I’ve seen many discussion threads on this topic over the years but it seems this question remains unanswered for a lot of freelance SEO consultants and indeed many SEO companies who are new into the market. Basically it all boils down to the personal choice of the person or company supplying the service, one hopes though that they will try and accomodate the clients cashflow and budget as much as possible. A couple of different payment structures which I’m aware of are outlined below.
50-70% lump sum upfront and monthly maintence fee
This is the payment structure I use for 90% of my work. The lump sum upfront allows me to carry out (within say the first two months of the campaign) time intensive work such as keyword analysis, onpage optimisation of an entire site, content creation for the site itself and content creation for submission to other sites without having to worry about being paid. It also allows me to submit the clients site to fee charging directories like Yahoo & the Microsoft Business Directory straight away. A monthly maintence fee helps with the SEO consultants cashflow (as it’s always good to have at least a little bit coming in every month) and allocates a couple of hours a month for the aquiring of links to the clients site. The benefit to the client is that the overall payment is offset over the course of the entire campaign which may be 12, 18 or even 24 months and thus it becomes much more affordable to them.
100% lump sum when results are achieved
Avoid this payment structure at all costs, it does not protect you at all and you could end up doing months of work on a site without receiving a single cent. All ethical optimization consultants know they cannot guarantee any particular position in the natural results of any of the major search engines and so to agree to something like this is in my opinion downright stupidity. Besides that there is something quite worrying about having a supposedly legitimate potential client asking me to do perhaps a years work for them for free. Can you imagine a soccer club saying to someone like Ronaldinho ‘come play for us and IF we are successful we will pay you‘? It also means you can’t have content created for the clients site nor can you submit the clients site to places like Yahoo directory which require a fee, unless of course your going to dip into your own pocket.
100% lump sum upfront
Depending on the type and size of project this option can be best. I mean if were talking about something like keyword analysis or once off onpage optimisation which can be done and then pretty much forgotten about for the next 6 months or so I would charge this way. Of course most campaigns require a couple of months of ongoing link acquisition so charging like this may not be the best idea in a lot of cases. Depending on how large the lump sum actually is this could put your services out of reach of many smaller clients.
There are a couple of others in between such as 50% upfront and then say 50% after 4/5 months, but I think it’s best to get a good chunk up front for your protection (and to allocate time for the first month or two when most of the work is done) and then allow the client to pay the other 30%, 40%, 50% or whatever as a month by month maintenence payment for things like keyword rich links or new content. The important thing is to find a solution which a) protects you and b) suits the client as much as possible.