Why is SEO so Expensive?

by Dave Curtis on 04/30/2011 · 6 comments

in Forensic Analytics, SEO, Small Business SEO


Be Nice, Lynn Terry says. Educate them, show proof. What is education? What is proof? Is it authoritative studies? Podcasts? Video?

Be nice, educate them, show proof – (and create the model around the market, instead of forcing the market into the model)~Lynn Terry, Web Marketing Expert.

Prospective clients come to me all the time asking for search engine optimization but it’s quite obvious that they haven’t got the foggiest idea of what the difference between a Yahoo generated web site, a WordPress engine based site, a hand coded HTML site or any other type of site is all about. One wanted a hollywood quality video of models walking down a runway on a site for $100, another wanted me to build a site for him “just like facebook” for $300. Someone else (a company with about 50 employees selling big ticket durable goods) wanted to know if I could please SEO a site they are planning to expand to sell merchandise worldwide with 1000 new products to be added to a shopping cart they don’t yet have for $500.

Lets look at a narrowly defined budget range I put together the other day. Many businesses set their web budgets by some imaginary figure based on what they have left over or what think they would like to invest. The internet has a lot of lanes – it has a super fast lane, a fast lane, a slow lane, a hazard light lane, a pulled over lane, a parking lot and a junk yard.

Before you come up with some random investment figure you need to ask yourself what lane your website is in and what lane your top competition is in. I’m not talking about how pretty your site is, I’m talking about how well it performs when measured head to head against the competition for all of your targeted terms. If you’re in the same lane as them and showing up close to, but not quite as high as, the competition for almost all of your targeted phrases now then your SEO budget won’t need to be quite so big, but if your site is like a family car and you’re thinking of entering into competing sites in the Indie-500 lane then you might want to reconsider throwing a too small budget at it based on your own non-technical guess work – You’re going to waste all of your money and wind up bitterly mumbling to yourself that your best friend who works at the Hess station was right – all SEO is snake oil.

If all you do is install analytics, a sitemap.xml, 301 redirects and page title seeding, it’s not SEO. Search Engine Basics is NOT SEO. Real SEO requires a full site and off-site factor audit, and comprehensive action plan. ~Alan Bleiweiss, Forensic SEO Consultant

Your budget shouldn’t be based on a preconceived dollar amount! Your site needs to be audited first and so does the competition’s.  Your budget should be based on the size and complexity of your site and on the difficulty of each of the pages your keywords are targeting to compete with. If your budget is too small then you won’t be getting SEO, you’ll only be getting the raw basics without the planning, analysis and execution.

Ok, so here’s my imaginary brand new site that will have about 18 different category headings pages with perhaps up to three (and possibly four) variations to target the geological areas (states and cities). There is competition, some of it up in the hundreds of millions of competing pages, but not much pay-per-click paid advertisement for about two thirds of the phrases, and those that do have pay-per-click only have about three ads running, and almost none of those ads are running along the top of Google’s search engine return pages. Based solely on that – without having done any deep analysis of the competition, I’m coming up with a the following:


Low budget $4,000. Mid Range $6000-9000
Below you’ll see why the mid range is preferable to the low budget. With a mid range budget you’ll get a competitive performance site with 95% of the work done for you by myself, two associates, a few services and some professional data mining software.

The following would represent a list of main phrase niche areas listed on your site. For my example I’ve chosen NY State, NYC, New Jersey and NYC Company. I’ve broken them up into NY, NYC, NYC Company and NJ, all of which will be targeted. This is only a list of the number of pages competing for each phrase based on how many pages Google has indexed with all or most of those words on pages on the internet. A competitive audit of the top 5 to 10 competing for each niche needs to be run which will take a week or more. Technically each audit is a separate site audit (18 x 4 – 10 sites for each term – in this case, or up to 720 audits). Audits typically run from between $250 for a small site to multiple thousands of dollars apiece and are usually conducted on a client’s own single existing site to determine its flaws. Since a new, non existent site has no content or code yet, and investigating the competition needs to be done anyway as part of the process of starting a site it’s going to be included in your budget options fee. The main reason we charge for the first site audit is primarily (except for the large sites that cost thousands to audit) because we get too many tire kickers responding to the “free site analysis” who say they want work done and after we spend 15 hours or more on one site creating a report we never hear from them again.

