We surveyed 1,200 business owners to better understand the current state of the SEO services industry.

In this new report you’ll learn:

  • How much people spend on SEO.
  • Where people find SEO services.
  • Why people choose one agency over another.
  • Why people decide to leave their current SEO provider.
  • Lots more.

Without further ado, let’s get into our findings.

Highlights and Key Statistics:

1. American small businesses spend an average of $497.16 per month on SEO services.

2. We found a strong correlation between higher spending and higher client satisfaction. In fact, clients that spent over $500/month were 53.3% more likely to be “extremely satisfied” compared to those that spent less than $500/month.

3. Most small business owners find SEO providers through referrals, Google searches and online reviews. A small fraction of SEO clients (8%) found their current provider from online advertising.

4. When it comes to choosing a provider, 74% of business owners consider an SEO provider’s reputation “very” or “extremely” important. Monthly cost and the provider’s own Google rankings were also noted as important factors.

5. On the other hand, an agency’s presence on social media and client case studies were seen as relatively unimportant factors in deciding who to work with.

6. Most small business owners expect SEO agencies to help them drive immediate growth to their customer base and bottom line. Specifically, 83% of our respondents stated that SEO providers should be able to help them “access new customers”.

7. However, most small business owners don’t seem to value a provider’s ability to grow a social media following. In fact, only 26% of respondents cited “getting followers on social media sites” as extremely important.

8. Overall SEO client satisfaction is decidedly low. Only 30% would recommend their current SEO provider to a friend or colleague. However, we found that client satisfaction among marketing agencies was higher than freelancers.

9. Not surprisingly, clients are highly satisfied with SEO providers that help them get more traffic and customers. Also, 61% of business owners cite that “increasing brand awareness” is important to them.

10. An SEO provider’s location also seems to play a key role in whether or not a client chooses to work with or stay with an SEO agency. 78% of US-based small business owners consider their provider’s location a “very” or “extremely” important consideration.

11. 44% of small business owners leave their current SEO provider largely due to “Dissatisfaction with business results”. 34% cite “customer service/ responsiveness” as a key reason they left. Only 21% leave because they were pitched by a competitor.

12. SEO provider turnover is high. 65% of our panel stated that they’ve worked with several different SEO providers. 25% have worked with 3 or more providers.

We have more detailed and expanded findings on our results below.

Average Monthly SEO Spend is <$500 Per Month

On average, small businesses spend $497.16 per month on SEO services.

The average cost of SEO services is less than $500/month

However, we did discover a large range in SEO spending. Half of our respondents reported that they spend less than $1,000 per year on SEO. 14% spend $5k+ per year. Only 2% spend over $25k/year.

Small business SEO spending varies greatly

We also found that agencies tend to get paid significantly more than freelance SEO providers.

Specifically, agencies were 2x more likely to get paid $1k-$2k/month than freelancers, which mostly get paid in the $500-$1k per month range.

SEO agencies get paid significantly more than SEO freelancers

Agencies also tend to dominate the high-end pricing range (clients that spend $10k-$25k/year on SEO).

Agencies are 8X more likely to get paid $10k-$25k/year than freelancers

As you can see, 24% of small businesses that work with agencies spend between $10k-$25k/year, compared with 2% that work with a freelance SEO.

Key Takeaway: The average small business owner spends $497.16 per month on SEO services. Also, small business owners spend considerably more with SEO agencies than freelance SEO providers.

Monthly Spend Is Tied To Client Satisfaction

When it comes to SEO, do you “get what you pay for”?

According to our data, yes.

Specifically, we discovered that clients spending over $500/month were 53.3% more likely to consider themselves “extremely satisfied” compared to people that spend less than $500/month.

Higher SEO spending is correlated with higher client satisfaction

We also found a clear relationship between dissatisfaction levels and cost.

Specifically, business owners that spent less than $500/month were 75% more likely to be dissatisfied than those that invested at least $500/month on SEO.

SEO dissatisfaction is correlated with lower SEO spending

This relationship played out whether a client worked with a freelancer, agency, or a mix of both.

Key Takeaway: Small business owners that spend more than $500/month are significantly happier with their SEO provider than those that spend less than $500/month.

Referrals and Google Searches Are the Top Ways Businesses Are Finding SEOs

When someone wants to hire an SEO agency, where do they look?

According to our panel, most people find potential SEO service providers through word of mouth, Google searches and online review platforms (like Yelp).

Most clients find SEO services via referrals, Google search and review sites

On the other hand, relatively few find SEO providers through online or offline advertising, or referrals from other vendors (like web designers or writers).

If you’re an agency owner or a freelancer, this is a key finding. If you know where small business owners look to find SEO service providers, you can invest resources to make sure your business has a presence in those places.

Key Takeaway: 28% of small business owners find SEO services through word of mouth, 26% use Google and 18% use online review platforms like Yelp. Only 11% find SEO providers via online or offline advertising.

Reputation and Cost are Key Factors Involved In Choosing a Provider

Once someone finds a list of potential providers, how do they decide which one to go with?

