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The Fees and Concerns of
Professional Search Engine Optimizers

...and what their customers should know
when doing business with them!

by Robin Nobles

Search engine positioning is certainly the buzzword of the day with companies clearly understanding the importance of achieving top search engine placement for their web sites.

However, when it comes to working out the mechanics of fees and details, confusion often reigns over expectations that tend to shroud the path along the way to getting the actual job done. On the one hand there's the "optimizer" -- the person who is doing the work. On the other hand there's the customer. Not surprisingly, both share the same questions regarding the basic elements of the transaction. Questions such as...

  • What are the customary fees and how should they be determined?
  • How much detail work should be involved in optimizing a site for the search engines?
  • Are guarantees appropriate and if so, to what extent?

...such questions are invariably foremost in the minds of the parties involved.

As someone who trains webmasters and SE optimizers, I understand only too well the perplexity associated with pricing or purchasing a search engine optimization package. Therefore, in order to shine a floodlight on the subject and help both sides arrive at some realistic conclusions, I've asked several professional search engine optimizers to complete a questionnaire. For confidentiality reasons the names of those interviewed have been withheld but, nonetheless, I think you'll find their answers very interesting regardless of which side of the equation you're on -- customer or optimizer.

Fee structure

What is the typical fee structure for search engine positioning firms?

Actually, there isn't a "typical" fee structure, since charges can range from a couple of hundred dollars to over $50,000 to position a site.

Keep in mind, though, that some positioning packages include purchasing additional domains; hosting pages on their own server; using cloaking strategies; creating numerous doorway or information pages; offering continued maintenance; and so forth, where other positioning packages only offer to make a few doorway pages and slap them up, not even worrying about the ranking.

Not only that, but some experienced positioners do nothing more than offer consultation services. Yet, because of their expertise and reputation, they can charge $250 to $500 an hour. Is it worth it? If a couple of hours of consulting services can increase traffic to your site, it's worth every penny of those impressive hourly charges. Let's face it: it's certainly cheaper than most advertising campaigns.

What might you pay for positioning services? Take a look at the comments below taken from the professionals that were interviewed for this article.

  • "$1,000 for a 6-month program."
  • "$75-$100 set-up fee per keyword, which means maybe 5-8 pages for $75-$100 each."
  • "I charge a flat $110 to optimize a client's homepage (plus up to four other web pages) and then submit these page's URLs to the top 12-15 search engines and directories. If the client wants to get ranked high in the engines under a specific keyword phrase, I'll charge $25 for each phrase as I design three different `content rich' doorway pages per keyword phrase. When possible, I'll charge a monthly maintenance fee of $30 per website that includes regular optimization updates and re-submission of the client's web pages."
  • "We range from $500 - $20,000+ for search engine positioning based on the level of difficulty or number of pages we need to position."
  • "$20,000 to $30,000 setup fee for 25-40 keywords across 12-14 engines. Then, a monthly maintenance fee of $200-300 per keyword phrase."
  • "Hourly fees range from $50-$65 up to $500 an hour."
  • "It all depends on the needs of the client. Normally it's difficult to do any decent service for less than $1,000 because it's all so time consuming. And if you try to go too cheap, you lose money and the client will not be happy. Mostly, I prefer a monthly fee and we just keep `working at it' in all senses, not just positioning (newsgroups, press releases, link exchange... plus a lot of consultancy regarding the design, etc.)."
  • "10 keyword phrases: $1,500; 20 keyword phrases: $2,495."
  • "$1,500 set up fee and $500 a month."
  • "$399 to $799 for small business packages."
  • "We charge $500 set up (keywords research) and $200 per doorway page per search engine, with a minimum of 4 engines. Guaranteed top 10-30 and discount of 10% when below 30 and then up to 50% discount to rank 60."

As you can see, the prices run from pocket change to a considerable outlay of cash. For instance, one company that we interviewed posted a standard price even though almost every client's price actually varied depending upon the complexity or simplicity of the project (site). Factors that influence the actual price include; is this a consultation only job, or will the company get involved in making the changes? Or, do they have to hire their own HTML designer if a completely new design is required?

