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How Much Does SEO Cost? A Line-By-Line Breakdown

When you ask, “How much does SEO cost?” you usually get the answer, “it depends.” Sure, there are as many ways to pay for SEO as there are service providers. But I want to pull back the curtain and look at what you’re paying for and how your investment impacts results.

Jan 11, 2023

11 m read

When marketing pros sit down to craft a plan to meet their KPIs, the first thing they do is consider the channels they can leverage to achieve their goals. There was a time, not long ago, when only a tiny percentage of them would include search engine optimization (SEO) in the marketing mix.

According to Hubspot’s 2021 State of Marketing Report, an increasing number of businesses are adding SEO to their marketing plans (69% in 2021, up from 65% in 2020). But many marketers get tripped up trying to budget for SEO because of the lack of transparency in our industry about how much search engine optimization costs.

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There’s a lot of general information out there about how much you can expect to spend on SEO services. Some of it’s helpful, and to be honest, some of it isn’t.

At Victorious, we value transparency in our processes and our communication.

So I’m going to pull back the curtain on SEO costs, discuss what you’ll find in the industry, and give you a line-by-line breakdown of a sample campaign so we can talk about where the money goes.

In the first part of this article, I’ll address some frequently asked questions about the general cost of SEO services. Then, we’ll dig into a sample campaign and get real about how much you can expect to pay for quality SEO.

How Much Does the Average SEO Project Cost? 

It’s a fair question, and I hear it a lot. When someone asks me about the cost of an “SEO project,” it’s a tell-tale sign that they think of SEO as a discrete, one-and-done activity.

In truth, any SEO worth paying for is an ongoing process that involves constantly monitoring analytics, responding to changes in the competitive landscape, and keeping an eye on whether Google algorithm updates have impacted ranking.

(Fortunately, having good SEO practices in place means that algorithm updates usually positively impact search visibility.)

Is There a Standard Cost for SEO?

In a word, no. You’ll find a wide range of costs in the SEO industry. Most of the variations in how much you’ll pay for SEO boil down to these common factors:

  1. The SEO cost model 
  2. What specific SEO services are included
  3. The urgency for results
  4. The SEO agency structure

Examples of SEO Cost Models

There are as many ways to pay for SEO as there are SEO services providers. Generally, SEO cost models break down into these categories:

1. Hourly Consultation

You might choose to work with SEO professionals on an as-needed basis and pay them hourly rates. While this can look like a cost-effective road to paying for only what you need, the question that begs to be answered is, how do you know what you need? Are you trusting hourly SEO consultants to prioritize SEO activities for you? How much communication is involved in developing a strategic approach to your visibility in search engines? How much does someone getting paid by the hour care about building a long-term SEO plan that will benefit your business for years to come?

2. Fixed Price Contract

Fixed SEO prices offer the opportunity to pay a set dollar amount for specific SEO services. For instance, you might pay for a site audit, 100 backlinks, or ten pieces of search-optimized content. The SEO agency provides a “deliverable” in exchange for a predetermined amount of your marketing dollars. Much like an hourly rates consulting model, fixed-price contracts might seem like an attractive way to pay for only what you need. 

However, a model of picking and choosing from a menu of SEO services presupposes that each search engine optimization activity has value in isolation, and the value of each corresponds directly to the price you pay for them. 

More importantly, though, this type of piecemeal approach ignores an essential part of building an SEO campaign that benefits your business objectives — a strategy.

Without a unifying goal that drives each available SEO tactic to the same end, you wind up with nothing except a ticked-off checklist that serves no larger purpose.

3. Project-Based SEO Services

This SEO pricing model is similar to the fixed-price contract in that the customer pays a set price for a custom SEO “project.” Rather than picking services a la carte, like with the fixed SEO pricing model, the project you pay for might include several different SEO services. For example, project-based SEO services might apply to a new site launch, which requires consultation about site structure, keyword research, and the creation of new content.