We discovered that reputation, cost and a provider’s own Google rankings influenced their decision the most.

Reputation and cost are key factors involved in choosing a provider

Small business owners cited client case studies and the provider’s social media presence as significantly less important.

However, even these relatively minor factors played a role in whether or not someone decided to work with a particular SEO provider. For example, 55% of our panel cited “referrals” as an important consideration.

Referrals influence more than 50% choosing a provider

Although the importance of referrals pales in comparison to a provider’s reputation (55% vs. 74%), it’s still something that influenced more than half of the people we spoke to.

Interestingly, we found that a provider’s location mattered quite a bit.

Only 51% knew exactly where their SEO provider was located.

Half of SEO clients don't know where their SEO provider is located

However, 78% of US-based small businesses stated that knowing their provider’s location was “extremely” or “very” important (with 46% stating that a known location was “extremely important”).

78% of small business owners state SEO provider's location as 'Important'

If you provide SEO services, making your location clear and obvious may help you land more SEO clients.

Here’s a great example from Siege Media, who actually includes a picture of their office on their about page:

SiegeMedia – Make location clear

Key Takeaway: Small business owners largely decide on an SEO provider based on their online reputation. Location also seems to play a role. 78% our panel noted that location was a factor that helped them decide whether or not to work with an agency or freelancer.

The Vast Majority of Business Owners Expect SEO Services To Increase Customers and Traffic

We asked our panel about their expectations. Specifically, we asked them which benefits from working with an SEO provider were most important to them.

They stated that “accessing new customers”, “increasing traffic”, “increasing brand awareness” and “building trust” as most important.

SEO clients value new customers, traffic and brand awareness

“Gaining social media followers”, “increasing number of email subscribers” and “helping to attract new talent” were cited as relatively unimportant.

In fact, even though this is a common goal set by marketing agencies, only 18% of respondents cited “getting followers on social media sites” as extremely important.

Only 18% state getting followers on social media sites as extremely important

This finding is especially key for SEO providers that are taking on new clients.

For example, a newly-hired SEO provider that says: “Our first step is going to be to get more likes on your Facebook page” isn’t speaking their client’s language.

On the other hand, kicking off the client-provider relationship with: “I look forward to helping you get more targeted traffic and customers” will likely result in a more satisfied client.

Needless to say, for the relationship to last, you need to deliver on those promises (more on that later). But it does help to understand what clients hope to get out of SEO so you can mold your services and reports based on that.

Key Takeaway: SEO clients value an SEO provider’s ability to land them new clients, increase traffic and build brand awareness. However, only 18% of SEO clients want their providers to help them increase their social media following.

Overall Satisfaction With SEO Services Is Low

We asked out panelists to rate their current SEO provider (or the last SEO provider they worked with) using the Net Promoter Score.

The results were markedly low.

First off, we found that only 30% of small business owners would recommend their current SEO provider.

Only 30% of small business owners would recommend their current SEO provider

Importantly, 30% of our respondents considered themselves “detractors”. Which means they would leave a negative review for their last or current SEO provider.

In fact, the SEO services industry as a whole has an NPS score of 0, which is considered “not likely to recommend”.

The SEO services industry has an NPS score of 0

When we broke down the NPS scores among agencies, freelancers, and a combination of freelancer and agency, we discovered that agencies had a higher average NPS score than freelancers.

Agencies had a higher average NPS score than freelancers

However, all three types of services had fairly low NPS scores.

Key Takeaway: Only 30% of clients would recommend their SEO service provider.

Clients Cite Lack of Education and Resources as Top Reasons for Low Satisfaction Levels

NPS is a helpful benchmark. However, NPS can only tell you so much. In other words, it’s difficult to understand why SEO services have such low levels of satisfaction.

That’s why we decided to dig deeper into this finding.

And when we dug a bit deeper to understand more about what’s happening, we uncovered a few surprising insights.

First, many unhappy SEO clients fully or partially blamed themselves.

Specifically, 50% stated that “I feel like I need more training to fully benefit from what SEO offers“ and 28% told us that they “do not have the staff resources to properly benefit from SEO”.

Many unhappy SEO clients cite lack of training and resources as culprits

This means that low satisfaction levels aren’t solely due to poor quality work. In fact, many clients are simply not in a position to benefit from SEO due to a lack of resources.

Plus, even clients with resources may not make SEO a priority because they don’t have the training to fully understand how SEO benefits them.

For example, let’s say an SEO provider wants to change a title tag on a client’s site. But it doesn’t happen because their developer is swamped with a website redesign. Also, this client may not understand that this simple change can increase their Google traffic due to a lack of training. So they don’t make that change a priority. And progress stalls.

Which leads us to our second interesting finding, the importance of reporting and transparency.

27% of the clients we spoke with agreed with the statement: “I find SEO to be confusing and unclear about what services they offer” 25% said that “I am not sure what I am really paying for with SEO.”

Many clients are unclear on how SEO benefits them

In other words, many clients are confused about what their provider is doing for them or what they’re getting out of the arrangement.

