In a sea of SEM software, staff, and systems, it can be tricky to know how to use marketing funds to see the best ROI. Here’s what our experts have to say.
Here, you’ll find:
- The average cost of search engine marketing (SEM)
- Factors that affect PPC and SEO pricing
- How much of your budget should be allocated to SEM
- Cost comparisons for in-house staff, freelancers, and agencies
Ever spent hours doing keyword research, creating content, pitching backlinks, or updating bid adjustments?
Then you’re probably well aware of the labor and skills required to manage SEO and PPC campaigns, two components of search engine marketing or SEM… and search engine marketing costs.
→ SEO is search engine optimization, a collection of content techniques and technical web tactics to rank higher on Google’s SERPs.
→ PPC is pay-per-click advertising, which involves bidding for space at the top of Google’s SERPs and paying for every click.
Both digital marketing tactics are vital for an effective SEM strategy. And both require a unique set of skills and expertise — typically managed by an in-house employee or outsourced to a freelancer or marketing agency.
That means you’re dealing with varying salaries and agency costs to fulfill business goals.
So how much should you expect to spend on search engine marketing? The answer is nuanced, so let’s get into it.
What are search engine marketing costs?
How much should you pay an in-house, entry-level SEO consultant? How much is a monthly retainer with a PPC/SEO agency?
From salaries and agency fees to services and software, you can expect a wide range of SEM costs. While these prices can vary, we can offer an idea of what to expect.
Search engine marketing costs: SEO
When it comes to online marketing on search engines, many startups, local businesses, and big brands alike see SEO campaigns as a cheaper alternative to PPC.
That’s true in some ways, but making it to page one still costs you a pretty penny.
You might experience steady organic traffic and conversion rates, but are you really optimizing your marketing budget? You want to ensure you’re not spending too much or too little.
The SEO waiting game is also costly, as you might experience a low return on investment initially. According to Ahrefs, it’s rare to make page one on the search engine results page (SERP) within your first year. In fact, only 22% of page-one rankings are for new websites.
So, how much does SEO cost? Let’s break down search engine marketing costs for various SEO services.
Content creation and production costs
Content marketing consists of creating and sharing content that educates, engages, and helps your target audience.
Publishing content marketing is a great way to bring in organic traffic and build authority on search engines. There are a ton of ways to post quality content that shows up in organic searches.
For example, copywriting for blogs, websites, newsletters, and social media content. Then there’s visual content like videos and infographics.
Why should business owners and marketers prioritize content marketing? While SEO takes time, it informs Google and search engines that your business is an authority, and you’ll show up higher in SERP rankings on engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
But to achieve the best results, you have to publish high-quality content that isn’t cookie-cutter, regurgitated, or worse — AI-produced.
Most recently, Google’s helpful content update favors more authentic, valuable, and reliable content written by humans (not bots or AI). Google will reward brands who prioritize helpful content with higher rankings.
And if you don’t comply? See you on page 8.
The best performing content is original, polished, SEO-friendly, and consistently shared. And above all? It speaks directly to your target audience and helps them out in some way, whether that’s solving a problem or being entertained by their favorite brand.
SEO is extremely dynamic, and not surprisingly, it takes time and money.
Pro-tip: As you consistently publish content, track your data in Google Analytics to see which content performs best. With that information, you can fine-tune your content to produce more of what’s working and trim down on what isn’t.
How much does SEO Cost?
Search Engine Journal’s findings for SEO costs ranged from $0.02-$2.00 per word, making a 1,000-word article between $20-$2,000. On average, content costs between $0.08-$0.20 per word ($80-$200 for your average article). That cost usually includes edits — but not always. And consider that when it comes to creating content, you really do get what you pay for.
You should expect specialized and technical content that’s fully optimized to have premium pricing. Remember, niche businesses, especially the more tech-forward ones, will pay more for high-quality content as the topics covered are usually long-form and in-depth. Even the most talented writers need expertise or impeccable research skills to produce specialized content.
