The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work?

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    What comes to mind when you think of SEO?

    Magic wands being waved?

    “Joe” who can barely speak English but can put you at the top of the Google pages for only $200/month?

    Nightmare experiences from expensive SEO agencies?

    Rocket Science?

    Whatever it may be, you have questions, and everyone tells you something different. What are you supposed to do? And who are you supposed to believe?

    We get it. The illusion of a quick fix always seems perfect. It’s been ingrained in you since you were a child and has only become more and more prevalent. (Thanks, Amazon. I love same-day shipping!)

    But when you jumped on the SEO train you may have either been told or led to believe that this would be it — the fast track to being king of traffic, leads and sales.

    Then, maybe nothing much happened… maybe your website traffic begin trickling in like a leaky faucet and even that traffic wasn’t converting into any business…

    You’re feeling impatient. Where is the payoff? How long does SEO take anyway?

    Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty to figure out exactly when to expect your SEO payoff, and how much that costs.

    SEO questions and answers

    You’re Crazy: What Do You Mean There’s No Definitive Answer?!

    Have you ever asked a question and someone responds, “Well, it depends…” While it may not be what you want to hear, that’s the response everyone in the SEO industry will tell you right now.

    SEO is a constantly shifting target. Since Google’s RankBrain pushes updates and adjustments on the fly, SEO experts must be vigilant and move with the times.

    This means that not every case will be equal. It might take one site longer to rank than another. And it might have everything to do with the environment and not as much to do with the quality of the SEO strategy being implemented.

    Estimates on how long it takes to rank are all over the place. Some say two weeks to four months. Others say 4-6 months. While some say, it could take as long as a year.

    To accurately measure the time it takes for SEO to work, we need to break down the processes that go into SEO campaigns and set realistic expectations.

    SEO is not Tylenol. Results aren’t quick. It’s more akin to antibiotics, which you take over time, and over time, things get better.

    As with antibiotics, you sometimes have to shift to a different course of medication if the prescribed medication doesn’t work. SEO can be just as case-specific.

    “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear, and obstacles vanish.”

    It’s funny how hundreds of years later, no matter how advanced we’ve become with technology, that quote is still highly relevant.

    SEO campaign producing results

    Houston, We Have a Problem: We're Flying Blind

    In 2011, Google began encrypting searches for anyone logged into Google. No one thought anything of it.

    Then in 2013, they locked down all searches. We don’t know exactly why. It has something to do with the all-encompassing world of privacy.

    But it sent a ripple through the SEO world. Search terms once available to publishers were now “not provided.”

    This cut the amount of information webmasters and SEOs had by half.

    Yes, we still had Google Adwords (now Google Ads), but this seemed like a shifty way to move people into the ad ecosystem. (It’s possible this wasn’t their motivation.)

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 1

    And then Matt Cutts left. SEOs had a love-hate relationship with the director of spam detection at Google. He’d give vague and confusing information weekly, and sometimes daily. It almost seemed like he was toying with us. But he seemed too nice of a guy to do that.

    Ok, that’s not really what happened. He took a job with the Pentagon to find aliens.

    Then aliens kidnapped him. And Google went dark.

    In the days of Matt Cutts, we could confirm when a new algorithm change happened. Now, Google is mostly silent on changes and SEOs make educated estimations on what’s happening under the hood while monitoring Google’s twitter channel like a hawk.

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 2

    All of this has made SEO more challenging. Constant adjustments on Google’s part have forced us to evolve and become more reactionary, which slows down the SEO process considerably.

    Though for me, I think the challenge makes it that much more fun.

    These days it is still possible to optimize your site for search and gain tons of traffic — but it requires more careful attention to detail and some serious hustle. Much more than ever before.

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 3

    The More the Merrier: 200+ Factors in Organic Search Ranking

    Ranking on Google might seem simple to the uninitiated. Create content. Please, Google. Get ranked. Right?

    There’s a bit more to ranking on Google than meets the eye. In fact, in 2006 (that’s like millennia in internet years) Matt Cutts announced that there are over 200 ranking factors on Google.

