So how much is this going to cost?”

As an SEO consultant this is a question I hear almost daily from clients and prospects. It’s a totally fair question. I would want to know the answer too if I was going to be making a considerable investment in a particular marketing channel. 

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always simple. 

I would love nothing more than to have a definitive answer and be able to say something to the effect of: “six weeks from today your landing page will be ranking in the number one position on the first page of Google search results and it’s going to cost exactly $1,000.” 

And I totally understand why a client would want that kind of certainty. 

But the truth of the matter is that there are dozens of factors that play into the timeline and cost of SEO, and certain questions need to be answered before your SEO strategist can set realistic expectations. 

Below are just a few of the things that I need to assess before I can start to effectively give an estimate on a project.

Side note: Explaining SEO can be tough because you never know if your audience wants the long-winded technical answer, or just the bare basics. So I’ve included a “short answer” that you can skip ahead to at the end of every section if you’re just looking for the Cliff notes.

Competitive Analysis

Before I can even begin to think about how long it might take for a particular keyword to rank, I need to do a full analysis to get a gauge on what the competitive landscape is like. The more competition there is in your space, the more difficult it will be to rank—and that will impact the timeline.

The first question I ask myself when doing the competitor analysis is: who is already ranking for this keyword and how are they doing it? I’ll be looking to answer the following questions with my research:

Backlink profile

Every time an external website links to your content it is considered as a “vote” for your website in Google’s eyes. That is to say that if another person is linking to you, it’s seen as an indication that this site must have solid content on a particular topic. 

I consider backlinks to be the most important of the ranking factors. Most SEO sins can be forgiven if your site is being linked to heavily by other quality domains. 

The problem is that acquiring backlinks can be costly. There are a number of ways to attract backlinks holistically and all of those methods require a substantial budget. Creating shareable content, distributing your content on social media, and cold outreach campaigns to other blogs are all projects that can help with link building—but they are also projects that are time intensive. 

The first step of the competitive analysis is to see where your competitors are in terms of their backlink profile. 

The short answer: Once I know how many links we’ll need to build in order to be competitive, I can start to give you a better estimate of timeline and budget.

How does our content compare?

The next step in the competitive analysis process is figuring out what kind of content our competitors have and how it stacks up to what we have. 

For instance, let’s say that you’re a private tutoring agency and you’re trying to rank for the keyword: “math tutors in Los Angeles”. You have a landing page for your tutoring services in LA and you have a few photos of your tutors and about 100 words of text with your offerings.

But then we look at your top 3 competitors and their landing page has 1,500 words of content about their methodology and techniques. They have a 3 minute video interviewing their tutors and clients about their experience. They have a half dozen testimonials from current and past clients on the page. They’ve also written 10 different blog posts about how to help your child with math, tips & tricks for learning algebra, dealing with math anxiety, etc. 

If your competitors are creating a substantial amount of content from authoritative writers, and that content is getting engagement from visitors—you’re going to need to invest in a content strategy. 

The short answer: Once I gauge your competitor’s content, I can develop a content strategy that exceeds theirs and give you a better idea of the timeline and budget that will be needed to rank.

Where are we ranking right now?

Google tends to favor webpages that have been around for a while. 

If you think about it, do you want to visit the chiropractor who has been in practice for 20 years and has dozens of 5 star reviews on Yelp—or do you want to be the very first client of the guy that just graduated last month.

Before I can give a timeline for ranking, I need to know where we’re starting. 

If you’ve had a landing page for a few years and it has plateaued on the middle of page two, we can probably get that onto page one in a few months with a relatively modest budget. 

If your page is brand new or not in the first 10 pages of search results, then it’s going to take longer. 

The short answer: Once I know where you are currently ranked, I’ll have a better idea of the timeline we can expect to meet your goals.

Technical Audit

Before giving a timeline or budget estimate, a technical audit of your site should be performed. 

Here are just a few of the things I’m looking for:

  • Crawl errors
  • Manual action penalties from Google
  • Page load speed & Core Web Vital performance

These metrics are crucial for ranking and each of them can impact the timeline it takes to rank considerably.

We can do everything else perfectly, but if your site takes 35 seconds for it to load—we’re in trouble.

In a lot of cases, companies use their own internal web developers to address these issues, and as an external consultant, I don’t have control over how long it takes to make the improvements. We’ll need to work together in order to figure out reasonable deadlines to execute the projects, and then how long ranking should take after the improvements are done.

Short answer: Before I can give an accurate estimate on how much it will cost to rank, we’ll need to make a full list of any technical issues that are holding your site back and how long it will take to remedy those issues.

What’s your budget?

I know what you’re thinking. Asking you for your budget is a skeezy sales tactic. 

It’s like if you went to a car dealership and the dealer asks you how much you’re willing to spend on a new car. You say you’re willing to pay up to $35k and the dealer lights up. “I have a beautiful car that’s right in your budget!” But what he doesn’t tell you is that the car he’s about to sell you for $35k is actually only worth $28k. 

With SEO, you have to think of it more as though I am BUILDING you a car from scratch. I have the ability to build you a Lamborghini, or a Prius, or anything you can think of in between—but I can’t start on the blueprints until I have at least a general idea of how much you are looking to spend.

I understand why businesses are reluctant to give me a budget. 

It’s also very common for a client to decline to give me a budget because they simply don’t have any frame of reference for what the market rate is. For all they know, it could be $50 a month, or $5,000. 

In any event, the more I know about your goals and your budget, the better I can be at crafting a strategy to fit your needs.

Short answer: If I know what your goals and your budget are, I can tailor a campaign specifically for you. 

Expect volatility

Unfortunately, the path to page one is rarely linear. 

It would be great if we could just flip a switch and your page went directly to the top of search rankings, but SEO is oftentimes like a rollercoaster. A slow ascension followed by twists, turns and occasional drops.

There are a number of reasons why an estimated timeline might be thrown off. A new algorithm update, or a shift in what Google deems to be the search intent for a particular keyword can really throw things off.

While we make every reasonable effort to give you as accurate of a timeline as possible, all estimates are an approximation that are based on our extensive experience.