The Shocking Truth About the Cost of Automotive SEO

6 - 7 min Read

“Can someone get me a new pair of pants? I’ve soiled myself!”

That’s the initial thought I had when Rand Fishkin, former CEO of Moz and founder of Sparktoro answered my question about the cost of SEO.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Rand on episode 142 of The Dealer Playbook and was curious about how much he would charge per month if he were going to deploy an SEO strategy for a business.

I asked because I wanted to shape the narrative around SEO for dealerships, especially in a space where $99/mo is too cheap, but $5,000/mo gets you an abrupt “no.”

$5,000 seems crazy expensive especially in the context of retail automotive, but why is that?

First, let me share what Rand had to say and then I’ll provide my commentary on why I think things are so messed up in retail automotive.

This was the exact phrasing of my question:

“How invested should businesses be in… Is the cost of SEO going to drop? Is it marginally cheaper to have SEO done now or will there be no changes there? For example, companies are charging $20 - $50K or upwards of $100k per year to have SEO done. Do you think that will change or decrease at all?”

Here is Rand’s unedited, answer:

“Umm, no. Not generally. I would expect that you will continue to see the high-end ranges stay very high and then the lower quality or lower amount of effort and fewer results remain cheap. That is because, essentially, the price of SEO will rise to the point where there’s just a little bit of ROI investing in it and beating the next person and getting to the next result. So Adwords is an extremely efficient market, SEO is extremely inefficient market but give it enough time, it will act like AdWords and become effective as well. The cost of the clicks, the cost of ranking, and the search results of doing all these sorts of creative and technical things to get there will increase.

You’re seeing that because SEO’s bad reputation is dying and the “oh it’s sketchy and scammy” is going away because it’s less sketchy and less scammy. There are more high-quality operators, it’s a lot more important, everyone recognizes the value of ranking in Google search, and also, these pros that have been doing SEO for a long time know their worth, they have big networks, they can get clients more easily, they can charge more as a result of that and so, high-quality work gets more expensive."

I then asked this:

“If Rand Fishkin SEO were to do SEO for a business, what would someone of your calibre - what would the price range be?”

The shocking, but extremely transparent answer?

“Yeah, it totally depends on the service of the work and the sector. If you’re talking about, "hey Rand we want you to strategically advise this b2b customer, and they are doing something in a relatively unique space, and just a few hours with their tech and marketing team will do the trick - maybe a couple grand per month. But if you’re talking about needing my team and me to go and do the keyword research, create the content, build the links, do the creative, get the marketing message out there, do the demand creation… I would be shocked if you were charging less than $25,000 per month for a full-fledged program like that…”

What are you willing to invest in SEO?

Based on historical trends, especially in the retail car business - the answer to this question should be more straightforward, but sadly isn’t. Here are the factors to consider:

1. The scope of work

Traditionally, most SEO in the car business is non-existent even though you are paying for it monthly. I can think of a few big players that charge for it on their monthly invoice as part of the mandated OEM programs, but sadly the dealers aren’t getting a lick of work done. A recent example was from one of our clients. As we looked into what they were paying, we noticed such a line item on the invoice and decided to reach out to their web provider. As it turns out, this client was being charged $650/mo by their mandated provider for a website plugin that wasn’t doing a darn thing, let alone proper SEO work!

As a local business, you have some exciting options available to you. Options that will allow you to take advantage of the evolving landscape of SEO. It may not seem like a lot, but the structure of your website can contribute to your digital presence in a positive way.

For example, think of Windows Explorer on your computer. You can store files within folders making it faster and easier to find and access the information you want. In a similar way, the information on your website can be properly categorized, by making adjustments to the URLs. Doing so will allow Google (and web searchers) to find and access your site content with ease. The easier Google can access your site information, the higher it can rank.

Directory submissions are an example of something else you can do to provide positive ranking signals to Google. Google looks at the NAP (name, address, phone number) information on sites like Yelp, Facebook, Google My Business, and 411 to understand the relevancy of your business in a local market. Sadly, most dealers don’t take advantage because, well, it’s extremely time-consuming to set them up. It’s manual labour, but so critical as a foundational SEO activity.

The amount of strategic information that a trained SEO analyst can gain from these two activities has the power to create SEO tactics that will completely unleash search dominance on your local competitors.

If you’re not getting any of this work done at a very basic level, you shouldn’t be paying for it so look closely at your invoice and start asking questions.

2. If you want the best, you must pay for the best.

Rand can charge $25,000 per month because he is in the upper echelon of the most premier thought leaders when it comes to SEO. If you want that level of SEO, be prepared to pay for it.

Sadly, the disconnect here is that most dealers were sold a bill of goods by their provider, who made themselves out to be the best but actually weren’t. I’m not suggesting they were the worst, but they could have demonstrated a more transparent look into who they are and what they do. At best, the dealership could then decide which path to take.

That’s why the $650 - $2500/mo is the current sweet spot for “automotive SEO” by most providers. Again, most deploy pretty standard keyword research, and shockingly, many are still implementing either black hat or incredibly outdated SEO practices.

If you’re in this bracket and not seeing anything exciting happen with SEO, it’s time to consider why that is.

3. So what does $650 - $2,500 actually get me?

It’s important to remember that most SEO, when done correctly, is time consuming manual work. While you are paying for a hopeful outcome (ranking, more visibility to a targeted audience), you are also logistically paying for physical man hours.

It’s no different than your service department clients. While in their mind, they are paying to have the vehicle fixed and back on the road (the result), you know that they are also paying for parts and labour costs.

Because it’s time-consuming work, that creates the catch-22 for most providers. Since providing SEO services is a core of their business, the only way to scale is to streamline or automate as much as possible or else they’ll be in a never-ending downward cycle of having to hire more people to handle the work.

At FlexDealer, we’ve chosen to focus on the elements of SEO that we believe will bring you the most value. For example, Local SEO is a core focus for us because we think it’s vitally important in today’s marketing mix – especially as it pertains to you, a local retailer. Add mobile and voice search on top of that, and local SEO is something that you can easily focus on between $599 and $999 month.

With local SEO as a solid foundation, adding extras like content creation and strategy (blogging, landing pages, targeted content pages, model pages) adds an increase in cost.

For example, a dealership that’s partnered with us to do strategy creation and then the execution of local SEO, citations, content creation, on page optimization and graphics would sit in the $2500 - $3500/month range. If we were to add external link-building and a mix of social and search advertising, the monthly fee goes up.

4. According to Rand, does that mean FlexDealer is just “okay” at SEO?

No, not at all. But if you notice that Rand mentioned that SEO work is mostly dependent on the sector, competition, and the services required. The remarkable thing about the retail car business is that most dealer website SEO is terrible. That’s good news for you. That’s also good news for us. That means while the saturation of dealerships is high, your digital competition isn’t.

That also means, as a company, FlexDealer can choose the long game with you by focusing on what’s fair and what will speak to the narrative of our core value: Build relationships of trust.

For us, it’s more important to be fair and do good work for you with the right expectations, than the promise to lasso the sun, moon and stars and not be able to deliver.

With us, you’ll know what you’re getting, when, and how. We work with your team internally to ensure you are onboard with every strategy we deploy and create. Each month begins with a full accounting of the work completed, the results achieved, metrics, and collaboration.

Not interested in paying $25K per month, but also want good Local SEO? We’d love to hear from you to chat about your online goals. Drop us a line.