Search Engine Optimization has been around long enough where any Joe-schmuck on the street can give you the buzz words. Meta tags, links, content, blah blah blah. That’s great for the mom and pop store that sells 18 aprons a year and like to go for nice strolls down the local bike path. Here at Bluecloud, we work with big numbers and big clients and don’t stop until your website is overwhelming with you traffic and leads.The past year has brought about lots of different questions, which I will answer in a way that is highly detailed so that there is FINALLY a place to understand how complex this process is, what works, and why it costs what it does.
1. Why is there a “maintenance” agreement? Don’t you just build a site that is SEO’ed?
One of my all time favorites. During a website redesign or even during an initial launch, SEO is typically one of the highest priorities, if not the entire reason why the site is getting overhauled in the first place. The problem is that the consensus in the non-SEO world is that a website is either optimized or not – black or white. Kind of like going to the local dealer and saying “I want the fastest car.”
This is my favorite example because it’s very true that all websites are not created equal. You can build websites that are MUCH better for SEO (WordPress, CSS driven) and ones that suck (Flash), just the way you could trade in your Corolla for a Ferrari and instantly you’re going five times faster. But what happens when your Ferrari runs out of gas? You’ve got this beautiful engine that can reach epic speeds and it’s just sitting in your garage because you don’t have any gas, oil, or batteries. Good for you! No, not at all.
This is very similar to how search engines view websites – the “engine” of your website is only as good as the inputs you put into it, just like a car. Engines themselves don’t move anywhere, but engines full of gasoline sure do. Once you have this killer new website, you have to pour gas in. So, maintenance agreements are designed to keep the engine running through content, links, IT support, and social media. Without these, your website will wither away into the depths of page 2, 3, etc.
Along those same lines, it’s not just about the amount you put into your site, it’s also about the quality. Putting up a few sentence blog post every few weeks is not going to cut it, but writing a terrific and interesting 1500 word article about your business WILL cut it. Google is smart, and so are your readers – they don’t want to read garbage. With linking strategies, make sure you have a full spectrum of inbound links instead of relying on a few great links or a ton of low quality links. You need diversity from domains and from varying PageRanks, and that takes effort.
So – you need a maintenance agreement in order to keep the gas pouring into your site, to keep your momentum going forward. Maintenance agreements tend to be made up of blog posts and inbound links, tiered based on the number of each. And, as much as you hate to think about it, SEO maintenance is not cheap. Let’s talk about why.
2. How much is monthy SEO supposed to cost? I just want to be on Page 1….
Well for all of you out there that ask questions like this, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is there are plenty of firms out there that are going to charge you small amounts to “do SEO” for you. This can mean a whole slew of different things, including writing content, updating keywords on your site, or adding you to their “network.” If you are in a highly niche market and your competition is really lacking in SEO, you can definitely pay a few hundred bucks a month and have great success.
The bad news is that for 95% of the people out there, you don’t realize how competitive the market is on the web and how hard it is to move up in rankings unless you have a solid strategy behind it. Let me give you a few fictional clients and I will assign a ballpark SEO agreement:
Local Yoga Studio – wants to be #1 for “[their city] yoga” in a place like Portland, Maine with 120K+ people and a pretty engaged yoga community. Good website, but not really optimized, blog that gets some lackluster posts when the intern has time.
Goals: New clients, existing clients finding them more easily
Cost: I would say that it would take anywhere from $500-$1,000/mo to get this to happen and would take a few months to see major moves. A lot of it’s going to come from writing 4-5 blog posts a month and getting great links from the blogging community. Link building for this type of business is SO much easier than say, lawyers, so the cost will not be as large. I would probably advise them to tack on an extra $500 to have someone take over their social media as well, assuming they weren’t doing it themselves.
E-Commerce Store – a much more complicated beast, especially if you are selling products across the country. You’re selling dog Urns and you’re doing well in Google. Site is built on an out-of-the-box platform like BigCommerce and you want to quit your corporate job and start doing this full time.
