I have seen a notable shift in self-employment over the last 12 months. Many of those who've made this brave move have come from the hustle and bustle of agency life.
Although businesses currently face financial challenges, it is a good time to be a freelancer. Offering vast SEO knowledge and experience at a competitive price is a win-win!
Typically, how do you structure your budgets for technical SEO work?
Half of agencies and freelancers said that they typically work on an ongoing retainer from the start of a project. Interestingly, this is an increase from last year where 41% of respondents said that this is how they worked.
Ongoing retainer from the start
One-off, fixed fee, followed by an optional retainer for implementation
One-off, fixed fee
One-off, fixed fee, followed by a mandatory retainer for implementation
Understanding the breakdown of retainers. Whether it was reporting, operational, on-site execution or linkbuilding. I wouldn't be surprised if more people are offering operational retainers as the industry matures and we realise so much of what needs to happen with SEO are the processes around it.
I agree with the respondents, and I prefer to work with an ongoing retailer and a one-off fixed fee followed by an optional retainer. These two models give both parties the flexibility needed and, most of all, allow a project to be completed from start to end and, when possible, improve over time. At the same time, it brings clarity to the table while building a solid relationship client-vendor.
I personally think retainers are the most beneficial for both the agency/freelancer and client. As long as you establish trust, communication and good ways of working at the beginning, it allows you to pivot on an ongoing basis and do what's needed to get the best results.
I think it's important to establish a good baseline, and then you can revisit the scope of work after a while if needed.
My experience has been exactly this, an ongoing retainer, or one off fixed fee with an optional retainer, depending on the original inquiry.
These options make the most sense in an industry where tasks rarely end up being just once-off.
I always like to break my project down into clear phases, with costs allocated for each. Based on client needs, I always charge an initial fixed fee for investigative work like an audit, followed by either an optional or mandatory retainer for implementation I will choose an optional retainer if the work feels non-critical for the site’s success…. or if they have internal SEO capabilities already; or else mandatory if I have a clear plan of how to deliver real value and strong results to them based on what my auditing has discovered.
Technical SEO fixes can never be one off tasks for me. Even after fixing all the audit issues, there is always need for guidance while adding new content, creating new pages or reviewing the health of the existing website. Retainers can definitely keep clients stress-free by relying on additional help for technical SEO.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions most clients have is that technical SEO is a one-off activity (run an audit, find opportunities, and pass them off for implementation). But a lot can still change during and after the first implementation, and distort any insights/results you would have gotten from the initial audit. An ongoing retainer model offers you the opportunity to follow through and manage clients’ expectations better. A win-win on both sides. So, it makes sense why it’s a popular choice.
When you work with clients, what is your ideal monthly budget range for working on technical SEO?
The most popular monthly budget for agencies and freelancers is $1,000-$5,000 per month, with 45% saying that this is what their ideal budget is. The next most popular answer with 27% was $5,000-$10,000 per month.
The budget of $1,000-$5,000 per month usually works perfectly for the technical SEO of small to medium-sized websites. It also completely depends on the business model and end goals. I also provide customized packages according to the kind of issues the website has.
It is imperative to create transparency about SEO budgets across the globe to make sure people in developing countries do not get underpaid.
As a freelancer, my monthly budget certainly matches with the majority response here. I feel comfortable with this level, as I generally work on only one or two client projects at a time and usually on a part time basis too. If I were to be working on a larger client project, with a lot of technical implementation work requiring full time hours for that client, I would expect to perhaps move to the $5k plus category (which was closer to what I charged when I worked in an agency).
I'm not surprised with the results because this is one of those cases when "it depends" comes into place. It depends on the tasks, the website's size, the current situation, and how much cleaning it requires.
I really love having the time and headspace to properly delve into issues. A smaller retainer can be a false economy for the client, because you're still expected to deliver results which can lead to choosing tactics over strategy. When you're having to focus on doing the best you can with a limited time, you might end up missing important clues, picking up red herrings or the chance to solve multiple problems at once for a lack of strategic thinking time.
How do you typically price a technical SEO audit of a single website?
In terms of how pricing is determined, just over half (51%) of agencies and freelancers said that they based it on the amount of time that a task may take, along with a day rate.