These are two points that could be remedied with better reporting and increased transparency.

I should point out that a fair number of clients stated that “I feel like SEO companies are very unreliable” and “I don’t think SEO is worth the money for my business.”

A small but significant percentage of small businesses consider SEO companies unreliable

Which means that a simple lack of results and ROI is often the culprit behind low client satisfaction levels.

However, as you just saw, there are usually non-performance based factors at play as well.

Key Takeaway: Low SEO service satisfaction is largely due to three main factors: 1. Lack of client education, 2. Lack of available resources and 3. Poor understanding of how SEO is helping them.

Turnover In the SEO Services Industry Is Extremely High

Likely due to low global satisfaction levels, we found high levels of turnover in the SEO services industry.

Specifically, we found that 65% of small business owners have worked with at least one SEO provider before:

65% of small businesses have worked with multiple SEO providers

We also found that 1/4th of our panel have worked with 3 or more providers:

25% of small business owners have worked with 3+ SEO providers

However, our data suggests that most clients don’t switch between SEO providers without careful consideration.

In fact, the clients in our panel have been working with their current SEO service for an average of 3 years. And lapsed clients give their service provider an average of 2 years to deliver before moving on.

Both existing clients and lapsed clients stay with SEO providers for 2+ years before switching

That said, we did discover a small subset of clients that do rapidly switch between different providers.

These “rapid switchers” tend to hire and fire SEO companies at a fever pitch.

For example, we classified 10% of our panelists as “rapid switchers” (worked with 3 or more SEO providers over the last year).

10% of people have worked with 3+ SEO providers over the last year

Key Takeaway: 65% of SEO clients have used two or more SEO services in the past. 25% have worked with 3+ providers.

Most SEO Clients Leave Due to Lack of Results and Cost

We wanted to know why people decide to leave their current SEO provider or switch to another company.

We referred to folks that worked with multiple SEO providers as “lapsed clients”. And we asked this subset of lapsed users what went into their decision.

Here were the results:

Reasons that people switch from current SEO provider

Not surprisingly, 82% of our respondents cited “Dissatisfaction with business results” as a factor in their decision. 81% reported that cost played a large role as well.

This suggests that clients don’t look at results in a vacuum. They also pay attention to the ROI that they’re getting from SEO. In other words, delivering results for clients is one thing. But it’s also important to demonstrate the ROI that SEO is having on their business. Otherwise, they may leave.

Although lack of results and cost were the two largest factors, they weren’t the only reasons that clients decide to stop working with an SEO provider.

In fact, 80% of lapsed clients stated that they found a better option on their own, which suggests that clients are happy to shop around for an alternative to their current SEO provider.

80% of lapsed clients say they 'Heard about a better option'

And 34% cited poor “customer service/ responsiveness” as a factor in their decision.

However, relatively few clients cited “pitched by a competitor” as a reason for leaving. In other words, as long as you can keep your clients happy, they’re not likely to leave. This remains true even if a competitor attempts to poach your client with a better offer.

We also asked our “lapsed clients” panelists to describe to us why they decided to stop using an SEO service. Here’s a sample of those responses:

Some reasons given by lapsed clients for stopping using an SEO service

We also asked a group of users that were happy with their SEO service (“existing clients”) what they liked about it. Here’s what they told us:

Some reasons given by existing clients on what they liked about their SEO service

Key Takeaway: Most clients stop using an SEO service due to lack of results, cost and finding an alternative on their own.

Existing Clients are 2x More Likely to Be Web Savvy Than Lapsed Clients

We asked our panel to self-report their level of “web savviness”.

Here were the results:

Self-reported web savviness among SEO clients

As you can see, 37% of SEO clients consider their web savviness as “somewhat” or “not very”.

The upshot here is that many clients simply don’t have the web savviness to understand key digital marketing terms, like “title tags”, “CSS” and “backlinks”. Which suggests that SEO companies should largely avoid this sort of jargon in favor of terms like “leads”, “sales” and “first page Google rankings”.

In fact, this is backed up by another finding from our panel: that lapsed clients are significantly more likely to consider themselves not web savvy.

Specifically, we found that existing clients were 2x more likely to consider themselves “extremely web savvy” than lapsed clients.

Existing clients are 2X more likely to consider themselves 'Extremely web savvy'

This suggests that web savvy users are in a better position to understand how their SEO service is helping them. So they decide to stay. On the other hand, clients who aren’t web savvy may not fully understand what they’re getting from their SEO provider. So they decide to leave.

Key Takeaway: Clients that stick with their current SEO provider are 2x more likely to be “extremely web savvy” compared to those that leave or switch.


I hope this survey helped you get a better feel for the SEO services industry in 2019.

I’d like to thank Northstar Research Partners for helping me design and conduct this survey.

And if you’d like to learn more about how this survey was conducted, here’s a PDF of our study methods.

And now I’d like to hear from you:

What’s your main takeaway lesson from today’s survey?

Or maybe you have a question about something you read.

Either way, go ahead and leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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