While project-based SEO prices allow more flexibility to address issues with a strategic mindset, the narrow scope of these arrangements limits the value SEO can bring to your bottom line.

There’s a tremendous opportunity cost to treating a discrete SEO project as isolated from more significant visibility concerns.

4. Pay-for-Performance SEO Services

Pay-for-performance SEO, or performance-based SEO, is a payment model where customers only pay for SEO once they see results. Agencies that offer this type of pay-on-results SEO service typically focus on setting goals to improve rankings, organic traffic, or revenue. While this sounds great (especially for those who have been burned by SEO agencies in the past), there can be hidden risks to taking this approach.

When an SEO agency is focused solely on making quick gains to get paid, they will overlook essential SEO strategies that take longer to yield results and produce sustainable success. In the worst-case scenario, a results-based emphasis encourages shortcuts that might ultimately damage your brand reputation.

Learn more about pay-for-performance SEO.

5. Monthly Retainer

Monthly SEO services are usually part of a longer-term contract that’s focused on a larger objective. Specific tactics support an overall strategy designed to move the needle on specific business goals. 

Retainer contracts can vary in length, but the longer the agreement, the more freedom SEO companies have to recommend sustainable-but-slower-burn, results-compounding tactics like investing in quality SEO content writing services to demonstrate authority in your field and establish trust with prospective customers.

What Does the Average Cost of SEO Services Include?

I love this question because it gets to the heart of what differentiates good SEO from bad. Since hourly, fixed, and project-based SEO pricing models are all specific to a one-and-done approach to SEO, I’ll discuss SEO services through the lens of a monthly retainer. 

When you retain an SEO company for long-term SEO, they should include a clearly defined set of SEO services.

Depending on what your SEO goals are, your SEO agency might lean more heavily on specific tactics. Still, all of these SEO services should be offered as options to improve your business’s visibility in search engines’ results.

DiscoveryStrategic RecommendationsImplementationOngoingAs Needed
Strategic goal settingCore campaign keyword themesContent creation or content briefsRegular site sweepsBad link disavowal
Competitive analysisContent opportunitiesImplementation of technical improvementsMonthly performance callsManual penalty fix
Content auditBacklinking strategyPlacement of quality backlinksResponsive support for industry changes or product launchesSite migration assistance
Technical site auditIdentified technical barriers to search visibility  Content syndication backlinksContinuous strategic consultationAdditional keyword research to expand organic footprint
Keyword researchConversion rate optimizationEnrichment of existing contentRobots.txt optimization
Meta optimizations for core pagesMapping keywords to points of conversionXML sitemap creation & submission
Google Analytics set-up & goal trackingKeyword cannibalization / duplicate content audit
Anchor text research & analysisSite architecture optimization
Redirect auditFeatured snippet optimization
Backlink auditSchema review & implementation guidance
E.A.T. Analysis
Google My Business optimization
Local citation audit
Local SEO services
List of SEO services

The Urgency for Results Drives SEO Costs

Another essential factor in how much SEO can cost is the level of urgency for results and the investment you’re willing to make in the name of a quick lift. Depending on the current challenges your business is facing, the amount of search optimization you’ve already done, and the competitive organic search landscape in your industry, you might opt to invest more heavily in tactics that can drive results on a shorter timeline.

Let’s back up and dig deeper into the idea of “fast results.”

If Good SEO Takes Time, How Does Spending More Yield Faster Results?

I’m so glad you asked this question! If you’ve been paying attention to our oft-repeated mantra that good SEO takes time, you might be scratching your head, wondering why I’d cite speedy results as a cost factor for SEO.

It is one hundred percent true that no one can (or should) promise overnight results from a campaign.

That being said…

…when you focus your resources on specific tactics, they can accelerate the accumulation of topical authority in your industry and shorten the timeline within which you hit metric milestones on the way to your goals. 