Time based pricing e.g. number of days and a day rate
Fixed fee based on size/type of website but not tied to a specific number of days
Value based pricing e.g. fixed fee based on potential upside for the client
Time-based pricing is excellent for flexibility. Flex is necessary when auditing larger sites or several sites for a single client. However, this model does tend to reflect value too. Value-based markup is usually integrated within hourly and day rates.
I think that the three models have benefits and downsides. It all comes to how big a website is and how much flexibility your client offers: ideally, having time-based pricing with flexibility regarding adding more hours and days is the best solution. Nobody knows what challenges and issues you will identify and how many will block other analyses.
Pricing models vary between agencies/freelancers, and I think all of them are valid as long as they're beneficial both ways.
Personally, I'm not keen on technical SEO audits as a standalone item without at least some consultancy time as a follow up. Of course, most good SEOs can produce a fairly comprehensive audit document in a few days, but without being available to help problem solve if some recommendations aren't possible, prioritise tasks and see that vital recommendations are all implemented, there's not very much value to the client at all.
Day and hourly rates are one of the most popular methods to price technical SEO audits of a website as it helps better in determining the total pricing and expected due date. However, I also like the idea of value-based pricing as it's more focused on end goals.
I prefer to use a fixed-fee based on the size and type of the site as this allows specialists to charge based on their expertise and experience, and not how fast or slow they work.
Time based pricing ends up being a lot more transparent for the client relationship however. It also means if you spend longer on the project due to unforeseen issues, it's easier to renegotiate and justify the price of the project.
In your experience, how has the demand for your technical SEO services changed over the last 12 months?
In terms of demand for technical SEO services, 56% of agencies and freelancers said that it had increased over the last 12 months. Whilst good overall, this has decreased from last year’s survey where 69% reported that demand had increased.
The number of agencies and freelancers saying that demand has decreased has also risen, with that number being 9% this year, compared with 5% last year.
Much of my SEO work is referral based, so my response is unlikely to be typical. I feel that here in the UK, many clients I have worked with previously, have been trying to bring more of their SEO work in-house due to rising costs and the current state of the economy feeling uncertain. Personally I have seen demand decrease a little compared to previous years - but if I had been more actively pitching for more new technical projects, I am not sure if this would still be the case. Technical needs I believe are increasing all the time, but perhaps budgets are not so much at the moment.
Was last year's reported increase in demand an anomaly due to more budget becoming available coming out of the worst of the pandemic?
SEO still seems to be a popular and sought after skillset, although the boom we saw during COVID days may be tapering off slightly with overall marketing budgets being affected by various economic factors in certain regions.
For me, the demand for my technical SEO services has significantly increased. The clients are more aware of technical SEO and they understand how this specific stream of SEO can do good for their website. Apart from that, I've created a separate package of technical SEO and I can definitely see the people interested in this service.
Because the outputs of technical SEO are usually the absence of issues or something happening behind the scenes, and not something tangible like a set of blog posts, it's usually one of the first things to be cut when budgets are reduced.
It's so important for us to be able to show the value of the work we do, establish relationships of trust with clients and always focus on the strategy that best aligns with their business goals.
Please rank the following in order of which ones you spend the most time on, with the task requiring the most time at the top:
We asked agencies and freelancers how they typically spend their time. The task that most said took the most amount of time was examining a website to look for issues. This was followed by the proactive improvement of known issues.
Examining the site to look for issues
Proactive improvement of known issues
Reactive handling of issues introduced by site updates
Incremental improvements/testing of new opportunities
It's interesting to me that looking for issues takes more time than improving known issues. In my experience, finding the issues is easy... getting them worked on takes time, patience and dedication!
Auditing a site and making improvements on known improvements tops the list - no surprises there. What’s surprising is how incremental improvements/testing new opportunities remains less of a priority in the agency/freelance setting this year. Could this be because clients don’t see the value of incremental improvements and therefore rarely provide the resources for it? Or is this task mainly delegated to an in-house team who are more focused on the longer-term vision?
Whichever the case, I think we need to work on our ability to communicate the value of testing for new opportunities and influence stakeholders.
