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Pursuing a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy has become less of a choice and more a necessity for many businesses. Remaining competitive and maintaining a robust web presence has become increasingly vital, and that requires businesses of all sizes to attract users to that web presence. Given the potentially high return on investment associated with successful SEO campaigns, there’s plenty of logic to spending dollars on organic traffic rather than more traditional—and typically more expensive—advertising strategies.

But deciding that SEO matters is only the first step. The bigger question for many businesses is how much they should spend on SEO services and whether they should spend that money on an in-house expert or outsource their needs to a consulting firm. You may also be wondering how long you should continue investing in SEO expertise or when it will begin paying for itself. And it goes without saying that any comprehensive assessment of costs should also account for related expenditures associated with things like content planning and production.

A meaningful SEO strategy isn’t an island unto itself, and you should be prepared for a full-spectrum approach. Cutting corners isn’t an option for any venture that’s serious about producing results.

So how much will this cost your business? That depends on a few things.

Hiring a SEO Company

For many companies—particularly smaller and medium-sized entities—hiring an outside SEO service makes the most financial sense. Forbes’ Josh Steimle described some likely price expectations last year.

“If you’re hiring a high quality SEO firm to provide comprehensive SEO services, be prepared to pay $3,000 to $5,000 per month, at a minimum,” he writes. “Many companies are spending tens of thousands of dollars per month on SEO.”

You may be able to find some good deals, particularly if you’re interested in local optimization or short-term assistance.

“The amount varies, but hiring a top-level SEO company to execute a comprehensive digital marketing campaign, will require a minimum budget of $2,500 to $5,000 month,” explains Search Engine Watch’s Chuck Price. “If you’re a small business focused strictly on local SEO, prices are generally much less. Some companies will offer an entry-level ‘trial package’ at a reduced price, with no commitment, to give clients an opportunity to test their services. I personally like this approach, as it takes a lot of stress out of the decision making process, by minimizing risk.”

Importantly, the downside to a short-term trial is that you might wind up losing much-needed help before your strategy has enough time to produce results. While a trial may give you a more concrete sense of a firm’s abilities, most businesses should be prepared to stick with an SEO service for at least the first year of a campaign.

Hiring an SEO firm may seem like a significant investment at first, but there’s plenty to be said for relying on a service that has already-established infrastructure. Companies that specialize in SEO services will likely offer cutting-edge knowledge of a constantly evolving discipline. And that can be difficult to duplicate when attempting to hire in-house specialists.

When soliciting outside help, the key is to make a serious, long-term commitment. While that doesn’t necessarily mean signing a 12-month contract, it should entail your company’s willingness to see the project through to fruition.

“If you’re serious about SEO, you should be committed to spending 12 months and $36,000 to $60,000 to start your SEO campaign,” Steimle adds. “You’ll be able to find plenty of SEO professionals and agencies willing to tell you they can get you big results faster, but that’s because they’re scared that if they tell you anything different you’ll take your business somewhere else.”

When projecting the timeframe within which you expect to see progress, Steimle estimates that, “A good rule of thumb is 4 to 6 months for minimal results, and 6 to 12 months for more complete results.”

In other words, you shouldn’t anticipate making a brief 2 to 3 month investment—not if you’re actually committed to seeing your SEO campaign yield substantial dividends. This isn’t an overnight project.

Whatever solution you pursue, the important takeaway is that you will almost certainly pay for what you get. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with shopping for a good price, the best-available services are going to cost some money.

The In-House Option

For some companies—particularly larger ones—it may be possible to hire your very own SEO expert and staff. After all, many of the technical tools needed to support an SEO project aren’t prohibitively expensive on face.

“When your budget is tight, SEO tools can seem very expensive,” Jon Henshaw, co-founded of Raven Internet Marketing Tools, told Authority Labs in 2013. “However, if you pick the right tool, it should easily pay for itself. For example, what’s cheaper? Paying someone hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of dollars to aggregate data and create monthly reports or paying $99 for an SEO tool that can create all of the reports for you?”

