SEO Retainers – A Complete Guide

In this article, I’m trying to cover the SEO retainers topic from different angles, to help you understand what is an SEO retainer, its pros & cons, and how it can work for you. Moreover, I will provide useful tips on how to accurately calculate the cost of an SEO retainer and measure its success.

What is a SEO retainer?

SEO retainers are a recurring SEO packages that are charged monthly. Clients and service providers mutually agree on the tasks, project scope, and budget that will be a part of the retainer agreement. The service provider has to deliver the defined tasks on time, communicate transparently, and inform the client about the monthly progress. On the other hand, the client needs to pay monthly invoices on time, and disclose with the service providers all necessary information (such as industry info, competitors, strategy goals).

Why are SEO retainers important?

SEO retainers are a good way to depict the essence of SEO: SEO is a marathon, not a sprint, and significant organic results cannot happen overnight. Therefore, if you, as a client, want to have consistent SEO efforts implemented for your website, and have a reliable service provider who could help on an ongoing basis, SEO retainers are a way to go.

Increasing the website’s topical authority, ranking keywords and strengthening the organic visibility of a brand requires time and patience. Therefore, to achieve this, the best option for your business is SEO retainers, where a service provider takes a long-term contribution in outlining, fine-tuning, (or overhauling), and implementing the SEO strategy of your site. The SEO industry is worth over $50 billion as of 2023, and companies are keen to invest in SEO to achieve their marketing KPIs in the long term.

What is included in an SEO retainer?

The tasks included in the SEO retainer packages can vary. However, there are some common tasks that many SEO professionals offer as a part of their SEO packages. Some SEO consultants offer different types of SEO retainers to different clients. This isn’t strange at all, since we, as SEO consultants, need to be adaptive and offer custom SEO solutions to different clients.

This is what is usually a part of my SEO retainer services:

  • Initial SEO audit
  • Keyword research and SEO content strategy
  • SEO content creation on demand
  • Content audits and on-page SEO improvement of existing pages and blog posts
  • Increasing the topical authority of the website
  • Improving E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness) of the site
  • Competitor research and identifying content gaps
  • Improving click-through rate
  • Applying the latest SEO practices and performing on-page optimization
  • Checking keyword cannibalization
  • Performing technical SEO audits on websites and fixing technical SEO errors (broken links, managing 404s and redirects)
  • Website maintenance and webmaster tasks
  • Internal link optimization
  • Schema markup implementation
  • Monthly reporting and online meetings to discuss progress.

Pros and cons of SEO retainers

SEO retainers are a popular way to organize SEO work for clients. Therefore, they have a multitude of pros and cons for both SEO service providers and business owners who are looking for SEO services.

SEO retainers pros for service providers

  • They provide long-term relationships between service providers and their clients
  • They reduce the insecurity of freelancer’s workload
  • Establishing mutual trust between a client and a service provider is easier than in one-off projects
  • Long-term work usually means a chance for service providers to make more impactful and significant ROI improvements for clients
  • Bigger predictability of monthly income in comparison to one-off projects.

SEO retainers pros for clients

  • Monthly retainer costs are usually fixed and predefined
  • They reduce the inconsistency of SEO work by having one reliable SEO partner long-term
  • Monthly reporting, which usually comes with SEO retainers, help clients track the SEO progress transparently 
  • SEO retainers mean having one reliable person that can act quickly as some potential SEO issues arise.

SEO retainers cons for service providers

  • Sometimes the work can get tedious and monotonous
  • Working with difficult clients is a frequent issue, and it might not be easy to terminate the retainer in all cases
  • It can get stressful in case the SEO strategy doesn’t yield the desired outcome.

SEO retainers cons for clients

  • Clients are concerned if they receive good value for their money, as SEO success is not linear,
  • A relationship can be flawed from the start, which can severely hamper the SEO progress and revenue
  • Incompatibility in working processes and communication can delay progress.
seo retainers

How do SEO Retainers Work?