Ok, so here are the basics:

There will be one quick perusal of your top competition (this is not a site audit, it’s just taking a peek at the competitions number of pages). In this case there will be four quick looks for the following (I chose these areas up north because that’s where I’m from…)  NEW JERSEY, NEW YORK, NEW YORK CITY and NEW YORK CITY COMPANY (… and since I’m from NYC and will eventually be returning, adding in these references here on my site will also help me rank for my own New York City, NY keywords later):

<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 1> – About 64,900,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 2> – About 4,140,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 3> – About 2,690,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 4> – About 307,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 5> – About 5,410,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 6> – About 102,920,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 7> – About 7,870,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 8> – About 1,320,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 9> – About 1,010,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 10> – About 13,500,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 11> – About 7,100,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 12> – About 209,760,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 13> – About 48,200,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 14> – About 148,000,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 15> – About 4,180,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 16> – About 112,300,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 17> – About 5,090,000 results
<NEW YORK CITY COMPANY SEO Search Term 18> – About 722,000 results

The bolded ones (above) are anything with above 50,000,000 pages of competition. I’ve ranked two and three word key phrases on page one against 100,000,000 page results against national brand name company web sites and for my own computer web site (when I did that kind of work) against Dell, Apple, Asus, HP and a university before, but frankly the two word and three word phrases don’t convert as well as the longer tailed phrases which tend to be both easier and (since the searchers are being service / product specific in their queries) lead to a higher percentage of transactions.


Ok, that said, with the time and level of difficulty if you currently have the budget available I recommend that you invest $6000 to $9000 for a site about this large and give me your written guidelines for the content in each category (eg: we perform this service, but not that service) and I’ll take what you’ve given me in writing, drill down for additional related, neighboring, and synonym keywords using my software, WordTracker service and other services including Google and then compile an extensive keyword list for each phrase and go to my one of my unique content writing services (copywriting professionals with past proven expertise writing about your type of business). From there I’ll select the copywriters with the most proficiency and experience, provide them each with their own individualized drill down keyword list and have them create the marketing copy meant to draw the search engines to you content and to convert prospects into clients. You’ll then review each piece of copywriting and do a final edit to tweak out anything that doesn’t apply and send it back to me. NOTE: The above budget is for a site engineered for competitive performance. It’s also tax deductible under advertising. So now we’re getting somewhere.

Ideally I’d like each of the 18 to up to as many as 36 sections if we need to focus on NYC separately in some areas as “New Jersey” will dilute the focus of the NYC content, and in some areas that will be the only thing keeping you from reaching the top of the search engine return pages. Each separate section would ideally need to contain 5 pages of subsection material. This is Google’s own recommendation – each tightly focused category having at least 5 sub-pages to rank individually for each category in the search engine return pages.

This is the bulk of the on site work. Next is your company branding in social media and business profile site areas.


Premium Automated Username Signup (prevents brandjacking) 100 social networks signup ($249) Full Signup. New Jersey based company confirms emails, uploads photos, bio, and all details. I take care of this. You provide:

First Name
Last Name
street address
postal code
Phone number
Birthday (m/d/y)
Customer Notes (notes for their staff) – for instance do not inform me via email when someone wants to friend you or if they follow you, comment on your profile or anything else – you’ll log in to check this yourself (which of course you won’t, at least not right away)
Web Site (here you’ll get links back to your site)

NOTE on the email – I’ll create a custom email address for the signups, when the process is completed I’ll have it forwarded to you normally so your in-box isn’t hit with what will amount to a lot sign up confirmation correspondence that you no desire to deal with.

Next is entering <YourDomainName> into DMOZ (Open Directory Project) which can take some time before it shows up but it’s a good top tier business directory to be listed in, and the BOTW (Best of The Web) directory.


Then comes the back-link small informative article building pages hosted on individual IP sites. These are “all roads lead to Rome” pointers, not sterling examples of great writing. Here’s where creative SEO link building over time in a natural random fashion is performed over, let’s say, three months. These are uniquely worded category keyword pages with varied keyword link text related to your site content and they point to internal pages of your site. Deep linking (rather than people merely linking to the first page of your web site) is what the search engines use to best determine the value internal pages. We don’t start building these links until the content is done. But that’s not all there is to back link building. As a matter of fact there’s a thin line between information pages that provide something of use to the reader and doorway pages that aim to clutter up and spam the web. The real work of link building requires using the competitive web site analysis done earlier to determine which web sites are linking to the competition’s top competing pages and then seeing if it’s possible to also get a link from them. If not then a competitive analysis of the linking site to reveal its chief competitors might provide other satisfactory related niche sites to get links from. Time consuming, labor intensive, lots of frustration, extremely important.


At about the same time as the links are being built I have Dana Willhoit, press release woman in Orlando who just retired from 17 years as a newspaper reporter (tons of active contacts throughout the news industry) parse out some press releases which get your site some media links and traffic – this works particularly well because Google Analytics hit source tracking and Google’s search engine algorithm working together see press release hits followed by naturally occurring looking links to your site, which is quite a normal thing to see. Someone reads a news story online about something they’re interested in, and while writing about the subject links to the site in the press release they just read.

Why do you need these in your budget? What does this have to do with building you a web site? Back links are extremely important. I guarantee you that some of your competitors pages are going to have thousands of them.

