John Maher talks with McDougall Interactive president John McDougall about SEO, what it is, how much it costs, whether you can do it yourself, and some helpful SEO tools.
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher, and this is Digital Marketing Madness. This podcast is brought to you by McDougall Interactive. We’re a digital marketing agency in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Today, I’m here with our president, John McDougall, and we’re talking about “what is SEO and how much does it cost?” Welcome, John.
John McDougall: Hey, John.
John Maher: So, this is part of our series on the basics of SEO. Just what is SEO to you?
What Is SEO?
John McDougall: Search engine optimization or SEO is the process of adding and optimizing content to your website and making sure that your website is in a healthy state so search engines can index it, see the content and, therefore, rate you highly and put you at the top of the results.
How Much Does SEO Cost?
John Maher: And how much does SEO cost?
John McDougall: That’s such a loaded question. Anywhere from, say, a few hundred dollars a month, especially these overseas companies’ $199 or $299 a month SEO packages. And they have all these checkmarks of all the things you’ll get, like directory listings and real low-end things that will actually hurt more than they’ll help. So, anywhere from a few hundred dollars to really more like a few thousand dollars is where you start to get to the point where people are writing weekly blog content and doing something more sizable. I mean, we’ve gotten almost 30 grand a month for SEO at times, and 10, $15,000 a month is not super unusual. Now, not a lot of small businesses can afford that, but three grand a month is a pretty normal, real-SEO-with-content-marketing type of fee.
I think the problem becomes in between the $200 a month and the $3,000 a month SEO is a lot of weird stuff that can happen. $1,000 a month, $1,500 a month, that kind of SEO sometimes isn’t a lot better than the $200 a month stuff. Sometimes the people that are charging that might even pay for crappy directory listings and things that could hurt you. We take over for a lot of SEO agencies that are charging sometimes a lower, $1000 or $1500 a month rate. And we’ve certainly done it. We have some clients on smaller packages, but you have to be very careful at those lower rates, obviously, especially the $200-$300 a month. I mean, you’re almost guaranteed to get either crappy content or directory listings that are going to hurt you.
But at that $1000 or $1500 a month, you probably have a local good person that’s going to come in and talk to you that with a blazer on and talk with a fancy button-down shirt and maybe be kind of impressive. And yet, when they’re trying to scale, they might have a lot of junior staff because their price is cheap because it’s a thousand or $1,500 and not three or four or $5,000 a month. There’s a lot of companies that are going to sign up for that because it sounds good. The guy or girl with the nice shirt on seemed reasonable. Let’s do it.
So, the average person doesn’t know that the value of that is not as good as it looks because you’re not necessarily working with that senior person that you met. You’re being handed off so that they can scale and afford to charge only $1,000 or so a month. They’re hiring junior people, outsourcing in sometimes a semi-sketchy way. So, SEO pricing is all over the map, and again, under, say, $2,500 or $3,000 a month, you have to be even more careful and watch out for that low-quality content. So, just make sure whoever’s managing the project really knows SEO, and whoever’s writing the content, if they’re writing, is a good writer.
So, you might want to make sure to get samples of the writing or maybe pay them to do a couple articles or something if you want to test them out before you get going. So, those are some ways you can make sure that if you’re going to pay that lower rate, that you’re sure that they’re going to give you good quality.
Is It Cheaper to Do SEO Myself?
John Maher: A lot of smaller businesses or even medium-sized businesses that maybe have a marketing person already on board, but they don’t know SEO, might think, “Well, I could just do this myself. Is it cheaper to do SEO myself?”
John McDougall: It can be. It absolutely can be. I think it’s funny, an SEO agency guy telling you that, but it’s true. Sometimes you can go and do it yourself, but we teach a class at Talk Marketing Academy, and that SEO course has multiple modules, including technical SEO, blogging, how to set up a blog, certain things about the usability of your website, things about social media. I mean, there’s a lot of different do-it-yourself stuff that you’d need to learn. We also teach podcasting and how to do your own YouTube videos. Each of those things is going to have a whole bunch of little steps right down to editing the video, editing the podcast in Audacity. John, you did an awesome hour-long Audacity training the other day, which was great. That’s in our course.
Those are the kinds of things you’re going to need to learn in SEO, not just how to use a keyword research tool. Sure, that’s one of the things you have to know. You have to know that you need to pick keywords that people actually search on and not just overly broad keywords, like the word “cables” or something, or “hydrogen” as a term versus “hydrogen energy technology” or something. These longer phrases might not get as many searches, but if they get a good amount of searches, and you can find some gold nuggets in those keywords, you’re going to do better.
