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“How long does SEO take to start working?” When a new client comes to SEO+, this is inevitably one of their questions. Naturally, they want to know when they will definitively be able to see that their investment in SEO is working.
You may have the same question.
Before we go any further, what do you really mean when you ask this question?
When someone says, “How long before the SEO works?” what they usually mean is, “When will we get to number one on Google for [insert keyword]?”
But not only is this the wrong question, it’s also the wrong goal.
An effective SEO campaign isn’t about ranking on page one of Google for a list of keywords. It’s not about having more traffic than your competitors or a lower bounce rate (although these are important signals to search engines).
In my experience, a better question is ‘How long will it take for our SEO efforts to start generating leads and sales?”
That’s what SEO is really about – attracting people to your website who want or need the products or services that you offer and who will go from being website visitors to customers.
The metrics I encourage my clients to measure focus on leads, sales and conversions.
- How many website visitors make a purchase?
- How many people have signed up to your mailing list in exchange for a free download?
- How many people have filled out your booking form or made an enquiry after visiting your website?
- Which calls to action are attracting the most clicks?
- What percentage of website visitors completed a pre-determined goal such as making a purchase or signing up to your newsletter?
An increase in these metrics shows you that your SEO is working.
In a nutshell, the success of your SEO comes down to more sales, enquiries and sign-ups, not the volume of visits or the bounce rate.
SEO is about attracting visitors who actually convert into customers.
Factors that affect how long SEO takes to ‘work’
If we think about how long SEO takes to start working within the context above, it’s important to recognise that each website’s timeline will be affected by a huge range of factors.
I’ve outlined some of them here:
- The age of your domain and website – if the search engines can see that yours is an established business with a consistent online presence, this can mean that positive SEO changes start to work sooner than on a new domain.
- Your domain history
- Is it new?
- Has it ever been penalised?
- Have you bought the domain after it was used by someone in a different location?
Search engines may question the reputation and authority of your website if you’ve been hit with a penalty in the past or if the domain was previously associated with a different geographic location. These aren’t unsurmountable hurdles – you just might find that your SEO efforts take a little longer to deliver results.
- Your previous SEO efforts
- Site upgrades
- Domain moves
- CMS updates
Your previous SEO efforts may have been influenced by any or all of the factors above, and more. If you’ve never had the budget to spend on SEO before or your budget limited you to one or two months’ activity, it may take longer to see results than for a company that has always invested in SEO and just wants to refresh their efforts.
- Meta data – The meta data you use for each web page will affect the overall SEO performance of your site. For example, having proper H1, H2, etc. tags on each heading will help search engines to understand the main topic of a page and its overarching structure then list the page in relevant searches.Strong SEO titles and meta descriptions will create interest, capture attention and serve as a call to action that encourages searchers to click through to your website. Alt tags on images will help search engines understand the visual, i.e. non-text, elements of each web page.
- Geographic location
- Are you a bricks-and-mortar business trying to target people in local searches?
- If so, how strong is your Google My Business presence?
- Are you on Google My Business at all?
- Has your domain always been associated with your geographic location or has the business moved?The answers to each of these questions could affect how quickly you start to see an increase in sales and conversions on your website.
- Competition – Of course, your SEO efforts aren’t taking place in a vacuum. Just as you want to strengthen the position of your website in searches, your competitors are probably working on their SEO too. Your efforts may be influenced by the following questions:
- Is there anyone who already dominates your market?
- Are you competing against a big hitter?
- How does your budget/approach compare to that of your competitors?
- Do lots of people offer the same services as you (e.g. a dentist or hairdresser) or do you have a relatively small, targeted niche?
- Niche – While we’re on the subject of niches, whether or not you occupy one can impact on how quickly your SEO ‘works’. If, for example, yours is one of a handful of businesses in the UK that sells ‘vintage wedding fascinators’, you are likely to become visible to searchers relatively quickly compared to a business with the same budget that’s trying to attract customers for ‘women’s clothes’.
- Target market/audience – Your target audience will also have implications for how quickly your SEO efforts make a difference. Factors such as their age, employment, interests, beliefs, use of technology, gender, etc. will all impact on how people search, surf and buy.
- Size of your business – If you run an SME, perhaps as a sole trader or part of a small team, you may not have the time, budget, resources or need to invest in SEO to the same extent as a large multinational organisation. Equally, your SEO goals may vary.
- Size of the website – As above, the size of your website is likely to affect your SEO planning, strategy and outcomes. If you only want to post a new blog once a month or start by updating your service pages, your SEO efforts take longer than a company with hundreds of blog pages.
- Content – How soon you see SEO results will depend on the existing content on your website as well as what you post in the future. If you publish too much so-called ‘thin’ content – i.e. pages with few words and little substance – search engines may view your website negatively.
On the flipside, high-quality content that attracts backlinks from trusted sources and plenty of engagement on social media can help to fast-track your SEO efforts.
- Web design – Search engines tend to give high authority to websites that prioritise the user experience (UX). This can include elements such as clear navigation, quick page load speeds, easy to read and informative text, great images, compelling calls to action, relevant content and more.
- Link profile
- Does your website include paid-for links?
- Have you ever been hit with a penalty for bad links?
- Do you have spammy links on your site or have you left spammy links on third party sites?Search engines want to give greater visibility to websites that have a strong and ethical link profile. This means attracting links from third parties and influencers based on your quality content, and having relevant, helpful internal links bringing together inter-connected content throughout your website.
