This Business Of SEO

Lately I've been talking to a lot of people in the industry trying to get a handle on the current SEO sales cycle, what people are charging, what their close rate is -- and, most importantly, what are the main objections that they are facing from prospective clients. SEOs typically hold their cards close to the chest but I've managed to glean a few nuggets. These nuggets generally cost me a substantial bar tab. SEOs do like their liquor.


My current non-scientific research mission has been inspired, in large part, by my good friend Matt McGee who wrote an outstanding piece on the cost, expectations and realities of SEO, titled, coincidently enough, "Small Business SEO: Costs, Expectations & Realities."

Matt discusses such important factors to influence the cost of SEO as geography and overall business model. He also goes into detail with some ROI examples.

This is all good stuff -- but I'm not nearly as calm, cool and collected as Matt. I'm the guy who will be offended when you try and tell me that you think my SEO isn't worth the price I charge -- and you trot out your neighbor's daughter's former roommate's ex-dog walker's 15-year-old son that has offered to do your SEO for almost free and tell me that's the competition. After I politely decline to pursue the relationship further and wish you the best of luck with your decision, I'll hang up the phone and look around my office for something I can afford to lose and throw it against the wall.



It's not that I've lost the business. It's that my expertise has been devalued to the level of the local paperboy. This happens ALL the time. When you need a lawyer, you recognize expertise, training and experience -- all factors that go into the $400-per-hour price tag. When you need a mechanic, there is the same recognition. Many of us have been doing SEO for a decade or more. We've written articles, spoken as experts at conferences, written books, and been hired as expert witnesses for court cases.

Just yesterday an SEO friend of mine sent me an email asking my opinion on whether or not he should pursue a particular client. He included part of the client's email. It basically said "I know an SEO expert can figure out mostly what needs to be done in 10 minutes and write it all up in an hour." You get one guess what my advice to this particular SEO was.

I'm sure you've all heard the story about the broken printing press by now. The printers call in the printing press expert. The expert walks around the machine for a bit looking under covers and checking various dials and displays. After about an hour he pulls out a piece of chalk and marks an X on the machine and tells one of the workers to hit the X with a hammer. Voila! The printing press fires right up. The next week the printer receives an invoice for $15,000. He goes ballistic and demands detail for such an outrageous bill. The expert, nonplussed, sends back the requested detail:


$50 -- one hour of inspection
$14,950 -- knowing where to hit the printing press

That, my friends, is SEO. We know where to hit the printing press -- and there is real value in that. Don't let people try and hire you for your time. You should be hired for your expertise.

15 comments about "This Business Of SEO".
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  1. Larry Thompson from Eventos, Inc., August 7, 2009 at 12:53 p.m.

    This is all new to me. In a nutshell, what does an SEO do, and what are industry-wide normal rates?

  2. Veronica Fielding from Digital Brand Expressions, August 7, 2009 at 1:10 p.m.

    GREAT post Todd. We go through this all of the time.

    I've been in interactive marketing most of my career, with the last 8 focused on SEO and other findability marketing. I have never seen any marketing discipline as misunderstood and undervalued as SEO.

    I think some of the misunderstanding is generated by the companies that claim to do SEO but do nothing more than a little keyword research and put some tags on a page. (Or worse, the ones that buy paid search and tell their clients they've optimized the site.)

    But I think a lot of it comes down to marketers buying a service that they don't want to understand...they think of it as an IT/programming "thing" and don't invest the time to research what's really involved. Then they dismiss it as "not rocket science," and want your expertise for nothing while they're telling you there's no real expertise involved.

    Thankfully this is changing, and we've got fantastic clients who've invested their time to understand the process and are enjoying the ROI that comes from hiring true experts. It's just hard to deal with the know-it-alls who don't know much.

    Thanks for your post, you nailed it.

  3. Toby Muller from Toby Muller Communications, August 7, 2009 at 1:17 p.m.

    As a top-level copywriter I've been experiencing this phenomenon particularly during the recent down economy. Everyone can write, so paying for a copywriter for ads, p.r., package copy etc. when budgets are tight seems an extravagance. But why would you want to compromise your business especially at a time when the economy is weak? Consumers aren't buying so let me give my product less attention, less of a profile... and save a bit of money. "Penny wise, pound foolish" is a phrase that's apt almost 400 years after it was coined (by Robert Burton). Writing like that is priceless.

  4. Jon-Mikel Bailey from Wood Street, Inc., August 7, 2009 at 1:19 p.m.

    This is brilliant! I think slowly people are starting to see the real value of ACTUAL QUALITY SEO talent, but the keyword here is SLOWLY. Keep writing posts like these, help spread the word, SEOs are starving out there! Arms for SEOs!

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 7, 2009 at 1:26 p.m.

    As Ken Rutlowski always says, "Experts are expensive; amateurs are a fortune."

