In a series of articles I’ll try to outline a flexible process for conducting an SEO audit with a mixture of specific suggestions as well as more general recommendations, similar to the approach Alan Bleiweiss took in his excellent series on the topic. This is mainly aimed at SEOs who are just starting to take on side work, striking out on their own for the first time, and/or just starting to develop a small agency, but hopefully there will be some reminders and tips for anyone who offers SEO audits.
The First Step: Pricing & Scoping
Figuring out pricing in any services business is hard. If you’re an independent consultant or a small consulting shop it’s even more difficult because every mistake you make hurts more than it would for a larger firm. The core factors you need to juggle here are:
- Value – Creating value commensurate with (and really well in excess of) the work you’ll produce.
- Margin – Building enough margin into your pricing that the work is beneficial for your business.
- Sales – Sales can be a dirty word to some small shops that do good work and survive on word of mouth, but even if people rave about your work keeping your prices at a level where the customers you can connect with will be willing to pay them will keep you afloat.
Providing value is a core part of any sustainable business model. If you can’t create value for clients at a level where you can charge enough for your services to cover your personal costs and/or your company’s costs, you really don’t have a legitimate business. The good news is if you’re a competent SEO that almost certainly isn’t the case. There are plenty of companies with an awareness of the need for SEO with sustainable business models of their own that would benefit from your (or your firm’s) expertise. It’s important, however, to make sure you’re always dedicating enough of you and your company’s time and resources to the client to meet and exceed the price you’re charging in the value you’re delivering.
It seems obvious, and clearly it is more of a business fundamental than anything that’s SEO-specific, but not creating margin for yourself while delivering value to the client is one of the most common mistakes I see independent consultants and small firms make. It’s important to deliver value to the client, but it’s equally important not to undervalue your own talents and services.
Another difficultly in selling services as an SEO is striking a price that creates enough margin for you while also being a number that a prospective client is willing to pay. Even if you can create and demonstrate value, you still need to have a price for your services that is competitive and is reasonable for your target market. If you have the capacity to do enterprise SEO and create millions of dollars in value for clients that’s great – but if you’re only able to get in front of and land clients who are SMBs, you have to adjust your pricing accordingly. Once again if you can’t do that and create enough margin for yourself, you don’t really have a business.
So how do you think about pricing something like an SEO audit so that you can serve all these pricing masters? You have to be aware of:
Determining the value your SEO audit will generate can be tricky. One critical factor for mapping a site to an estimated value is the business fundamentals of the company – how much traffic are they driving? How many leads or sales? What’s the value of all that activity to the business? If it’s a large site generating lots of revenue for the company and you can quickly spot some potential issues, you’ll know you can create more value for that client. If it’s a well-optimized, medium sized site the value will be less and so on. This analysis is less about trying to extract maximum value and more about trying to ensure that you’re providing the value you’re charging for. If you view your time as being worth X, and it takes you 10 hours to do an audit, you need to make sure 10x is an amount of value you feel comfortable charging for a prospective client.
You have to understand what generating your SEO audit will entail. This can vary pretty wildly depending on the work you’ll do and the deliverable you’ll hope to produce. SEO Moz’s Lindsay Wassell mentioned on the SEO Moz blog that her SEO Audits typically take around 50 hours to complete. If you’ve ever seen the output from some of the “free site audits” offered by SEO companies you’ll know that many of those likely take minutes (or are even simply automated). In many cases the only real hard cost in your SEO is going to be billable hours (your time) so this is actually relatively straight forward to track. Have an understanding of what you and/or your team are putting into these audits in terms of hours and of course, have an idea of what you need to be charging for that time.
If you’re new to independent consulting and aren’t sure how long an SEO audit will take, a great way to get an idea is to do one (or even a couple) for free to extremely cheap – volunteer to help out a cause you’re passionate about or a friend or family member’s business for free and then map future audit scopes to that one. You’ll likely still make some pricing mistakes in evaluating different types of sites, sites of varying sizes, etc. and you’ll have to refine the process over time, but it can be a valuable starting point. (This can be a great way to get started with independent consulting in general – several years ago when I was first getting into SEO I did some volunteer work for a cause I was interested in and built a relationship that has lead to several paying client referrals over the years).
The Competitive Landscape and Perceived Value of Your Services
Finally, you need to understand what similarly priced services can be obtained for. If you’re creating $5,000 worth of value for a client but they can get the same service for $2,000, you won’t be able to charge $3,000 for it even if it seems unfair. So how do you know what people charge for an SEO audit?
It’s pretty easy to ferret out – Alan outlines a price range in this post and if you dig around some SEO sites and ask around you’ll get a general range. You also need to be aware of the fact that a number of agencies offer SEO audits for free. This can, of course, be hard to sell against but the reality is doing a thorough, in-depth and high value SEO audit for free is clearly impossible. One good means of selling against these types of audits is to encourage a prospective client to get the free audit and compare it to a sample audit that you can provide them with. You want to be careful to here not to give away anything proprietary here while still sharing enough to give them an idea of the value and thoroughness of the report.
Finding a consistent means of balancing value, costs and margins, and competitive pricing can certainly be tricky, but we like to strive to create projects with the following distribution of costs and value:
And thinking about this type of value creation, pricing, and cost structure will help you to better price and scope all of your services, including your SEO audits.
In the next installment we’ll walk through the next stage of pre-audit preparation: questions to ask, accounts to get access to, and tools to have at your disposal before you start an audit.
Read Part 2: The Pre-Audit Preparation Process: Questions to Ask, Accounts to Access & Tools to Use on Monday!