Welcome to the Local Search Industry Survey
The sixth annual Local Search Industry Survey explores how business practices, pricing, services, attitudes, and growth expectations are changing in the local SEO industry.
The research aims to provide a better understanding of the trends and changes that shape the local search marketing industry. We hope the results are useful for readers to help benchmark their own practices against the wider industry, and that you can use them to inspire and confirm the strategy of your business going into 2018.
We’d love to hear your insights and views on the research findings, so please leave a comment below with your thoughts.
Local Search Industry Survey 2017
This year’s survey was completed by 1,121 Local SEO professionals in December 2017. A huge thank you to everyone who shared their insights.
We’ve renamed the study from the Local SEO Industry Survey to the Local Search Industry Survey to reflect the questions that reach beyond SEO. We know that for our customers, SEO is just one part of the search strategy – and so we want to provide answers to the questions that arise across the industry.
We extended this year’s poll to include a broad spectrum of those who work in local search. Participants were funnelled into two branches, each with questions specific to their individual situations:
- Agencies and Freelancers: made up of Local, Regional, National & International Marketing Agencies, Web Design Agencies, and Freelance SEOs
- In-house Marketers: Local Businesses and Franchises / Brands
The research consists of both new questions and repeated questions that we compare to previous years’ study results to show trends and changes.
If you’d like to save or share a chart, just click on it to open the full-sized chart in a new tab on your browser.
The following data and charts represent the full findings of the study. As a follow-on to this, we released a comparison of the differences in earnings, working hours, and viewpoints between Agencies and Freelancers.
Agencies and Freelancers
In-house Search Marketers
Section One: About Businesses
The first set of questions was targeted at all respondents, focusing on their business type, responsibilities, and marketing preferences.
Q1. Which of these best describes you/your company?
This year’s survey was broadened to suit the wide audience of people involved in search marketing for their business, taking into account those from Local Businesses and Franchises / Brands for the first time. Previously, these respondents were grouped as ‘In-house SEOs’.
The vast majority of respondents in our research were from agencies, with 30% being from local / regional marketing agencies, and a further 19% from national / international agencies. Fewer (30%, down from 35% last year) were from local agencies – perhaps linked to the growing number of respondents who work in-house.
We also asked respondents to share their job roles. The majority of those questioned hold senior positions, with 41% naming themselves as owners, founders or presidents. This senior audience allows us insights into top-level decision making.
We received a great mix of SEO professionals from different business types – providing us with strong data to compare experiences for every member of the search industry. Read our blog, ‘SEO Agencies vs Freelancers: Comparison of Income, Hours Worked, and More‘.
Q2. How many employees does your business have?
The majority of respondents in our study work in SMBs, with 60% saying their business had ten or fewer employees. Just 14% had more than fifty. But this is no surprise – 99.7% of businesses in the US are small businesses. This equates to 48% of the country’s workforce.
Q3. How many people in your company are SEO professionals?
This year’s study reached a range of business sizes, and therefore reflects the views of everyone from sole SEO providers to large businesses with multiple search marketers. 40% said they were the only SEO – a small rise from 38% last year.
8% said they work in a business where there are over 11 SEO professionals. The average respondent told us they had an average of 5 SEO employees – covering both small providers, and larger agencies.
Q4. Are you/your agency planning to hire more SEO staff in the next 12 months?
It’s worrying to see the drop in businesses expecting to hire more SEOs in 2018. Just 25% said they would definitely hire SEOs vs 39% in 2016. However, 56% of all businesses still said they were likely to hire SEOs in 2018 – but this was down 11% from 2016.
There was also a growth in people responding negatively, with 8% certain they won’t hire in the New Year – up from 5% in 2016, and 4% the year before. More people also thought it was unlikely that they’ll recruit more SEOs in the year ahead.
Is this a sign that the industry is stagnating? Or is it that we’re reaching a more mature stage with so many people already engaged in SEO that hiring is no longer such a concern? If you’re an agency manager, let us know below whether or not you’re planning to hire new team members next year.
Q5. How many hours do you personally spend on SEO-related activities in an average week?
The above data reflects all SEO professionals in our study. See the views of freelancers and agencies in Q16 below.
The average SEO professional spends 24 hours on SEO-related activities each week, with a median of 20 hours. The vast majority of those we surveyed spent less than 20 hours on SEO work.
Respondents told us that on average they handle 7.7 different tasks each week, so we know that they are pulled in many directions and have multiple responsibilities.
With agencies diversifying to keep up with the needs of clients, there could be a multitude of full-time workers and freelancers who spend significant time growing their business and focusing on other marketing activities.
