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SEO Pricing Works: Monthly Retainers Inspire Long-Term Growth

May 12th, 2009 | | Pricing Models for SEO, SEO Management

I went for an oil change today and, just like every time I go to have any vehicle maintenance done, I find myself childishly fearful of the moment I am summoned to pay the tab and collect my car. What are the hidden charges, extra fees and unexpected additions that no one bothered to consult me about? I’ve actually become so frustrated with these situations that I morph into the customer you don’t want to be in line behind—I have lots of questions, demand explanations of charges and (gasp!) refuse to pay for things slipped onto my bill without my permission. I don’t even like me when I get home. All of my angst could be easily avoided if I could just pay a monthly fee in exchange for the basic maintenance services—no hassles, no negotiating, and no surprises. A novel idea, and (wait for the seamless transition…) a perfect example of monthly retainer pricing.

As we wind down on the SEO pricing series, we’re covering monthly retainer pricing—our last popular, stand-alone SEO pricing model (check back next week for the Combo Platter, our last topic of the pricing series).

What is a monthly retainer?

Most people associate the term “retainer” with legal fees. You pay a set dollar amount as a retainer (down payment of sorts) with additional charges being billed to you after your fees have exceeded your retainer. In SEO, using a monthly retainer fee typically works a little differently. A monthly retainer in SEO is a set monthly charge for predefined SEO upkeep and maintenance work. The fee covers certain defined monthly tasks or is paid monthly for the continued oversight and maintenance of larger projects without specifically defined tasks. Work done above and beyond the predetermined maintenance would incur an additional charge, possibly on an hourly consulting basis.

Monthly retainers in SEO are typically used to foster long-term relationships with clients and help protect their SEO investment. SEO professionals know well that when a large, and costly, SEO project is complete, months of hard work can be outdated and growth can cease within months without proper SEO maintenance. Pricing this maintenance work on a project basis would take lots of time, renegotiating projects and price each month, evaluating time needed and a final price time after time—this would discourage any client and wear out busy SEOs. Hourly pricing is so unpredictable it would discourage clients from doing much needed maintenance. With a monthly retainer you can avoid these pitfalls and make ongoing maintenance a simple arrangement—for a monthly fee, the upkeep and maintenance is taken care of without any uncertainty as to price or any negotiating of projects.

What does a monthly retainer mean to SEOs?

First, let’s start with what a monthly retainer isn’t: it’s not a good pricing model for a new SEO project. The workload in a new SEO project is too great with too many unexpected projects and unforeseen issues—an SEO would be severely underpaid with a monthly retainer. And, when the upfront work is complete and you move to a maintenance phase there’s a decrease in workload that wouldn’t merit the same retainer fee as a new project. In short, it’s just too hard and both you and the client will be unhappy at some point during the relationship.

What is a monthly retainer then? Monthly retainer pricing is a pricing model ideal for long-term relationships with clients. You work hard and clients make thoughtful investments in SEO, but without proper maintenance your work and the client’s investment can be moot in a matter of months. So, monthly retainers make the necessary SEO upkeep a simple arrangement that can be easily budgeted. The workload involved in SEO maintenance remains relatively constant, which allows you to arrive at an equitable monthly price to cover all the necessary work. You maintain a relationship with clients and their investment is protected for long-term performance—everyone’s happy.

What does a monthly retainer mean to SEO clients?

For clients, a monthly retainer is a very simple concept. You protect your SEO investment by making sure that investment continues to payoff long-term. And, you do this for a predetermined monthly fee—much easier to budget for than unpredictable charges you’ll need to pay when your SEO work starts to become dated.

The upside…

Monthly retainer pricing is a great incentive to continue the relationship between SEOs and clients. And, when proper maintenance and upkeep is done on an SEO project, you protect the investment and protect and build upon online growth. And, monthly retainers are a predictable, easily budgeted cost and a client will see the value in protecting their investment.

The downside…

This is not a do-it-all pricing model. Monthly retainers are best suited for on ongoing monthly maintenance system. New projects are difficult to price and execute under a monthly retainer agreement—time requirements fluctuate so much at the start of an SEO project and price is hard to set because of this. Monthly retainers for ongoing maintenance are also a cost that many marketing departments and companies don’t budget for even when starting out on an SEO project so SEOs will need to discuss this option at the outset of a project or risk putting a client off with the mention of an ongoing fee to maintain work they have paid for.

What to remember if you work for a monthly retainer…

  • This is pricing for SEO maintenance, not for a new project. No one comes out happy if monthly retainer pricing is the exclusive pricing model for their SEO.
  • Define what work is covered by your monthly retainer agreement AND the pricing model you will use for approved work beyond the scope of the retainer agreement.
  • And, SEOs be proactive. Just because you are working on a retainer doesn’t mean that you just do your basic maintenance and move on. Explore options to expand on SEO growth, incorporate social media or improve upon the existing website. Convey recommendations to your client regularly and even pass along estimated pricing for implementing recommendations. It’s easy to become complacent when your SEO continues to improve and grow—let clients know that is much more they can do to grow their web presence.

Make sure to check back next week for the final topic of the pricing model series. We’ll bring it all together, literally, to talk about utilizing multiple pricing models to make a pricing system that works for you and your clients.

Can you add to our SEO pricing conversation? Feel free to leave your questions and comments!

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  • http://www.SellingHomesLexington.com Ty Moyer

    Hi Amy:

    I’ve read with interest your series on SEO pricing, primarily from the standpoint of the low budget client. It seems that everyone and her Sister is an SEO professional these days, at least there are many of you floating around. Yet fees seem to be out of sight despite the difficult times, even for related functions like link building. I find it hard to believe that many of you are really that busy(prosperous) and yet, outrageous offers…like your colleague who offers to do a simple site review for $500 and calls it a great bargain…. seem to proliferate. And further, there seems to be resistance to pay for performance models when that is really the only sensible solution for most of us. Am I missing something? If the SEO business is that good I’m tempted to hang out my shingle and focus on the little people.

    • http://www.seoboy.com Amy

      Thanks for the comment, Ty!

      You bring up several interesting points. A major element of choosing an SEO professional or firm is finding one that offers the services you need, but that also offers a pricing structure that fits your budget. Bargain prices can be a difficult thing to evaluate – a $500 site analysis done by a thorough, professional SEO can carry a value to your business far beyond the fee. In many cases, the old adage “you get what you pay for” proves to be true; however, you can also find a professional SEO that can do quality, thorough projects and also work within your budget and pricing needs. As you know, research is key.

  • http://www.seoborg.com Hazar

    Monthly retainer would be the best pricing option for an experienced SEO company. A SEO company can find its monthly fee by calculating its total average SEO hour per month and pay per hour fee.