So, you’re going to need to learn how to do a whole bunch of things — picking the keywords, editing the podcast and videos. That’s SEO, not just pick the keywords and place the keywords in the pages. So, it is possible. And if you do it on your own, just make sure you’re also getting some help, even if it’s not an agency. Just if you’re not good at programming or speeding up the load time of your website, there are some parts of “SEO”, like the programming and web design stuff, where you might want to get help.
John Maher: I think one thing, too, is that we find a lot of clients or potential clients who think that SEO is just a one-and-done thing. Like, “Well, what do I have to do to optimize my website?” And they think, “This is just going to take a few hours of time. I do some optimization on my website, and then I’m done.” And they don’t think of it as being this ongoing process of continually writing content, continually fixing the technical problems with your website, continually looking at conversion rate optimization, and things like that.
So, that’s maybe one place where people think that they could save money by doing it themselves, because they just think, “Oh, it’s just going to take a few hours. I’ll optimize my website, and then I’ll be done.”
John McDougall: Yeah, the funny thing, in 1999 or something like that, I got a job with a hearing aid company in Peabody, Massachusetts. It was hearingaidsonline.com, I think it was, back then. And it wasn’t ranking in the search engines, but it was my eye doctor. But he was deaf, and he had, I think, 1800contacts.com and hearingaidsonline.com. So, he said, “Hey! Oh, wow, you do website stuff, SEO.” So, I got a project with him, and over a weekend, I designed the logo…I mean, this is going way back when I was more of the Jack-of-all-trades SEO and web design combination. I was doing it all…
I designed the logo. I built the website using hand-coding — because I studied, in the 90s, HTML coding at BU — I built the website with hand-coding HTML pages, I wrote the content, I rewrote it and added a page for Siemens hearing aids, Phonak hearing aids, etc. because he didn’t have a page for each different brand. And then I launched it over the course of a weekend, did all of that. And within weeks, it started ranking for just “hearing aids”. And certainly, within six months to a year, it was number one for hearing aids on Yahoo.
It wasn’t before Google, so it was maybe ’99, 2000, something like that. Google started in ’97, but it was kind of at that time where a lot of people were still really using Yahoo. So, he was number one in Yahoo, and he got bought, because of that, by Hearing Planet. And then, I did some work for Hearing Planet because they were impressed with what happened. But I was able to almost one-and-done this thing.
I don’t even think we ever had a blog on that site because that was kind of before the “content marketing” era. Of course, I was doing content marketing by making articles or service pages, category pages with a good amount of text for each brand. That was basically content marketing before it was called that. So, one-and-done was possible way back. But now, essentially, your competitors are launching blog posts every week probably. At least, if you look in Google for your top keywords and if your competitors are writing regular content, you essentially have to think like a magazine. You have to become an authoritative magazine on your industry.
And Google does claim that you can rank without being an authority, but, at the same time, the domain authority of your site, how many people link to you, how much good content you have, those are major factors in why you rank. So, you’re better off to think like, “Okay, I’m going to need to not only optimize the core of the website but have ongoing regular content.” So, think like a magazine in building authority.
So, it’s so far from one-and-done now, it’s not even funny. I know some old-school SEOs that just gave up. They threw in the towel like, “I’m done with this industry,” because it was so easy before. You get all your SEO clients in January because everyone was flipping out like, “Oh, I got to find out where are the SEO agencies?” And there weren’t that many of them, so we’d get our clients, just a stack of them, in January, and then they’d all sign a year contract. So, anyway, the times have changed, and you have to have regular ongoing content if you’re going to do it yourself.
John Maher: Right. And in terms of the cost of SEO as well, if you’re not doing it, that writing yourself, maybe you have to hire writers to do it. So, there’s a cost there. You’re going to have to get some SEO tools to analyze your site. So, you’re going to be paying for tools. And then, if you are doing the writing yourself or a lot of these other things, you have to learn how to do it. You have to spend the time to do it.
So, just that time away from what you could be doing in your business, whether it’s sales, or getting more business, or just running the business if you’re an owner of a small business or something that, you just have to think about “what are the actual costs that I’m going to be spending or the time that it’s going to be taking away from me running my business if I’m going to be trying to do this myself.”