Just 9% of the survey respondents told us they spent more than 40 hours on search marketing, with 4% working over 51 hours. Those from local businesses and franchises / brands were far less likely to spend full-time hours. This is most likely due to having to balance other marketing priorities with search marketing.
Q6. Which of the following SEO and business tasks are you personally responsible for in a typical week?
We found that a typical search professional works on 7.7 different SEO and business tasks each week.
Google My Business optimization is now the most common task, with 80% of those surveyed saying they do this each week – a significant increase from 63% last year!
The top five most common tasks are:
- Google My Business optimization
- On-site optimization
- SEO audit and analysis
- Reporting / analytics
- Client management
The five least common tasks remain the same as 2016, but four of these saw an increase in activity from 2016. It’s good to see that more time is being given to New Business and Self-Marketing, which are the lifeblood for growth for any agency/freelancer.
More people are now engaged in Review Generation, which has been cited as an increasingly important ranking and conversion factor in 2017. For more on reviews, see our Local Consumer Review Survey.
Q7. How do you feel about the following SEO / business tasks?
We used the above question (‘How do you feel about the following SEO / business tasks?’) to determine respondents’ favorite tasks, based on those that are most ‘liked’ and ‘loved’.
Rather conveniently, the most common tasks are largely in line with the tasks that SEO providers most enjoy.
- On-site optimization is SEOs’ favorite task – 72% named it as a task they liked or loved.
- SEO audit and analysis was favored by 68% – the second most popular task.
- GMB optimization, the most-common task for SEOs to work on each week, was the third most popular task.
We found that search marketers’ least favorite tasks were:
- Content outreach – only 24% liked or loved this
- Link building – only 26% liked or loved this
Overall, our respondents were very positive about most of their day-to-day tasks – with some exceptions. 41% told us they disliked link building – with 25% saying they hate it!
Interestingly, the most ‘liked’ tasks were self-contained, analytical/data-related tasks that SEOs can handle without outside influence. The least-enjoyed tasks involved outreach to third parties to promote content and build links. Does this mean that the average SEO prefers to bury themselves in data rather than spending their days building up a network of contacts? Share your thoughts below on why SEOs prefer more ‘introverted’ activities.
Q8. How optimistic do you feel about the SEO industry in 2018?
Overall, the local SEO industry has a very positive outlook as we move into 2018. 92% told us they feel optimistic about what’s to come for search next year – with 34% of these telling us they’re ‘very optimistic’.
Just 9% told us they feel pessimistic or very pessimistic.
Q9. Will you be looking for a new job in 2018?
This question did not include those who own their business.
28% of search marketers said they will look for a new job in 2018, with 16% already looking for a role. Employee movement can be both a blessing and a curse for SEO leaders, so they need to ensure they’re ready to reach the best talent. It’s good news for jobseekers, with over 50% of businesses expecting to hire new SEO staff – meaning there should be plenty of choice for new opportunities.
The hiring process can be expensive and time-intensive. To ensure clients are kept happy and that services remain moving, there needs to be a seamless transition between outgoing and incoming team members. Both agencies and in-house teams need to ensure they demonstrate the best of their business during the hiring process if they want to capture the top talent during a time of such job movement.
But if you or a member of your team are looking to move on, see this as an opportunity rather than a loss. New employees bring with them new skills and ways of thinking – and the could be beneficial in helping to reinvigorate processes.
Section Two: Agencies and Freelancers
These questions were only shown to respondents from marketing agencies and web design agencies, and freelancers. The questions address external consultants’ experiences on life in SEO, including company revenue, salary, clients, and retainers. For more on the experiences of freelance and agency SEOs, take a look at our blog: ‘SEO Agencies vs Freelancers: Comparison of Income, Hours Worked, and More‘.
Respondents were able to choose three options.
Word of mouth is the most important way to get new clients for both agencies (75%) and freelancers (70%). SEO is more important than ever, with 63% of freelancers naming this one of their most crucial marketing channels. PPC is also still vitally important for search marketers.
Facebook was the third most important marketing channel for freelancers, although in joint fifth place for agencies. LinkedIn was also rated highly, with Twitter and Instagram also getting more attention. This year we added in further social channels to demonstrate today’s breadth of marketing channels. With so many to choose from, SEO service providers should consider which they can specialize in, and how to reach businesses who need these services.
For 2017, we also added additional marketing channels to understand the multitude used in combination to acquire new clients. Content marketing was named as one of the top marketing channels for both agencies and freelancers. It has massively grown in importance over the last few years, with Technavio predicting a compound annual growth rate of 16% for the industry.