I would love to see agencies being given more leeway to experiment and try new solutions for their clients. This not only gives clients the most benefit from the "fresh set of eyes" the agency provides; it also allows the agency to educate the client about new tactics and best practices, which is one of the highest-value aspects of the relationship.
I find examining the site for issues especially happens when there is less direct interaction with the development team.
I'd love to see more time being spent on incremental improvements and testing, but I know there is usually only time for this when you've been working on the same site / client for a good few months, if not years, due to the limited time you can spend on each client each month.
I 100% agree with the results. You cannot improve a website or plan other actions if you don't know what is structurally wrong and what has to be fixed.
I absolutely agree with the order of responses here as fitting with my own experiences as a freelancer. When my focus is on technical SEO, my projects tend to need a lot of investigative work (point 1) before I can then fix the issues (point 2). I imagine this to be the case for most freelance SEOs, with more time spent on the latter two areas only on a much longer term project - perhaps much more likely in an agency environment.
What's the most common way that you handle implementation of technical SEO tasks that require developers?
Agency SEOs were asked about implementing technical tasks and the most popular answer (45%) was that they worked with in-house developers whilst nearly a third (29%) said that they handled it within the agency.
We work with the client's in-house developers
We handle it within the agency, with our own developers
We work with the client's external developers
We partner with a development agency who work alongside us
Working with in-house developers is the dream, because they usually bring the added benefit of knowing the site really well.
That said, you can make any of these setups work really effectively if you are mindful of any blockers that come with different ways of working and take the time to build a good relationship with the team.
Often clients do have their own development teams which does make things simpler to hand over a brief - however I definitely prefer working with our own developers as much as possible, as there's opportunity to work with an existing rapport, and your tasks less likely to get lost amongst the in-house developers priorities
While the first option is quite common, it can quickly get problematic when the client's in-house development team does not have resources set aside for SEO tasks. In cases where there’s an option for the agency to implement, I’ve had a better experience working with our developers within the agency. You get dedicated dev resources for client-specific SEO tasks, better collaboration, and easy tracking after implementation.
Working with in-house developers is the best solution. It has challenges and issues and requires a lot of project management from freelancers/agencies. But in-house people know the brand and the tech stack, what to do, and in which timeframe.
What's the longest time frame you've had to wait to get a technical SEO change made for a client?
Unlike the same question for in-house SEOs, where the majority said that the longest they’d waited for an SEO change to be made was a month, 31% of agency SEOs said that the longest time frame was 12+ months.
Seeing such a disparity in how long it takes for agencies to get changes made vs in-house suggests a couple things to me.
1. Agencies may want to invest more time in educating their team on how to get SEO buy-in. It's likely that the team working on a client isn't the same person or team who sold it. So better documentation and education to bridge that gap may help significantly reduce those times.
2. Agencies may be suggesting higher LOE tasks and/or trying to tackle technical debt. We, on the agency side, should probably take a page out of the in-house book and try to find more palatable changes. It may not be the ideal, but if it gets changes moving in the right direction, then that's still a win.
The results don't surprise me at all. Technical SEO recommendations too often remain a pending ticket, especially if the website is somehow performing and bringing conversions.
This really highlights how important it is to build good working relationships with developers. This happens naturally for most in-house teams working for the same company.
When you're agency side or a freelancer, you need to orchestrate communication by joining refinement sessions and, if appropriate, having a Slack channel where developers can ask questions directly rather than having to pass messages through your regular point of contact.
There definitely tends to be more red tape to getting things implemented agency or freelancer side with that added separation from the business.
I'll say it again, working on communicating benefits and getting buy-in seems to be the most challenging part of SEO still, and I believe it can really be worked on as individual specialists and as an industry.
I’m a freelancer and I believe just over a month was the longest I have had to push for a change to be made. I found this incredibly frustrating! I feel very sorry for the poor agency SEOs who have had to wait a year or more for a change to be made.
What's the shortest time frame you've had to wait to get a technical SEO change made for a client?
On the plus side, the shortest amount of time that agencies and freelancers have waited for an SEO change to be made is a day. 67% said that this was the shortest amount of time that they’d waited.
This is positive to see. As much as a small part of me would love to see all my tickets turned around in a day, limited dev resources are a recurring issue.