Goals: Sell more products, capitalize on long tail keywords, double traffic
Cost: You’re going to be looking at $1,200-$1,500/mo minimum to get this project off the ground. E-commerce sites built in niche markets require a very specific style of content – it is very easy to fall into the trap of hiring someone to write you 50 posts on “dog urns” which may give you a small bump in SEO, but is not a good long term strategy. These types of sites require content that indirectly talks about dog urns through good, viral content (“Top 7 Things You Never Thought Your Dog Needs”). Niche markets have a unique advantage because they can have a more attractive link exchange proposition from specific sites that focus on similar products, despite the smaller communities.
Personal Injury Lawyer – this, besides maybe insurance or financial services, is one of the ugliest bears to tackle in the world of SEO because of the market saturation. Let’s say you’re a small firm with 5 or 6 partners and want to be on page 1 for “[city name] personal injury lawyer” in organic (after Places listings). Assuming you have an excellent website and are currently on page 4, you are looking to get to the top.
Goals: Generate new cases and clients from the web
Cost: Expect to pay at least $2,500-$3,000/mo to make those sort of moves happen. The reason being is that is requires marginally more work to make any movement in a space that is so saturated, coming in the form of content and link building. Building links for lawyers is all about networking and outreach, which take time and effort. I would also recommend handing over your social media to be rolled up in that cost, along with the possibility of getting your own iPhone app, and any other advantages the internet can give you.
SEO should be calculated as an ROI, not as a sunk cost
These are obviously ball park numbers and I would never hold anyone to them, but you need to get real about how much you are willing to pay for new clients. Do you think these numbers are way out of line? Check out this screen grab from these guys down in Atlanta if you want a reality check on what a deal we get in Maine (and what the rest of the country is spending on results).
3. How Long Does SEO Take To Work?
If you have a website redesign or if you get a full optimization overhaul, you may see results in a matter of days. When Google indexes your site and sees a whole wealth of new information that it couldn’t get to before, it rewards you happily, especially with their real-time indexing. It may take a week to go from Page 10 to Page 3, but a year to go from Page 3 to Page 1.
In the web marketing world, most sites are still behind the times when it comes to SEO. If you randomly selected websites on the tail end of a search result (Page 4+) chances are that site is old and static, with nothing great to offer. This is the reason why big jumps are possible very quickly on the later pages – you’re catapulting over all the garbage that’s out there and then starting to compete with the other websites that are doing things the right way. It’s when you reach that point of being in the front that you need to get serious and be patient.
There are a few different strategies to speed up your SEO efforts:
Option A – Increase Your Budget
This may seem like a no-brainer, but often times it’s the last thing a client thinks of. Your budget is merely a way to measure how much effort you are putting into your website and SEO via content, links, social media, etc. If you increase that effort, your engine is pushed harder and your proliferation spreads faster because you have a wider net. The only caveat to this is that there is a limit – Google is smart and if they see you putting up 18 blog posts a day and adding 3,000 links a week, you’re going to get hammered for two reasons: one, they know you’re just gaming the system and two, no user would ever want to see all of that. Increase your budget means getting higher quality work because your team can invest time in getting better links, writing more viral articles, and making better networks.
Option B – Increase Your Bandwidth
No, I’m not talking about getting a new hosting provider with faster server speeds (though that helps). I’m talking about dedicating yourself to making SEO a top priority in your life. Before you go to bed, write 3 comments on blogs you read. When you wake up, submit one of your articles to an article website. Write 4 interesting tweets a day. You see where I’m going. If you’re not willing to pay for it, you need to take the initiative yourself. There is a static amount of effort required to get to #1, calculated by an hourly rate you are willing to either pay someone or do yourself. If your time + the amount you pay someone else to do does not equal that effort, you’re not going to move up as fast as you want.
Option C – Data Driven SEO Strategy
One of the best ways to speed up your progress is to make sure you’re doing everything correctly. I know that sounds obvious, but you would be amazed at how many people just continue to roll the ball down the hill instead of stopping and doing a course corrective audit. Are you still targeting the right keywords? Are there any articles that are working really well that should be learned from?