Q11. What was your company’s revenue in the last 12 months?
This year’s study included further options above one million dollars.
The average revenue is just over one million dollars – due to the much higher revenues of some of the franchises / brands in our study. For the first time, we included options over $1 million in our groupings to include these big businesses. The median revenue of businesses for this year’s respondents was $100,000-150,000.
However, we did see a slight drop in the proportion of businesses earning over a $1 million, down 1% from 21% last year, and 23% the year before. While this is unlikely anything for SEO owners to worry about, a continuation of this trend could reflect a growth in small SEO providers, or even a drop in profits in the industry as a whole.
It’s good news for smaller operations, though, with fewer now bringing in revenues of less than $30,000 in 2017 (14% down from 15% for the last two years). 35% of businesses achieved less than $75,000. However, there was growth seen in the $30,000-50,000 bracket. This could be a clue that more sole providers and small agencies are turning over bigger profits as a whole.
As expected, freelancers gained far less than the average revenue, with freelancers reporting their businesses bringing in an average of $141,075 each. This number, however, is likely to take into account some of the earnings of businesses they work at, rather than their sole income. 36% saw revenues of less than $30,000, with 49% seeing under $50,000 – far higher than the average. Just over 2% reported revenues of over $1,000,000. We’ll be sharing further business-type specific insights in the New Year – sign up to receive these here.
Q12. What are your pre-tax personal annual earnings?
This year we extended options for respondents to not share salary details. 36% chose not to, and the following data is based on those who did share this information. We included over $150,000 as a chart grouping for the first time.
Overall, salaries have grown for SEOs this year. Fewer SEO professionals are now earning less than $30,000 – down from 24% to 20% this year. 61% made less than $60,000 (down again from last year’s 63%). 72% of people earned over $75,000, which while being a drop from last year’s 76%, is interesting when viewed next to the general average for US employees with degrees of $72,000.
The average SEO professional earned $61,711 in 2017. An impressive 14% achieved over $100,000 – a leap from 8% in 2016. SEO is clearly a lucrative career for many in our study – with the senior respondents more likely to achieve these top figures.
Q13. What does an average client pay you each month?
The average monthly income per client across all business types was $1,670 this year – but of course the different business types saw vast differences in this.
- Web design agencies are the most likely to receive low incomes per client – seeing an average of $944 per customer per month
- Freelancers received an average of $1,228 per month
- Local / regional agencies received and average of $1,707 per month
- National / international firms command the biggest fees – with an average $2,378 per customer.
The number of agencies receiving low monthly payments has dropped, with just 3% of agencies/freelancers getting an average per client of under $100 (down from 7%).
57% of respondents told us their average retainer was under $1,000 – another drop from 60% last year.
This was the first year we included an option of over $5,000. While these high-earners were the minority, 4% did achieve over $5,000 per client per month – with 1% of these receiving over $10,000.
Q14. What is the minimum monthly retainer amount that you will work on for a client?
While average earnings per client are growing, the minimum respondents expect from their clients appears to have dropped.
12% will accept retainers of less than $100 (compared to 11% in 2016), and 24% will accept retainers between $100-$299/month (vs. 21% in 2016). Interestingly, 7% said that they don’t have a minimum – perhaps opting to assess work on a case-by-case basis rather than by defined numbers. The average minimum monthly retainer was $869.
This year saw more respondents with minimums under $300 – up 4% to 36%. In fact, minimum retainers appeared to be lower on the whole, with just 26% demanding minimum fees of $1,000, compared to 29% in 2016. This could be in relation to the broader services SEO providers are now offering – and minimums being lowered in order to provide such services competitively.
Q15. How much do you bill clients per hour for SEO services?
A question new to this year’s study, we asked our SEO-service suppliers how much they billed clients per hour. There is clearly a vast range between hourly rates:
- 12% charge clients less than $50 per hour
- 8% charge clients more than $200
- The average charge per hour is $110
Q16. How many hours do you work in an average week?
The average agency or freelance SEO works 43 hours per week.
Just 16% work less than 30 hours per week, meaning that the vast majority of participants are working full-time in marketing.
Nearly half (47%) work more than 40 hours per week – with 18% of these working over 51 hours! A Gallup poll found that full-time employees in the US work an average of 47 hours – so the SEOs in our study are close to the US average.
This chart covers the hours freelancers and agencies work, and how many they spend on SEO.