We know these two things about Google:

  1. Google is a curiosity engine that exists to serve high-quality content that matches the search intent of its users.
  2. Google assesses both quantity and backlink quality to content as a signal of its value.

Spending more to create relevant content and place backlinks from well-respected websites can help you build topical authority and earn top spots in Google search engine results pages (SERPs) more quickly than competitors that don’t make a similar investment.

The good news is, using sound SEO tactics to build authority is a strategy that pays dividends over time. That initial investment not only offers a quick lift but lasting results.

Tiered SEO Plans Can Meet Your SEO Needs

Different SEO companies might offer a specific SEO plan that’s tailored for how quickly your business needs to gain traction in organic search results. Some customers may have goals that necessitate a high spend in SEO, while others can hit their metric milestones with SEO packages that require a lower budgetary commitment.

SEO costs should flex to your needs and budget — to a certain extent. (See SEO costs vs. results below.)

SEO Costs vs. Results 

2019 study conducted by Backlinko uncovered a direct correlation between the amount of money marketers invested in SEO and their level of satisfaction with service and results. This study has a limited data set (1,200 respondents) and focuses on small businesses, so the average SEO cost falls on the small side. Still, the trendline holds through to marketers spending several thousand dollars a month for their SEO services. 

Why does increased spending on SEO lead to increased satisfaction? While you don’t always get what you pay for, there are economic realities within the SEO industry that make it impossible to deliver a high level of service and results below a minimum SEO cost per month. 

If you come upon an SEO consultant who offers to “do your SEO” for $500, beware that there’s no way they can provide you the time and attention that delivers quality results for that amount of money.

The Cost of Cheap SEO

Inevitably, as you research SEO companies, there will be someone who promises to deliver the moon with rock-bottom SEO pricing. Don’t be tempted. Being pulled in by the promise of big results on a small budget will not only not help your search engine rankings but could destroy the credibility of your website and threaten your livelihood. 

It’s a common tactic of unethical (or black hat) SEO providers to purchase spammy links for their clients to create quick wins in search results. The practice of placing links, whether purchased or otherwise, without regard to their value to users is a short-sighted SEO tactic that won’t lead to the same long-term gains and sacrifices the authority you could be gaining with high-quality link-building.

Read this cautionary tale about a customer who came to us on the brink of losing their business because of cheap SEO.

Where Does the Money Go in a Campaign?

Now that we’ve covered some of the general truths about how much SEO costs, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and break down a “typical” campaign at Victorious.

A Line-By-Line Breakdown of SEO Costs

I say “typical” because although we have a standardized methodology, we make sure there’s enough flexibility for each campaign to be custom-fitted to the individual customer’s needs.

The SEO activities listed below are spread out through a 12-month campaign.

Some things to note:

  • Not every activity happens precisely within the same timeframe for each campaign.
  • We offer different plans designed to meet the needs of individual customers. The difference between each of our plans is in the amount of content and backlinks they include.

Quarter One Campaign Activities 

Victorious is unique among our competitors because we front-load our 12-month campaigns with strategic goal-setting, an aggressive audit and research schedule, and methodically mapping every SEO activity to a focused set of keyword themes that support our customers’ goals.

Notice the flurry of SEO services we provide during the first month of a contract that set our customers up for success from the very beginning of our relationship.

Time FrameCampaign Items
Month 1Onboarding & Strategic Goal Setting
200 Point Technical Site Audit
Google Analytics Setup & Goal Tracking
Advanced Google Analytics Optimization
Page Optimizations – Title Tags and Meta Descriptions
Header Tag Optimization
Core Campaign Keyword Themes
XML Sitemap Creation & Submission
301 Redirect Audit
Mapping of Keywords to Commercially Viable Site Pages
Anchor Text Research and Analysis
Keyword Research to Increase Topical Authority
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management
Month 2High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
Implementation Development Hours
Keyword Research Themes to Increase Topical Authority
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Backlink Analysis & Manual Disavow
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management
Month 3High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
Syndicated Content Links
Flex Credits
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management