Why Dana Willhoit? Here’s how particular I am about who I am willing to work with. I don’t just choose anyone. As an SEO I was curios when I met Dana on Twitter a few years ago after she had just retired and built her own web site. Through her own press releases about her new business (and all of her media friends gladly helping, I’m sure) she achieved 2,000 back links from other web sites to her own in two months time. That is amazing. You won’t get 2000 links, but she’s definitely good and still reasonable. If you go for more than $6000 in your budget you can knock off $1000 and deal directly with her. Let me know when you do though because she’ll give me a rate, so I’ll tell her to forget the rate, just do the most she can for you. Why would I do that? Because your site is my product and I much prefer to only engineer quality wherever the budget permits.

Ok, so now we’re at the point where the copy is in place, there’s a bit of a baseline of what the traffic looks like coming in, what keywords are bringing you the most (and the least) traffic and which links are working coming in from what areas (articles, press releases, social media sites, Google, Bing, Yahoo, DMOZ open directory project, Best of The Web etc).




I’ll also be creating one or two forms for your web site. The estimate and / or consultation form(s) will bring you new prospects for sure. I recommend that if you haven’t already done so you create a customer relations management database to deal with these as they’ll be coming in individually.


Second is the email newsletter. NYC area is full of interesting news, lots of businesses are headquartered here, and many it’s possible that whatever field you specialize in you’ll have access to industry insider information. I recommend that you further enhance your position in the public eye as an expert in your field by writing a monthly company newsletter to include some of the less sensitive insider industry related material (new regulations etc) that you can share. Make it of value, provide stories or information of interest and value to the subscriber (a paragraph or two) and possibly a featured scenario where the security services you provide turned a potentially bad situation around and the products or services you provide turn out to be the hero. The occasional case study, testimonial, even “featured client” or “decorated employee” all work well too. This is work for you but I guarantee you will get signups – you will get people who spread the word about you and you will build clients from this. My clients who do this know that it works. That’s a part of your budget that requires your time, not your money, to make your site perform miracles.

There are three technical rule areas to eNewsletters that combine into a concept which I’ll have to explain to you after the site is ready and you amass enough email addresses from signups (say 100). This is separate from but related to the site analytics to track and tweak the effectiveness of the email subject line, title of the email and the call to action within the email itself, and from there to the page added to the site either under News Release (different from a press release) or timed offer.


There are several important areas of web analytics that are of major importance to increasing the effectiveness of a site. One is setting goals for and tracking conversions. On site conversions occur whenever a site visitor completes a desired action. If a link is placed within some text on the first page of the site to a page where the site visitor can perform an action such as filling out one of your forms or going to the contact us page, then this is a conversion. Refining each conversion to improve conversion statistics is what design flow (placement, size, color etc of elements on each page play a role in this) and funneling is all about.

The first step involved in this process is to determine a baseline using a set number of visitors. Changes can be made in two ways, either as A-B testing where two versions of the same page are created with one design difference in the second version. The version with the greatest percentage of conversion is kept. As funneling improves and conversions increase the final wording of the benefits and offers on the destination page are tweaked and changed in a similar fashion, offer and benefit may be switched, or features and offers may be emphasized differently etc. The A-B testing can continue for quite some time and only when a high performer is deemed to be consistent is the original dropped.

Analytics also provide trend information which helps show when traffic begins to dip or increase calling for investigation as to the cause. If the site has performed well and consistently for several months and suddenly something changes another audit of the competition may be called for to find out which site(s) may have changed and in which ways, or which of your key-phrases are now facing additional competition possibly even from a different industry beginning to use a key word or key phrase formerly exclusive to your own. Multiple accounts can be set up within Google Analytics so various people can look into different areas and set up and track different conversion goals.


Part of your budget paid to me will go toward the purchase of PPC to quickly test and retest which offers and keyword phrases get the best click-through rate. As it can take some time for organic search engine optimization to bring a site up in the results for any A-B testing, using PPC greatly speeds the process making it easier to decide which of two or more phrases will result in the highest number of clicks. This is SEO industry accepted standard procedure.


The second option is $4,000 with more frequent interaction between us including my providing you with lists of keyword and phrases to try to include naturally as you write the marketing copy. There would be some profile building  and top tier directory listing for branding Alpha Omega (just as with the first option) but without the back links or press releases. Media buying is still included in the second budget option.

Option two is more wait and see how well it does in each category with Google alone using mostly just the on-page factors. That’s slower, far more laborious and your return takes longer and there will be less analytics, flow control and funneling (in part due to lower sample rates). I’ll include the consultation-estimate form and / or eNewsletter form.

Of course I recommend the first option only because the top rankers I’m seeing are easily investing at least that. It will also wind up being more work for both of us dealing only with each other within the time-frames of our respective schedules.