And yet, when viewed in parallel with the number of hours freelancers and agency professionals spent on SEO, there’s a clear disparity between the amount of hours an SEO works, and the number of hours spent on SEO. While 47% work over 41 hours a week, just 11% spend more than 41 hours on SEO. This suggests that while most SEOs work long hours, they are only able to spend a fraction of their time on pure SEO work. Whether this is spent gaining new clients, in meetings, or on further non-billable work, this a significant gap.
Q17. How many SEO clients do you personally manage?
A third (33%) of SEO consultants have five or fewer clients – a big drop from last year where this was 40%. Just 3% have just one client, another drop from 10% last year. This year it appears SEOs have been managing more clients than in 2016.
However, this isn’t to say they’re spreading themselves too thinly. 58% have ten or fewer clients – only a small change from last year’s 60%. And, the proportion of search professionals who manage over 31 clients remains at 16% – suggesting it’s only at the lower end where there’s growth occurring.
Agency workers are far more likely to have a higher number of clients than freelancers. Just 6% of freelancers have more than 20 clients. This is clearly linked to the lone working environment of many freelancers, compared to the team dynamic we expect within agencies. For more, read our Agencies VS Freelancers comparison.
Q18. How many different industries do you serve?
There has not been a lot of change year-on-year on the number of industries SEO consultants serve. 59% serve more than three industries – down from 60% in 2016, and 63% the year before.
Following on from the trend seen in previous years, just 12% specialize in one area. In 2015 and 2016, this was the case for 16% of respondents – could this be a hint that fewer SEOs are choosing to specialize based on industry? This move towards multiple industries could be a result of clients not wanting to share with their competitors – rather than choosing a marketer on sector experience alone. This is shown further below, where in-house marketers share what they want from an SEO consultant.
Q19. What proportion of your work is comprised of projects / retainers?
For the first time, we wanted to map the split between projects and retainers. The study found that SEO consultants are more likely to work on projects – with 46% working on more projects than retainers. Of these, 21% told us they only worked on projects.
30% work on more retainers than clients, but just 9% of these say all their work is retainers. Of course, retainers are steady sources of income and are thus useful for consultants to ensure ongoing revenue. However, local SEO can often be project-led – with some clients wanting to improve rankings once rather than maintaining this on an ongoing basis.
Q20. How many new leads do you proactively contact each month?
This year, we saw more SEOs who didn’t proactively contact any prospects in a month – a jump from 25% in 2016 to 33% today.
The median for prospects contacted was 2-5 leads contacted per month. 38% of people contacted one to five, compared to last year’s low 21%. Just 5% contacted over 50. While contacting prospects would be expected to be a key priority for SEO marketers, it seems that networking and marketing weren’t as high a priority in 2017 than in the past. However, we highlighted above the increase in new business – so it could be that SEOs are spending more time nurturing each new client.
Surprisingly, 35% of freelancers didn’t contact a new lead each month – perhaps due to their busy workloads discouraging them from finding new clients until they have the capacity to take them on. But while ongoing new business outreach can be time-intensive, it can be vital to build up relationships rather than having to cold call if ongoing work were to slow down.
Q21. What is your estimated success rate at converting leads into clients?
Alongside the generally low rate of prospect outreach, there is a lower conversion rate of leads into clients than in 2016.
Lots more people are estimating their client win success rate as being less than one in ten. A worrying 30% told us that they were able to convert leads into clients less than 10% of the time. This has doubled in the last year.
37% estimate their success rate at over 50% – down from 46% last year and 42% in 2015.
Q22. How many new clients have you / your business won this year?
Despite the aforementioned low rate of conversion, the average SEO business has won ten clients in 2017 (based on median).
Just 11% of SEOs won over 51 clients. As may be expected, this high number is largely down to the success of the bigger agencies in our sample upping the average significantly.
47% won over 11 clients, but this did change depending on the type of business. 47% of local / regional agencies won over this amount, along with 51% of web design agencies. Unsurprisingly, national / international agencies were the most likely win more new clients in 2017, with 63% of them doing so. Freelancers had less client success, with 58% winning 5 or fewer clients in 2017.
Q23. Which services are most in demand from your clients?
Respondents were able to choose three options.
For yet another year, on-site SEO was the most in-demand service from clients – with 71% of respondents choosing this as one of their most asked-for services (up from 64%). The next most popular services are web design and development (56%), and GMB optimization (52%).
We know that SEOs are a busy bunch, and wanted to reflect the full list of tasks they’re asked to deliver. This year, we added reputation management and paid social media options – which were each named as one of the most requested services from clients (for a respective 21% and 20% of respondents). While organic social media appears to have fallen in favor, this is likely down to the new answer option of paid social media.