I'm always mindful to be realistic about where my tickets sit in the overall priority order based business impact. My clients are used to hearing me say 'it is important, but it isn't on fire' as the norm. This means when I do tell them something is on fire, they know it truly is serious and delaying fixing it could result in a big loss of revenue.
Wonderful! More implementations within a day please!
I am glad to read that and agree 100% with the respondents. I had crucial changes implemented in 24 hours because of a strong collaboration between in-house devs and the SEO consultant.
Glad to see some fast changes being implemented on the whole. I have sometimes had fixes made much faster than a day - eg. when a developer has agreed to make a change immediately due to urgency. It’s rare, but sometimes I’ve had to push for immediate responses using a call or instant chat (especially if the change is small on their end, andI know they have the code all ready to go - or test). I know I’ve expressed my gratitude very vocally when this happens - and have passed on my praise of said developer to the client.
What's the typical timeframe across most clients for seeing a technical SEO change made?
Following on from this, we asked agency SEOs what the typical timeframe was for a technical change to be implemented and the most popular answer at 43% was around a month. Only 1% expect to wait more than 12 months.
For medium sized clients or larger clients, I expect about a month - though I hope for a week or so. For a smaller client, usually it is faster as there are less moving parts and stakeholders.
This makes sense given dev cycles. My tip to getting that down even faster is to ask for 15-20 minutes in grooming meetings to go over SEO requests with the engineering team, get buy-in, and perhaps get better solution suggestions from your engineers.
What was the main blocker in getting changes made to the site?
In terms of the reason why changes don’t get made sooner, the most common reason (67%) was the existence of non-SEO development tasks which we found to also be the case for in-house SEOs.
Here we see "lack of buy-in from stakeholders" holding a larger percentage of responses than it does in the in-house section. The game of telephone that exists between agencies and in-house stakeholders, especially those not in direct contact with the agency, can be a detriment to implementation. That's why it's so important for agencies to involve a variety of stakeholders, not just your direct point of contact, in the onboarding process.
It always surprises me when companies pay for SEO services but push implementation right down below their existing non-SEO tasks, or there isn't enough buy-in when it comes to actually making changes on the site. I'm not saying they need to be top priority, but the balance definitely seems to be a bit off.
When non-SEO development tasks are acting as a blocker for SEO tickets, I will always ask to see whether SEO tickets can piggyback onto relevant non-SEO ones. If a developer is making a bunch of changes to a certain template and you just want H2 headers adding to it, they're usually more than happy to oblige.
With the other two, I'd be tempted to say that both of them can usually be solved by thinking about what's going to help achieve the overall business goals (assuming the SEO KPIs are aligned to those!) and showing that you're prioritising tasks that way.
The results reflect the situation in many companies, no matter the size. Tech SEO is hardly prioritized because companies don't hire SEO devs, and SEOs lack in creating compelling business cases that give a task a sense of urgency. And since their resources are limited, and the reasons from other teams are more attractive, other requests get prioritized, e.g., from product.
For me, I would agree with the top response overall as being my most common experience. And, similar to the second most popular answer, sometimes stakeholders have been unwilling to move forwards because of the unfinished work on the website that should ideally be handled before SEO will be most effective (ie. popular response 1 is a cause for lack of buy-in - response 2). In these cases, sadly I have sometimes had to agree with the client’s decision - but I feel this honesty encourages clients to return once their developers are finished fixing any underlying issues or checking that the site’s foundations are sound first.
How do you present your technical SEO recommendations to your clients? Pick all that apply:
The clear winner here was Google Sheets or Excel, with 81% of agencies and freelancers saying that this was how they present SEO recommendations to clients.
I haven't experienced it personally, but I'd be interested to see more agencies working in Jira/Asana alongside their clients.
Agree with the results. As a consultant, I need to present the recommendations to my clients and explain why they matter in the context of their business goals. Only after this, and when my clients are on-board and happy, do I create tasks or work with a PjM to create and assign tasks and monitor what happens.
I like to use a real mixture of the top few responses above. Spreadsheets along with a brief report for more technical teams involved (eg. the developers) or more technical clients. I’ll also always offer a simple and very visual slideshow of key recommendations (along with data that supports these choices) presented over a video call to the decision makers and clients in general too.