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 4

    That was 13 years ago. With the advent of RankBrain, there’s no telling how many ranking factors there are on Google right now.

    Anybody who has tried to quantify the ranking factors continually changes the number. Why? Because anything we see is correlational and possibly not causal.

    We just see what sticks to the wall. We just can’t know exactly “why” it sticks to the wall.

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 5

    For example, when Google released AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) in February 2016 – many SEOs jumped on-board, only to discover that while pages were loading incredibly faster, conversions were dropping since AMP was first released, and stripped websites of many conversion tools such as email signup forms. Now, three years later, that’s changed as developers have released tools to fix conversion rate issues.

    Speaking of speed, let’s jump into an in-depth look at the factors which affect the length of time it takes to rank on that oh-so-glorious first page of Google.

    SEO isn’t some magical space where competition doesn’t exist. You’re competing against other businesses in your niche, just like the real world!

    If you take a look at who ranks on page one of search results for a given keyword, you can bet that most, if not all of the websites on that first page have been doing SEO for well over six months.

    That means they have been consistently publishing carefully calibrated content, increasing their domain authority through a variety of time-consuming methods, and paying attention to on-page user experience details.  

    They have shown the Google algorithm that they are willing to put in more work than their competitors, and it has taken them at least six months to prove themselves; why would it make sense that in just a few weeks you could push them out of their spots?

    On top of that, demand is just as strong an indicator in the SEO world as it is in sales. Competition depends on how big you are and how much you can spend.

    If you’re a large company, the small fish may not matter as much. You can out-compete them by sheer force with the right marketing team.

    This means that small fish will experience more competition. And the more fish in the pond, the more time it takes to swim to the top.

    the david and goliath problem

    David & Goliath: Fighting Through a Competitive Space

    Your SEO competitors may not necessarily be your direct sales competitors. Sometimes niches overlap and you must deal with businesses outside your industry.

    For example, a bakery might compete with a grocery store chain or even a specialty store.

    Or they might compete with how-to baking blogs that don’t even sell bread but rely on affiliate and ad revenue.

    Affiliate & lead generation websites (sites that get paid to refer converting traffic, rank & generate then sell the leads) have come up as some of the biggest bullies. And what’s worse, is that month over month, businesses pay these companies to out-rank them in search results.

    Manipulative SEO-Suicide

    What?! Are you Serious?!

    Crazy, right? Maybe you’re doing it right now. But, how do you know if you are?

    • You’re paying Yelp
    • You’re paying Angie’s List
    • You’re paying Home Advisor
    • You’re paying any “top 10 x companies” list

    There’s even a movie being released soon called “Billion Dollar Bully” that reveals what we all know goes on behind the curtains with Yelp. Yelp, for their part, is trying very hard to deny and slam the movie, claiming it’s all lies. It is clear, however, that businesses like Yelp do not mind taking business owners’ money, and then once they stop paying, destroy these businesses as much as possible. The businesses that have come forth and told their stories in the movie are being called “liars.”

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 6

    The defensiveness of Yelp serves as evidence enough that they’ve been caught, but they are just the biggest and worst example. Any website you pay to list and rate you well online is playing the same game. The worst part of it is that most of the victims are small businesses and that these directories do drive business for people every day. So, some people cannot afford to stop paying these directories.

    Needless to say, step 1 in beating Goliath is to stop feeding him.

    It’s important to know though, that for SEO purposes, your business should be listed in every directory possible. Just don’t pay them for advertising.

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 7

    Know Your Enemy: Identifying Your Online Competition

    Whenever we begin an SEO campaign, we build campaigns in SEMrush and AHREFS for keyword research, identifying who we’re going to beat-out in search results by reverse-engineering their successful strategies and more.

    We always ask our clients when we start working together who their competition is. And we show them, based on keyword research, who their competitors are. There’s almost always something new we both learn.

    When we reveal who it is that’s out-ranking them in search results for the key searches they want to rank for, 90% of the time, they’re astounded.

