional ad firms are terrible at managing PPC or SEO campaigns. Many small full service firms see SEO or pay-per-click advertising as a profit channel but lack the expertise to execute on a campaign. Since search engine marketing isn’t how they make most of their money, they can afford to be mediocre. Where a full service advertising firm lacks in search, they make up for in creative talent or branding strategy.
“Most local PR agencies or traditional advertising firms are terrible at Google Ads or SEO campaigns. In order to get a staff with more than 1-3 years of experience, you’ll need to hire a larger and likely more expensive national search marketing agency.”
A full service ad agency will need to cover their employee’s salary plus make a profit, which means they need to bill out enough work to make up for the two or three people running your campaigns. Due to the overhead cost and additional management oversight, a full service agency tends to charge a premium over consultants or freelancers. As a business owner or marketing director, you need to decide if this premium and level of management is worth giving up some of your return on investment. The value most full service firms provide is easy management on the part of the hiring company and turn-key marketing services. They generally offer turn-key solutions, which can include search engine marketing, that take little thought other than budgeting on the part of the hiring company. It’s much harder to know exactly what SEO means at each firm. Some firms may consider simply blogging each week a search marketing activity.
“[Full service firms] offer turn-key marketing solutions, which can include search engine marketing, that take little thought other than budgeting…”
A local full service agency may take on a client at a lower than average spend per month but only if this includes other projects like a website, mobile app, or PR campaign. The total cost of all services usually exceeds 3-5k per month. For a full service agency that takes on several marketing activities, the range of spend can go much higher than a typical search engine optimization engagement. Avoid a full service firm that claims “SEO is dead” or pushes a mobile app as the solution to your marketing problems. Sure, a new website may improve your organic search performance but by how much and at what cost? A new website or app can sometimes set you back several months from a marketing perspective.
Price Range: $150-300 per hour, retainer, project based pricing
Total Monthly Spend Range: $5,000-20,000+, based on all marketing needs, will likely include several other services outside of SEO services.
PRO TIP: It may be hard to find a full service firm that specializes in search marketing under the $5,000-6,000 spend range, and if you do it could be a high volume and low quality firm.
These be treacherous waters! You may have received several spam emails to the tune of “Dear Sir or Madam…” and wondered if these cheap overseas digital marketing services work. Many offer freelance link building services or full service agency services at a much less than market rate. The result is poor grammar, bad links, and other mistakes Google hates.
This is what “optimization on the cheap” does to a website
Talk to a few business owners who have tried using overseas freelancers and there are some real horror stories. If you have a very low budget, at the very least work with a consultant who uses some of these outsourced resources but re-checks their work. Often these services can be more work recreating or rewriting than they are worth. A specific task like filtering a spreadsheet or helping with keyword research may be a good fit. If you’re looking for a sustainable visitor growth strategy or more advanced content marketing, try to avoid using international services.
Price Range: $8-30 USD per hour
Total Monthly Spend Range: Many offer $299-999 per month packages
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photo credit: Strelka Institute photo Samsung Mobile and Vector School: How to create a mobile app with adjusted color (license)