I hope that helps – You’ll still get a good site, but it’ll be more of a brochure site when what you need is business class performance.


Let’s take a peek at what Allan Bleiweiss, Forensic SEO and Hugo Guzman, Professional Online Marketing Expert are saying on Twitter:

Alan Bleiweiss, Forensic SEO Consultant

Alan Bleiweiss, Forensic SEO Consultant

Hugo Guzman, Professional Online Marketer

Hugo Guzman, Professional Online Marketer

Alan Bleiweiss, Forensic SEO Consultant

Alan Bleiweiss, Forensic SEO Consultant

No. There is a web site with some basic on-page SEO (even if it’s well done, once done, it’s pretty much finished). Why?

Search Engine Optimization isn’t expensive. It take a lot of time and work. It requires a great deal of technical experience, intelligence and insights gained over many years working with web technology and search engines. It also requires a great deal of discipline and the ability to remain focused and work many hours in deep concentration, often without any supervision.

This has been a sample of what Search Engine Optimization would cost on a smaller web site. Sites of a thousand pages or more will needless to say require even larger budgets.

Is this all there is? No. Not by a long shot. The devil is in the details but this site isn’t going to bother going into every single one the way a ten thousand others already do. Whether you’re a web site owner interested in SEO or a copywriter, link builder, SEO or press release writer please feel free to share your thoughts.

Copyright 2011 © How Much Does it Cost to Optimize A Web Site for the Search Engines?

1 Hugo May 1, 2011 at 1:14 am

Thanks for the mention, David! Much appreciated. Good work on this post. Will pass it around…

2 David Curtis May 1, 2011 at 4:49 am

Thanks Hugo! This blog is turning into a daily experience. 🙂

3 Glenn Ferrell May 1, 2011 at 12:19 pm

David — thanks for the great insight into your process ! Hugo – I would like to see more posts like this.

I was confused about one area. I assume, in the second paragraph, that the 18 X 4 – 10 = 720 audits meant 18 pages X 4 niches X 10 competitors. But why 10 competitors and not 5, as previously indicated ? Also you call this (technically) 720 audits but I’m assuming that your next sentence, saying “Audits typically run from between between $250 for a small site to multiple thousands of dollars apiece” really refers to the entire auditing process – correct ? Just trying to clarify what you meant when you talked about charging for the “first site audit.”

Thanx much !

4 David Curtis May 2, 2011 at 3:27 am

You’re right Glenn, I’d originally had five in my example but this was a number I threw out because it’s the competition at the top of the page, particularly the top three above the fold and a few below it just to be sure. I’ll cover all ten though based on some of the SERPs returning .gov, .edu authority returns, particularly when I see a lot of paid competition on the same page in the SERPs. (I’ve since edited to say “5 or 10”, hope that helps) 🙂

As regards the audits, what I’m saying is that the initial audit of the main site is anywhere from $250 to multiple thousands of dollars. Once a contract is signed the actual amount paid for the SEO work is a great deal higher and, in the example I provided all of the analysis of the competing pages is very similar to main site audit, but the fee for this is included within the full contract fee. After all, there can’t be any real planning without it. Even though the audit work is very similar to a single site audit, auditing the competition is a lot more time and energy efficient because all five or ten top competitors (and for convenience let’s keep it at ten) are being audited at once. So the competition audit is 18 key phrases x 3 or 4 sub-niches but each of the 18 are collecting data from 10 sites at the same time.

Now from there, some or a lot (depending on how well optimized) of the sub-niches competition data shows crap with only a few on top that are SEOd with any skill. Those decent sites are the ones I focus on most, and the rest just give a once over just to make sure I didn’t miss anything major.

So the full competition audit analysis definitely is not included in the initial audit unless a client wants just that – in which case the price is a appreciably higher (depending on the number of phrases, sub-niches etc.).

The “first site audit” is the audit of the site belonging to the hiring company. So the first audit is a customer qualifier because the Curious Georges with no intention of being optimized who want free reports will take up half your week (and at the point I was getting two a week I stopped providing them). In one way it can be seen as a token qualifier, but in another it’s more exacting even though it consumes less time than the competition audits. But the fluidity of types of sites, sub-domains, separate blog(s) hosted on the same server / different server(s) etc make it necessary to keep all of these rules flexible.

5 Glenn Ferrell May 1, 2011 at 10:02 pm

David – do you have an RSS feed ?

(Last comment – I mistakenly thought Hugo had something to do with this site — sorry.)

6 David Curtis May 2, 2011 at 2:47 am

Glenn, RSS yes. By coincidence I just happen to have re-added the RSS feed to the top right sidebar. https://workingseo.com/feed/ I pulled it off the top the other day until I get around to modifying it.

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