SEO retainers work like this: service providers provide ongoing SEO services, in a scope and on budget that is already agreed upon with their clients. Clients, on the other side, pay the monthly fee.

Before signing an SEO retainer contract, both clients and SEO service providers need to touch base and make an agreement that will cover the following areas of work:

  • Services: Discussing what type of services and SEO activities will be a part of the SEO retainer. This is greatly affected by the clients’ KPIs, budget, and priorities. 
  • Deliverables: or, in other words, results that a client wants to see from a monthly retainer, that could be higher rankings, increase in relevant organic traffic, or increase in conversions.
  • Budget – a client and a service provider must agree on the budget. The SEO consultant’s monthly budget will usually cover a certain number of hours of SEO work, and will also include reporting. Sometimes, a SEO consultant can customize the budget by reducing the amount of SEO activities in the retainer to create a suitable package for a client. 
  • Time frame – defining how long the collaboration will last. Most SEO consultants recommend at least 6 months of continuous collaboration and investment, since SEO results don’t come overnight.
  • Reporting process – agreeing on documenting and reporting on deliverables, and how it translated to achieving defining KPIs.
  • Communication – discussing how the communication process is going to be like between two parties, such as frequency and means of communication and reporting.

How much does an SEO retainer cost?

In the SEO world, the cost of monthly SEO retainers can significantly vary, and there are a multitude of factors that affect how much an SEO specialist is going to charge for a SEO retainer.

Factors that affect the cost of an SEO retainer

The factors that SEO service providers take into consideration when creating their packages are:

  • Industries / niches they work with – SEO consultants who specialize in a certain niche or industry can charge more 
  • Case studies – they are important as they outline the processes how they achieved SEO results for previous clients, 
  • Area of specialty – there are SEO generalists, and SEO consultants who specialize in certain areas, like content strategy, technical SEO, and more. Usually, a SEO consultant with a narrow specialty can charge more than a generalist
  • Their level of expertise, personal brand and industry recognition – these factors help SEO consultants charge more, because they put effort to share their expertise with their audience online.

To conclude, the higher price of a monthly retainer is usually followed by a higher level of expertise, actual proof of satisfied clients, area of specialty, and industry recognition. SEO professionals who have been in business for more than two years charge 39.4% more per hour, 102.41% more for monthly retainers, and 275% more for one time projects than those who have been in business for less than two years, on average. 

Examples of SEO retainers costs

In calculating the cost of monthly SEO retainers, I’ve seen lots of SEO consultants take into consideration two variables – their hourly rate and the estimated number of monthly hours that the retainer will include. 

When it comes to SEO hourly rates, we see everything from as low as $20 to up to $200 or more. The number of hours for a monthly retainer can vary as well, but can start with 10 hours, 20, or even more. Therefore, if we multiply the hourly rate with a certain number of hours per month, the price of an SEO retainer fee can go from $1,000, up to $5,000 or more.

How to budget for an SEO retainer?

The cost of SEO retainers will vary in a great extent depending on the type of retainers, scope of work, and expertise and reputation of an agency or freelancer. The minimum monthly cost you should expect to pay would be no less than $1,000 – $1,500. Bear in mind that higher monthly retainers can produce better ROI because they will encompass more SEO activities and expertise in comparison to cheaper ones.

What to do if you don’t have a budget for an SEO retainer?

However, if even the SEO retainers at the low price level are out of your budget, then you can reduce the expectations regarding the scope of SEO activities. Also, you can reduce the number of monthly hours that you expect from your service provider to be available for you. 

A service provider may also offer some lighter SEO retainers that include less work, that can still create some SEO wins for you.

Are cheap SEO retainers worth it?

They still might bring you some SEO results. However, they can be unrealistic as well. With cheap SEO retainers, it’s common to overpromise and under deliver. Also, they are frequently promoted as being a one-stop shop that will cover all major aspects of SEO. The issue with them is that behind them is typically a SEO person who doesn’t have enough confidence to charge more, or is just staring their consultancy business, so they don’t have enough reputation or proof of their expertise.

