SEO Agencies vs Freelancers: Comparison of Income, Hours Worked, and More

SEO Agencies vs Freelancers: Comparison of Income, Hours Worked, and More
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Key Takeaways From This Post
  • Local SEOs working in agencies earn 35% more than freelancer SEOs
  • Freelancers spend 76% of their working hours on local SEO. For agency workers, this is just 57%
  • A typical freelance local SEO bills clients $75 per hour, while agencies charge $100
  • On-site optimization is the most in-demand service for both local SEO agencies and freelancers
  • SEOs in local search agencies manage an average of 23 clients, while freelancer SEOs manage just 9

Working as a local SEO freelancer can feel a world apart from life in an agency, with different pay, services, and priorities affecting every part of the working day. Following our recent Local Search Industry Survey, we wanted to highlight the differences and similarities beween these two sides of the local SEO industry – and provide information on what life could be like on the other side of the fence.

When looking at the experiences of freelancers, as well as employees working within agencies (local, national and international), we wanted to answer questions such as:

  • How much do freelance SEOs earn vs agency SEOs? 
  • How much do freelance SEOs bill per hour?
  • How much do SEOs charge for their services and how do they structure deals?
  • Which services are most in demand from clients?
  • How many clients do freelance SEOs and agency SEOs personally manage?
  • How do freelancers and agency SEOs feel about the search industry in 2018?

We hope the below information is useful for you and your business this year. Let us know in the comments how you think life differs for agency and freelance SEO professionals.


How Much Can You Earn In SEO?

Income of search professionals How much do SEOs in agencies and freelancers earn?

The Local Search Industry Survey shows that it’s more lucrative to be an SEO professional in an agency, with a typical employee earning over $17,000 more than freelancers per year. This equates to 35% more annually for agency workers. 

  • Freelancer SEOs earn an average of $49,422 each year.
  • Agency SEOs earn an average annual salary of $66,617. 

Revenue for Agencies vs Freelancers

Company revenue varies significantly between the different groups of SEO professionals, with freelancers far more likely to see lower revenues.

Average revenue of SEO agencies and freelancers

The average company revenue for freelancers is $141,075. For agencies, this was $1,649,194.

SEO company revenues

  • 36% of freelancers reported company revenues of less than $30,000, compared to just 7% of respondents from agencies.
  • 24% of agencies saw revenues of over $1million.
  • A significant chunk of SEOs don’t know their revenue: 20% of agencies, and 8% of freelancers.

Total Hours Worked & Hours spent on SEO

Those in agencies tend to spend fewer hours on SEO than freelancers, who may be more likely to specialize. The nature of freelancing means full responsibility for tasks, while agencies may delegate or refer to team members to complete SEO tasks.

How many hours do SEOs work?

Freelancers spend an average of 31 hours per week on SEO-related tasks. A typical freelancer works 41 hours a week – meaning they spend 76% of their time on SEO.

Agency professionals spend a far smaller proportion of their time on SEO – just 57%. They typically spend 25 hours a week on SEO, out of a total 44 hours worked.

Earnings Per HourWhat do SEOs earn per hour?

Taking into account annual wages and total hours worked –

  • On average, freelance SEOs earn $23 per hour.
  • On average, agency SEOs earn $29 per hour – $6 more per hour than freelancers.

While freelancers tend to work fewer hours than their in-agency counterparts, this isn’t enough to offset the difference in income.


How Much Does SEO Cost?

SEO costs can vary based on hourly rates, retainers, and project costs. In the charts below we explore how freelancers and agencies bill clients, and the differences in these charges.

SEO Hourly Rates

What is the SEO hourly rate?

Freelancers charge less per hour than agencies do.

  • Freelance SEOs bill clients a median of $75 per hour.
  • Agencies bill clients a median of $100 per hour.

How much do SEOs bill clients per hour? | Local Search Industry Survey

69% of freelancers bill less than $100 per hour, compared to 34% of agencies.

Only 10% of freelance SEOs charge an hourly rate of more than $150, while this is the norm for 28% of agencies. The lower overheads for freelancers can allow them to charge clients less.

