One-Time vs. Ongoing SEO

by Rob Laporte
Visibility Magazine – December 2008
(original article reprinted below)

True expertise consists largely of knowing what should be done immediately, later, or not at all. Of course SEO – and all marketing – should be ordered by ROI projections, but for most budgets the cost-effectiveness of top-priority, one-time SEO is so high that the decision to proceed moves quickly from the dawn of understanding to the high noon of action.

This article aims to

  1. help web marketing managers prioritize SEO by differentiating between one-time, high-ROI tasks and worthy procedures that can be budgeted over months or years. I will also briefly situate these priorities within other marketing channels, according to ROI;
  2. help buyers of SEO services ascertain what should be covered by one-time fees vs. monthly retainers;
  3. help my professional peers sell SEO services by providing clear rationales for prioritizing clients’ and prospects’ budgets within the current climate in which “liquidity” is a prayer and firms are altering their marketing budgets.

The time and cost estimates below, which factor into ROI and thus prioritization, apply to one web site and assume professional knowledge of how to perform the tasks. A business that first has to learn, for example, the many rules and steps of SEO technical reports and CMS-SEO will need many more hours than estimated below. Even a larger business with a good in-house SEO team may benefit from contracting for training from an SEO firm that has years of varied experience, much like getting a second or third opinion from doctors. Such training and consulting will increase costs, but those costs apply equally to the spectrum of SEO tasks, thus preserving the ROI-based prioritization below. Finally, the time estimates below are minimums; in most cases you can spend more time or money profitably. For example, after setting up webmaster services accounts at Google, Yahoo, and Bing, you can and usually should spend additional time analyzing the reports to find new SEO opportunities. But here too, this extra time applies to most of the SEO jobs equally.

The time estimates are based on DISC’s costs for these services, which are derived from our records of time spent on past jobs. DISC determines our prices by reasonable profit on time required, not by what the market will bear. However, DISC has been too busy lately to complete our annual review of average time needed on SEO tasks, which means that most of the time estimates below are on the low side. Also, many SEO firms don’t price their services on average time required, but instead on what the market will bear, so that the time estimates below multiplied by hourly rates don’t necessarily reflect the prices you will find in the SEO market.

Partly because of space limitations in this article, I don’t include the deployment of social networking web sites or user-generated content, though one could argue that these activities can help web sites’ SEO.

The SEO tasks below are listed in diminishing order of priority, though your situation may call for minor reordering of the list.

The tasks below are mostly one-time jobs, assuming that you relegate all follow-up reporting to a distinct category, like the “Periodic SEO Technical and ROI Reporting” in the ongoing SEO section below. Some tasks, like dealing with XML sitemaps, may require updates within a year, but for the most part the tasks below can be done once and left as is for at least one year.

Remove SEO Technical Blockages
Detecting and removing a site’s technical impediments to the search engines is relatively quick and inexpensive, so this is priority one. Over the past eleven years in which DISC has been performing SEO, about 75% of new clients came to us with significant web site and server blockages to the search engines. Roughly 30% have had substantially harmful ones. Repairing such blockages is usually quick and easy, requiring an average of 5 hours to remove, though a few CMS’s and server platforms may require closer to 15 hours to correct. In any case, SEO technical problems imperil all SEO, justifying priority one. Assuming that your team knows all the tests that should be run, the first time would take about 12 hours, and with practice would come down to about 8 hours.
Estimated average hours needed: 17 average; 27 max.

CMS & Database SEO
CMS (Content Management System) & Database SEO is almost always the most cost-effective SEO – or search engine marketing of any kind – that a firm can do, and it is performed once for perpetuity. Visibility Magazine published two of my articles on this crucial subject: see the December 2007 and March 2008 print editions or view them online at In short, CMS SEO entails programming your CMS to pull keywords and phrases from your product or information database into all web-page parts relevant to SEO, except for the body copy (though you can automate some body copy as well). Because CMS SEO performs a lot of SEO automatically and treats an unlimited number of pages, and because its cost drops to zero after one implementation, it is by far the most cost-effective SEO tactic after all SEO technical impediments are removed. Regarding time required, this is hard to say because it could take weeks of steady work to gather and vet information about all of the precise 25+ CMS-SEO rules, which is a reason to use an SEO firm that knows these rules. If your team knows the rules in the first place, then checking your site according to them and implementing them would require a rough average of 20 hours, though there’s a broad and flat bell curve sloping from either side of that average. Some SEO firms price this service by value, not by average time required, so that prices are often well over $5000 prior to re-programming your CMS. (DISC prices this service partly by value, not time, because so much time has gone into ascertaining and writing the rules; our cost is $2625, not including web site reprogramming according to the rules).
Estimated average hours needed: 35 (assuming complete knowledge of CMS-SEO rules prior); 60 max.

