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There’s a common question we hear from prospective clients: why do we use a retainer pricing model and how will they know they’re getting enough value for their money?
It’s a totally reasonable question. After all, when we pay for most goods and services, we have a clear expectation of what we’ll get in return: a hamburger, a haircut, an unclogged toilet, or a place to live, for example.
Even when it comes to services for which we pay an hourly rate, there’s usually a short-term, clearly-defined end goal. When we take our car to the mechanic, we know we’re paying hourly to get our car fixed and we’re happy (maybe not happy) to pay that amount for a drivable car. There’s a clear relationship between the amount of time the mechanic spends working on our car and the progress he or she makes towards getting us back on the road.
SEO doesn’t work that way.
SEO serves business goals, and business goals vary from client to client. So does the competitive landscape, internal resources, industry best practices, and a myriad of other factors. To add to the complexity, SEOs don’t have direct control over search engines or the results they show. This puts SEO in a special class of services in which consistent financial inputs do not necessarily result in consistent, predictable outputs. But that certainly doesn’t mean SEO value can’t be measured or that it’s not worth investing in.
Our goal in this article will be to cut through the confusion and provide greater transparency into why agencies use SEO retainers and how you can know you’re getting your money’s worth. We hope you come away feeling confident in your understanding of the relationship between SEO pricing and the value you should expect as a client.
How Does an SEO Retainer Work?
As a client, the three most common ways in which you can pay someone for SEO services are to pay them an hourly rate, pay them by the project, or pay them a flat monthly fee, commonly known as a retainer.
For some agencies, a retainer is simply the price paid for a pre-set number of hours: e.g. 20 hours of work @$100/hr would equal a monthly retainer of $2,000. In other engagements, the relationship between monthly pricing and the number of hours isn’t as tight. Instead, there is simply an expectation that deadlines will be met and results produced.
At Uproer, we lean toward the latter. While we do offer a rough projection of monthly hours, we focus on getting work done fast and efficiently, being nimble, exceeding expectations, and getting results.
At most agencies, SEO retainers will vary based on the clients’ needs and budgets. While there may not be a 1-1 correlation between pricing and expected monthly time input, there is usually a relationship between the size and scope of the engagement and retainer pricing. Doing enterprise SEO that includes high-level strategic consulting will generally cost more than doing basic SEO for a small business.
SEO Retainers are Common Among Agencies and Freelancers
It turns out we’re not the only agency with a retainer pricing model. In our Minnesota SEO pricing survey, we collected data from 29 Minnesota SEO agencies and freelancers to find out how they charge their clients. We found retainers to be the most popular way to structure SEO engagements. In fact, the largest bucket of respondents (9 out of 29) said that retainers made up 90-100% of their business.
This mirrors the findings of Ahrefs’ 2019 survey, from which we drew inspiration to create our own. In it, they found - as we did - that retainers are the most popular way to price SEO services, followed by per-project fees in distant second place and hourly rates pulling up the rear. While our own survey polled 29 local respondents, Ahrefs’ survey collected answers from 348 people living all around the world. This lends credence to the theory that retainers aren’t just the preferred model among our network here in Minnesota but among SEOs irrespective of where they call home.
So, Why Have a Retainer Instead of Paying Hourly?
There are a number of reasons why clients and agencies alike prefer a retainer model over an hourly rate. One is that SEO is not something you can completely outsource - at least not anymore. In the early days of SEO, it was easy to hire someone remotely to “optimize” your site for search engines. Back then, SEO was a project, not a process.
Today, success in SEO requires working with a trusted partner over many months, if not years. We'd argue a monthly retainer structure is more appropriate for this type of long-term relationship than an hourly rate structure.
Cultivating a Partnership Mindset
Another reason why retainers make sense is that today’s ideal SEO engagement is consultative and grounded in strategic guidance. When you have an SEO agency on retainer, you’re not just paying someone to complete a set number of tasks; you’re paying them to stay up-to-date with the latest developments, educate your team about these trends, and integrate them into the work they’re doing for you. You’re paying them to think deeply about your business, your unique challenges, and the ways in which SEO can be leveraged to meet your organization’s needs. You’re paying them to help you become better at SEO.
Having a retainer engagement shifts the mindset around SEO from hourly labor to value-driven, integrated process. The agency is your adjunct in-house SEO team and you’re hiring them to help weave SEO into the fabric of your organization’s marketing strategy.
Your agency should be your go-to resource and partner. You should expect to be able to call, email, or even text them (within reason) to ask questions, float ideas, or even just catch up on business and life - none of which fit neatly into an hour tracking spreadsheet.
Here are a few concrete benefits of having an SEO agency on retainer:
- A retainer structure encourages a shift in mindset from thinking of the agency as a hired vendor to thinking of them as a trusted partner.
- Your agency will be incentivized to work more efficiently, not less efficiently.
- Simplicity: instead of wasting time tracking hours and tasks, you and your agency will spend that time getting things done.
SEO Pricing: How do You Know You’re Getting Your Money’s Worth?
A common question arises when it comes to SEO retainers: if you’re paying a flat rate, how do you know you’re getting your money’s worth? If you’re not tracking hours, isn’t your agency incentivized to take it easy?
In reality, your agency should be incentivized to be as efficient as possible.
If the agency is any good, they will lay out some type of timeline for the engagement and the projects they expect to complete. This roadmap includes all of the initiatives the agency thinks should be carried out for the client and is usually based on an initial audit. If there is no plan of action at the beginning of an engagement or the plan isn’t tailored to your unique situation, that is a non-starter. Do not hire that agency.
Once the roadmap is in place, there are now long-term deadlines, which will be broken up into shorter-term deadlines. When an agency meets with their client, which they ought to be doing regularly, everyone should be on the same page as to what’s in the works and when the client can expect it to be completed. Does the client care how many hours it will take the agency to get the work done? No, or at least they shouldn’t. It’s irrelevant to the value being produced.
If an agency continuously misses deadlines and fails to produce quality work, as a smart client you’ll choose to go in a different direction. In this way, agencies are still incentivized to produce quality work fast and efficiently, despite being paid a flat rate.
Charging hourly, on the other hand, incentivizes slow work. If you’re getting paid based on time rather than output, why would you work quickly to complete tasks? If anything, many workers will consciously or unconsciously drag their feet. Billing hourly reduces the risk taken on by the agency and increases the risk to the client. If the scope of a project increases dramatically over time, the additional work will be paid for by the client, not the agency.
It’s understandable to be wary of a retainer pricing structure. When you’re paying for something, it’s natural to want to pay based on the amount of labor that went into it. But this is not the best way to think about SEO services. Instead, a better alternative is to pay for results. This incentivizes your agency to work efficiently and pragmatically. It also helps shift the mindset of both parties from thinking of SEO as an hourly service to thinking of it as a long-term partnership.
Hitting deadlines, producing quality deliverables, and getting results: these are the metrics by which you should judge the efficacy of your SEO agency and how you’ll know whether or not you’re getting your money’s worth.