  6. Tim Rohrer from Radio One, August 7, 2009 at 1:35 p.m.

    Poor baby feels devalued? There are very few media sellers of any kind that are valued as experts by their clients. Get over it.

  7. Kenny Hyder from Position Tech, August 7, 2009 at 2:19 p.m.

    Unfortunately, In SEO, It doesn't take a 10 year vet to know the right place to hit anymore.

  8. Judith Cheney from, August 7, 2009 at 2:34 p.m.

    Interesting that all of your peers agree with you, but the potential customers are the ones that really matter.

    Other professions are judged by their successes. How many lawsuits do they win and what were the judgement amounts? How many successful brain surgeries do they have under their belt? How much did they save their customers? Until you have proof like that and can provide some guarantee of your value, customers are going to shop around.

    Big companies don't really need you and small companies can't really afford you, so you need to prove your worth. Otherwise you are a legend in your own mind. As the saying goes, "Show me the money!"

  9. Todd Friesen from Position Technologies, August 7, 2009 at 2:55 p.m.

    J Cheney - good advice for ANY company. Of course I don't expect people to hire me "just because". I can back up my qualifications and success.

    Kenny - is that sympathetic or critical? I can't tell.

    Tim - poor baby? srsly? I appreciate your level of discourse. I'm doing just fine thanks. The article is a larger commentary on the state of this industry that I love. You are right tho that few are valued as experts but it's because they're not.

    Paula - awesome quote. I love it.

    All others - I appreciate your support and comments.

    To the guy that emailed me about anger management classes - that was excellent - thanks :)

  10. Claire Hawley from eClaire's, August 7, 2009 at 3:25 p.m.

    Excellent post, Todd... in the search world, there are more and more "experts" and unfortunately, just as much confusion by small businesses to understand what they really need. For those of us veterans, we'd like to think our track record will sustain our paychecks, but in my experience, you either have a natural knack for SEO or you have a knack for selling your bs. Regardless of years of experience, or false truths that you've come to believe about the art of SEO, a bad SEO can be charging too much and a good SEO too little.

  11. Ross Dunn from StepForth Web Marketing Inc., August 7, 2009 at 6:15 p.m.

    In principle I agree with you Todd but when dealing with small business the printing press concept goes over like a fart in church.

    Big business should see the light and have the talent on staff to see the value that a qualified SEO consultant can provide. Small business owners, however, can rarely afford that kind of expertise and even if they could, most (in my experience) will walk in the other direction because they don't understand what could possibly warrant the cost and/or they have been fleeced at one time by the ghouls that call themselves "SEOs" and give us all a bad name.

    As far as billings go, I make it no secret that I charge $265 an hour for my 12 years of experience and sometimes much less if I feel I am treading into territory that I am not as proficient in. Perhaps I am underselling myself by not charging more but I can sleep at night knowing there is nothing wrong with that kind of money and I find that there are plenty of clients that are willing to pay that in exchange for quality advice that leads to results. If the client gets an unreal return on his/her investment because I only charge per hour then I am just happy to know I will have a long time client to work with.

    Oh, and the ones that don't see the value can move on and hire little nephew Sal to half-bake their site into oblivion.

  12. Brian Rutledge from Get Page One, LLC, August 7, 2009 at 6:21 p.m.

    Amen, brother, Amen.

  13. Jeffrey Smith from SEO Design Solutions, Inc., August 8, 2009 at 7:35 p.m.


    You have got to love the analogy of the printing press and the $15K bill. Similarly, you won't see someone taking a Ferrari to a Quick-e Lube so save a few pennies on labor, so why would they feel the same way about SEO.

    I wrote a piece or two that focused on the same modality that you may consider leaving up for others to read (as it is in line with the topic).

    <a href="">SEO Pricing: Why Does SEO Cost so Much</a> and <a href="">Budgeting and SEO Fees, The Cost of Competition</a>.

    Both posts address the real value of SEO, which ultimately depends on (a) your competition and what they are spending and doing and (b) their ROI which allows them to be a contender in the first place.

    Stellar post you wrote, just wanted to add my two cents (or rather 2 posts) if I may.

    All the best,

    Jeffrey Smith

  14. Mai Kok from So What, August 10, 2009 at 4:13 p.m.

    There's a variation of that story that I used in the past - similar thing - only it's a plumber and knowing which pipe or screw or bracket to fix.

    But that really doesn't matter when you're dealing with a bunch of small businesses that have no money and can't afford your services.

    Those that can, that's when you prove and show the value of your skills and knowledge.

  15. David Matson from Get Lawyer Leads, Inc., August 11, 2009 at noon

    Good stuff.

    This comes up all the time with criminal defense lawyers. "It only took you 10 minutes in court to get my charges dismissed, how can you charge me $5000??"

    Even better than the printing press analogy is one that I've heard lawyers use:

    Gunfighters don't charge by the bullet.

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