How to measure the success of an SEO retainer?

Since clients are usually not that familiar to SEO, they don’t know how long it will take to produce some notable SEO results. Clients are typically concerned if the SEO investment is paying off, as SEO results vary from month to month. 

Before measuring the ROI of an SEO retainer, clients, and service provider should agree on KPIs, which could be clicks or rankings increase on certain keywords, or the increase of sales and conversions. These KPIs can be measured differently:

  • Conversions – using the Google Analytics 4, it’s possible to set up conversion goals to track once the user performs a specific action on the site, like completing the checkout process, or signing up to the newsletter. SEO reports can include those data, and show how the conversion compares to the previous months,
  • Clicks – SEO reporting typically includes the number of clicks for relevant keywords, and their comparison to previous periods. This data is usually pulled from Google Search Console,
  • Rankings & organic traffic – can also be measured with the data from GSC, or from other leading industry tools such as Ahrefs or SemRush. However, data from Google Search Console is always more accurate and timely, and gives an overview of more long-tail keywords with little search volume that the other tools usually miss.

SEO retainers best practices

To make SEO retainers work for both clients and service providers, it is required to have a lot of dedication, patience, and communication skills from both sides.

Best practices in executing SEO retainers

A service provider should approach the monthly SEO work by applying common sense and SEO principles in mind. Given that SEO results require a good strategy, prioritization and consistency, the following best practices should be applied:

  • Prioritization: A good SEO consultant should prioritize well. Therefore, an SEO service provider should know what SEO activities to do first, which ones are urgent the most, and which will produce the biggest SEO impact. 
  • Outlining plans and implementation deadlines: A good SEO consultant should know how to divide the overall SEO project into stages and define the deadlines and the expected deliverables of each stage.
  • Efficiency – the hours allotted by the SEO retainer package should be used in the most efficient way. The goal should be to produce the best result for the client in a given circumstance by focusing on priority tasks, instead of just filling the hours with some unimportant SEO work.

What are the best practices for communication with an SEO retainer?

To get the most out of SEO retainers, both SEO consultants and their clients should find ways to foster a transparent and timely communication and to resolve the issues related to them. 

  • Invest in your relationship – The best way to create a mutual understanding from the start is to treat the client or your SEO service provider as a partner, with whom you made an agreement to work long-term.
  • Discussing policies and processes to use – If a client has specific procedures and processes that pertain to digital marketing and SEO, a good solution would be to discuss them. Maybe you’ll find a common ground on how some things can be handled, so the work process can be hassle-free and efficient for both parties. 
  • Resolve communication issues as they arise – The best way to resolve communication issues is, to be honest and transparent from the start. A client should be open with his requests, KPIs, concerns, and goals. On the other side, an SEO partner should be transparent about feasible SEO progress in a given time, and avoid overpromising as this will lead to dissatisfaction from client’s side.

SEO consultants have to be very transparent with their working processes. They should determine the SEO priorities and convert them into tasks right from the start. They need to understand the competitors and the industry their client is in, and create realistic expectations regarding the SEO results. Finally, they need to communicate with the client, helping them to understand how SEO works and what results are reasonable to expect.

Does your business need a freelance SEO specialist on a retainer basis?

If you’re curious to learn more about my work processes, retainer packages, industry expertise, and pricing, get in touch! As a freelance SEO specialist working on a retainer basis, I’m looking forward to creating a custom SEO strategy for your business. With over 6 years of SEO experience in numerous industries, I can help you bridge the gap between you and your ideal target audience on Google.

About the author

Sonja Marinkovic is a freelance SEO consultant and SEO enthusiast with more than 6 years of relevant industry experience. Having dedicated three years to working full-time in the iGaming sector, she opted for a new direction, establishing her own SEO consulting business. She is passionate about content audits, SEO strategy, technical SEO, and managing websites in different CMS systems. More in "About Me" section.

Leave a Comment