The SEO industry is booming right now. Its worth has grown to over $79 billion since its first steps 20 years or so. Not even a global pandemic slowed its growth.
Recent research shows that over 70% of SEO professionals charge a monthly retainer fee.
This means SEO consultants and agencies are hired on a regular basis across the world. And for companies willing to grow their organic visibility and positioning, hiring an SEO consultant is a no brainer.
But I still get asked these questions a lot:
“How much does it cost to hire an SEO pro?”
“Why can’t we pay by the hour?”
“Why do we need a retainer?”
To answer these questions, marketers and companies turn to Google, search for “SEO retainer” and get confusing answers.
Such as these ones: “SEO retainer is worth it because of compounded effects of website optimisations”.
Or this one: “an SEO retainer makes sense because SEO takes time”.
As you can see from these answers, every SEO agency tried to explain that SEO takes time and it has long term effects.
But why can’t you pay an SEO pro per hour? Why do you need a retainer?
Why is this so confusing?
Well, you can argue that a big website with a very high domain authority, such as Hubspot.com, for example, would be fairly easy to rank. They publish a new post on the Hubspot’s blog and it’s ranking straight away on page 1, give it a week and it’ll reach the top 3 positions if the post is well structured and informative.
However, a new website with basically no ranking power and zero positioning on search engines in the car insurance industry that is extremely competitive, would need real expertise and a high level of SEO knowledge in the area. Not to mention a very long time.
In the second case, a company would only hire an SEO consultant who is experienced in their industry but there are still lots of issues an SEO expert needs to face that are not visible to the company.
There are lots of factors why an SEO agency charges a retainer including a few powers of influence.
Paying per hour
This is the easiest option because companies can keep costs to a minimum low for a very short period of time (1 hour) as opposed to a long retainer of several months or years.
From what I read on Google and I hear from my network of SEO pros, it seems that the normal rate per hour of an SEO consultant is anywhere between £50 and £200/hour.
But does this rate guarantee high quality work?
For a quick SEO consultation that gives insights to burning questions, charging per hour might be the right thing to do.
Jumping on a phone call with an SEO expert can be extremely valuable because companies get reassurances on what they are doing well and recommendations on what to improve.
For example, I attended 1-hour long video calls with a brand once because their web developer wasn’t giving them the right answers about the CMS requirements of their agency website.
The web developer told them they didn’t need too many CMS features for changing SEO elements such as page titles, H1, H2, URL slugs, redirects, canonical URLs, images alt Tag and other things.
Since this agency wasn’t sure of what SEO requirements they needed for their CMS, they asked me so the phone calls were really useful.
I did say to them that actually, a good CMS should include all of those things because otherwise a company can’t do any SEO change to their website. I gave them reassurances and provided reasons why they should insist in having those requirements.
Then the agency went back to their web developer and guess what?
They had to pay an extra sum of money for adding these functionalities, which weren’t included in the first contract.
The point is that an SEO consultant could prevent these issues from happening if involved in a long-term project from the very beginning instead of jumping here and there when “SEO is needed”.
Paying per project
This is why SEO pros are insisting that retainers are the way to go. They realise that SEO is a vital component of a website life, from the very beginning of the development to the growth phase.
Pay per project focuses on paying an SEO consultant a flat rate fee for a specific project with a clear ROI, that becomes then a retainer because the fee is paid every month for the duration of the project.
For example, if the project is estimated to cost £30,000/year this means that the retainer costs £2,500/month for 12 months.
This method of payment makes more sense. If you go to a doctor, you don’t pay for the 30 minutes of your visit, you pay for the entire expertise this doctor can offer you, including diagnosis and therapy, condensed in 30 minutes.
And SEO shouldn’t be any different. Companies should pay for the entire service provided, including an agreed and realistic return on investment.
There is a lot of work involved in optimising and growing a website with organic traffic:
- The skills that put two and two together in order to persuade visitors and search engines to visit a website and then take a desired action.
- The years of experience that it takes to be able to rank a website in a competitive industry.
- The knowledge and relationships needed to provide backlinks, content, copy that both search engines and people find engaging and interesting.
