How long does it take SEO to work?

'How long until I see results from SEO' is one of the most common questions I get asked as an SEO consultant. It makes sense. The client wants to see a return on their investment, ideally as soon as possible, so that an SEO campaign is covering its own costs. After all, the last thing a business wants to be stuck with is an expense that isn't showing any signs of being profitable or useful.

However, go to any experienced SEO consultant or credible digital agency, and they will likely tell you that SEO is a 'slow burn' in terms of ROI, and that 'these things take time'. And this is true. SEO work can take a while before it kicks in and begins to drive visibility. This is for a number of reasons - some of them in your control, some of them outside it.

In my experience, you can typically expect to see some improvements from 1-3 months from implementation. Generally, more noticeable improvements, such as an increase in traffic and conversions, should be seen from 6-12 months.

However, it's important to keep in mind that it really does depend on the unique situation that your business and website are in, as well as the metrics you're using to measure the overall success of the SEO campaign.

Measuring the success of SEO work

The goal of any SEO work should be clear before any work begins. In most circumstances, the primary goal will be to increase revenue generated from organic traffic. This can include generating more sales through an ecommerce store, driving bookings for a service-based business, or increasing paying customers for a SaaS business, for example.

There may also be secondary goals, such as driving mailing list signups or webinar bookings, which may not directly generate sales, but may be a critical part of a sales cycle that has a longer lead time.

Typically, the goals of any SEO work are, in priority order:

  • Increase revenue
  • Increase conversions
  • Increase traffic
  • Improve organic visibility

Most of the outcomes of any SEO work relate to one of these four goals, with generating revenue ultimately being the most important for any business.

However, where online businesses often fall down, is becoming fixated on metrics which actually have very little impact on the overall bottom line of a business. These may include things such as:

  • Domain Authority (and other third party metrics).
  • Bounce rate - which is useful under the right circumstances, and wildly misleading in many others.
  • An obsession with ranking for a subset of vanity keywords that have little commercial value.

The point is that, depending on the KPI that is being measured, success may look very different from one client's scenario to another. It's essential to establish what's possible at the start of a campaign, and this should be kept in mind with any SEO strategy that is formed. The SEO strategy should set the direction of the work and should cater to the client's goals, rather than simply box ticking deliverables.

SEO efforts should always be tied back to business goals - even if it's indirectly.

What impacts how long SEO takes?

The following factors will all impact how long it takes SEO to have an impact on your business:

  • The current health and situation of your website
  • The difficulty of the keywords you're trying to rank for
  • Your competitors
  • Your available resources
  • Google

Current health and situation of your website

All websites have a history, as well as some kind of notion of existing authority around them. For example, your website could be a very old domain, with lots of good content, some good backlinks, but terrible technical SEO that is smothering its ability to perform.

In this situation, with the right resources in place, it could be relatively fast to implement fixes and driving traffic.

On the other hand, if we imagine the scenario where there's a relatively new website, with little existing content or authority, this will take much longer for any SEO work to bear fruit.

Another thing to keep in mind is the history of the domain. Again, if it's an old domain, with a clean history, things should be able to move in the right direction within a few months. However, if your domain has a history of spam, penalties, or other issues, such as being hacked, this can make things much more difficult, as there will be additional issues that need to be addressed in order to improve traffic. And obviously, a brand new domain can be an uphill battle from the start, as you are coming up against more authoritative competitors.

Difficulty of the keywords you're trying to rank for

Keywords that are easier to rank for will generally produce faster results. But whilst there are some hidden gems that are easy to rank for and really profitable, logically, the keywords with higher competition will be the ones that drive the most revenue. And delivering visibility for these will take more work as more people will be targeting them.

The task at hand can also be made more difficult if your business targets very competitive products or verticals (e.g credit cards/finance) where competitors will be using a high amount of resource to go after the same collection of keywords as you. 

Your competitors

Your competitor's activity will also factor into how long it takes for you to see any returns on your SEO efforts. If your competitors have a good in-house SEO team, or are investing high amounts of money with a good freelancer or agency, then again, it could take longer, and a more sustained effort, to close the gap.

Similarly, if you're looking to compete against large corporations or brands, it's safe to assume that they will have larger budgets and access to more ambitious tactics, which may allow them to own more competitive keywords. That doesn't mean that these aren't worth targeting - but it does mean that you have to be realistic in what you are prioritising.

Your resources

Inversely to the above, the level of resource that you have access to also plays a huge part in how long it takes to see results from SEO. To put it simply, if you have access to more resources, more work can happen. The more work that happens in the right areas, the faster you are likely to see results.

For example, if Website A has a dedicated in-house SEO team, and Website B works with an SEO freelancer one day a month, it's fairly obvious which website will see sustained returns the fastest.

Google ultimately controls what ranks and what doesn't

At the end of the day, we're all dancing to Google's tune. Google ultimately has the final say on how content ranks in the search results, and that is determined algorithmically. Should this algorithm change, which it does frequently, then the order in which content ranks will also change.

For the most part, algorithm updates aren't a big deal. Content ranking is dynamic and will shift day-to-day, location-to-location, and user-to-user.

However, whilst most algorithm updates aren't an issue, sometimes websites can be majorly impacted, which requires damage control work to figure out what's gone wrong. While the days of brutal Penguin and Panda updates are behind us, and the quality of SEO work has increased dramatically, there may be times when Google devalues certain signals, or ramps up others, which may impact a website.

Another issue, which is growing in scale, is Google's persistent shrinking of the organic SERPs. Real estate on the first page of results has consistently been shrinking, especially for queries related to hotels, flights, local results, and shopping results. This means queries that used to drive traffic for you may suddenly vanish because Google has launched a new feature. 

3-6 months to see SEO results, but up to 1 year isn't unreasonable

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to determining how long it takes to see results from SEO. Even then, it's very difficult to give a solid figure of how long it will take before you start to see organic traffic improvements.

This is only intended as a very rough guide, but you should be comfortable sustaining 3-6 months of SEO budget without seeing much return or improvement. SEO takes time to get up to speed, and it's within this period that things will ideally start to kick in, but it does very much depend on your business' situation.

However, it's common for agencies and consultants to tell you to be prepared to wait at least 12 months without seeing a major return. Google have officially gone on the record to say that you should expect to wait 4 - 12 months to see results, which puts their official park right within this ballpark.

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