Let’s assume you produce one article every week for your blog.
For high-quality, SEO-optimized, and niche content, you’re looking at spending at least $1,000 per month for content production from a freelance writer. Double or triple that if you work with an agency. Most agencies have a minimum and pricing models that aren’t exclusively based on word count. That’s because agencies generally operate with more horsepower, resources, teams of experts, and industry know-how. Meaning? Better content, quality control, and cohesion across all content.
Freelancers tend to be more affordable, but it’s difficult to track down high-quality talent delivered on a consistent basis.
And by the time you fill every role in-house, you’re likely spending more than you would by working with a qualified and reputable agency.
Average content creation and monthly SEO costs:
- SEO agency: $1,000-$10,000
- Independent freelancer: $300-$1,000
- In-house SEO writer: $3,750 – $4,600
Local SEO costs
Next on the docket? Local SEO services. Depending on your business, you might notice a high-value audience segment based on their location.
Maybe you’re targeting the CFOs for agritech startups in Silicon Valley or you want to appeal to suburban parents in Pasadena, CA. Multiply that by any number of locales if you’re targeting multiple cities or neighborhoods.
The goal? You want to be first or among the first results in location-based Google queries for your niche. Case in point:
The Kiddie Academy of Pasadena has an updated address, phone number, and recent reviews. A deeper dive highlights how the company responds to reviews, showing they are engaging with reviewers.
Why is it important? It’s a big win for local SEO. Local citations, review responses, and Google profile updates might seem simple enough, but the cost for local SEO services ranges greatly depending on:
- Number of location targets: Do you have two business locations? You’ll pay for a package per location.
- Competition: If your niche is competitive, you’ll spend more beefing up your credibility, relevant pages, and keywords to stand out.
- On-site optimization and maintenance frequency: Technical cleanups include updating metatags and descriptions, schema markups, UX features, and more.
- Online review management: Do you have a system for soliciting reviews, responding to them, and resolving bad ones? You might track all this manually, which takes up valuable labor hours. Or, an agency could help you automate it with response SOPs, monitoring, and alerts.
Average local SEO services monthly costs:
- SEO agency: $2,500-$10,000
- Independent freelancer: $500- $2,500
- In-house SEO analyst: $5,230
Now, we’re looking at technical SEO pricing. Your SEO writer might not be equipped to manage web development tweaks to improve site speed, update meta tags, or maintain an accessible user experience.
Link building is another important SEO activity, which is becoming more and more vital as Google favors EAT content (expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness).
While you might source backlinks organically through thought leadership content and cold outreach to different publications or social media accounts, a growing number of businesses now pay for backlinks, which can soar your costs even higher.
SEO development monthly costs:
- SEO agency: $3,000 minimum for a small business, reaching as high as $10,000 (this usually includes technical and content SEO)
- Independent freelancer: $1,000-$4,000, depending on their experience and niche
- In-house SEO analyst: $5,230
Search engine marketing costs: PPC
Like SEO, PPC costs encompass many key factors, like ad spend, software, digital assets, and hired professionals. Ultimately, your ad spend depends on how successful your reach is and your chosen ad network.
The more clicks, the more money you’ll spend. But PPC costs don’t stop at ad spend. You’ll want to factor in additional costs for PPC management to optimize your campaigns. With that in mind, how do you envision PPC costs in your budget?
Here’s a look at where your expenses will likely go.
Google Ad spend depends on your bids and budget, along with CPC averages. While these costs are determined by Google, you’ll also need to account for the labor hours involved in managing everything that goes into your ad spend.
Tools and software
You have a few different tools to pick from for your PPC tech stack, each lending support with different tasks in the PCP workflow, from auditing and bid adjustments to landing page optimization. Some popular tools include Google Ads Editor, Semrush, and Wordstream PPC Advisor.
