Research firm Clutch.co just published their 2015 review of the top SEO companies, and their inclusion of hourly rates for many of the firms reviewed is creating quite a buzz in the SEO world. With a general picture of how much some firms charge per hour for SEO services, many businesses are asking themselves how the hourly model might compare to hiring an SEO firm on a monthly or project-by-project basis.
The topic of SEO pricing and payment models has been widely discussed over the years, including following a major survey run Moz a few years ago. The latest data from Clutch.co has only reignited the long-standing debate.
Of course, each model of payment offers many different pros and cons, and what might work well for one business might be problematic for another. So, to help you get a better idea about whether your business would be better served by paying for SEO services hourly, monthly or project by project, let’s take a closer look at what each option offers.
As a disclaimer, I have worked in each of these models in the past in one way or another, so I do have some firsthand experience. I have done my best to give insight based on experience but leave out any personal bias.
Hourly SEO Payment
For many businesses, an hourly payment model for SEO can be very appealing as it offers what feels like very quantifiable and straightforward terms. As you might imagine, though, there’s often more than meets the eye when it comes to hourly pricing.
Even just by looking at the Clutch.co report or the survey from Moz, you’ll notice that hourly prices can vary wildly from company to company — anywhere from $50/hour to $300+/hour. How much an SEO firm charges can depend on a variety of factors, including the size of the firm, the services they provide, the reputation and demand they carry, their location, and more.
To better understand if this type of payment model is right for you, consider the positive and negative aspects:
Hourly SEO Payment Pros
- There is a high level of accountability and transparency. When each hour is logged, you can more easily keep track of exactly how much time is being spent on particular aspects of your SEO campaign.
- You can allocate time very specifically. This can be particularly helpful if you have a specific deadline to launch a product or website, or if you only want a limited time devoted to different aspects of your SEO.
- You have a set hourly rate. If you’re working with a limited budget for SEO, hourly rates can make it easier for you to predict costs, especially in the short term.
- You may get a breakdown of service costs. Hourly rates can often make it easier to break down specific services and determine how much each will cost.
Hourly SEO Payment Cons
- You may not see results as quickly. SEO often requires more time than most companies imagine before they see a return. As a result, many are upset when they discover that they may not be able to accomplish their intended goals without exceeding their set hourly limit.
- You could run up a larger bill than your budget. Hourly rates can escalate quickly, especially if the work needed to optimize your business is more involved than you initially thought.
- What happens in an all hands on deck situation? Many SEO services can call for a coordinated group effort to get results. With an hourly structure, each employee generally logs their hours separately, even if they are working on a task as a team. Thus, an SEO firm may be limited in the amount of manpower they can devote to your project if they have a limited number of hours to work with.
- You could end up with fewer hours when accounting for service fees. If there are service fees associated with the SEO strategy your business requires, the cost of those fees may eat into the number of hours the firm will put in your contract.
- The business relationship is much more cut-and-dry. Just as hourly employees often don’t feel as tied to the larger goals and direction of a company as salaried employees do, an hourly rate with an SEO firm can be more focused on a limited perspective instead of building a long-term relationship. (This is not always the case, however.)
Monthly SEO Payment
Monthly payment plans tend to be one of the more common pricing models, though with the recent buzz about hourly plans, this may begin to shift. With monthly SEO payment plans, clients will typically pay an established fee each month in return for a specific array of services, as well as continued oversight and maintenance.
Month-to-month plans are usually chosen for a longer-term approach to SEO than hourly terms. Again, there are pros and cons to this type of payment model:
Monthly SEO Payment Pros
- In many cases, you get unlimited hours. Monthly plans free you from the confines of an hourly structure. Often, this means that the SEO firm will be devoting much larger portions of time to getting results for you.
- There are generally no excuses for lack of results. With monthly plans, the SEO firm can’t claim that they didn’t have enough budgeted time to complete the intended goals. Especially if they do projections.
- Conversations do not end after hourly rates are exceeded. You won’t have to worry about the SEO firm “clocking out” when your allotted hours are up or checking their watch with a monthly plan. If more hours are needed to accomplish a task or continue a conversation, you’ll be able to continue in most cases.
- Generally, there is a better client-agency relationship. As mentioned before, with monthly rates you have the opportunity to develop a long-term relationship. And as you get to know each other better, you can better synchronize your efforts for success.
