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Jill Whalen: What Are Some SEO/SEM Pricing Models?

by Jill Whalen
High Rankings

August 4, 2005

Hi Jill,

I am a partner in a website design and development company. Within the past year, I have begun to learn as much as possible about the search engine optimization and marketing world. While reading and researching, I have found that there is very little useful information on the current trend(s) of pricing SEO/SEM project and maintenance.

I was hoping that you could help me to understand what pricing models exist and which one you consider the best. I have seen many SEO companies' websites that guarantee results, but I have read numerous articles, books and websites that tell you not to trust a company guaranteeing results. Any helpful insight you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,


--Jill's Response--

Hi Steve,

This is a great question and one every SEO and SEM company has struggled with at one time or another. My own company still struggles with it from time to time as we learn from each new client we work with. The most important thing to understand is that there may not be any one pricing model that will be right for every client that you work with.

Search marketing campaigns can have so many facets that it's very hard to provide a one-size-fits-all solution. Ideally, you should have a long chat with any potential client to best understand what they need, and then provide them with a proposal and pricing schedule to match.

Currently, we've found 3 basic pricing models that seem to work well with most of our clients. Please keep in mind that these options may or may not fit with your own way of doing business.

One-time Fee Pricing

Some clients would prefer to pay one fee to have you optimize a limited number of pages on their site. This model works well for those companies who don't want a long-term contract, and who have a smaller site with a finite number of pages. When working this way, you'll need to know the most important areas of the client's site, their best-selling products and services, etc., and then focus on the corresponding top-level pages. The price would also include a directory submission campaign but probably not a full-blown link-building campaign. For these clients we would ask for half the fee up front, and the other half when all the on-page optimization and directory submittals were finished. We would generally budget approximately 3 months from start to finish with a one-time-fee type of campaign, and provide the client with an option for signing up for a long-term contract at that time.

6-month Contract

This option is good for clients who want more long-term work than the one-time-fee option provides. Complicated dynamically generated sites will minimally need this type of program, as they can't generally be served well with the one-time-fee option. The longer contract allows you to work on more pages of their site and do some continuous link building. We usually amortize the entire project fee out into monthly payments for the 6-month contract. Even though the bulk of the work may be done in the first 3 months of the project, pricing it this way allows the client to pay a fixed amount each month instead of having a big hit at the beginning of the project.

1-year Contract

This option is basically the same as the 6-month option, but it's amortized over an entire year. A lot more can be accomplished with an SEO campaign that is contracted for an entire year. Since it can take several months to spot traffic and conversion trends, you often need this amount of time to really get your campaign cranking the way you want it to. This is true of SEO as well as PPC campaigns. Once the site is the way you like it during the first half of the year, the second half can be spent testing and tweaking, plus gaining additional attention for the site, which can often translate into links.

With all of the above pricing models, we offer an incentive to sign up for the longer contracts. In other words, it will be cheaper to sign up for the 1-year option rather than signing up for the 6-month option and then signing up again for another 6 months.

Regarding guarantees when it comes to SEO, I've discussed this previously [in my columns]. In summary, there's nothing inherently wrong with offering a guarantee if it actually means something, but I've yet to see an SEO guarantee that does. They definitely don't guarantee that you'll end up with high rankings, and they only sometimes guarantee that you'll get your money back if you don't see high rankings.

Be sure to read and understand your contract with any SEO company, especially one that offers guarantees. I've seen too many cases where the client believed their SEO contract wasn't fulfilled, but they were not able to get their money back because in reality (and in the fine print) the contract *was* filled. Not only that, but if you stop paying one of these slick companies because you didn't get what you thought you were getting, THEY will sue YOU for breaking the contract! Some of the largest SEO companies in the world operate this way, so buyer beware!

Jill Whalen of High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization consultant and host of the free weekly High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter.

She specializes in search engine optimization, SEO consultations and seminars. Jill's handbook, "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" teaches business owners how and where to place relevant keyword phrases on their Web sites so that they make sense to users and gain high rankings in the major search engines.

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