In my own experience, I saw that some of my iPhone App articles were doing very well in Google, so I wrote a few more instead of the traditional web marketing topics. My SEO efforts have easily been put in over drive because of this, with some of my highest organic traffic days to date. The moral being if you see something working, capitalize on it immediately.
Option D – Get Creative and Stay Patient
This option is less about SEO and more about finding ways to get traffic that is qualified while your natural SEO work can grow. What I mean by this is that you don’t have to be a slave to Google, Yahoo, and Bing for your site to get lots of traffic – you can do lots of things to accelerate the process. Examples of this include:
- Email marketing – newsletters or just article announcements can be great ways to drive traffic to your site. Don’t forget how many people forward these on. If you don’t have a Constant Contact account, get one for free by clicking this link.
- AdWords (Paid Search) – if you have some money and have a website that is built on a revenue model, Adwords can be a great way to spark traffic quickly while your SEO picks up.
- Get involved with Social Media BEYOND your own profiles – reach out to others and ask them for a reciprocal tweet or facebook shout out, tapping into new audiences that is new traffic to your site.
- Guest blog and Invite Guest bloggers – Write for other blogs and have people write on your blog – this gives great link value and also builds credibility.
- Focus on the conversion of your site – as the traffic comes in, you can make changes to your site that convert more visitors so that your SEO efforts are maximized.
My point here is that you can jack up your SEO efforts by driving lots of traffic in other ways, which supplement the overall goals of your SEO campaigns. As Google evolves, it’s becoming more and more apparent that staying creative and having multiple marketing channels will affect search engine rankings. And remember that even if you are paying $5,000 a month, it’s going to take a while to make huge moves – otherwise everyone would do it!
Does SEO Work? Yes. Is It Worth the Investment? Yes.
Here are my own website analytics for the past year:
You can see where things are going, especially when I got serious about this. That’s all from SEO – writing articles like this one, making partnerships happen, getting links, social media, everything. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap. But it’s gotten me about 15 clients that I never would have gotten and has paid for itself many times over. It takes time so be patient.
If you are interested in serious SEO, contact me. If you are looking for something cheap that’s going to make you a lot of money, please don’t contact me because that’s delusional. Also, if you are interested in guest blogging or would like me to guest blog for you, shoot me an email on the contact page or leave a comment below.
I’ve been #1 and I’ve been #70. #1 is a lot better. – CEO JC Penny
Thanks. A very useful article Carter. Your costings are well thought out. Obviously people will cite you to undercut, and eyebrows will be raised re links, but most will recognize the ‘Carter Rates’ as a worthy rule of thumb for seo pricing.
I agree with you, Kieran. One of my biggest pet peeves in business, especially internet marketing, is the lack of transparency in pricing. Small businesses and large ones alike get ripped off or duped every day because of flashy presentations and a lack of full information. I really like throwing numbers out there because it starts the conversation and gives people an idea of what they should be expecting to pay for results.
What’s really hard to do is to convince someone the value of “good” work vs “work.” To someone who doesn’t understand the psychology of web SEO copy and viral articles/link bait, 500 words is 500 words and that’s that. The underlying strategy and value is hard to price out with an hourly rate, much the way you can’t expect to hire an artist for 10 hours and get a painting (I’m not comparing myself to an artist!). You get my point. I personally can’t believe how some of the bloggers at SEOmoz can continue putting out such incredible blog posts – I bet Rand Fish alone brings in enough discussion and traffic to that site to make anyone do a double take!
Your postings are very insightful!
I was recently involved in a conversation with a few people who were discussing how to monetize the value of a click. One person kept saying they were going to base incentives for a consultant upon the number of clicks that person could generate for their website. Nobody could answer how much one click is worth. Is their a method involved in determining an answer to that question?
I think part of the problem now is that ppeole think that just because of the success of using social media to sell products that they don’t really need to think too hard about the fundamental points of selling something (target market/brand/literature/etc).Just because something is a lot cheaper to market globally now doesn’t mean you should also skimp costs in other areas.