Quarter One of a 12-month SEO Campaign

Quarter Two Campaign Activities

As we head into the second quarter of a campaign, we establish a steady rhythm of link building and content optimization and begin to fold in as-needed optimizations as we dig deeper into the nuances that are impacting your site’s SEO performance — things like keyword cannibalization or internal linking practices. We also begin to fold in a regular cadence of auditing services to provide a temperature check for ongoing site health and keyword research services to identify topics for new content you can add to your site to build topical authority and expand your organic footprint.

Time FrameCampaign Items
Month 4High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
1,000 Word Optimized Content
Advanced Site Sweep
Page Speed Analysis & Recommendations
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Internal Link Optimization
Robots.txt Optimization
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management
Month 5High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
Keyword Research Themes to Increase Topical Authority
Advanced Site Sweep
Page Speed Analysis & Recommendations
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Internal Link Optimization
Robots.txt Optimization
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management
Month 6High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
Syndicated Content Link Building
Flex Credits
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management

Quarter TWO of a 12-month SEO Campaign

Quarter Three Campaign Activities

During the third quarter, the campaign progresses with continued reporting and consultation from a dedicated pod of strategists to make sure all efforts push the flywheel on specific campaign goals. At this point, we’ll be able to assess what’s working and identify opportunities to improve based on six months of site performance.

Time FrameCampaign Items
Month 7High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management
Month 8High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
Keyword Research Themes to Increase Topical Authority
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management
Month 9High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
Syndicated Content Link Building
Flex Deliverable Credits
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management

Quarter THREE of a 12-month SEO Campaign

Quarter Four Campaign Activities

During the fourth quarter, we continue the quarterly cadence of activities and begin to plan for adding new areas of focus to the campaign. As we round out 12 months and look to the following year, we are able to assess our delivery on business goals and determine if there are strategic pages to focus on in the future. Most of our 12-month campaigns end with an extension into a 24-month campaign, so it’s important for us to look at how we can update our SEO strategy based on business goals that were achieved and new business goals that are important to the customer.

Time FrameCampaign Items
Month 10High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Advanced Site Sweep
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management
Month 11High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
Keyword Research Themes to Increase Topical Authority
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management
Month 12High Quality Link Building (Unique Referring Domains)
Syndicated Content Link Building
Flex Deliverable Credits
1,000 Words of Optimized Content
Monthly SEO Performance Report Calls
Expert SEO Campaign Consultation
24/7 Access to SEO Reporting Dashboards
Online Project Management

Quarter FOUR of a 12-month SEO Campaign

So, How Much Does SEO Cost?

SEO pricing for a campaign like the one outlined above usually costs $3-10k/month at Victorious.

What accounts for the broad range? The primary difference between these SEO packages is the number of backlinks that are created each month, the amount of SEO content being created, how many flex credits are included to be used throughout the campaign, and the number of site pages that the campaign is focused on.

Often, our customers that have started with a smaller monthly budget are able to see the ROI after six months or so and invest additional budget to get more backlinks, more content, and turn an additional spend into accelerated growth.

Why Commit to Spending on SEO in the Long-Term

I hope that laying out an entire campaign makes it clear why a long-term strategy works best for lasting SEO results. An SEO company that you’re paying on a project basis won’t be able to amortize the upfront SEO audit cost and investment in the people-hours it takes to do the research needed to create your SEO strategy.

Because we work on a 12-month cycle, we can front-load all that work to build a core strategy that will yield compound results for your marketing objectives. 

Talk to an SEO Consultant

Although I’ve tried to pull back the curtain on how much SEO costs and what you should expect from your budget, no single SEO approach works for all businesses at every growth stage.

If you’re at a point where being found in organic search has become mission-critical, reach out to us, and let’s talk about how to get your business the attention it deserves

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