The problem, of course, is that you also need someone who can interpret those tools and implement solutions based on the data they produce. For a full-scale effort, this will likely require a team of professionals—and your mileage may vary depending on how much you’re willing to spend. Moreover, sophisticated and up-to-date SEO tactics typically require far more expertise and guidance than any set of tools can offer.

That means you will need a qualified professional at minimum.

In 2013, Steimle outlined some of the costs one might expect from an adequate in-house approach to SEO.

“The cost of hiring an in-house SEO professional worth his or her salt will run at least $50,000 per year, including benefits and overhead,” he writes. “That’s for an entry-level SEO professional, wet behind the ears, with a few months of experience. An experienced SEO professional with two to three years of experience will run you around $70,000 in the most affordable markets, and where the cost of living is higher, you can expect to pay even more. A true SEO expert, with substantial experience, will cost you a minimum of $80,000 and as much as $150,000 per year. Surveys on salaries for SEO types like these might lead you to believe you can hire a great SEO professional for $30,000 per year, but you can’t. Someone who is doing SEO for $30,000 per year, in the United States, is either incompetent or underpaid.”

In other words, adopting an in-house approach will likely be significantly more pricey than outsourcing—at least if you’re unwilling to cut corners. But it gets worse. Whereas hiring an outside consulting firm affords you teams of professionals, one in-house expert may well be insufficient for a serious SEO campaign. That means you could soon find yourself in need of additional help, and that will cost even more.

“It’s also important to note that hiring a single employee will likely not be enough,” Steimle adds. “Running a successful online marketing program usually requires a team of 2-3 individuals, and thus the cost of recruiting a quality in-house team can easily run from $200,000 per year on the low end, to more than $300,000 per year for a more expert team. Thus until the fees you would pay an agency exceed $15,000 per month, it doesn’t make sense to even consider building an in-house team, although there are certain to be exceptions.”

Larger corporations may find those kind of costs acceptable, but many businesses simply can’t afford the luxury of housing their own dedicated SEO team of experts and assistants. The collateral costs of such additions—from training to paperwork—can make such a strategy even more prohibitive.

There’s certainly something to be said for building a staff that is familiar with your company culture and can address SEO needs in real time, but that’s almost invariably an extremely pricey endeavor.

The Way Forward

Admittedly, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to adding SEO expertise. Much depends on a company’s resources and priorities. And ultimately, your decision will likely hinge on a combination of considerations that are both financial and strategic in nature.

Entrepreneur’s Jayson Demers outlines the options.

“Once you have a general idea of how much you can invest and where you need to invest, consider your resource options,” he contends. “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.”

In short, your ultimate decision will likely involve more than price alone. But it goes without saying that costs may become a decisive factor for businesses that can’t afford to add a new department internally. Whatever course you adopt, you should be prepared to spend several thousands of dollars per month in order to secure real solutions. Be wary of any SEO expert or firm that promises immediate results or unusually cheap services.

And remember, your objective should be developing long-term traffic and clientele. This will take time and a sustained investment.

“In order for your SEO plan to be successful, you must allocate resources towards it continuously,” argues Smart Insights’ Andrew Rice. “SEO doesn’t work if you’re not consistently improving your content. Paying an SEO professional a one-time fee to update your site is a wasted endeavor if there is no one to continue managing it. It can take several months before you experience any real results from SEO. That is why your budget should be based on a monthly or an annual payment plan so that you can secure regular SEO and online marketing services.”

The silver lining is that your return on SEO investment can be extremely high, particularly when compared to traditional advertising and marketing techniques. More importantly, search engines have become a virtually indispensable means of reaching those who might become lifelong customers.

It’s no longer enough to depend on Yellow Pages or billboards. In the 21st century, those looking for goods and services turn to search engines. And, one way or another, you want your company to be visible within those search engines.

That means budgeting accordingly.

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