While some starter tools like PPC Ninja’s Excel-based audit tool are free, others cost between $50-$500 per month. But if you want to really hit a home run on your PPC campaigns, you might benefit from proprietary tech developed by an industry-leading agency.
For example, HawkSEM’s ConversionIQ™ is a dynamic data-analyzing software that connects the dots between search intent and results. We pair this innovative tech with our expert advice and observation, all included in our PPC management services.
A solid PPC ad without a relevant landing page does little to nothing for conversions.
That’s why you need to include impeccable web design and brand messaging on every landing page. Plus, your load time should be lightning quick — Portent tells us a 1-second load time converts 3X more than a 5-second load time.
You might need a web designer to create your landing pages, either in-house, with an agency, or freelancer.
Otherwise, expert PPC agencies might include landing page optimization in their PPC services.
PPC monthly costs:
- In-house: An American PPC manager costs around $61,672 per year, or $5,139 per month. You might need to add even more to your budget for analysts or other team members.
- Agency: Credo found that 85% of PPC firms charge an hourly rate between $50-$200 an hour. Additionally, they found about 51% of firms charge between $1,000-$3,000 per month. Still, that 51% reminds us that not all PPC firms are equal. A high-end firm will likely charge over $3,000/month.
- Freelance: PPC freelancer fees are broad, with some charging hourly, others project-based, and others a percentage of revenue.
We’ve seen what SEO and PPC costs look like across the board — but how do you know what price point is right for your business?
What should you spend on PPC and SEO?
Does your SEM marketing budget feel steep? You’re not the only one — companies are expected to spend $876 billion on digital advertising by 2026.
But how much should each company spend?
HawkSEM CEO Sam Yadegar suggests allocating $3,000+ for PPC and approximately $3,000 on SEO if you’re a small business. Still, your total spend should be proportionate to your company’s revenue.
The costs discussed above are a helpful baseline, but ultimately, Sam says it depends on “whether a brand is looking to sustain or grow.”
He adds that it’s helpful to compare SEM costs against percentages of your marketing budget or revenue. That way, your costs are more proportionate and you can better visualize a reasonable spend.
Here’s what SEO and PPC costs should look like against your financial landscape:
|Business Goal||Revenue Percentage toward Marketing as a Whole||Marketing Budget Percentage toward SEM|
What affects digital marketing spend?
Every brand’s PPC and SEO needs vary. But universally, every business wants to rank higher on SERPs. And just like every brand is unique, every marketing budget reflects goals and analytics.
Let’s look at variables that dictate search engine marketing costs across the board.
Company size and budget
If you’re a startup, your budget is going to be smaller than QuickBooks’ $3.5 billion in marketing spend this year, and that’s ok. It’s reasonable to delay marketing investments until you have a steady cash flow, or prioritize one SEM tactic before adding more.
What’s a surefire way to sabotage a PPC/SEO strategy? Having little to no direction.
“Ad spend cost[s] the most,” says Sam. “Not having a proper strategy can lead to high waste.”
We saw this exemplified with one of our clients, Zephyr. When Zephyr first reached out to us, the company had siloed initiatives without a cohesive strategy, a high CPA, and inconsistent messaging.
We helped them hash out a digital marketing strategy to merge their initiatives, aligning everything under a common vision. This included a revamped landing page to match their PPC ads, rolling out the same aesthetic across the rest of their assets.
- 80% decrease in CPA, from a whopping $350 to $50
- 1000% increase in lead volume
- CTR increase from 1% to 2.5%
In-house vs. agency
How many employees are working on your PPC and SEO goals? Multiple salaries add up to a pretty penny, usually more than hiring a PPC/SEO company.
Just to put things in perspective, an American SEO analyst makes a median salary of $71,901, or approximately almost $6,000 a month before tax.
An SEO company might charge you a significantly lower monthly cost for SEO services. For example, Webfx charges a baseline of $2,500 a month. However, higher-tier PPC and SEO packages cost as high as $8,000.