    We hear things like: “I’ve never heard of that company” or “They’re terrible to their clients! I was wondering how the hell they haven’t shut down”.

    After compiling a list of the competitors provided by our clients, and by our tools, we then begin to develop a more in-depth strategy based on what keywords they rank for and the kind of content they are creating. Is it blogging? Video? Infographic content? All of the above?

    You always want to emulate what the top competitors in your SEO niches are doing. And then do it better.

    No matter how fierce the competition seems to be, there are always ways to beat them.

    outrank your competitors

    Size Me Up: Assessing Competitor Strength

    Are your competitors ranking for easy or hard keywords? (Searches which have very few people searching every month, or keywords which receive high volumes of searches monthly.)

    What kind of effort has the competition put into getting to those top spots?

    While it’s possible to beat out most competitors with enough time and money on any keyword, some keywords may not be worth it. But at the same time, remember that some of your competitors might be big enough and have enough patience to rank for those.

    A few factors to consider when evaluating competitor strength includes their overall online brand presence, from a variety of signals such as:

    • Direct website visits
    • Catalog/Directory listings
    • Search engines where they’re indexed
    • Domain country and age
    • What their backlinks are
    • How powerful their backlinks are
    • Monthly traffic volume
    • Social signals (how often their content is shared and engaged with)

    Competitors are a valuable resource. Putting together, then analyzing the data behind the rankings of those competitors to develop a strategy takes time in and of itself.

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 8

    Be Like Batman: Vigilant

    There are a plethora of analysis tools out there that help search for new keywords your direct competitors are ranking for such as SEMrush, AHREFS, and Spyfu. To see exactly how keywords are being used, there’s a tool called the term frequency-inverse document frequency analysis (TF-IDF).

    This tool measures how often a keyword appears on a page. It then multiplies that number by how often it should appear on the page.

    You can see what terms sit on the same pages as the keywords you typically rank for. You now know what those pages have in common and can figure out if those keywords are worth ranking for.

    Analyze your competitors strategies

    Analyzing On-Page SEO and Content

    On-page analysis of the websites you’ll be competing with on search results helps us understand how often they’re publishing, what kind of content, and which keywords they’re using.

    You want to look at metadata and what headline strategies they’re using. This means checking title keywords, title length, and title tags.

    Understand their internal linking strategies as well. Take this information and try applying it to your page. When looking at the internal linking strategies of competitors, you want to look for:

    -How many internal links they have per amount of words (Example: 3 links to other pages on their website per roughly every 500 words written. Two of the internal links are to relevant blog posts, one is to a core page.)

    -How many external links they have per amount of words, and the relevancy and quality of those external links (example: per every roughly 1,000 words of content, they link out to a big website like Forbes, and the articles are always directly related to the topic of theirs.)

    Also, try and figure out where their weaknesses are so you can learn from their mistakes. A few things you should keep track of when analyzing on-page and content:

    • The relevance of the topic
    • Type of content
    • Length of content (video or words)
    • Depth of detail on subjects/topics

    Try and figure out where their weaknesses are so you can learn from their mistakes.

    Examine your backlink profiles

    Examine Backlink Profiles

    Where are your competitors earning their backlinks? Are they high-quality sites? We usually find some linking opportunities where your competitor is publishing their content. Thankfully, there are many different tools for this when we set projects up in SEMrush (which has an integration with a backlink research tool called Majestic), and AHREFS.

    Inbound Link Volume and Quality

    Link strategies take patience. You’ve got to realize that it could take anywhere from 5-10 weeks to see a rank jump from any number of links.

    But the higher your inbound link volume, the faster you’ll rank.

    What’s this mean?

    Backlinks or Digital PR Links are links that point to your website, reflecting you as an authority in your industry. These are the building blocks to good Search Engine Optimization.

    Why are backlinks important?

    They are how Google spiders find new pages. Just like we’d use a map to find our way around, Google spiders use backlinks to find, crawl and index pages on your website.

    You’re more likely to find your way to a new city if it’s connected to other cities. A small town in the middle of nowhere could take a while to find.

