Is There Such A Thing As “Cheap” SEO?

 In Content Marketing

SEO is necessary – if you have a web-based business or even an app with just a web component, without search you’re nowhere. Throw in PPC, content marketing and social media as SEO firms go full-service, consider work on your website to restructure URLs, continuously tweak the information architecture to maximize crawlability, and SEO’s a lot more than link-and-tag merchants would have you believe.

And all of that costs. Is the search for cheap SEO a wild goose chase?

What Does Cheap SEO Even Mean?

Google “cheap SEO” and you’ll get something like 10 million results. Obviously, this is a crowded field. But what exactly do we mean by cheap? If we’re talking about a low cash layout, that’s one thing, and sure, that does exist. Just look at those 10 million search results – “cheap” SEO is everywhere! That’s what drives me to ask, “Is it really cheap?”

The initial money outlay might be low. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be cheap in the long run. The only sensible way to measure SEO is by ROI and the way that gives the clearest insight into the economy or otherwise of your SEO choices is to look at cost per new customer. On that basis, cheap SEO that doesn’t work isn’t cheap.

There’s another point at issue here, and too few business owners face up to the implications until they’re forced to. When you hire an SEO, they put your name on their work. That’s the nature of the beast: all their link strategies, all their content, and all their HTML tag optimization goes out under your precious, tradeable name.

Which means, if their link strategies are shady or they rush content to get paid, when Google slaps an algorithm penalty on their work, your traffic will fall. It’s your site that will lose credibility. And it’s your business that will lose money. That doesn’t sound all that affordable.

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What Does SEO Cost?

So what do standard SEO prices look like? The benchmark for this used to be Moz’s 2012 survey, but we’ve got more up-to-date figures courtesy of’s 2015 survey. That study included prices per hour and by the project, offering insight into how pricing is structured.

Hourly SEO pricing ranges from $50 per hour up to $300+ per hour. And while hourly prices can feel to a business owner like they’re a way to keep expenses under control, paying by the hour can be a problem: SEO can take a long time to take effect, and many best practices are simply table stakes now. Add in that some SEO practices are quite intrusive, like URL restructuring, and you see why paying by the hour for SEO isn’t always such a great idea after all. It’s certainly no less expensive and may end up costing you more.

Where an hourly rate does work well is when it’s applied to limited, one-off projects. For the majority of your SEO needs, it’s almost certainly a false economy.

By-project SEO pricing is often a leader – the same companies will do monthly plans, and their interest in doing you a by-project is the opportunity to demonstrate value. For them and for you, this can be a bridge between hourly and full-time SEO. Because it’s goal-oriented, timeframe-limited and outcome-focused, it can be a good deal for both parties if you have an urgent issue that needs to be addressed and the rest of your SEO situation is OK. Pricing is highly situational and project-dependent, but expect to pay from $1,000 and up.

Finally, the majority of full-service SEO comes to you with a monthly price tag. You’re paying for services, not projects or hours worked, which can leave some months feeling like you’re paying a lot out and not getting a lot back – just like any other subscription service.

For most companies this is the best option: work overruns are not a problem, you have a collaborative relationship with the agency as opposed to them counting the minutes and you counting the pennies, and you’ll still get reports telling you what’s been done. Finally, it’s usually the most financially efficient way to structure SEO services.

Looking for an SEO Package? STOP!

This really is one of those situations where one size fits no-one. There’s nothing wrong with getting a bunch of specific services from an SEO firm, in fact that’s absolutely what you should do. But you shouldn’t get it off the shelf.

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And you shouldn’t get it from anyone who offers to guarantee results.

If a firm guarantees to get you on the front page of SERPs or gives specific guaranteed traffic increase figures, alarm bells should ring. Low quality SEO companies are often still using outmoded tactics that will rebound and damage traffic and credibility – after they’ve picked up their check and gotten out of Dodge, leaving you to suffer the consequences.