Some CMS platforms require more time and expertise to implement SEO standards. Do you host your site on WordPress? That’s a pretty user-friendly platform that even non-programmers can navigate.
But if you’re looking for e-commerce SEO through Shopify? That tends to require more technical knowledge, making it more pricey.
Salaries for in-house marketing positions vary depending on a city’s cost of living. Additionally, SEO companies based in expensive cities like San Francisco and LA might charge more than those based in smaller towns in Oklahoma, for example.
Another factor you should consider is location and how that affects outsourcing. Some agencies outsource PPC and SEO work overseas to countries with lower wages. This doesn’t automatically hurt your bottom line.
But if cutting costs here leads to lower-quality content? It won’t save you money. Instead, it’ll cost you in the long run via lost revenue from low SERP rankings and higher bounce rates from readers who aren’t getting value. In which case, it’s not worth it.
Do you want more clients? Better customer retention? Improved PR? Streamlined operational efficiency? All of it sounds great, but different businesses might prioritize one higher than others.
While they still might spend a lot on search engine marketing, their budget might lean toward PPC or SEO more than other brands. A PR focus might see you spending more on thought leadership pieces and link building (two SEO strategy tactics) more than PPC ads.
For example, Airbnb spent more on brand awareness and PR than performance marketing in 2022.
Sustain or grow
Companies looking to grow will spend more on search engine marketing than those looking to sustain their place in the SERPs. Speed is also a factor. You’ll spend more if you have a three-month goal versus a longer-term goal.
Sam offers advice for startups racing through the marketing budget:
“[I] would recommend pacing things out to better manage investment costs. [You] could also dabble with paid social to promote content as we wait for it to rank.”
Marketing priorities and strengths
One company might have better luck with affiliate and email marketing than search engine marketing, so they’ll allocate less of their budget to SEM. Or, you might have more strengths in-house in SEO, saving you the costs of hiring an SEO company and thus limiting your spend.
Some industries are more competitive than others. For example, Moz conducted a study that showed general health and sports keywords as uber-competitive. On the PPC side, you’ll spend a lot more in CPC for legal keywords than e-commerce or tech.
What’s better: in-house, freelance, or agencies?
It really depends on your business’s unique structure, goals, and budget.
Overall, we see PPC and SEO as dynamic, expansive marketing umbrellas requiring both time and expertise. The right staff roster might eat too much of your marketing budget too quickly, as you may need to account for multiple salary packages to cover all the search engine marketing expertise required.
A freelancer might present lower upfront costs; however, they don’t have the capacity or availability to help you scale or deliver results as quickly as an agency can.
Which leaves us with PPC agencies and SEO companies. These are your best bet when it comes to SEM costs. Here’s why:
- Cost: You’ll usually spend less on a PPC/SEO agency than you would on in-house positions.
- Capacity: Agencies have a team of experts to proficiently handle your marketing initiatives. They can simultaneously tackle PPC audits, Google Ads optimization, SEO, and content production.
- Expertise: Agencies have already done the legwork in finding PPC and SEO specialists to complete clients’ work. A monthly retainer gives you access to a breadth of expertise, all of which can support your business goals.
- Speed: Just like agencies have greater capacity, they’ll deliver results quicker than most staff support. For example, our hardworking team of experts helped one client achieve a 50% increase in leads within just 2-3 months.
Search engine marketing costs vary greatly across industries, locations, company sizes, and professionals. You could spend anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000+ monthly on search engine marketing services, whether on your in-house staff members, freelancers, or agencies.
But remember — cheap SEO and PPC doesn’t usually garner results or offer longevity as you scale your business.
Bottom line? The best SEO and PPC work comes from reputable search engine marketing agencies with proven results. If you want round-the-clock attention for your bids, custom PPC and SEO audits, and constant marketing management, you’ll need a reputable agency like HawkSEM to maintain your digital marketing strategy.
Ready to make every dollar count in search engine marketing costs and see more ROI? Talk to us about our SEO and PPC management services!