Q24. How much of your work do you outsource to third-parties or white label SEOs?
This year’s Local Search Industry Survey saw a big drop in the proportion of respondents choosing to outsource or white label SEO services.
Last year, 30% claimed they didn’t outsource anything, but this year this has seen a significant rise to 41%. In line with this, 65% outsource less than 10% of their work – a rise from 2016 where this was 56%.
In fact, just 17% told us they outsourced or white labeled more than a quarter of their work. This is an interesting trend, raising questions over why SEOs are taking on more work themselves. Is it that they’re receiving training to be able to take on a wider range of tasks? Or could it be down to improved capacity planning, through which more work can be handled in-house? We’ll continue to monitor this trend over the next few years.
Q25. Do you think it will be easier or harder to deliver results for clients in 2018?
Moving into the new year, there seems to be a degree of pessimism over ease of delivering results for clients. Just 27% of SEO agency workers and freelancers think 2018 will be a better year for delivering client results.
On the other hand, 73% think it will be harder to deliver results. Web design agencies were most likely to believe this, while freelance search marketers were the least likely to see hardship ahead.
If you’d like to hear the local search predictions of leading SEO professionals Mike Blumenthal, David Mihm, Joy Hawkins, and Dan Leibson, see our InsideLocal webinar ‘State of Search 2018’.
Section Three: In-House Search Marketers
These questions were answered by those with responsibility for SEO at local businesses, and in-house marketers at franchises / brands. They explore working with consultants and internal marketing budgets.
Q26. How much does your business spend on marketing each month?
A significant 30% spend more than $5,000 every month on marketing across all channels. 59% spent over $1,000 per month. The median sits in the $1,000-4,999 bracket.
- 22% of local business marketers reported a monthly marketing spend of over $5,000 – with 56% saying they spent more than $1,000.
- In franchises / brands, a huge 67% spent over $5,000 per month – and 85% spent over $1,000.
Being mindful of the large businesses in our study, in-house marketers reported an average spend of $19,278 each month on marketing. This was heavily influenced by some of the big franchises / brand respondents – with this group spending an average of $61,358. Big companies clearly hold big marketing budgets – and it’s up to external search marketers to prove how they can help these in-house marketers.
When comparing in-house marketing budgets to the amount SEO professionals receive from clients, there’s a lot of potential budget that’s clearly being diverted outside of search. SEO agencies and freelancers need to marry up the success of search for their clients with their sales – securing more budget to further improve this critical channel.
Q27. Who handles internet marketing for your company?
When asking our in-house SEO subset who owned internet marketing, 87% answered that they handled it themselves – including the 4% who’d previously used an agency.
11% currently use an agency, while 3% use a freelancer. Local businesses were more likely to use an external marketer than those from franchises / brands – likely due to not have the budget for a full-time internal team.
It’s up to external SEOs to reach this important 87% – and prove to them how they can help provide specialized local search services that ease the pressure off the internal marketing team. Offering supplemental services that suit clients’ needs can be one way of increasing spend from clients – creating a one-stop-shop for all their search marketing needs. Or, industry specialization means agencies can truly provide expertise that may be difficult to gain in-house.
Q28. How do you rate the performance of your marketing freelancer / agency?
This question was directed at those who currently use an external internet marketer, based on the previous question.
It’s great news that most of the people in our survey who use external SEO suppliers were happy with their performance. 23% told us their marketer was performing very well, with a further 57% saying they were performing ‘well’. Just 4% said they were performing poorly, while 15% said ‘not well’. While the proportion of in-house marketers relying on external SEOs is small, it’s clear that those who have reached these businesses are doing a good job.
Q29. If you use / were to use an internet marketing consultant, which of these factors are / would be most important to you?
When choosing an external SEO, in-house search marketers primarily want to see relevant industry experience (21%). With fewer agencies and freelancers specializing in one industry than in previous years, it’s critical to balance growing expertise with an in-depth knowledge of the individual challenges different industries face.
Interestingly, the second most important factor for those in-house was on guarantees of performance. This is a question we explored further earlier in the year, when we found that 19% thought SEOs should guarantee their work, with a further 29% saying they should do so ‘under some circumstances’.
Thank you for reading this year’s Local Search Industry Survey. We hope the information is valuable to you and your business. For more information on the findings for freelancers and agencies, take a look at our blog. If you have any thoughts or questions on the insights you’re interested in seeing, please leave a comment below.