Why don’t reputable SEO firms offer pre-designed package deals? If you ask Searchworxx’ Diana Ratliffe:

“Reasonable question, on the face of it – but look at our home page, and let’s do some easy math. On our company home page you’ll see 15 services listed. If we offer 2 services in a package, there are 105 combinations of those 15 services. If we offer 3 services in a package, there are 455 possible combinations of those 15 services.”

Rather than looking for a black box solution, where you hand over the money and the agency in return produces “SEO” (whatever that is), talk with the agency. Set some time aside, be prepared to look in Google Analytics and any other analytics or data sources you have and discuss those figures, and work out exactly which services you need.

The Real Key to Cheap SEO

So if “cheap SEO” is a false economy and you shouldn’t look for off-the-shelf packages, how should you be shopping for SEO?

It’s not as easy as looking for industry accreditation, sadly. Start by shopping for firms that specialize in what you need. If you’re pretty sure your website’s aces and your content is great, and you just need a pro to assess your tags or boost your backlink profile, look for an agency that excels in that area, and with businesses your size and in your space. If you’re an ecommerce company that sells wigs and you want help restructuring your website, the firm that helped TechCrunch double their traffic may be a great firm, but they might not be such a great fit for you.

One of the last hangovers from the early days of Silicon Valley, with its pay-it-forward culture, is the tendency to be reluctant to talk about budget. And modern sales and marketing pros often tread lightly in this area too. But you should establish budget early and discuss it with the SEO firms you’re evaluating early on in the negotiating process. There’s no point for either party if budgetary expectations are so disparate that they’ll never meet.

While the adage “If you pay peanuts…” holds its ground when it comes to marketing, take heart from the fact that you can get something out of it.


Justin Herring recommends using web search to check on an SEO company’s chops. No, they may not be blowing every possible parameter out of the water, but

“Your first three filters should be Rankings, Reviews, and Reaction. Not every good SEO company will focus on all three, but if they can’t do any of these right for themselves, it’s hard to imagine they could get them right for your brand.”

Finally, remember that SEO is a long slope: the longer you stay on it the higher you’ll go. The SEO firm that talks to you like you’ll be working together for five years? They just might end up really doubling your traffic.

Parting Thoughts

Cheap SEO can save your pocket today – at the risk of trashing your domain name forever in search engines’ eyes, or spoiling your reputation with your customers. Even if you avoid the worst case scenario, there’s still the risk that you’ll get nothing but empty promises for your cash.

Find an SEO firm with a good reputation in your space and remember that it’s an investment: you’re buying new plant, not getting the plumbing fixed, and it’s not instant. While organic search provides the majority of most businesses’ traffic, and link building makes a bigger contribution to ranking than any other single factor, SEO will remain a necessity. And trying to get it cheap often just means getting it done badly.

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Rohan Ayyar
Rohan Ayyar is a creative content strategist, web analyst, and conversion optimization specialist at E2M, digital marketing firm par excellence. Rohan is also an avid business and tech writer, with posts featured on Business Insider, The Next Web, and Memeburn.
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Showing 5 comments
  • Justin Herring


    Thanks for the mention and great post! You really nailed it about “Cheap SEO”. I especially like the section on don’t look for an SEO Package. Every client is different and there never is a one size fits all.


    • Rohan Ayyar

      Thanks, Justin 🙂 I’m surprised at the sheer amount of pseudo-SEO “experts” still getting away with offering packages of their services, because as you said, there’s no one size fits all in this industry.

  • James Hughes

    With the current competition in online business, no wonder that many people look for cheap SEO. This had actually flooded search engines with unwanted results. So conversion is a lot harder because people stick to their brands instead of wasting time browsing search engine results.

    • Rohan Ayyar

      Exactly. The only solution is to keep educating clients and businesses in general about SEO, how it isn’t a “trick” or “technique” to do well in Google, and how it’s part of your marketing and branding.

  • Sean Drayton

    Great Article. There is certainly a lot of truth to what you stated here. I especially like your commentary about the fact that we should base the cost of Cheap SEO around ROI.