SEO On A Shoestring Budget


I just received this email from a reader.

Just finished reading your “4 tips” article in Forbes online from September, 2013.  Great insight.  The market is flooded with SEO companies filled with rhetoric that is supposed to take me to the promised land.

I’m a solo practitioner opening up my office for the first time, working on a shoestring budget.  (No, seriously).  But I realize that SEO is a must have.  Just not sure who to turn to, or who to trust.

Initially looking for SEO, Social Media Marketing, and Content Marketing.  Can you help?  If not, who can?

Thanks in advance for your valued feedback.

Regards, Randy

I get this question a lot, so I wanted to respond publicly.

MWI doesn’t work with clients who have a shoestring budget. Our minimum monthly fee is US $5,000 per month. It’s not an attitude thing, like “Oh, we’re too good for anyone small,” it’s because since 1999 when we were founded we’ve learned the hard way that when it comes to SEO you can get speed, affordability, or quality–choose any two. We decided we wanted to focus on speed and quality rather than being the most affordable SEO firm out there. We offer great value for what we charge clients, but some clients just don’t have $5K/month to spend on SEO. I get that. I’m also an entrepreneur. There are a lot of things I would like to spend money on to help my business grow, things I know would have a positive ROI, but the money just isn’t there to do everything I want to do.

If you’re in Randy’s shoes then MWI isn’t the right fit for you, at least not right now. But that also means the advice I’m about to give you isn’t biased. Or rather it is biased, but in your favor. I know you’re not going to work with MWI right now, and the only way you’re going to work with us in the future is if you start making more money. So I have an incentive to give you advice that will help your business grow so that in the future you can come back and hire MWI. Let’s get to it.

What Not To Do

  1. Don’t get ripped off. I wrote an article about this on Forbes (see SEO: How To Avoid The Big Ripoff). 
  2. Don’t do nothing. Pardon the double negative, but successful SEO requires positive action. Doing nothing doesn’t mean you’re treading water, it means you’re sinking.
  3. Don’t hire an SEO firm before you can commit to 12 months. You might read this or another post and get excited about SEO and think “Man, if I could just get me some of this SEO it would launch my business and then I’ll be doing ok and I’ll be able to afford it, I just need to make a short term investment.” No! SEO isn’t short term. With rare exceptions it usually takes 6 to 12 months or longer to break even with SEO and only then do you start making a profit on it. I’ve had too many clients who got involved with us and then quit after 3-4 months. It was only after they quit that we discovered they didn’t have the money to invest in SEO for 12 months. They had been banking on breaking even within 2-3 months and thought SEO was going to be the short term fix that would save or launch their business. This is like trying to hammer in a nail with a screwdriver–it’s the wrong tool. If you need short term results, you go with SEM/PPC/AdWords, conversion optimization, and depending on the circumstances content marketing or social media marketing.

Two Options

If you can’t afford $5,000 for 12 months for SEO, then you have two options; 1) find a cheaper SEO firm, or 2) do it yourself.

Are there SEO firms out there that offer less expensive services than MWI, but still provide good value? Yes, definitely. We could provide half the service for half the price and only charge $2,500 per month as a minimum fee, but we choose not to because it would impact the speed and quality of our work. For example, we want to provide high customer service which means having a small number of clients per account manager. Some companies might assign 20, 30, or 50 clients to a single account manager. We believe the maximum should be around 7-8 clients per account manager, and ideally less than that. But that means hiring more account managers, and that increases the cost of our service. Instead of investing in account managers another SEO company may have invested in technology or systems, or they may have an industry focus (e.g. law firm SEO only), or perhaps customer service isn’t the way they provide value. Different clients value different things, and while some clients value the customer service we offer and the way we provide a very hands-on, highly customized, “growth hacking” experience, other clients might be satisfied with an offering that is more of a template or cookie-cutter offering. That’s ok. It’s all about what you feel is going to provide the most value for your particular situation.

But let’s talk a bit more about doing your own SEO, because I think there are benefits to that approach.

How To Do Your Own SEO

“SEO has gotten very technical and it’s impossible for one person–even if he’s an expert, to do it all.”

“SEO is pretty simple. There’s no secret to it. Anyone can do it, it’s just a matter of whether you want to spend your time on it or something else.”

