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Has SEO Become More Expensive?

Oliver Ewbank

by Oliver Ewbank on 30th July 2013

expensesIn the last two years Google released fresh algorithm updates that shook up the world of search and forced digital marketers to refine their approach to SEO.  Strong brands launched content rich strategies to cement their rankings while the weak were left in a pit of penguins and pandas.

Many people seem to think SEO is getting harder but does this mean it is getting more expensive? Can you still get results by being ahead of the curve or is it all about who has the bigger budget?

This blog post will look at the current SEO climate and how you can still make it cost effective for your business.

Free Misconception

Firstly, let’s put to bed the myth that ‘SEO is free’. It makes me shudder whenever I hear people say: ‘SEO is free traffic’.  Anyone who works in SEO knows there is no such thing as ‘free traffic’. Rankings need to be earned with premium content, technically sound websites and superior link profiles. You also need to create a recognised brand with a credible social following – all of which are not ‘free’.


There is no doubting that the internet becomes more competitive every day it exists. If you have national ranking aspirations you are going to be up against thousands of websites all competing for a top spot in the search results.  This is the nature of the beast. Increased competition will inevitably mean you have to invest more time into your campaign. If you are entering modern day SEO you need to have realistic expectations and choose your keywords wisely. As search becomes more local this is not an area to be ignored.


  • Extensive keyword research
  • Realistic expectations
  • Target local terms

Search Results

Search results are getting harder to dominate with the constant introduction of new AdWords extensions taking up space. Organic results now have to compete with image extensions, improved sitelinks and testimonials which are surely designed to entice more clicks to paid search. You are also up against dominant product listing ads and Google Plus pages.

That said there are still a number of ways to make your listing stand out organically on page one.


loyal insurance

SEO Takes Time

SEO takes time and time is money.  Quality SEO is not something that is done in a week; it’s done over a period of six to twelve months. This has always been the case but more competitors and frequent algorithm updates means you have to be more patient than ever.


  • Schedule your SEO campaigns well in advance
  • Plan at least 6 months ahead of your peak season

Creating a Brand

To succeed in modern day SEO you need to create an online brand. It’s not good enough to just have an exact match domain or a strong link profile. You need to be active on social media and have a strong following. We all know Google favours brands and in truth humans favour brands too. If you want to compete for big keywords you need to make sure that your content is relevant and worth the user’s time. Creating a brand can be expensive business but there are still a number of ways you can grow your online profile.


  • Secure ALL brand protection profiles
  • Be active on social media (schedule regular updates via Hootsuite)
  • Be aware of all brand mentions (Google Alerts)
  • Link your blog to all social profiles (Twitter Feed)
  • Create a YouTube channel 

Penguin Update

Google’s penguin updates clamp down on websites with unnatural link profiles. If you get hit by a penguin update or a manual penalty this can be a very expensive process. Not only do you receive a drop in rankings but link removal can be an extremely complicated process. Weeding out toxic links can be a slow process and on most occasions each link will need a manual review.

Once you have found the links you want to remove you then have to go through a thorough outreach process to try and remove the links.

A penguin penalty can be expensive business so avoid this at all costs. To protect your investment it is important you take responsibility for your backlinks and weed out any unnatural sources. It can also be beneficial to utilise the Disavow tool when appropriate.


  • Adhere to the Google Webmaster Guidelines
  • Nofollow advertorial links
  • Constantly review your backlink profile
  • Use the Google Disavow Tools

Panda Update

The Panda update crippled sites that had poor quality or duplicated content. This has increased the cost of SEO for two reasons. Firstly, it can have an immediate impact on rankings and conversions. Secondly, it will mean you need to invest in unique copy for your product and service pages.

Although you can no longer take shortcuts with generic or poor quality content there are a number of actions you can take.


  • Run Copyscape regularly to spot duplicate issues
  • Ensure your site’s copy is above the fold on all priority pages
  • Export your Meta using Screaming Frog to spot additional duplicate issues
  • Ensure you have at least 250 words on a page you want to rank
  • Remove any dead content which was previously just created for search engines

Expensive Data (Analytics)

Google now holds back valuable performance data. In the past they provided valuable keywords in their referrers but over the past couple of years more and more organic data has been held back. They do provide this data to paid AdWords users which is another reason SEO data is becoming more expensive.