While I was researching this blog, I found Search Engine Land’s Period Table of SEO Success Factors, which is a great visual representation of the factors that can affect how quickly SEO works.
As we can see from my examples above when it comes to how quickly SEO works every website has a different starting point and will be influenced by different factors. It’s almost impossible to give a definitive timeline for when changes will be evident.
A ‘typical’ SEO timeline
I realise how frustrating that answer is though!
To help you measure the progress of your own SEO efforts, I have put together what many would consider to be common points on a typical timeline of SEO improvement.
The first stage, which may take longer than a month, is about finding out where your website currently stands in terms of its performance and potential improvements.
If you have an existing site, you might want to start with a comprehensive website audit to get a better picture of what’s working well already and what you can improve.
If you’re starting a site from scratch, this will still be a time of research, discovery, strategy and planning.
Typically, stage two is about getting the structure of your website right and putting the technical SEO in place.
For existing websites, this will mean making changes based on the findings of the audit. This could be fixing crawl errors, sorting 301 redirects, improving page speeds, moving from HTTP to HTTPS, and more.
For fresh websites, you’ll want to get the technical SEO right from the outset.
I’ve estimated a month to do this but, depending on the size and complexity of your website, it may take more or less time.
With the bare bones of your website ready, your next job is to populate every page. This means that content creation will be your next – and ongoing – priority. This could entail writing and adding fresh content, updating existing content or even deleting content that is no longer relevant to your audience.
The thing about content creation is that it doesn’t have an end date. Search engines love to see fresh content because it’s a sign of a business that’s engaged with its audience, and of a well-maintained, current site.
Content creation can include blogging, videos, infographics, FAQs, product or service pages, company information, case studies, and more. It’s helpful to set up an editorial calendar so that you can plan what you want to publish and when. You should also use images on your site that complement your brand and support the core topic of each page.
If you have the resources, this is the ideal time to start focusing on spreading your message by publicising your content on social media.
Depending on what you have in place so far, you may begin to see more traffic, conversions and sales by the end of this month. However, if nothing noticeable is happening, don’t despair as it’s still early days.
For most companies, this is a time for fine-tuning the SEO work done so far. This might mean more content creation, technical optimisation, attracting high-quality backlinks, cleaning up low quality or broken links, and removing any duplicate content.
Many businesses begin to see a marked increase in rankings, traffic and – most importantly – lead generation and sales by the end of stage four.
If you’ve been waiting to build up a repository of content before turning your attention to publicity and marketing, now is the time to get the message out.
It’s all well and good creating a great website but you have to let people (and search engines) know that it exists. Press releases, guest blogs, social media marketing, endorsements from influencers, and customer reviews are all great ways of spreading the word with your audience and building up your domain authority with search engines.
For most companies that decide to consistently focus on their SEO, stage six usually sees a significant increase in quality visitors to their website. That’s why we recommend that clients sign up for a minimum of six months when they choose our ethical SEO services.
However, as I mentioned in my introduction, it isn’t enough to bring more visitors to your website. Are those visitors turning into customers?
This is a good time to look at the conversion rate optimisation of your website.
- Are you doing everything you can to turn hits into sales or sign-ups?
- Are your call-to-action buttons well placed?
- Do people click on them?
- Which wording gets the most engagement?
- Which topics resonate with your audience?
- Does each page have a clear message?
It’s important to be able to adapt and respond to the information about how people are interacting with your website so that you can give them more of what they want.
Stage Seven (typically months six to twelve):
This is when you should see the results of your hard work.
The great thing about SEO is that every positive change has a snowball effect. While the benefits may be small after three to six months, they will keep growing exponentially after weeks, months and years of deliberate attention.
The proof comes when you see an increase in leads, enquiries, sign-ups and sales that, in turn, will lead to an upturn in profits.
Setting realistic expectations
I often find that companies have three months in mind as the magic number for when SEO starts to ‘work’. People often come to me saying that they worked with an SEO company before but that they gave up after two to three months because they didn’t see the results they had expected.
Organic SEO is a long-term strategy; a slow burn with potentially explosive benefits for your business.
It’s not about buying your way to the top of the search engines, which is why even companies with massive budgets may not achieve the outcomes they want in as little as three months.
As we’ve seen, three to six months is more realistic; six to 12 months is most likely. I found some excellent case studies by Leverage Marketing that showed big improvements around the seven- to nine-month mark. Only one case study, about a large established e-commerce site, saw ‘big gains’ in just one to two months.
Nothing lasts forever
Over time, you may notice that the positive changes brought about by your SEO begin to taper off. This will be influenced by all the factors I mentioned earlier in this article, including what your competitors are doing to innovate their SEO and raise their visibility.
If you do notice metrics such as your sales, conversions, website visitors, dwell time, bounce rate, etc. plateauing and can’t pinpoint an external reason why (e.g. a seasonal slump within your industry), it may well be time to review and refresh your SEO once again.
This is why it’s so important to keep an eye on the data you have at your disposal and to listen to the feedback you get from your customers.
What is working and what isn’t? If you notice a problem, you can always amend your SEO strategy accordingly.
Do you measure whether SEO is working based on your rankings for certain keywords or do you look at conversions, sales and profits?
How consistent is your approach to SEO?
If you’ve done a big SEO push in the past, when did you start to see results?
I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
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Hazel Jarrett, director of SEO at SEO+, is well-known in the SEO space, has won many awards during her 20-year career and has been published on various well-known sites. Through her services and training programs, her SEO strategies have generated 10s of millions of sales for her clients, earning her a big reputation for delivering the results that matter.
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