For most entrepreneurs, especially those of new or small businesses, the prospect of SEO is burdened by one major factor: cost. Optimizing for search engines is a long process, and as a result, its ultimate payoff is delayed and uncertain. Paying a fixed rate for your SEO efforts over the course of several months would eventually start to see a small return, and then a larger return as the months continued. If implemented properly, a successful SEO campaign would eventually return every cent that was initially invested into it.
Few entrepreneurs have the capital, time, or patience to go through with this long-term model, especially when there’s no explicit guarantee of success. Most realize that SEO is important, due to the sheer popularity of online search for finding information in the modern era, but need to carefully consider the costs and risks before moving forward.
The two main options for an SEO campaign are trying to do it yourself, with your own internal resources, or to partner with an SEO agency or freelance professional, who can do the work for you. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on what type of person or agency you hire, but ultimately, one will be more cost effective for your campaign than the other.
The Upfront Costs
The most important financial factor for most entrepreneurs will be the upfront costs of either an in-house SEO team or an agency. It’s possible to try and optimize your web presence yourself — but you’ll quickly find the sheer amount of effort required to make a real impact extends beyond your current capacity or expertise. Therefore, the main options you face are hiring an agency for a long-term contract or hiring a dedicated SEO expert (or SEO team) to do the work for you.
Agencies tend to offer package plans based around your needs. I’ve seen some agencies offer extremely basic SEO services for $500 a month or less, but you tend to get what you pay for. Typical SEO packages range from $1,000 to $10,000 a month, depending on the size of your business and your current needs, and can vary depending on what other services you want to add. One advantage to agencies is that you can piecemeal the work and only pay for what you intend to use.
The cost of an additional team resource depends on the level of experience you’re looking for and the location of your company. In a mid- to large-sized city, an SEO generalist with a few years of experience can make $60,000 to $100,000 per year. If you hire two or more search marketers, those costs can quickly escalate further. Alternatively, you can hire a part-time contractor for a lower wage, but you’ll get less total work done and at a lower level of expertise (in most cases).
The Expertise/Efficiency Factor
Agencies work with teams of SEO specialists. They generally have multiple writers, developers, social media experts, and expert resources in a host of other SEO areas. When enlisting the help of an agency, in any given week, you might be paying for two hours of a writing specialist, two hours of a social media specialist, and three hours of a link building specialist. This segmented work style leads to greater efficiency, meaning more total work will get done for the same time and money spent, and a greater degree of expertise during the work execution, meaning the work is done better (because each component of it is performed by a specialist rather than a jack of all trades).
The problem with an SEO generalist is that they’re shifting gears constantly, and may not have expertise in every area related to SEO. Their work may not be as efficient or as professionally done as that of an entire team working together.
The Risk of Long-Term Traction Failure
The other major factor for consideration is the accountability factor. When you hire a dedicated employee or contractor for your SEO campaign, there’s little assurance of eventual success. If, a year down the line, you see little to no results, you can fire that person, but the money you’ve already spent is gone.
When working with an agency, if you don’t see results after an extended period of time, you can position yourself for discounted service or get a partial refund for the money you’ve invested. This depends on the type of agency you work with and what expectations were set at the beginning of the campaign. Because of this slight advantage, statistically, working with an agency is may be a more cost-efficient option.
The Best Choice
From a cost-to-benefit perspective, in most cases, working with an agency is going to be a better option. You’ll lose a little bit of control and perhaps transparency, but the result tends to be more professional, more organized, more efficient work, though it will typically come at a higher price than an individual.
Of course, if you’re working in a much larger company, the situation demands more thought. You’ll have access to a bigger budget, meaning you can afford to hire niche experts within the SEO industry and you’ll need to see bigger, better results than can come with the typical, formulaic agency approach.
Think about your budget, think about your goals, and the most cost-effective option should become clear to you.