If you are after accurate organic keyword data there are still a number of ways to interpret data from ‘not provided keywords in google analytics’.


  • Review landing page data in Google Analytics
  • Use Google Webmaster Tools to review search queries along with approximate numbers of impressions and clicks.

Good Content

We are all familiar with the term ‘content is king’ but does this mean SEO has become more expensive? The short answer is yes. Good content does not happen by itself. If you were taking shortcuts to build links like article spinning and SEO directories then of course content marketing will be more expensive.

Good quality content takes time to create and you need a strategy in place. This does not happen overnight and many marketing departments will have to pull on PR or editorial to make this happen. Many newcomers to SEO struggle with the concept of content marketing. They don’t understand that they need to entertain and inform their users to get rankings but this is the reality of modern SEO.

This may seem more expensive at first but good content can go a long way to delivering referral traffic, social shares and citations not to mention premium rankings.

While content marketing can be a daunting prospect for smaller companies there are a number of ways to make it cost effective.


  • Invite guest bloggers to share their content with your readership
  • Liaise with customer service to find out what questions need answering
  • Ask for customer reviews
  • Utilise your PR department if you have one
  • Use this title generator to come up with titles
  • Use Google Authorship to build up your author rank
  • Interview others in your sector
  • If you don’t have time to outreach put the content on your blog
  • Embrace user generated content and give your users a chance to take part
  • Hire an intern to come up with new ideas


ROI Driven

So there you have it. Continuous algorithm updates, new competition, less data and the need to create superb content has made SEO more expensive. However this is only if you are thinking about SEO as a short term investment.

Short term tactics that trick algorithms are not sustainable and inevitably lead to being just as expensive (if not more) than a solid content led approach. So while content marketing does have a cost attached it is actually a lot more cost effective in the long haul.

Creating great information for your user will always be valuable no matter what algorithm change Google decides to make. There are also more ways than ever to use SEO to bring in new customers and generate revenue, making SEO still a very effective ROI driven channel.


The term “expensive” is relative to the client. The trick is figuring out what you can accomplish with limited resources. SEO may seem like it is getting more expensive but current approaches are much more sustainable and have far more added value.

Do you agree SEO has got harder? Do you think it has become more expensive? I would love to hear your thought’s in the comments below.

Image Credits

Sustainability from Bigstock
Expenses Concept from Bigstock

Oliver Ewbank

Oliver Ewbank

Working in new media for over 8 years, Oliver Ewbank has worked for a range of brands including eBay and SportBusiness.com on SEO, PPC and Social Media Management. He has won awards for his SEO work and been featured in a number of publications, including Virgin online.

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  • Andy P 30th July 2013

    SEO has got so expensive. I see lots of small companies who were ranking just based on their content but now languishing nowhere as they don’t have any backlinks.
    Which ever way you go either the manual backlink method or the agency full content creation and outreach method both of them cost money. Most small businesses owners can justify the cost especially as SEO is not necessarily guaranteed.

    Reply to this comment

  • Lyndon Antcliff 30th July 2013

    The ROI in SEO has certainly changed.

    However, I must raise one point. I hope you were joking about, “Use this title generator to come up with titles”, the human brain is the most complex machine in the Universe. Why not use that to come up with headlines?

    Reply to this comment

  • Ian 30th July 2013

    I certainly think that recent algorithm updates has changed the agency landscape, although I dispute whether it has made it more expensive. Ultimately it depends upon the commercial agreements held between the client and the agency. The bigger question is how it has affected the margins for agencies.

    Historically a number of agencies have been quite happy to work on a hybrid performance/retainer model. This has been beneficial to agencies since they’ve been able to achieve those results without considerable time on the account. In this instance, the margin for the agency is pretty decent and the client is happy because their campaign is delivering results.

    Going forward, a lot of agencies have switched to a content based approach to SEO which unfortunately does require significant more time on the account roster. Because of this, I’m pretty certain that the amount of performance based commercial agreements have declined somewhat as agencies continue to develop their content propositions.

    So to to answer your original question, I think SEO has become more expensive as agencies have passed on some of that cost onto the client to preserve some of their original margins. The challenge for agencies is develop modular, scalable content strategies that can be applied over multiple accounts. Then, agencies can achieve cost efficiencies and may be able to lower their costs going into procurement negotiations. Or they may decide to achieve higher margins on lower billings :)

    Reply to this comment

  • Iain Bartholomew 30th July 2013

    I always thought the Title Generator was meant to be humorous, no?