Pay-for-placement plans?

What is a pay-for-placement plan? Simply put, you pay when your site is placed in the search engine results at a certain ranking, depending on your contract with that positioning company. How popular are these plans with search engine positioners?

At this point in time, not very popular.

In fact, one positioner answered, "As erratic as the SE's are, I believe it's dangerous, though I do wish that I DID charge for the positions, especially every time we hit #1! "

Another positioner who uses a pay-for-placement plan said, "The price depends on the #position per keyword per SE. Each keyword has its own price category, depending on number of search results and grade of competition."

Pay-for-click-through plans?

Pay-for-click-through plans clearly haven't become popular either except in the more competitive areas of the Web, such as the adult or online gambling areas.

One positioner I spoke with charges a $500 setup fee, which includes 50 keywords across 8 engines. Then, he charges per click through, with the price going down as the amount of traffic increases. For example, for several hundred thousand hits, the price per click through might be $.05, whereas for only a thousand hits, the price might be $.30.

Another positioner says that his click-through charges vary, depending on the client and what he can afford. His standard rate is approximately $.25-.50 a click through.

In the adult or online gambling areas, however, you'll find positioners charging $2 per click through or more.

Are positioning charges realistic?

Interestingly, many positioners feel their charges are either too low or too high. Clearly, in this relatively new industry, there are few role models, so positioners start out by charging a fairly low amount, then move up as their experience level, success rates and reputation increases.

Because of the amount of time and expertise it takes to position a Web site in the rankings, and because of the amount of energy it takes to keep up with the changes in the industry, search engine positioning services can be expensive -- as well they should be.

As professional positioners know and are quick to tell you, you can't sit down and position a site in a matter of minutes. It can take hours and hours. Then, you sometimes wait for weeks to see the fruits of your labor, and then spend more hours tweaking the site. If, in the middle of this process, the engine changes its algorithm you may have to start all over.

What about guaranteeing results?

As one positioner said, "Until the engines guarantee, we will never guarantee either."

Many positioning firms require their clients to sign forms that state that there are no guarantees in the search engine business, because this keeps misunderstandings down from the onset of the working relationship. "After all, how can you guarantee results when there are so many factors involved?"

Another positioner explained what he tells customers when asked about a guarantee for a top ranking.

I make an analogy about search engine placement in order to illustrate what it is like and why it cannot be guaranteed. Obtaining high rankings is analogous to predicting the weather. You can look at the clouds, you can check humidity, you can watch wind patterns, etc. These are absolutely necessary to do in order to have any idea about the weather, but you still can't say for sure that it will in fact rain. I can do page tweaking, submissions, link promotion, etc., and have fantastic results and be right on the money, or it can rain on me. Doing what I do is a necessity to have a decent chance at obtaining search positions, but I cannot promise how the rankings will perform.

One way of offering a guarantee is to base it on the competitiveness of the keyword phrase chosen. "If low, I guarantee a top 20; if high, normally a top 50. I tend to offer different guarantees to different clients."

Another positioning company guarantees that at least 25 of the keyword phrases chosen will reach a top 10 ranking within 90 days of submission to the search engines. They also guarantee that if customers are not satisfied with the results, they will re-submit newly optimized pages or return their money.

A carefully worded guarantee is another option. For example, rather than guaranteeing results, one positioner guarantees an increase in traffic and that the company will do everything they can to achieve top rankings. Many positioners also said that they won't continue working for a client if they're not producing results.

One positioner offered this advice,

We guarantee top slot positioning (worded that way) in the major search engines (worded that way). This way we are covered in case we only get one keyword on the second page in one search engine or if we get multiple slots on the first page of many search engines. Most of our clients are very happy with our work, and we have not had to deal with the worst case scenario.

He continued,

If we cannot get them ranked in a good spot, we offer their money back or we offer to keep trying until we get them ranked. We typically say they will stay ranked for 4 - 6 months depending on the client, and we do not start counting the months until they appear in at least a few search engines. If they opt to have us keep trying, the months do not start counting until we have them placed.

