Why You 'Get What You Pay For' in SEO
"You get what you pay for" is an adage most of us are familiar with, though its practical usage varies. For most consumer products, there is some degree of correlation between price and quality, but of course exceptions exist to every rule: There are cheap products that work perfectly well, and expensive products that are overpriced garbage.
With search engine optimization (SEO), you'll be paying for a service -- not a product -- and because commodities aren't involved, pricing has much more room for variance and fluctuation. But, in my experience, the adage definitely holds true; you get what you pay for when you purchase help with SEO.
Why is this the case? Why do cheap SEO agencies and providers consistently underperform the top professionals in the industry? Here are a few reasons why.
Experience and strategy
In SEO, along with any other area of professional service or work, you're going to pay more for an experienced candidate. Dedicated professionals have spent years honing their skills and refining their approaches, and the strategies they bring to the table are the product of those trials and lessons. An amateur may be able to bluff his or her way through the basics but won't be able to build you a custom-fitted strategy the way someone with years of experience will.
If you go with the amateur, you'll spend countless hours running back to the drawing board, ultimately compromising your results and making your amateur's total bill costlier than an experienced professional would have been.
Staffing and customer care
Though not always the case, more expensive agencies tend to hire a more robust, experienced and diverse staff than do their less expensive counterparts. With a more expensive agency, you'll likely get your own dedicated account representative and have more individual specialists working on your account, rather than one or two generalists. This can help you get better results -- and better service if and when something goes wrong.
From the time you come up with new topic ideas to the final publication of content to your site, the higher your quality, the better it will be for your campaign. You'll need to find the best topics to write about, optimize the headlines both for click-throughs and for search engines and spend time researching and writing a well-thought-out and detailed original piece. Then you'll need to optimize it for search engines, find multimedia content to go along with it (at least occasionally), then publish and distribute it.
If you couldn't tell already, all of that takes a ton of work: After all, anybody can throw a "decent" article together, but it takes a true professional several hours to complete a landmark piece -- and those hours cost money.
Link-building isn't nearly as simple as it used to be. Google looks at the quantity and quality of links pointing back to your domain to loosely evaluate how authoritative -- or trustworthy -- your site is, then ranks it accordingly. The problem is, you can't just go around posting links wherever you feel like it. Your links must be natural, which usually means you have to establish relationships with external publishers, produce truly amazing content to be published on those publications and work hard to increase the visibility and value of those pieces (while constantly scouting for new opportunities).
If someone offers to build a link for $5, you know that someone is taking shortcuts. This is a lengthy, intensive process, and there are no "tricks" to make it cheaper -- at least, not without the prospect of a penalty. For help understanding what good link building looks like, see this link-building guide.
Even seasoned SEO professionals are going to run into problems: disappearing links, drops in rankings, visibility issues and so on. The question is, will they know what to do about it? One of the most important lessons experience teaches you in SEO is how to troubleshoot problems, and only a veteran -- or a team of professionals working together -- will be able to do so effectively.
Troubleshooting isn't a service you can expect when you're paying a trivial monthly rate for ongoing work.
Survival of the fittest
All of these factors are evidence that cheap SEO solutions are usually gimmicks that don't work -- or worse, leave you facing penalties. But what about inexperienced SEO practitioners masquerading as seasoned experts? Wouldn't they be able to charge exorbitant amounts for their services and fool people into believing they're better than they actually are?
This is a legitimate possibility, but don't worry too much. When one person falls for a scheme like this, he or she usually reports it, or leaves a negative review. All it takes is a quick search of the company name, and you should be able to get a reasonable idea about its history and performance potential. The "bad" services tend to weed themselves out eventually.
How much should you really be paying?
You're going to hate me for this, but . . . it depends. No two businesses are going to have the same needs or goals. A small business will have a much lower budget than a big one, and businesses in different niches will need SEO for different things (e.g., needing local SEO visibility vs. promoting specific ecommerce product pages). If you have in-house workers with SEO experience, that will also factor into your decision.
Still, no matter whether you seek an agency, a freelancer or a full-time worker, you should expect to pay at least a thousand dollars a month -- any less and I'd be dubious of the potential results. For mid- to large-sized businesses, several thousand dollars a month is a minimum. A few years ago, I published this article at Search Engine Watch, which goes into more specifics.