However, there can be a lot of competition among freelancers to reach smaller clients. The abundance of freelance SEOs targeting small businesses could be the reason for the lower hourly rates – with prices being driven down due to heavy competition.

Agencies, on the other hand, are able to provide scalable services for clients with bigger budgets. This means they can charge clients more for their extended offerings than one-man bands.

SEO Monthly Charges

How much does SEO cost per month?

Freelancers receive less from each client per month than agencies do.

  • Freelancer SEOs receive an average of $1,228 from clients each month.
  • Agencies typically receive $2,043 per client per month.
  • 71% of freelancers get less than $1,000 from each client each month, compared to 46% of agencies.
  • Only 3% of freelancers see a monthly average of more than $3,500 from each client, compared to 12% of agencies.

Which SEO Services Should You Provide?

Which SEO services do clients want? | Local Search Industry Survey

(Respondents were asked to pick three from the list)

Clients are most likely to require on-site optimization from freelancers and agencies, although this is more in demand for freelancers. Link building is more requested for freelancers, while agencies are more likely to be asked for PPC, and web design and development services.

It’s worth noting that, even with all branches of social media moving towards a culling of organic traffic in order to boost revenue from paid ads, organic social media is still more requested from both agencies and freelancers than paid social. Will we see this shift in 2018?

Most In Demand For Freelancers

  1. On-site optimization
  2. Google My Business optimization
  3. Content creation / optimization
  4. Citation building / clean-up
  5. Link building

Most In Demand For Agencies

  1. On-site optimization
  2. Website design / development
  3. PPC
  4. Google My Business optimization
  5. Content creation / optimization

How Many Clients Do SEOs Manage?

How many SEO clients do agencies and freelancers manage? SEOs in agencies personally manage an average 23 clients each, while freelancers manage just 9. This is likely due to the team structures in agencies allowing employees to stretch further.

28% of SEOs in agencies have over 20 clients each, compared to 6% of freelancers.

48% of freelancers have fewer than 5 clients, compared to 28% of agencies.

Agencies are also more likely to bring in more clients, with 53% of agencies winning over 11 clients in 2017. In comparison, 58% of freelancers won under five.

New Customers / Leads

How many SEO leads did freelancers and agencies contact?

Despite winning clients, a surprisingly high proportion of both agencies (33%) and freelancers (35%) didn’t contact any SEO leads at all in an average month. 

This could make sense for agencies, as not all SEOs are responsible for business development, but the idea that over a third of SEO freelancers didn’t attempt to win new business in 2017 is a real shock. 


Will 2018 Be A Good Year For SEO?

Will 2018 be a good year for SEO?

The local search industry is optimistic about the local SEO industry in 2018. 91% of agency employees and 93% of freelancers told us they feel optimistic about what this year has to bring.

Hiring in Local SEO

Is your SEO agency hiring more staff? | Local Search Industry Survey

For those of you considering a new job this year, now could be a great time to start looking. 67% of agencies told us they’re likely to hire new SEO employees this year, with just 2% saying they definitely won’t.

This is great news for the 23% of agency SEOs and 43% of freelancers wanting a new job this year – they’ll have plenty of options to choose from.

Here’s to another exciting year for local SEO!

For more on our Local Search Industry Survey, click here to read the full report.

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17 thoughts on “SEO Agencies vs Freelancers: Comparison of Income, Hours Worked, and More”

  1. The stat I was most surprised by was the amount of leads agencies & freelancers are proactively reaching out to per month.

    “33% of agencies don’t reach out to any leads at all.”

    I guess that just means more for those of us who do take sales a little more serious.

  2. Hey Rosie,
    Thanks for an interesting article. I do have one question.
    How is the avg hourly compensation calculated on SEO agency employees/freelance.

    You got the result that an agency normally charges more for SEO (makes sense with overhead)/or as your other theory that agencies bags bigger elephants.

    But $29 avg for agency SEO and $23 for Freelance.

    You say that the avg freelance SEO works with an avg of 9 clients charging them $75/hour as the median rate.