Reasons why an SEO expert charges a retainer and not an hourly rate
The difference between pages that generate a lot of traffic and pages that don’t is worth a lot of money to a brand.
Well optimised websites could generate thousands of leads every month to a brand and could convince a person to invest in a product or service while poorly optimised websites may never be seen on Google.
Experienced SEO consultants are able to generate traffic in the 6 and 7 figures every single month and rank on top of search engines for high competitive keywords. So if they say their work generates X amount of leads and sales, they should receive more than £50/hour.
1. There is a lot of work in the backend of a website than it appears to the front end
Websites have often complex CMS systems for allocating a large number of web pages, landing pages, forms, transactions, sales, reviews, contacts and blogs.
For example, when I consulted for SEO at Linden Homes, the largest UK’s real estate company, I spent the most amount of my time writing lots of copy for their new house launches.
Then I worked with their web developer agency to make sure forms for enquiries were working.
I also managed their entire local SEO strategy and their Google My Business account with over 145 locations across the UK.
Every location had their own web page, images, description and UTM links to make sure they would be able to track visitors enquiring from a map location on Google all the way to their Google Analytics goals.
SEO is so much more than a simple page with some copy and a form for enquiries.
It’s also true that Linden Homes didn’t pay me £50/hour for my SEO consultancy, but actually I worked for them for over 12 months with 100 hours a month worth of work.
2. SEO deliverables shouldn't be determined by budget
A certain number of blog posts produced every month within X budget, that’s one thing.
But most of the SEO work can’t be limited to a deliverable in order to be effective and generate traffic and revenue. Paying SEO pros for a limited quantity of work is not the right way of doing things.
That’s why paying per project allows the consultant to produce as much work as needed to get the job done, whether it’s 2 blog posts per month or 1 SEO audit, 10 blog posts, 5 landing pages per month.
3. Anyone can produce fluff
Doing lots of SEO work is easy, just take the typical SEO audit from an SEO tool and you’ll suddenly get a report with 3,000 errors to fix, for example.
But it takes experience and a powerful brain to be able to prioritise work that generates the highest value to a business.
Anyone can download an Excel file with 3,000 errors from SEMRush, but picking those that move the needle takes time.
For example, your SEO tool is saying that you have 40 missing meta descriptions, 30 duplicated URLs and 34 broken images. If you pay your SEO expert by the hour to fix those elements you’ll be charged for all of them and 5 hours are probably enough.
Then your question will be: “when can I see higher rankings now?”. Well, just fixing those errors won’t make much of a difference as a standalone activity.
But if you agree with your SEO consultant to pay for a long-term retainer with a clear business objective in defined period of time, be confident the SEO consultant will focus on the errors that really matter to your business.
Plus he will be adding other activities to reach the maximum value possible.
4. SEOs are activity expert
Consultants tend to specialise in one specific activity in order to provide the highest level of service. SEOs need to be extremely knowledgeable of the task in order to perform well.
They put time and efforts into consistently deliver the highest value within a certain task, whether it’s content creation, link building or Tech SEO.
They also need to keep updated with industry trends and the constant changes and evolutions of search engines and users’ behaviours in order to provide a client with accurate, timely and realistic results.
When they don’t specialise, SEO consultants build a network of trusted partners so they’ll be able to offer the high standard required for ranking very well.
In which case, they need to know how to hire people and build long lasting relationships and partnerships.
5. SEO experts are also marketing experts
Like we said before, SEO involves much more than writing content for a web page to rank. Search engine consultants are also experts in marketing because without it, they wouldn’t be able to do audience research and understand how to market a product.
Today, every new piece of work needs to be well thought and well delivered and communicated to Google in order to work. So knowing the Google ranking factors and marketing principles is a key skill for every SEO consultant.
Pay to reach an agreed business goal, not for time allocation
SEO experts charge by project rather than by hour because so much goes into producing valuable work whether it’s 5 blog posts or managing an entire SEO strategy for a brand.
It’s years of experience combined with marketing and technical skills that have been perfected, and knowledge of the industry and its key players that makes an SEO consultant able to generate a big impact.
Once brands and agencies understand that they are paying for a full service that could generate millions in sales rather than just a few random tasks, they’ll also realise that paying a retainer is the right thing to do for high quality SEO work.