Seeing a difference here in comparison with in-house SEOs. Agencies often do not have access to ticketing or PM systems even though it doesn't cost companies / departments a fortune to add one or more agency / freelance representative(s) there. Making such people at least part of the project(s) officially can make a huge difference in getting things implemented, tested and deployed faster. It is all about communication in the right time, place and with the right people.
Martina Zrzavá Libřická
Google Sheets/Excel and Google Slides/Powerpoint are the most popular but I think PM tools are the best to present technical SEO recommendations to clients. These tools are best to assign tasks directly to the respective teams and track the progress.
It's great to find a consistent way of presenting recommendations that works well for you, as long as you're always thinking about who your audience is and adapting as needed to make it as easy as possible for them to know what needs to be done.
Have you organised the information so it's easy to understand and therefore implement? If you aren't directly writing JIRA tickets, do you at least know their preferred format so your documents are compatible? If it's something big that will need buy-in, are you demonstrating their value properly?
As long as you're doing that, I think all of these options are valid - except for those of you delivering technical SEO recommendations via Slack. You scare me.
Deferring to Excel/Sheets is a no brainer cause then it's often fairly easy to import any of those items into whatever ticketing system the engineering team uses.
When working freelance / agency side there's definitely more of a need to present data and recommendations before heading over to creating any dev tickets. Google Sheets & Excel is the obvious choice for me for most SEO tasks
Do you also schedule a call or meeting with clients to discuss your technical SEO recommendations?
The vast majority (93%) of agency SEOs said yes, they do schedule a call to discuss their recommendations. This is noticeably higher than the same answer from in-house SEOs where 77% said that they scheduled a call.
Apparently many people do schedule calls or meeting with clients to discuss technical SEO recommendation. I do the same. But investing my time and efforts into such call I always require a person from dev, either in-house or external, or any other person that truly understands the topic, is able to implement, test and deploy or assign it to the team, to be present at that meeting. Why? I have found out it is very difficult for people who do not understand the topic to prioritize and push in the right places. This step of mine has many times proven to work and speed up things.
Martina Zrzavá Libřická
Comparing these with last year's results, a lot fewer people are saying they don't schedule follow-up calls. This is brilliant - from experience, I know that having calls to go through recommendations and explain why we've made them helps us get them implemented.
As an added bonus, these calls give you the opportunity to ask questions and learn what's important to the developer, stakeholders, and wider business. I can think of a fair few times where I've tweaked a recommendation off the back of one of these calls - not because the recommendation wasn't good to begin with, but because I got some extra context that made me think of a better solution.
Calls between clients and SEO, including developers and other stakeholders potentially affected by the suggested changes, are highly productive. They are also the best way to create a relationship between people. Very often, the relationship leads to a faster implementation as well.
I think it's really important to talk to whoever is going to be implementing your recommendations, whether it someone from the marketing team or the in-house developer. Sometimes there are tasks that aren't as straight forward as it first seems, and having the client give feedback as you are going through recommendations creates a collaborative relationship as opposed to push-back, and back and forths.
As a freelancer, I always schedule a video call (with a presentation, or arrange a meeting to discuss recommendations. It makes a lot of sense to explain or present the results to clients to ensure their understanding of work done and results instead of only sending a report over (which may not be properly read).
What is the primary means of communication with your clients for day-to-day work?
The most common way that agencies and freelance SEOs communicate with clients is via email, with 68% preferring this method of communication. This was followed by Slack / instant chat with 21%.
It is important to be reachable throughout the day, but there is such a thing as being too available. Platforms, like Slack, can introduce this issue if expectations are not set. There is nothing worse than the knock-on impact of message overload. An email-first approach to non-urgent comms helps protect my mood, schedule and productivity.
Not surprised by the percentages. Email is the most common and formal medium of communication. I always prefer this medium to communicate about daily work. For follow-ups, I sometimes use Google Chat and WhatsApp too to remind them about something important that requires immediate action. I use video conferencing a maximum of twice a month to keep them in the loop and answer their queries which require screen shares.
For day-to-day comms, Slack is my go-to but I also have at least bi-weekly video chats in the calendar too.
I can understand why others might prefer email - if you work on smaller retainers, or with really demanding clients, it can be a good way to set boundaries and expectations.
