Search engine marketing costs typically range from $3,000 to $10,000 each month. But there’s more to it than you might think.
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
Search engine marketing costs can start to add up.
The good news? You have options.
Between the type of provider you choose to work with and your budget, your monthly search engine marketing (SEM) costs could range from $3,000 to over $10,000.
The exact number, of course, will depend on several key factors. Let’s break them down.
What are search engine marketing costs?
Search engine marketing costs are the cumulative fees and expenses associated with pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and search engine optimization (SEO), which both fall under the umbrella of SEM.
For SEO, these costs boil down to:
- Content creation & production costs
- Local SEO
- Development costs
- Management fees (or employee salary)
- SEO tools
For PPC, these costs include:
- Landing page development
- Management fees (or employee salary)
- PPC management tools
- Cost per click (CPC)
- Average ad spend
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 the top of the search engine results page (SERP) still costs you a pretty penny.
Content creation & production costs
Content marketing is an essential component of SEO.
Publishing content that educates, engages, and provides value to your target audience marketing is a great way to bring in organic traffic and build authority on search engines.
Search Engine Journal reports that SEO content costs range from $0.02-$2.00 per word, making a 1,000-word article between $20-$2,000. 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
If your business has a physical location, you don’t want to miss out on local SEO services.
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
An SEO manager is part data analyst, part project manager, and part content strategist.
If you’d like to hire a freelance manager, you may save some money. But be warned that reliability can be a concern (as opposed to an agency or in-house employee).
On the other hand, an in-house marketing manager can typically take on the responsibilities of SEM management — so long as they have additional help to carry out SEO tasks (see: content creation, technical SEO, and beyond).
If you don’t already have an internal team, keep in mind that hiring a new full-time employee is a big expense. It also doesn’t cover the additional costs associated with SEO.
Meanwhile, an SEO agency will typically bundle management with SEO deliverables in their fee structure.
SEO management monthly costs:
- SEO agency: $3,000 – $10,000
- Independent freelancer: $4,000 – $12,000+
- In-house marketing manager: $5,000 – $10,000+
If you opt for an in-house SEO employee, your costs extend beyond a salary. You should also account for the cost of continued education at some point, and more immediately, the cost of SEO tools.
While subscription prices vary, these online platforms and software help business owners analyze and optimize their website. Some common ones include Semrush, Moz, Ahrefs, Google Search Console, and Screaming Frog.
You’ll need to add these SEO tools to your budget to stay competitive for:
- Keyword research
- On-page analysis
- Technical SEO
- Backlink monitoring
- Rank tracking
- Competitor analysis
- Content optimization
- Site auditing
Unlike an in-house employee, however, third-party hires (should) include SEO platforms in their monthly fees.
This is why it’s extra important to ensure there are no hidden fees or upcharges for tools and platforms when hiring a freelancer or agency.
SEO tool monthly costs:
- SEO agency: Included in monthly fee
- Independent freelancer: Included in monthly fee
- In-house marketing manager: $30 – $500
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.
Tools & 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.
Landing page development
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 one-second load time converts 3X more than a five-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.
Landing page development costs:
- In-house: $3,500-$8,800 per month for an in-house designer
- Agency: Many PPC agencies will include landing page development in their monthly fee structure, but not all
- Freelance: A freelance web designer typically charges between $15 – $100 per hour, while a landing page itself can take anywhere from 5-35 hours – which leaves us with a pretty wild range in cost possibilities
PPC includes a whole lot of costs that are unique to each campaign, such as cost-per-click (CPC). So, whether you work with an in-house employee, freelancer, or agency, many of these costs depend more on your industry, keywords, geographic targeting, ad platform, and competition.
- Competitive industries: $5-$50+ per click
- Medium-competitive industries: $1-$5 per click
- Less competitive industries: $0.50 -$2 per click
Average ad spend
Google Ad spend depends on your bids and budget, along with cost per 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.
Average monthly ad spend costs:
- Small businesses: $500-$2,000+
- Medium-sized businesses: $2,000-$10,000+
- Large enterprises: $10,000+
Like SEO, PPC management costs can range pretty wildly depending on the type of provider you choose and their level of expertise.
In fact, we estimate that management fees can range from as much as $1,500 – $10,000+ per month.
Yeah, that’s a lot. Let’s break it down further.
PPC management fees:
- In-house: In the U.S., a PPC manager costs an average of $61,672 per year, or $5,139 per month. You might need to add 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 per month.
- Freelance: PPC freelancer fees are broad, with some charging hourly, others project-based, and others a percentage of revenue.
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, Yadegar 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:
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 Yadegar. “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.
Yadegar 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 and up monthly on search engine marketing services, whether on your in-house staff members, freelancers, or agencies.
But remember — cheap SEO and PPC don’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!
This article has been updated and was originally published in January 2023.