Affordable SEO: How Much Risk Can You Accept?

Affordable SEO: How Much Risk Are You Willing to Accept?

We service clients of all sizes, from large enterprise down to small startups. For the bigger outfits, budget is rarely an issue. After all, when your marketing budget is set at 7-10% of an 8-figure revenue stream, it’s not a matter of whether to invest in search marketing, but with whom.

On the other end of the spectrum, smaller clients are very focused on squeezing every bit of value possible from each and every dollar invested. Just last week, I was talking to a small company focused on the local Austin market about building an ongoing Austin SEO campaign for them. After reviewing their needs, how we can help, and discussing budget and costs, we received the standard objection:

[Insert Affordable SEO Vendor Name Here] contacted me last week. They are guaranteeing me a ranking at the top of page one for our top target keyword for only $199 a month. Why should I pay more for you to do the same thing?

This is a common objection, and one we typically address by selling the value of working with us. Some of that value is based on the idea that “we do it better than they do”, of course. We are very comfortable making that claim. Let’s look at why that is true.

Affordable SEO = Cheap SEO

Everyone has heard the old adage that “you get what you pay for.” But with SEO, it’s not that simple.

Most low cost SEO firms will sell themselves as “affordable SEO”. There are only four ways to make SEO more affordable:

  1. Charge less for the same services hoping to make it up in volume
  2. Reduce scope significantly to get to a lower price
  3. Employ Black Hat SEO practices that are automated and scalable (high risk of being penalized by Google)
  4. Outsource everything to the lowest bidder overseas (lack of personal investment by the SEO firm you hire)

What do all four of these have in common? They are cheap ways to make a buck. Affordable SEO is a euphemism and little more. In reality, Affordable SEO is nothing more than Cheap SEO.

Why  All Four Affordable SEO Strategies Fail

As you can tell from my previous commentary, Affordable SEO is not the best way to ensure sustained traffic growth for an asset as valuable as your website.

Charge Less

Pricing is a challenge for most new entrepreneurs. Unless they are adept at selling value, the only lever they have to use is price.

Getting involved in price cutting or bid wars is a losing proposition. No matter how much the SEO charges for a service, they still have to put in the time to provide that service.

The problem is that there are only so many hours in a day. For an SEO’s first few clients, it might be okay to charge less and make it work. Many client companies see this as an opportunity to get a good value. Those companies are dead wrong.

What happens when the client list grows? Do you really think you can count on getting the same quality and attention you received in the early days? Of course you cannot! They will either underserve you, or hire some kid with minimal experience to take over the SEO for your site at a discount.

Neither of these serves your best interests. Be wary of engaging with an SEO on price alone. It’s loaded with long term risk.

Reduce Scope

All SEOs have faced the situation where they really want to land a client for long term potential, but the client does not have sufficient budget to hire them. Reducing scope to meet the budget is a completely valid response to this situation. Heck, we’ve done it ourselves in the past to get a foot in the door at the right prospect accounts.

The issue is that this must be positioned as a one-time deal from the start. It is not a low price; it is a discount to prove your worth.

If an SEO company is pitching you for an ongoing engagement at rock bottom low prices, read the fine print. What are you getting for that investment? Is it enough to move the needle? If they won’t outline exactly what is included in the service agreement in detail, force the issue.

Saving money is great. Wasting money is just plain dumb. Know what you are getting yourself into up front, so you don’t find yourself frustrated and several thousand dollars poorer in six months or a year.

Employ Black Hat SEO Practices

This is the worst possible way to cut corners. Google has been chasing down cheaters for several years now. Yet, they are imperfect at it, as you would expect from any algorithmic ranking system. So long as an algorithm is at play, there will be loopholes to take advantage of.

But how long will it work? Are you comfortable playing Russian Roulette with your own website? Google went after low quality content. They went after SEO for SEO’s sake. They have gone after link schemes, including link rings, overoptimized anchor text, and purchased links. They’re already building out additional Panda and Penguin penalties to roll out in 2013. And Google is talking about how social media is an upcoming area of focus (once they figure out how to analyze it properly).

If an SEO guarantees a page one ranking in a specific amount of time, ask them how they will do it. There are no shortcuts, and these types of promises are strong indicators of gaming the system.

SEO is not a game. Just because someone knows a trick that has worked for years, that doesn’t guarantee it will work a week from now. Play it straight, don’t cheat, and accept the fact that white hat SEO takes time.

Outsource Everything Cheaply

I’m a fan of Tim Ferriss and his outsourcing concept. We use it extensively here at Return On Now. But we take it very seriously. Anything we outsource is carefully managed, and the resources we use to do it are vetted heavily.

Sadly, not every company employs the same level of due diligence. One client of ours move to RON because their SEO firm never knew what the execution team was up to. They weren’t managing the account at all!

We see it all the time. A guy with enough SEO knowledge to be dangerous decides he can start a consulting outfit and offload all the work to a team overseas. He does the selling, closing, and billing work himself. Once closed, he hands the accounts over in full to the partner and walks away.

Is that a model for success? Not with my money! Be sure you understand how outsourcing is managed from the start.

Like I said, we are huge fans of the idea. But we also manage it closely to ensure full coverage for every client. You deserve full value, and it is worth paying full price for it.


These are the four most common models I see employed by companies offering “Affordable SEO”. Have you seen any others? Please share in the comments below! Thanks for reading.


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As Founder and President of Return On Now, Tommy Landry provides the vision behind our SEO and SEM methodologies. With over 25 years of business experience and a deep understanding of modern internet marketing techniques, he spends his time providing hands-on consulting, insightful content, and engaging public speaking appearances to Online Marketers of all skill levels.
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