Proving skills

When trying to win over a potential client, how do professional positioners prove that they know what they're talking about?

To prove their skills, professional positioners offered these suggestions:

  • Show clients a ranking report for other clients
  • Post customer satisfaction articles on your site
  • Give insight into the search engine industry and explain in detail how you're going to work on the client's site and help improve its traffic
  • Call past clients
  • Get skills certified by a credible training company

One positioner explained,

We show them reports we have given to other clients of where they are positioned with search words. We also tell them a few things about a client and then say `go search for them on the net using words you probably would use.' The clients are usually very happy with what they see, and then sign up with us. We have only run into trouble with cheap clients on occasion, but most people realize they are paying us for quality placements and management.

Additional tips for working with clients

When working with prospective positioning clients, be open and honest, and remember that the personal touch often makes the sale. Here's a good suggestion...

Tell customers up front: 'I can't give you a guarantee, but I can give you accountability.' Explain the process honestly and thoroughly and you'll establish credibility. On the initial sales call, I do three things:

1. Ask a lot of questions
2. Educate the client about the process
3. Manage the client's expectations.

And once you've completed the work, be prepared to show your client what you've done. I save all the HTML submission reports I generate and each HTML page, and I make a hard copy of each page of the Yahoo! submission form. I do the same thing with Snap, LookSmart and the ODP. If a client sees the level of effort, you'll have few problems. Save and document your work! When you start seeing good results in the rankings, CLAIM THE VICTORY. Drop a client an e-mail, `Good news, we just got notified that we've been accepted in Yahoo! or moved in the top 10 of AltaVista.'

Work on location or live anywhere?

Some positioning firms require their employees to live and work at their location. Certainly there are advantages to having everyone under the same roof. It's much easier to share strategies with someone who works across the hall from you.

But with the Internet and the ability to stay connected to someone who lives on the other side of the world, many companies allow their employees to work at their own locations.

Then, they stay connected through community building devices such as instant messenger software programs, bulletin boards, and chat rooms.

Some positioning firms like their new employees to work in the home office for a least a week to see how the business is run, and then they can operate out of their own location. Other companies like to have a few employees who work at the central location, whereas others can live anywhere.

Hiring positioners with no experience

Most of the firms who completed the questionnaire start out their new employees at $8 to $10 an hour if they have no positioning experience or training.

Once they've gained experience and training in the field, their pay scale goes up. Of course, the standard pay rate in your area should be considered.

One positioning company pays their employees minimum wage through the training process because, "I am giving them a chance in the first place."

After all, professional positioning can be a very lucrative business once you achieve the proper training and expertise.

Hiring positioners with experience

Some experienced positioners are paid from $12-14 an hour and up depending on the area, the positioner's experience level, past results, and so forth.

Other positioners are paid on a click-through basis, where other positioners are allowed to set their own fees. Then, the positioning companies will charge the clients two to three times more than the fee for the positioner in order to make their overhead and profit.

Some positioning firms will pay a monthly or yearly salary, and many firms pay a ranking bonus as an incentive to the positioner to work hard toward those top rankings.

In conclusion . . . the challenges of the industry

In an industry where changes are made almost daily, what could be more challenging than that? try this: Working with clients who know and understand absolutely nothing about search engine positioning. Most professionals will tell you that is the MOST challenging aspect of the job.

As one positioner put it,

Our biggest challenge? Reporting correctly to clients so they will understand what we're doing. I believe the best way to keep a client is through constant communication: to keep in touch and to let them know about successes and problems. And, to keep smiling!

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Robin Nobles teaches 2-, 3-, and 5-day hands-on search engine marketing workshops in locations across the globe ( as well as online SEO training courses ( They have recently launched localized SEO training centers through, and they have expanded their workshops to Europe with Search Engine Workshops UK. They have also opened the first networking community for SEOs, the Workshop Resource Center (WRC).

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