    Reply to this comment

  • Oliver Ewbank

    Oliver Ewbank 30th July 2013

    Thanks for all your comments so far. I agree the brain is the best place to start for headlines. The title generator can certainly be humorous at times.

    I think the growth of content marketing has had a considerable impact on how companies structure their SEO budget.

    Reply to this comment

  • Chris Jones 30th July 2013

    Yes SEO is perceived as being harder, its not it just requires a larger amount of work which requires more time and/or money this doesn’t mean it is more difficult.

    As far as more expensive, no it’s not. Bad SEO has always been expensive as it causes expensive problems, good SEO costs more but it isn’t expensive as your ROI will more than justify the higher cost.

    Also can we please stop calling it SEO, in what way do the numerous activities we do now have any relation to SEO of a couple of years ago. I much prefer the term that Moz have coined, Organic Search Marketing.

    Reply to this comment

  • Steve B 30th July 2013

    SEO has become harder, more time consuming and more expensive. I think this is exactly what Google wanted, so small business owners would gravitate more towards PPC marketing.

    Again, the one percenters win.

    Reply to this comment

  • Oliver Ewbank

    Oliver Ewbank 31st July 2013

    Thanks for the comments Chris and Steve.

    I like the term ‘Organic Search Marketing’ but feel SEO will always be the main term used to describe the industry.

    It certainly feels like small business owners are being targeted with campaigns from Google like AdWords Express.

    Reply to this comment

  • Salman @Omnicore 31st July 2013

    Some good points there Oliver. I would love to point you to this Hangout with John-Henry Scherck​ where he shared some interesting strategies and tactics they are using to do link building without the content:


    Even if you have the budget for content marketing it is always worthwile to invest time in PR and strategies which does not require content.

    Reply to this comment

  • Kevin Wiles 1st August 2013

    I don’t think SEO is expensive I think people don’t understand the value.

    I know from experience people come to me and ask for some SEO help thinking it is easy and can be done by anyone only after explaining more they understand about how much it can cost both in tools and time.

    I think as SEO’ers we need to be educating clients and potential clients more about why SEO is costly but also how it can help!

    Reply to this comment

  • Karthik 1st August 2013

    I guess due to the present days exposure to the world of internet and use of internet, SEO is becoming more exposed and hence there by the increasing its own value and getting popular..

    Investing on SEO has also been increasing and day by day its getting harder, shining and even brittle..!!!

    Reply to this comment

  • Oliver Ewbank

    Oliver Ewbank 1st August 2013

    Interesting point Kevin. I think people don’t understand the true value of SEO and what it can bring to the table.

    If we can educate clients on the time and resources needed to create good content they will understand the process better.

    Reply to this comment

    • Kevin Wiles 1st August 2013

      The issue is this again takes time and most of the time people don’t have time to really learn and digest just how valuable SEO can be!

      Reply to this comment

  • Tony Dimmock 6th August 2013

    SEO has become more expensive, but achieving results now means working smarter, not necessarily harder.

    Two items to add above are:

    1) Client expectations – unless we’re realistic and provide an honest assessment, it’ll bite us (and them) in the bum bit-time. Knowing what’s required (effort, timescale, resources) also takes an investment of time..

    2) Business Consulting – as Google evolves into a sentiment-based search engine (social signals, semantics, KG etc), as SEOs we need to uncover every treasure, USP and competitive edge a client has and portray this online, to help make their brand stand-out. For outreach, we need to understand their target market as much as they do. Again, this all takes time..

    Client education and developing a broader skill-set of online marketing disciplines are now very much required.

    Reply to this comment

  • Oliver Ewbank

    Oliver Ewbank 7th August 2013

    Thanks for the comment Tony. Two great items to add to the list.

    I think as SEOs its important that we are realistic with our assessment and forecast for how long a project will take.

    Knowing a clients USP and competitive edge is essential for outreach and creating content. This again all takes time.

    Reply to this comment

  • Andy Smith 16th October 2013

    Seo is way too expensive now and a waste of time it seems, I have spent approximately 12k this year after being hit by a penalty with two agencies working on it – it’s just got worse… 2k a month can buy a lot of traffic that will convert on adwords… I’m concentrating on Adwords, Amazon and Ebay next year

    Reply to this comment

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