SEOs at Large Agencies earn 44% more than Freelancers

SEOs at Large Agencies earn 44% more than Freelancers
Key 'Takeaways' From This Post
  • SEOs at Large (National) Agencies earn 44% more than Freelancers
  • Large (National) Agencies report an average of $584,788 in company revenue
  • Large (National) Agencies earn 2X fees per client than Smaller Agencies & Freelancers
  • SEO Agencies are much more confident about 2016 than Freelance SEOs
  • 89% of Large (National) Agencies are likely to recruit new staff in 2016

Last month we published the Local SEO Industry Survey; the results of which gave us the latest data & insights about the local search industry – from those that work in it day to day.

In this follow-up post, we’ve taken a closer look at the survey responses from the perspective of the different types of SEOs & Agencies who took part.

The 1,972 respondents identified themselves in one of the following roles/agency types:

  • Local / Regional Agencies (34%)
  • National / International Agencies (21%)
  • Web Designers / Agencies (16%)
  • Freelance SEOs (16%)
  • In-house SEOs (13%)

Because these roles/agencies can be so different in terms of their size, revenues, amount of clients, services offered etc… it is very useful to drill down into the results for each type of company. This makes it easier for SEOs/Agencies/Web Designers to benchmark themselves against similar businesses and draw more meaningful comparisons.

In the following post we take a look at 6 of key findings of this deep-dive analysis. We also gave away a free Apple Watch in the survey, and you can find out who the winner was here.


What was your company revenue in the last 12 months?

SEO agency revenue

NB: No year on year comparison available for this chart

Key Findings:

  • In-house SEOs reported the highest company revenues*
  • National / International Agency SEOs reported an average of $584,788 in company revenue
  • Local / Regional Agency SEO reported an average of $324,900 in company revenue
  • Freelance SEOs reported an average of $87,400 in company revenue


*Although In-House SEOs come out top we can discount the data in our comparisons. Most of the businesses they work within are not focused on providing marketing/SEO services to other businesses, so they generate their revenue through other business practices. Therefore a comparison of revenue vs. agencies / freelancers isn’t that relevant and useful in our analysis.

If we focus on marketing/ search businesses, we see that larger (National / International) agencies generate the highest revenues – an average of $584k/year. Given that these agencies are bigger in scale than local agencies this isn’t surprising.

The survey also found that on average National / International agencies employ 7 SEOs vs 4 SEOs at Local / Regional Agencies.

What is interesting, is the scale of revenue difference between different agency/SEO types:

  • National / International Agencies earn 80% more than Local/ Regional Agencies
  • Local/Regional Agencies earn 3.7x more than Freelance SEOs

Averages however can be misleading, as they can be skewed by outlying results. So to help illustrate this point further, here are the median revenues for each business type:

  • In-house SEO – $1million+
  • National / International Agency – $500,000-$1million
  • Local / Regional Agency – $150,000-$250,000
  • Web Designer / Agency – $75,000-$100,000
  • Freelance SEO – $30,000-$50,000

How many clients do you personally handle?

how many clients do you handle

NB: In-house SEOs excluded from chart

Key Findings:

  • SEOs at National / International Agencies look after 17 clients on average (vs 15 in 2014)
  • SEOs at Local / Regional Agencies look after 16 clients on average (vs 12 in 2014)
  • Freelance SEOs look after the least number of clients (9 vs 7 in 2014)


The difference between the amount of clients that an SEO is responsible for at agencies of different sizes is not large – e.g. National / International Agencies agencies (17) vs Local / Regional Agencies (16).

This is despite the much larger gulf in company revenues. Of course, this only reflects on the number of clients to work with, not the amount & complexity of tasks required.

For example, Freelance SEOs look after far less clients on average (9), but you would expect a Freelancer to cover every aspect of the client relationship (including local SEO audits, local search optimization & reporting), as well as managing their ‘company’ as a whole (including new business development, self marketing & often accounting, etc.).

Year on year, Web Designers / Agencies saw the biggest increase in client numbers (up from 10 to 15).





What is your pre-tax personal annual earnings?

how much do SEOs earn

NB: No year on year comparison for this chart

Key Findings:

  • SEOs at National / International Agencies reported the highest average earnings ($83,200)
  • Web Designers / Agencies reported the lowest average earnings ($56,500)


Working for a National / International Agency, the average SEO is expected to work with a greater amount of clients, but they are also rewarded with the highest annual earnings by a considerable distance.

Freelance SEOs, whilst having the freedom of working for themselves, only earn slightly more than Web Designers who participated in the survey.

The median pre-tax annual earnings are listed below:

  • National / International Agency – $60,000-$75,000
  • In-house SEO – $45,000-$60,000
  • Local / Regional Agency – $45,000-$60,000
  • Freelance SEO – $30,000-$45,000
  • Web Designer / Agency – $30,000-$45,000

The In-house SEO’s average income of $72,100 can be slightly misleading as we don’t have data on which industries their companies operate in. However, it’s clear that SEOs don’t have to work for an agency in order to make a good annual income.



How many new leads do you proactively contact each month?

new leads for SEOs

Key Findings:

  • National / International Agencies contact an average of 14 new leads per month (vs 13 in 2014)
  • Local / Regional Agencies contact an average of 10 new leads per month (vs 11 in 2014)
  • Only National / International Agencies contact more new leads year on year


Larger Agencies have more SEOs in their ranks (average of 7) & can therefore take on a greater amount of clients. And with each SEO able to look after 17 clients, this is significant capacity to fill, hence an active, even aggressive, approach to sales.

Year on year, all except the National / International Agencies are contacting less new leads per month, and it’s the Web Designers / Agencies that have the biggest change since 2014 (down from 10 to 7).

