By Matt Diggity, founder of Diggity Marketing

Search engine optimization (SEO) is more complex than ever -- and with most small businesses expecting one-stop shops for web design, copywriting, data analysis and more, it’s no surprise prices are starting to reflect that.

More complicated is the fact different agencies will quote different prices. So how do you know if you’re spending too much? And what if you’re spending too little?

Read on to learn exactly how much you should be budgeting for SEO for the year ahead.

4 Factors Affecting Final Price

  1. Experience. More experienced agencies or freelancers charge more. While higher costs don’t always translate into better work, just remember: You get what you pay for.
  2. Services. Of course, the more services you tack on, the more you’ll pay. Be careful about agencies that inflate your bill by adding on unnecessary services!
  3. Scale. An expert who does local SEO campaigns will often charge less than someone specializing in national or international SEO.
  4. Pricing Model. Most agencies or freelancers charge based on one of a few pricing models. Below are the most common payment models -- and average costs, courtesy of a 2018 Ahrefs survey of over 350 agencies, consultants and freelancers.

Hourly

Average: $100-$150/hour

Hourly rates are simple, predictable and easy to compute. The biggest problem with this model is projects can take longer than estimated to finish, inflating your final bill.

Performance-Based

Average: Varies

Performance-based pricing is based on the attractive principle of “no results, no payment.” However, pricing can fluctuate, and some agencies reject work that’s too challenging to rank.

Monthly Retainer

Average: $500-$1,000/month

A 2019 survey of 1,200 business owners from Backlinko confirms Ahref's findings here, reporting American small businesses spent an average of just under $500 per month on SEO services in 2019.

Monthly retainers are convenient and easy to budget. Plus, working with one agency on a month-to-month basis can develop a stronger partnership and better results.

One-Time Project

Average: $500-$1,000/project/campaign

Project-based pricing is great because it’s flexible, depending on what you need. There are two huge cons, though: Project pricing can easily be “inflated” with other services or additional fees if the contract changes, and great SEO is an ongoing effort, so you probably won’t see major results from a one-time campaign.

So, How Much Does SEO Cost in 2020?

Because SEO isn’t one-size-fits-all, SEO pricing isn’t, either. But through my years of experience working in the industry, I’ve noticed a pattern.

Most small businesses spend too little. Others spend too much. But there’s a sweet spot that hits the right balance between budget and results. It often comes down to margins.

Too Low: $1,000/Month Or Less

Look, I understand why you’d want to spend less on your SEO efforts: A higher SEO budget means less money in your pocket. But at this price range, money you do spend will likely just go to waste. 

A provider charging this little for a full suite of services is likely cutting costs somewhere, whether by using black hat techniques (which will get you penalized) or outsourcing to others for a lower price (which will get you low-quality SEO).

SEO is expensive. Providers spend on staffing, content and, sometimes, backlinks. When a client's monthly retainer is low, the provider can't hire top-tier staff or may buy backlinks in forsaken corners of the internet.

Too High: $5,000/Month Or More

More expensive agencies often have many reasons to justify the high price tag. Perhaps they’re the best at what they do, or maybe they offer more services than any of their competitors.

Sometimes, the cost is worth it. But usually, it’s just too expensive to be sustainable for a small business.

Just Right: $2,000-$2,500/Month

If you’re looking for a competent agency that does comprehensive, safe and proven work, I think this price range is a minimum. Those who spend over $500 a month are much more likely to be extremely or very satisfied with the quality of their SEO services compared to those who spend less.

It’s affordable enough for small businesses but high enough it’s not too good to be true. Of course, if you have a huge website with thousands of pages, expect this cost to scale up.

Big Bucks, Big Results?

SEO isn’t cheap, especially if you want it done right. But you also don’t need to blow your entire budget on SEO to see results. 

Spend too little, and you’ll likely get low-quality SEO that won’t help your rankings. Spend too much, and you’re probably just wasting money. Spend just the right amount, and watch your business flourish without draining your profits.

Matt Diggity is founder of Diggity Marketing, The Search Initiative, LeadSpring, Authority Builders, The Affiliate Lab, and the Chiang Mai SEO Conference.