Set-up Webmaster Services/Tools Accounts
Google, Yahoo, and Bing offer free webmaster services or tools to help web marketers manage and assess web site integration with the indexes. These services produce reports on your site’s ongoing SEO technical status, inbound links, PageRank, XML sitemap feeds, rankings, and other useful information. Over the years, web marketers repeatedly requested these webmaster services, testifying to their value. A competent professional setting up and then actively using these tools will require about 10 hours. Problems reported by the tools would require a rough average of 6 hours to resolve, with a broad and flat bell curve sloping from either side of that average.
Estimated average hours needed: 16 (10 if all SEO technical report problems were resolved previously).

IYP and Local SEO
IYPs, such as, are rapidly gaining traction and can deliver superb ROI. Much of the ROI comes from the fact that the top search engines use IYP databases (and other databases) to populate their rapidly growing and improving local search results. Registering with many of these databases is free, while some cost a little and some try to up-sell you to programs with laughably negative ROI. Signing up for the free databases requires about 6 hours (assuming you know all of the places worthy of registration), and I would allocate about 6 more hours to reviewing options for enhanced listings.
Estimated average hours needed: 12.

SEO’d Video Marketing
Assuming you already have one or more half decent videos, your team should place them in your site near relevant keyworded text. You should also post the videos on the top ten or so video sites, filling all available meta-data with relevant keywords. This task requires about 4 hours, plus 5 hours per video, with economies of scale if handling many videos. Keyword research done prior to this work, which I recommend, adds another 10 hours at minimum. ROI reporting is not included here, for such reporting is part of a broader, ongoing reporting task described below.
Estimated average hours needed: 4 (14 with keyword research), plus 5 per video.

Add Social Bookmarking Tags to Your Site
While this tactic often does little or nothing, we’ve seen it do plenty, as have many other web marketers, and it takes about 2 hours to set up.
Estimated average hours needed: 2.

Initial SEO Copywriting
More extensive SEO copywriting is in the “Ongoing SEO” section below. Even initial SEO copywriting takes considerable time and expertise to do the prerequisite keyword research – at least 20 hours and often much more – and SEO copywriting is a demanding art and science that requires excellent language skills and experience, and averages about 2 hours per page. However, in most cases your site will gain rapid and enduring search engine positions, which justifies the placement of this tactic within the category of one-time, highly cost-effective SEO. For many web sites, the home page and main category pages change infrequently enough that most of your SEO copywriting can be done once for at least one year. If all of your site’s crucial information pages change frequently and substantially, then this task is part of “Database SEO and Ongoing SEO Copywriting” in the “Ongoing SEO” section below.
Estimated average hours needed: 20 for keyword research; 2 per page.

Produce a Link Page and Link Instructions Page
People are much less likely to link to your site without prompting than they were in the early years of the web, but some people may still do so, and at any time you may form partnerships or reciprocal link agreements for which these two pages will prove cost-effective in ensuring ideal code and language in inbound links. The link instruction page should provide all instructions, code, two or more language options, and optional logo, and encouragement of prospective linkers. Some examples:,
Estimated average hours needed: 4 to design and write the pages and SEO links; 3 to build the pages.

What about Submissions to Search Engines?
Provided that your site has some incoming links or has set up webmaster services, you don’t need to submit to top search engine indexes. Submitting to the Open Directory or Yahoo requires about 4 hours to do optimally. (Old-timer SEO pros may recall the many exacting and nuanced rules for ideal submission to directories.)
Estimated average hours needed: 4, but often not needed.


Database SEO and Ongoing SEO Copywriting
This entails SEO writing within text fields of your product or information database and within other information pages beyond the pages covered by the initial SEO copywriting described above. Obviously the time required depends on the number of database items and information pages. Keyword research to inform SEO copywriting requires a minimum of 20 hours, and can go much higher, depending on the breadth of topics. SEO copywriting of pages or database entries averages 2 hours per page. Your budget and revenue capacities determine how much time or money to invest per month.
Estimated average hours needed: Depends on your revenue potential and budget.