John McDougall: Yeah. I mean, one of our recommendations and why we called our SEO school Talk Marketing Academy is because we’ve just seen so many of our customers that we do podcast and video interviews with speak eloquently about their business, and in an hour and a half, produce, say, six 15-minute blog posts. You podcast, then you use the transcript to make a blog post with it. At about 130 words a minute, every 10 minutes is roughly 1,300 words. So, 1,300 times six in an hour and a half, I mean, that’s just a crapload of content, and all you’re doing is talking.
So, yeah, can you do it all yourself? You could, but you’re going to really have to take some time and not only learn SEO and all these different moving parts, but then keep up with it as the algorithms change. Whereas geeks like us are just living and breathing that. So, again, maybe you’re better off to say, “I’m going to do some of it myself.” So, either learn to use some podcasting tools that we teach, some good, easy-to-use podcasting tools, so you don’t have to have a whole mixing board and a whole bunch of gear, and then how to edit.
You can either kind of learn that soup to nuts or just learn the basics of how to set up essentially a Zoom meeting and record it, and then hand it off to either an agency like us or some freelancers to edit those podcasts, get the transcripts, put the keywords in the title and meta descriptions, put those up as blog posts, or something like that. So, there’s different ways to slice it, and focus on your strengths is one of the keys.
John Maher: If I am going to try to do it myself, you mentioned some tools that I might need. What are some SEO tools that I’d probably need in order to do it myself?
John McDougall: So, number one, a keyword tool like AHREFS, AHREFS has a cool free keyword tool. If you’re going on the cheap, you can use that. Neil Patel has Ubersuggest. That’s also an awesome keyword research tool for SEO. I mean, you got to have at least that, and then you can write blog posts, and articles, and website pages, service pages, whatever, that are targeting the right keywords. I mean, you kind of can’t live without that. But then, really, to be more holistic, you can use either AHREFS, or we often use SEMRush, set up a technical audit, look at all the broken links, 404 errors, too long/too short title and meta tags, different issues with the scripts and load time.
Now, SEMRush has “core web vitals”, one of Google’s new things, where they’re looking at your page experience and your load time, and different issues. A tool like SEMRush is a great all-in-one tool. And then there’s HubSpot. That’s an awesome tool. We’re a HubSpot partner, but that’s more broad. It has a landing page tool. It has a CRM and this marketing automation in it. So, there’s a whole bunch of things in there that goes beyond the scope of SEO, but it also has some good SEO stuff.
So, those are a few things. If you want to be more on the SEO geek side of it, Screaming Frog is an awesome tool. Funny name, great tool. I’ve been using that for … I don’t know, John. We probably have licenses in there going back well over a decade, I think.
John Maher: Yeah. I think so.
John McDougall: Screaming Frog will crawl your website, and you can get an Excel spreadsheet of all the pages, and the status codes of the pages, the title and meta tags, and all those things.
John Maher: That can help a lot with finding broken links on your site and things like that as well.
John McDougall: Yeah. So, those are some of the essential tools.
John Maher: And then, on the other side for podcasting, if you are going to use podcasts to generate content, we’re using SquadCast right now to record this podcast, which is nice, because if you’re interviewing somebody online it gives separate files for you and the other person that then you can use. Another tool, an audio editing software tool like Audacity. That’s a free tool that’s available for editing your podcast, and I use that a lot.
There are paid tools for podcasting, but, really, you just need to trim the beginning and the end, take out some of the “ums” and “ahs”, like you said before, and clean it up a little bit, maybe add some music in there. You don’t need any super fancy tool to do it, so that one works.
John McDougall: Yep, and a tool to keep your project organized like Smartsheet. We love that for an in-the-cloud spreadsheet of all the SEO tasks because it’s just mind-bending. For SEO, Google says they’ve admitted to over 200 items in the algorithm or something like that. And over the years, in my first book in 2012-ish, I listed those like, “Oh, what are the 200 things that Google factors in to rank you?” Rip it apart. We’re just always looking for those latest things.
So, there’s just so much to do that you got to keep it organized. So, anyway, Smartsheet’s a nice tool. Some people use Basecamp. We used to use Basecamp and different things like that, but Smartsheet’s more just an awesome Excel spreadsheet on steroids with the ability to add attachments and a lot of other great features. So, hopefully, that toolset for SEO helps everyone get going.
John Maher: All Right. Well, that’s great information, John. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
John McDougall: All right, good. Talk to you later.
John Maher: And for more information about digital marketing, visit mcdougallinteractive.com, and please subscribe, rate, and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening. I’m John Maher and see you next time on Digital Marketing Madness.