What does an average customer pay you each month?

SEO client fees

Key Findings:

  • National / International Agencies command the highest fees from clients
  • Freelance SEOs receive the lowest; approx $913 from a client each month


We’ve already seen that larger National / International Agencies handle the most clients & contact the most new leads per month. The above chart shows they can also command the higher fees from customers – almost double that of the next highest (Local / Regional Agencies).

In part this difference is due to the types & scale of clients that larger agencies work with. National retail & Enterprise scale businesses have greater marketing budgets, and so can afford to pay higher fees. Smaller agencies often find it hard to win larger scale clients due to their risk-averse procurement requirements which demand that outsource partners have sufficient scale & security.




Do you expect to grow your business in the next 12 months?

SEO Agency growth

Key Findings:

  • National / International Agencies are the most positive about growth in 2016 (94%)
  • Freelance SEOs are the most unsure about growth in 2016 (74%)


National / International Agencies are the most positive with their outlook for the next 12 months; 94% expect to see growth in 2016.

It is a very similar pattern for all of the Agencies who took part in the survey, and it’s only In-house / Freelance SEOs who fall below the 90% mark for expectancy of growth. 26% of Freelancers either don’t expect growth in the next 12 months, or say ‘maybe’, which points to less security in their situation.

Are you planning to recruit more staff in the next 12 months?

recruiting SEO staff

NB: In this chart we have collated responses from the original survey which gave 5 possible answers; ‘Yes, definitely’ & ‘Yes, probably’ are represented as ‘Yes’, whilst ‘No it’s unlikely’, ‘No, definitely not’ & ‘Not sure yet’, are represented as ‘No / Unsure’.

Key Findings:

  • National / International Agencies are the most likely to recruit more staff in 2016 (89%)
  • Freelance SEOs are the least likely to recruit more staff in 2016 (42%)


When businesses expect growth, they also expect to hire new staff. National / International Agencies are almost entirely positive about their prospects for the next 12 months, and they are also the most likely to recruit in 2016.

Freelance SEOs are the only group who don’t expect to recruit new staff in the majority. The very nature of being a Freelancer means that they are unlikely to do so of course – unless they take that next step towards becoming a small agency.

Apple Watch winner announced

We launched the survey with a free prize draw to giveaway an Apple or Android Watch worth up to $500. Following the prize draw last week, we can announce that the winner was Molly Bier, an SEO Specialist at Disney ABC Television Group.

Molly has since collected her chosen Apple Watch (38mm Silver Aluminum Case with White Sport Band) from her local Apple Store in New York. Congratulations Molly!


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10 thoughts on “SEOs at Large Agencies earn 44% more than Freelancers”

  1. Hey Ross,

    I’d be interested in seeing a regional breakdown of the National agencies as well. Determining cost of living and seeing geographical competition would be a fun task for a graphic designer.

    A note on the national agencies operating at a loss – it’s likely your top seo’s are managing and directing others, one of those 7 may be paid the $83k while managing entry level seo’s.

    I’m not close to that figure, but hey, who’s in it for the money anyway? 🙂

    Thanks for the reports!

  2. Hey Ross,

    Super study, thanks a mill for putting it together, it’s really useful for benchmarking.

    I’ve a question I hope you can clear up for me. From the figures it appears the large SEO agencies are making a loss. They have 7 staff at $83,200 which works out at $582,400 wage bill, their average revenue is €584,788. So it appears they have a $2k to pay their overheads.

    General rule of thumb is 55% of revenue to wages is a good figure.

    I suspect the person who is filling out the survey is the best paid SEO, rather than the average paid SEO. But I’d love you input on what I’m missing.

    Once again, thanks a mill for the survey it’s really useful, particularly the services & average billings.



    1. Hi Alan, thanks for the comment. Would love to be able to give you a definitive answer on that! Unfortunately with averages it can be tricky as you suggested…

      Could be that the SEOs taking part were high earners at their companies as you suggested (includes bonuses also). Also the company revenue figures come from the SEOs themselves – which may or may not be a 100% accurate figure (depending on who took the survey). For example, if I had to estimate BrightLocal revenues for a survey it would likely be a very broad estimate & some way off the real figure.

      Also, just in general, median figures can be more informative, eg:

      SEOs at National / International Agencies reported the highest average earnings ($83,200). However, the median figure is $60-$75k. Which does make a little more sense from a revenue / wages point of view.

      Sorry I can’t be more specific, I can only go on the data at hand.

      But thanks for reading!

  3. My issue is explaining to people why close to $1000 a month is worth it for them and the value of what I would be bringing them!

    1. So they instead will go to a large agency, which will most likely do the same exact thing I would, and maybe even worse results… But because they’re a large agency, people have more trust in them.

  4. This is a great follow-up to the Local SEO Survey back in December! Haven’t seen one of these in a while and good to measure oneself no-matter the role.

    I know this is data driven but something has to be said about work-life balance. Having experienced 4 / 5 roles (not a web designer), I would have to say that, yes, you will always generally earn more being with large agencies but the hours, stress and feeling of accomplishment is never as great as being a Freelancer.

    Now, I’m not saying that you don’t get those as a Freelancer but there’s a deeper sense of pride and ownership working for yourself and the ability to manage your own time rather than having your time being managed.

    Plus, with all the tools and opportunity from utilizing management tools, VAs and outsourcing, Freelancers can definitely give local to national agencies a run for their money and past on the cost savings to the client.

    Just my two cents..keep the change.

    1. Thanks for the insight Marco – useful to hear from someone who’s done 3 or 4 of the roles mentioned in the survey. It’s definitely worth thinking about the work-life balance side, rather than just stats / data.

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