    The most popular or requested service is OnSite SEO (also the least expensive compared to link building or link outreach campaigns or SEM In my experience the most profitable part of SEO with a small overhead)

    Freelancer SEOs receive an average of $1,228 / client each month that would be $1,228*9. avg clients = Total income source is then on avg $11,000

    If you are fully engaged doing a minimum of 160 hours per month what is happening to the $52 dollars. Part overhead of course. Let’s guess that’s $12/hour for a Workspace and PC. It seems awfully high with $52 in expenses when the most common activity is On Page SEO.

    Could it be that most Freelancers (I think 1 person freelancing vs1 person working for a larger agency) does not have full employment 100% that plays in here in your calculation? Curious if you have any idea or thoughts on the $29 vs $23 pay per hour

    And yes. 2018 is going to be a great year for SEO 🙂

    1. Hi Tobias,

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      This is based on the total number of hours agencies and freelancers work on average – against the average salary for a year. You’re entirely correct – there is a significant gap between what is billed to clients, and what SEO professionals then earn.

      And yes – here’s to a great year 🙂

      Rosie

  3. Great read and insightful information. Looks like I need to raise my rates as an SEO agency! Curious to find out how much overlap occurs between the two as many SEO companies I’ve researched actually outsource their work to freelancers.

  4. This is definitely an interesting post. I think the rates are a bit low though. Especially when you look at enterprise clients. I’ve worked in agencies, freelance and client side. Unless you are only including for small business to medium size clients. The averages I’ve seen are more like $150+ for agencies.

    1. Hi Bryan, really pleased you enjoyed the post. 28% of agencies in our study billed over 150ph. Sounds like you’ve worked with some great agencies!

      Rosie

  5. This was a great article and I enjoyed very much.

    I had a few observations with the data you presented. For the freelancer the workload is less and the schedule is more flexible to life events.

    The shocking discovery is the amount of wasted leads the freelancer had. This is a likely indication of income disappearance between the groups.

    Freelancers need to better systematize marketing in order to increase their revenue.

    Based on your numbers, the freelancer could do a little better job with marketing to increase the clients from 9 to 13 and with 13 clients would likely earn more than the agency counterpart. If the ratios hold true the freelancer would earn $71,387.

    Your data suggests that the client may benefit from a freelancer being able to deliver at half the time the agency can.

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for your thoughts. Most of the freelancers we asked were already working over 40 hours, so increasing clients could mean an increase in workload – and possibly limit the flexibility that is such a great benefit for many freelancers.

      Completely agreed on your comments on marketing and wasting leads. Agencies are better placed to continually market, while freelancers may wait until they have a gap before reaching out to new leads. This should be an ongoing process based on continually building new relationships with prospects.

      There are benefits for both agencies and for freelancers. Too, there are benefits for businesses on who they choose. It’s up to the SEO to demonstrate to clients how they can suit their needs.

      Rosie

  6. Thanks for these very helpful insights. The SEO field is on its final stages – and the competition from offshore cheap providers is shutting us down here in US/ Canada/ UK.

    Our clients used to pay us $3-$5k for competitive SEO as monthly retainers 2-3 years ago – same ones now will pay less than half. Everyone of them has an offshore agency as backup – India/ Philippines/ Eastern Europe etc etc and they just take our proposal and forward to the offshore agency – copying every strategy/ game plan

    Offshore SEO is destroying agencies and freelancers here. Global capitalism at its best.

    Lets hope better days are ahead in 2018.

    Also, my sincere request to agencies in US/UK/Canada: Please do not lower rates – it hurts ALL of us.

    $100 an hour is low – a plumber in NJ charges similar rates.

    Cheers!

  7. Lots of SEO jobs for this new year 2018. It’s interesting that citation building/clean-up and link building are more in demand for freelancers. More and more companies rely more on freelancers.

  8. Great article! I know this is a local seo blog, but I’d love to see this article but with content freelancers vs agencies. We usually find most seo agencies outsource content, while some have it in house – but rarely is it something that seo’s excel at (content development), even though it’s a necessary evil in the seo business.

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