    What’s that mean? Backlinks give you a better chance of being found quickly. Which then leads to faster and higher rankings.

    Also, backlinks are Google’s reputation tool. They aim to point searchers in the direction of the best possible result for their query, and they won’t point searchers in the course of a site that nobody talks about.

    They want to point them to a popular website, as that means a site that has a good reputation and can be trusted.

    Websites that have a more significant number of quality backlinks rank as more relevant in a search query.

    Google favors quality over quantity for links. So, what makes a backlink high-quality? A good backlink needs to be:

    • Relevant: Links from a website that is relevant to your industry.
    • In-Content: Links to pages on your website from inside an article as they add contextual relevance, and are natural.
    • On Sites That Have Traffic: If Google is ranking a site, and it’s getting traffic, Google “likes” that site – and considers links from it as valuable.

    To win an editorial over and earn a guest post link for your website, there’s a 6-step process we go through:

    • Identify a powerful, industry-related website
    • Reach out to the publishers and pitch topics for a post
    • Agree with the publishers on a topic
    • Create a high-quality article that includes your link naturally
    • Have our quality control team review the content before we send it to the publisher
    • Send the content to the publisher for publishing

    Relevant, industry-related content with backlink? Mission accomplished. But now you only have…one link. Do you see how much work that took?

    Each link has a small effect at first. This effect snowballs over time. If you increase the number of links (be sure they’re quality), you’ll see an immediate impact. After a bit of time, a more significant jump will occur.

    Going back to competition, if you’re not seeing results in the time you predicted, look at your competitor’s backlink profile. You might notice that your competitors have more inbound links than you do. Those links may even be of higher quality.

    If your website is located further than the second page of SERPs, then it might take longer to see a change. But the change will be drastic when it does come.

    small business data

    Health and Safety Hazard: Link Quality

    You can’t just toss any old link at your site and expect Google to be impressed. Google considers only relevant links when ranking.

    This means that if you’re a bread maker, you probably shouldn’t be getting backlinks from a golf website.

    Another thing Google looks at is the brand authority. The more well known and talked about a site is, the more traffic it receives, the more it’s linked to and the better the SEO link juice.

    How do you check how powerful a website is though?

    Before we review the different tools available to measure the power of a website, I want to make one thing clear: The ranking measurements we’re going to review are not validated by Google. These are measurements and calculations based on what is known about what helps websites rank.

    a. Domain Authority (DA)

    DA is one of the most commonly used metrics for a websites “SEO Power”. This metric is an organic search ranking score built by the team at Moz which predicts how well a website could rank on search engine result pages (SERPs). DA scores range from one to 100. If your website scores closer to 100, Moz predicts that your website has a greater ability to rank. You can sign up for a 30-day free trial with Moz and figure out how powerful the links to your site are. While lower authority links will help in some capacity, and link diversity is essential, it’s the DA 50+ links that we’ve seen give your site a real boost in search, with almost always a steady increase in rank.

    Time: 10 hours/month (Our estimated minimum time to set up an account, perform research on your competition, monitor, strategize, implement optimizations)

    b. Domain Rating (DR)

    Wait a minute, domain rating? What’s that?

    Every website has a domain rating. How do they arrive at that number? Well, it depends on their backlink profile.

    Sites are given a rating from 0 to 100 to represent the strength of their backlink profile. You’re shooting for a 100, of course.

    Domain Rating was created by Ahrefs, and isn’t actually something used by Google. However, you definitely want to know about it because it may not have been confirmed by Google, but it definitely has been shown to improve SEO.

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 9

    Q&A Checkpoint: Master Your Content

    If you’ve been slinging thin and fluffy content for a long time, chances are you hampered your progress. Google now looks at more than just keywords when it comes to content.

    They can see quality content and read context cues. And useless 300-word articles won’t help you rank on Google anymore.

    But in the obverse, if you have excellent content hot off the press, publish, publish, publish!