Both of these statements are true, it’s just a matter of perspective. There is a LOT of SEO that almost anyone can do on their own, and depending on the circumstances that can take you a long way. In other circumstances, you’re not going to make headway unless you have an SEO generalist, content marketer, social media marketer, and link builder all working together. Every company, every industry, and every website is different, and the level and type of SEO services you need to get the results you want may be easily met by your own efforts or you may require something more substantial. Regardless, you’ll benefit by taking the following steps:

1. Get educated. The more you know about SEO the better, but of course you have limited time. My recommendation? Go read How To Teach Yourself SEO and spend as much or as little time as you can learning what you can.

2. Fix basic on-site SEO problems. SEOs who work with big brands or sophisticated SEO operations might laugh at this, but I’ve worked with enough small businesses to know that a lot of companies have done zero SEO on their website, have very little competition, and so even small SEO improvements can yield big results. Here are some common issues I see on websites that can be quickly and easily remedied.

a. Title tags. Each page on your website has a title tag in the code. Whatever text is inside that title tag is what shows up in Google as the link to your website, like this:


Google looks at your title tag to figure out what the webpage is all about. If your title tags says “Home” or “Homepage,” as I’ve seen on many websites, then you’re not telling Google what your website or webpage is all about. Or I see sites where the title tag is exactly the same for every page. This is quick and easy to fix and can produce dramatic results. You can find more details on title tags and SEO here.

b. Meta description tags. Every webpage on your site has this tag in the code. It doesn’t actually help your SEO in terms of rankings, but it does impact whether people click through to your website from Google or not. The text in the meta description tag shows up here in Google searches:


If your tag is empty, Google grabs text from your webpage, but you may not like what it grabs. Take a little time to write meta description tags for each of your webpages that you believe will create an incentive for searchers to click through to your webpage.

c. H1 tags. Just about every page of your site should have a headline, a short line of text that is large, bold, and tells a visitor what the webpage is about. It should match the title tag. Not necessarily verbatim, but if someone reads the title tag on Google and clicks through to find a page headline that is completely different it will provide a poor user experience. Having a headline, either contained in an H1 tag or simply with a larger, bold font, also has some SEO impact. It’s not critical, per se, but it’s quick and easy, so take a few minutes and fix this across your site. More on this here.

Want more quick SEO wins? Check out these handy articles:

Oh, and if you’re on WordPress you should definitely have the Yoast WordPress SEO Plugin installed. It’s free, it’s fast, it’s easy, and does a ton of technical things for you.

3. Create good content. Rand Fishkin of Moz explains in his blog post Why Good Unique Content Needs to Die that good content isn’t enough–you need to have great content. 10x content, or content that is 10x better than anything out there. But you know what? If you’re a small business, chances are you have little to no content. Chances are your competitors have little to no content. In this game it’s all relative, so while I wouldn’t steer you away from creating great content, good content might be plenty for you, right now. At a minimum this means having all your basic company pages filled out with helpful content that gives your customers what they want. But beyond this you should also have an active blog. Quality trumps quantity, but quantity of just about any quality trumps nothing. So get started now, don’t worry about the quality yet, and just focus on getting into the habit of posting once a week. If you’re not sure what to post about, answering questions customers or clients ask is a good start 🙂

4. Get links. The best links will come to you because you create content people want to link to. Not sure where to start? Try creating a list, like I recently did on my personal blog with the Top 100 Most Followed SEO Experts On Twitter For 2016. I also created a post here with complete instructions on how to create a Twitter list like this for your industry. People love being on lists, and they tend to share them and link to them. Another way to attract links is to create a valuable resource. A how-to guide that will be valuable for years to come. This can take a bit of work, but it can pay off big time. Check out Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO for an excellent example. This thing has probably been linked to a million times. I think I may have linked to it a million times by myself.

These are the very, very basic steps to getting started with your own SEO. It can get wildly more technical and involved than this, but again–if your competition isn’t doing much, you don’t need much to win. Start out with these easy steps on your own and you’ll learn a lot about SEO along the way. You might love doing it and find it worth your time to continue doing it. Or you may decided it’s worth $5,000/month to pay someone else to do it for you. When you get there, let us know, we’d love to talk to you.

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Written by

Hi! I'm Josh Steimle, and I started MWI from my apartment while a college student in 1999. I'm based in Shenzhen, China and responsible for MWI's overall strategy and marketing. I've written over 200 articles for publications like Forbes, Mashable, TechCrunch, and Time, and I'm the author of Chief Marketing Officers at Work. I love speaking to corporations and at marketing industry events. I was recently recognized by Entrepreneur magazine as one of 50 Online Marketing Influencers To Watch in 2016. Read more of what I'm writing on my blog.

  • Great perspective and advice for entrepreneurs just starting out. Thanks for sharing this, Josh!

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