Periodic SEO Technical and ROI Reporting
Some of the SEO technical tests should be run monthly, some quarterly, and some yearly. This requires about 20 hours per year. The extent of optimum monthly and yearly ROI reporting depends heavily on the size and diversity of the web site and its revenues or its value of conversions. Setting up monthly, quarterly, and yearly templates for ROI reporting so that you accumulate clear, actionable trends requires at least 15 hours, and can profitably occupy well over 50 hours for large web sits with diverse content and offerings. Running and digesting the ROI reports monthly requires at least 4 hours per month or 48 hours per year. (Some web site dashboards cost over $10,000 per year, and the sky’s the limit on integrated business intelligence packages). Reporting may seem like an optional expense, but consider that many risks and opportunities, both in SEO technicalities and in changing market behavior, exist for you right now in the form of probabilities, and managerial accountants often factor probabilities into valuations of capital investments and business entities (investment bankers notwithstanding).
Estimated average hours needed: Depends on your revenue potential and budget, with a minimum of 83 hours in the first year and 48 hours in subsequent years.

SEO’d Public Relations
Time required and results are similar to those of “Initial SEO Copywriting” above, except that I would double to 4 hours the time needed to write each SEO’d press release page, and you should probably purchase the distribution services of a web press release firm for a few hundred dollars.
Estimated average hours needed: 20 for keyword research to cover all future press releases within a general topic (unless this was done for SEO already), and 4 per press release, plus roughly $250 to $450 per release for a good web PR distribution service.

SEO’d Blog Marketing
It’s easy to blog; it’s hard to blog profitably. Good blogging takes time. Setting up the blog and producing a plan and policies requires about 30 hours. Keyword research, if it hasn’t been done for SEO already, adds a minimum of 20 hours. Monthly blogging time will take a minimum of 20 hours. Even medium sized firms hire full-time bloggers. Most businesses have plenty of higher priority SEO to do before investing in blogging.
Estimated average hours needed: 20 for keyword research to cover all future press releases within a general topic (unless this was done for SEO already); minimum of 20 per month for ongoing blogging.

Make Videos and Then Place and SEO Them
SEO’d video marketing of existing videos is discussed and estimated above. DISC does not offer video production services, but I imagine that production costs can go very high if you strive for Madison Avenue quality. The range of time and costs for video production is so varied that I can’t offer a useful average, but I would guess that the rock-bottom minimum is 6 hours per video.
Estimated average hours needed: 6 (16 with keyword research); 5 per video for SEO’d placement; minimum of 6 per video for production.

Link Campaign
A link campaign done right takes lots of time and has relatively low ROI. It is required for a new web site to get on the search engines’ radar at all, and a minimum job is 10 hours. If you have a top-down marketing budget with some elbow room remaining, you could allocate a few hours per month for link campaigning. There are diminishing marginal returns, so that, for example, most firms have many higher-priority SEO and other web marketing tasks than spending ten hours per month trying to increase one’s incoming links from, say, 1000 to 1100.
Estimated average hours needed: in addition to the “Link Page and Link Instructions Page” described in the one-time SEO section above, 10 minimum; monthly allocations beyond that depend on your revenue potential, budget, and the quantity and quality of existing inbound links.

This topic deserves its own article, if not a book, but a few salient points are in order.

A usability critique for conversion rate optimization is often more cost-effective than any SEO task. You can achieve at least 80% of ideal usability without costly usability testing. A 2007 article trumpets testing and derides any usability re-engineering that doesn’t perform expensive testing, but that argument ignores ROI considerations for small- and medium-sized businesses, many of which can easily double or triple conversion rates merely by applying the many well-established usability rules. Of course your budget and revenues may justify methodical usability testing.

My firm has produced extensive affiliate marketing plans with ROI scenarios for several clients, and I can tell you that the ROI can be good only if you are ready to spend a minimum of 30 hours in set-up and 25 hours per week.

In theory, the day will come when the costs of doing SEO successfully will be on par with non-web marketing, like TV/cable, radio, magazine and newspaper, direct mail, telemarketing, etc. So far, ignorance and fear about SEO – and a lack of adoption due in part to under-qualified or unethical practitioners poisoning the SEO pond – have left many business fields with plenty of room for superior ROI. Also, my June 2008 article in Visibility Magazine discusses the enduring shortage of qualified SEO people, which means that there are several years remaining for firms to beat their competition in SEO and to exceed the ROI of other marketing channels, despite the rising sophistication and costs of competent SEO work.

This article’s argument makes clear that web marketing managers should put on the top of their priority lists all of the one-time, highly cost-effective SEO, and budget the ongoing SEO over months and years.