    Don’t wait for the “right time” to publish well-written and useful content. If it’s advantageous to your readers and your customers, it’s going to have an impact on your SEO. Why? Because it will be read, shared, and possibly linked back to. And while, yes, older pages will rank higher, that’s not an age problem. There is a range of other SEO factors involved there.

    To increase the time it will take to rank a page with content;

    • Publish consistently (Google will crawl you more often this way)
    • Erase thin content that isn’t ranking anyways
    • Figure out what customers and users find useful
    • Create a long-term content strategy

    Don’t wait for the “right time” to publish well-written and valuable content. If it’s advantageous to your readers and your customers, it’s going to have an impact on your SEO.

    SEO manager role

    Hummingbird and Irrelevant Traffic

    Since Hummingbird, you can no longer control what your site might rank for. You might be getting irrelevant traffic to your site.

    This will tank your bounce-rate. It will also signal to Google you’re not putting “relevant content” on your site.

    Thus, you need to figure out what’s happening when people bounce away from your site. Are they getting lost? Are they trying to buy, but bouncing out at the product page?

    You can figure this out by prompting visitors with a short survey. Short meaning “yes” or “no” questions. You can find some valuable data on task completion this way.

    Another way to investigate your bounce rate is to invest in a good heat map software. This allows you to see where users are lingering on your site and helps you understand why they are leaving and what pages they’re exiting.

    The Burning Question: How Long Does SEO Take to Work? 10

    SEO Is About the Long Game

    The difference between SEM and SEO is a bit like the difference between trading and investing.

    With trading, you’re playing the short game. You buy high and sell low. You do this hundreds of times in a day. If you’re good, you make a lot of money in a short amount of time.

    By investing, you play the long game.

    You put your money in something that will provide a great return on investment later down the road.

    The market may fluctuate at points, but if you’re savvy, you’ll stay in the game and eventually win out. Sometimes, investors will have to adjust their portfolios, sell some stocks off or abandon a strategy. But, it’s still not about short-term gains no matter what play they make

    This is how SEO works. Sure, things will fluctuate, and your traffic might not jump immediately, but you don’t panic because you’re playing the long game. Whereas with SEM, you’re tossing money at paid search in hopes of short-term gains.

    If you don’t see results soon, you switch terms and reevaluate your strategy until you have something that works

    How Long Does SEO Take?

    How long does SEO take? The short answer? Anywhere from a few weeks to just get the ball rolling, and a few months to a full year to see results. Results meaning the top of page one rankings and conversions – or, to see a true return on your investment.

    Be aware, however, that once you reach the organic visibility your were striving for, it doesn’t mean that you can just quit doing SEO. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In order to maintain those hard-earned rankings and visibility in SERPs, you have to actively nourish and continue to optimize your website.

    But like everything else, it depends on what you’re doing and how much you’re willing to invest. Start getting a leg up on your competition and boost your SEO the right way. Schedule a consultation today.

    If you have a website, you’ve probably received a phone call or email offering you SEO. Some of these calls promise you the #1 spot on Google search. But what does SEO cost?

    Over 4 billion internet users make 3.5 billion searches per day on Google. In seconds, Google sorts through hundreds of billions of pages and tries to serve up the best results.

    Is it even possible to beat out billions of web pages? Could your site be #1? Yes! By investing in proper SEO, you have a good chance of getting there.

    Imagine that! Everyone in the world seeing your site first when searching your industry.

    What would that be worth to your business? But what would it cost? Check out number two in this SEO Q&A series “How Much Does SEO Actually Cost?

    About The Author:

    Chris Kirksey

    Chris Kirksey

    Chris Kirksey is the CEO of, a Local SEO software & SEO services company reflecting the culmination of a 15+ year obsession with digital marketing. It all started with an eBay business at 9 years old, then transitioning from domain investing and website building. After a 6-year US Army career leading intelligence collection teams both in the US and overseas, Chris now brings a sophisticated approach from cryptologic language and adversary data intelligence to digital marketing and business intelligence. His precision and planning of military campaigns, now reflected in SEO campaigns, have proven successful for clients in industries ranging from law firms to technology startups.
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