In the world of search engine optimization, there are clear best practices that apply to everyone, and dozens of variables that individual businesses can (and should) set.
As an example, all SEO practitioners should be using some form of content marketing as a foundation for their strategy. But not everyone needs to be on Pinterest, and not everyone needs to conduct outreach for link-building.
Generally, the more you invest in an SEO campaign, the better results you're going to get. Along with a greater volume of high-quality content, links, shares and proper on-site optimization, you website’s organic-search visibility will correspondingly rise faster and further. But what’s right for one business isn’t automatically right for another, so one company’s budget shouldn’t necessarily dictate or even influence others'.
Setting a budget for your SEO campaign is one of the hardest decisions you’ll make up front. Once you have a ballpark in mind, you can allocate that budget to the areas where you need it most, but since your budget will likely determine which strategies you can afford and what kind of results you’ll see, it’s not a decision to take lightly.
Fortunately, there’s a straightforward process you can use to set your SEO budget effectively.
Step 1: Know your limits.
This is the first step because it’s the only one with objective, hard limits. If you’re an entrepreneur trying to build a startup, or a small business owner with a limited cash flow, you may only have a specific amount of cash to allocate to a new marketing program. You may also be able to free up more money by cutting back on other marketing strategies that aren’t working. But if you’re teetering on the edge of a negative cash flow, there’s a hard stop to how much money you can invest. Know this limit.
On the other hand, if you’re doing well and have extra money to spend, the decision of how much to allocate to SEO can be even harder (since it isn’t already made for you). If you’re uncomfortable with or skeptical of the strategy, feel free to start with a small cap.
Step 2: Set your goals.
Next, think about what you’re actually trying to accomplish. You’ve heard that SEO can do great things for a business, but what are you actually trying to get out of the deal? Do you just want more indiscriminate traffic? Are you looking for more local users to find your site? Are you more focused on seeing increased sales than traffic volume? Is there a specific competitor you’re trying to edge out?
These goals will help you determine how much and where you’ll need to invest. For example, if you’re interested only in local traffic, you can weight your strategy toward local SEO, which is less competitive and generally more affordable. If you’re interested in generating revenue, you’ll need to target only the most relevant keywords for your company, which takes time; and you’ll also need to invest in a peripheral conversion optimization strategy.
Step 3: Consider your resource options.
Once you have a general idea of how much you can invest and where you need to invest, consider your resource options. Generally, you’ll have three: Hire someone in-house, contract the work to freelancers or partner with an agency to get the job done. Contracting the work to a freelancer is the least expensive, but it also comes with the highest risk since you won’t have a guarantee on this individual's'performance.
Hiring someone in-house lets you stay more in control, but also limits your range of options to pursue when you are optimizing your approach down the road. Partnering with an agency costs a bit more up front, but also comes with a near-guarantee of results and a diverse range of expertise. I've written more in depth on this topic.
Step 4: Analyze your current organic visibility.
Take a look at your current organic search visibility. Do you have a website? Is it optimized for mobile? Do all your pages have optimized titles and descriptions? Do you have an ongoing content strategy? Do you have a strong process for maximizing the visibility of your content? The fewer foundational elements you have, the more you’re going to have to pay.
If you can handle any of these things yourself, do so before you hire anyone or initiate a contract. If you have any current employees with spare time, or interns willing to learn something new, recruit them as well to help ease the burden on your budget.
Step 5: Establish options.
At this point, you should know where you stand, how much money you can spend and where the ideal place to spend it would be. Your best bet is to choose a middle-of-the-road allocation, not at the high end of your target range, but not at the low end, either. Some agencies require multi-month commitments up front, and that’s because of the time it takes to see results from SEO.
Know that your first few months will be the most difficult, and prepare some alternative options for when that time has passed. For example, you could sign on with an agency, but also talk to some freelancers in case that doesn’t pan out. You could commit to heavily favoring social syndication, but be prepared to scale back if you aren’t seeing results. Here is an overview of the different options and their various price ranges.
The beauty of SEO is that there is always room for adjustment. Unlike a printed ad in a magazine, where one submission is all you get, you’ll always have time to adjust your budget, adjust your tactics and make changes to your overall campaign.
If you find that your budget isn’t cutting it -- either because you’re paying too much for what you need or you’re not investing enough to see results -- all you have to do is change it, following these same steps over again with your new information.