One of my customers services restaurant equipment. He has a small website that explains services offered and also has repair parts for sale. He called me the other day and asked me if I thought he was being over charged by the people who maintain that website.
Of course I can't really answer that. I asked him how much they charge him and what they do for the money. He said the yearly charge was $3,000.00 and $500 of that was for hosting. The $500 sounds reasonable enough, but what were they doing for the rest?
He said that was for "SEO services" - making his pages Google friendly and all that.
I next asked how many visitors he gets per month. That was around 600 according to Google Analytics. From a simple view, he's paying less than fifty cents per visit, which might be a pretty good deal if he's getting a good amount of business from it. But obviously he felt the expense was high or he wouldn't have called me with that question.
I asked him to look at his Webmaster Tools page. Were there any messages? Did any of the sections indicate problems? He said everything looked clean. You can look at that two ways: one is that the SEO firm is doing a bang-up job and the other is that there's nothing for them to do.
I lean toward the second. This is a tiny web site with a tiny number of visitors. The major changes are providing updates to parts and prices, which is work my customer has to do anyway. I think he's paying $2,500 a year for not much of anything. Not that things can't come up, but as I explained to him, Webmaster Tools will alert him to any structural problem and he could, if necessary, pay someone to fix that specific issue when and if it happens.
He asked about "making Google happy". Apparently they told him that this is what they do. Well, Google is happy if Webmaster Tools shows no issues. That's all there is to it. For a site like his, there's no link building to be done other than at manufacturer's pages and the few directories that come up when you search in this category. He's already in all of those and it certainly isn't much effort to keep up with.
On the other hand, sometimes a small business owner has better things to do than check Webmaster Tools and search Google for things related to his business. It might well be worth $2,500 a year to have someone else do that. I said that, but he said that he's doing those things himself now, so he really doesn't feel the SEO firm is adding much.