My personal preference is email - mostly because it’s what I have used for the longest, and I find it straightforward to find responses, organise reports and check I have responded to any enquiries. I find email more of a permanent record (though I still haven’t got the hang of clearing my inbox regularly).
Not surprised by this. Email is the primary form of communication because it also gives both parties a certain level of security: what's written stays written forever. I find it particularly helpful when clients bring me into their Slack channels and allow me to report on findings and needs more quickly
How do you prioritise technical SEO tasks in terms of implementation? Please rank the following, starting with the most effective:
We asked agency and freelance SEOs to rank options for prioritising the implementation of technical SEO tasks. The most popular way to prioritise was quick wins that have a big impact with little effort. This was followed by the expected impact on KPIs.
I'm so glad to see that industry changes and algorithm updates is the lowest ranked answer. If you're having to constantly adapt what you're doing to avoid being hit by algo updates, you're probably doing something questionable.
Agree that quick wins or low-hanging fruit is an obvious first - but always has to weighed against the overall business objectives.
Technical SEO tasks can be extensive and take several months to address. It is best to begin technical SEO improvements with quick wins that will provide maximum benefit to the site in the shortest time. This would include addressing site maps, page titles, duplicate content and thin content. Other site issues like fixing broken links, page speed improvements and getting additional inbound links should be prioritized in order of benefits provided.
The above ranking matches my priorities exactly. I want to set into motion the tasks that will impact KPIs early on (point 2) whilst getting the quick wins into place so that their impact can be measured against benchmarks and reported on from as early on as possible. The last two priorities, as suggested by results above, are ‘nice to haves’ in my eyes, and which many of my projects do not focus on implementing but provide simply as recommendations in reports to clients.
This makes me so sad. Agencies want to prove their value by showing quick wins and too often forget they should focus on business KPIs instead. I wish there would be more than just short-term thinking and a more long-term vision to develop an actual relationship with clients.
Typically, are your technical SEO recommendations deployed to a client staging environment prior to live?
When it comes to deploying technical SEO changes to a staging environment prior to live, 57% of agency SEOs said that they did this.
Staging environment is great but not every company supports it. There is nothing wrong deploying to live unless tested before pushed live. QA is important as it helps us to provide the best possible UX/CX.
Martina Zrzavá Libřická
For my medium sized and larger clients, yes - this is always done first. Whilst time-consuming, it prevents problems later down the line and the extra level of approval of the changes can be helpful. For smaller clients whose sites I do not manage, sometimes not. This is so much quicker, but can make me nervous (so I am extra careful about requesting back-ups beforehand and meticulously tracking all my changes for the client).
This is lower than last year, which makes me wonder - are there other solutions or ways that tech SEOs are testing before changes go up? My guess would be no, so this is concerning.
Do you carry out any form of A/B testing to understand the impact of technical SEO changes after they've been deployed?
At the moment, the majority of respondents (66%) said that they don’t do any form of A/B testing to understand the impact of technical changes that have been made.
I do not at present, like the majority of respondents here. I feel this may be a missed opportunity for some larger clients but it isn’t something I’ve taken the time to put into place at the moment.
I am convinced many agencies or freelancers have the background and capacity to do it but I guess most clients do not see the benefit of it, either they don't want to or it is not clearly communicated. When both of the previous reasons are excluded, let's face the truth, budgets are not inflatable.
But in many cases it could in the end cost less if SEOs would be able to A/B test just like many other digital marketers. We have to start thinking how to make it a norm in our industry.
Martina Zrzavá Libřická
Most technical changes are difficult to A/B test because you can't run two versions of a page - one fixed and not - without causing a new issue. Even tracking traffic and revenue before and after a change is fallible, because it's difficult to say whether you're looking at a direct result of a technical change or something else you've done, consumer trends or something else entirely.
If someone comes up with a reliable way to A/B test technical changes, I'm super interested to hear about it. Until then, I'm going to focus my time and effort on the actions I believe are best for my clients.
This doesn't come as a surprise to me. Testing takes time and is expensive, and many companies prefer to test other channels, with UX and CRO being first in line. Also, since I don't think AB testing for SEO works for all website types, I believe it requires even more resources than usual to show some results.