- No awkward hourly discussions. Monthly plans avoid the nit-picking annoyance of figuring out how hours were spent and what exactly was accomplished during them.
- You still get to know what has been worked on with detail. Just because you aren’t seeing an hourly breakdown of services performed with a monthly plan, you are still able to know exactly how much effort has been devoted to each task and service.
Monthly SEO Payment Cons
- Some months are very heavy on hours, others could not be. The needs of any given business or website can vary from month to month. As a result, if there is a month when the workload is lighter, you may feel like you’re paying a lot for less work than you get during your busy months. A lot of this depends on the agency you are working with and their process.
- The client can feel like they are not getting their money’s worth if there are a lack of updates. When a client is spending a large sum of money each month for SEO services, they often expect to see results and updates on a regular basis. However, given the pace and varying speed of results for SEO, these updates may not occur as frequently as the client might hope unless this is made clear.
- You are locked into a contract. While an hourly pricing plan is a bit easier to adjust or even terminate if serious problems arise between the client and the SEO firm, an annual contract can often be more binding. Many companies are now offering month-to-month for this very reason.
- Monthly cost may be more of a challenge to meet during slow months. If your businesses income varies from month to month or seasonally, you may find yourself stretched thin during the slow months when you still have to pay the same rate for your monthly SEO services.
Project-based SEO is often offered by many firms that also offer monthly plans, and it is often used as an introduction to the services of a particular firm. This option can often serve as a bridge between hourly pricing plans and monthly, as it gives more time to accomplish goals while still having a set date or goal for the conclusion.
Project-based SEO can also be used for short-term maintenance of a particular component of SEO (e.g. SEO website audits, mobile optimization, etc.).
Project-Based SEO Payment Pros
- One lump sum is all you need. Project-based SEO can help businesses maintain a fixed and predictable budget for their SEO needs without requiring an ongoing payment plan. This is especially useful for a business with a limited budget for SEO or that is looking to control costs.
- This pricing structure offers a clear contract. With project-based SEO it can be easier to know that you are getting exactly what you paid for with no surprises. Either the project is completed or it isn’t; there’s no uncertainty over where the time and energy is being spent (as long as the contract is correct as far as expectations and deliverables).
- It allows you to focus on a particular aspect of your SEO. If you already have a sense of where you SEO strengths and weaknesses are, you can invest in the particular area that needs the most help.
- The timeline can be more straightforward. If you have particular project goals in mind, you can work with the SEO firm to establish exactly how much time will be required to reach those goals.
Project-Based SEO Payment Cons
- Some agencies take advantage of clients. If the particular parameters and expectations of a project aren’t clearly defined, some agencies might shortchange the client when it comes to results.
- You could get overcharged. With project-based plans, you run the risk of an unscrupulous agency that could charge you more than the time and effort that is actually required for the project.
- There is a lack of flexibility. Because project-based SEO comes with a certain set of predefined parameters, it can be difficult to make changes if new information comes to light. If throughout the course of the project you discover you need an additional service to complement the work that’s been done so far, it may cost you a lot more.
Some Final Thoughts On SEO Payment Options
After doing this for a long time, I think I can say with confidence that there is no “one size fits all” solution. At the end of the day, it needs to make sense financially for the SEO company and the client to work together. Whether you go hourly, monthly or project based, like everything in business, the numbers need to work out.
Generally, the SEO industry operates on the monthly model. However, many people have been talking about hourly lately. After running the numbers for our business, it would not cut into our revenue or profit; however, it would limit our time with clients and potentially make for some awkward conversations. (“Uh, your hour is up, I have to go….”)
At the end of the day, all models can work. Even project-based can have merit — for example, when we do a website transfer, that is generally on a project basis. In that case, it certainly makes sense.
What has been your experience with hourly, monthly and project based SEO?
- “How much should you spend on SEO services” (Search Engine Watch)
- “The average cost of SEO services” (Website Magazine)
- “What does SEO cost” (Forbes)
- “SEO Pricing: Costs of services” (Moz Blog)
- “How to price SEO: 6 common models explained” (SERPs Blog)
- “SEO Project-based pricing risks vs. rewards” (SEO Boy)