- Joe Unhammer, Bayshore Solutions
When you search on Google for “how long for SEO to work” — a very meta thing to do — a snippet of text shows up that says 4-6 months. This is the featured snippet Google has chosen to display, and it is from a 5-year-old Forbes article.
Granted, search results may change day-to-day. You could instead see a featured snippet for Dealer Inspire, which provides the same answer, by the way.
Clearly, there’s some consensus around this timeframe.
While this is the answer Google has decided to highlight, and while it comes from an authoritative source, the reality is, as always, a little more complex.
If you read the highlighted Forbes article, you will discover that the deeper answer they give is: it depends.
And it does.
What exactly are you trying to accomplish with your SEO efforts? Are you too focused on outputs or vanity metrics? How long your website has been around, how authoritative does Google consider it to be, and what SEO efforts have been done before? There’s a big difference between building an online presence from scratch and fixing a few issues that are preventing an established website from reaching its true potential.
Here, we explore the unique factors that can determine how long it takes for SEO to work.
Unique Websites Have Unique Challenges
When talking about SEO timelines, one big reason why the most common answer is “it depends” can be attributed to the fact that every business, industry, and website is different. They each exist in their own competitive landscape and have unique conditions that affect their ability to attract organic traffic. If an SEO professional can give you an exact answer upfront, without having done any analysis beforehand, they are probably over promising their results. An honest approach to SEO would require an audit, keyword research, and a holistic look at your business and your industry. Only after having looked into the specifics, should you be guessing on a time frame for SEO results.
SEO Audits: First Things First
Before getting a good idea of what timeframe you’re looking at there are a handful of things an SEO expert needs. These are:
Using SEO software and third-party technology you can analyze a site and identify problem areas and areas of opportunity. This is the first step and probably the one that will give you the best early estimate of a timeframe.
This is a very important early step to guide all your SEO efforts. Which keywords do you want your website to rank for and what does the competition and the volume look like for these terms?
URL, Alt-text, and Site Speed Audit
If there are a lot of issues here more time and money will be needed to make your website successful. On the bright side, you should see some quick improvements when fixing low hanging SEO fruit, but you’ll have further to go to be truly successful.
Meta Data and Title Tag Audit
Another improvement that can provide some quick results is re-writing your meta descriptions and optimizing your title tags. You’ll need to do a crawl of the site to identify the depth of this task.
Some Do’s and Don’ts for Achieving SEO Results
Just because we’re saying SEO can take 4-6 months to see results doesn’t mean you should stop after 6 months and just try to maintain what you have gained. This is apparent in the “optimization” part of SEO, which suggests it is an ongoing effort.
Ideally, you’d be seeing better results after 12 months. An important takeaway is that if you don’t see results after 2-3 months and then stop your efforts, you’ve wasted resources that could have been deployed elsewhere. If you can’t commit to 6 months of SEO work, it might not be worth it to start at all. SEO is not a tactic to quickly generate sales, it is a long term investment into your website and its performance in organic search.
To illustrate what long term SEO should and shouldn’t look like we have some real-world examples.
Early win with no follow-up:
Sometimes certain events beyond the control of your friendly SEO consultant can impact your online traffic. There might have been a new product launch by one of your vendors, a natural disaster, or a worldwide pandemic. Sometimes the marketing department came up with a great idea, the SEO team did a fantastic job optimizing the site and you had a really good month. Then what? Can you just sort of cruise on those accomplishments in the long term. The short answer is no.
SEO is an ongoing process and those gains will eventually fizzle away. Here, we see elevated results for a while, but eventually, they drop down, though still higher than they were before the spike. So in this case you can say that SEO works immediately, but assuming that your goal is to have more than one good month, the real answer is that SEO is a long term strategy.
Example of a Quick Win strategy resulting in low-quality traffic:
Notice the decoupling between impressions and clicks. This is a site with an increasingly high bounce rate and a low dwell time, which at least indirectly will negatively impact your rankings.
So what gives?
There are many news stories and trends that you can jump on to appear in people’s search results, but if you don’t belong there those users are likely to feel like they clicked on your website by mistake or fell for some sort of clickbait. If everyone is searching for kids pools because the weather is getting nicer you could write a blog post about kids pools to capitalize on this traffic. The problem is that you’re selling nuts and fasteners and there is no reason for anyone searching for kids pools to end up on your site. This is an example where how the user’s intent matches up with your authority is not taken into consideration, and intent is incredibly important.
So once SEO starts to work, how long will it keep working? Again, in this case the impact was immediate. The problem is that these new users had a 100% bounce rate and zero dwell time. You can capitalize on trends that are irrelevant to your business, but those result in low-quality leads. It’s also rare that you’ll get traction from a “newsjacking” strategy. Alternatively, you can take the long view and focus on topics your audience genuinely cares about, and build sustainable traffick that way.
Successful long-term SEO strategy:
Continued long-term efforts beyond 4-6 months. As you’ll see there’s an increase in traffic first without clicks really following, leading to a decrease in the conversion rate. But as their SEO efforts continue and specific opportunities to optimize for conversions are implemented, clicks and impressions have the same relative growth. In the first 4-5 months, there isn’t much improvement as the groundwork is being prepared. Then traffic starts increasing at a natural and steady pace. A month or so later, clicks start to catch up and they continue to rise together. After one year clicks and impressions have both doubled.
This is a classic example of setting the expectations early and where the short answer of 4-6 months seems very accurate. If this company had been expecting quick results, they might have quit right before they started seeing results.
SEO Tasks and Timeline
While every case is different there are some best practices you should consider, no matter the website. An SEO timeline could in theory look something like this.
Month 1 - Website Audit and Keyword Research
As mentioned earlier, an audit of the website and keyword research is the first step. Analyzing the space that you work in and your competitors as well as your own business and website is necessary to figure out where there are weaknesses and opportunities. Month one will work as a set-up month and will include more one-time tasks that set you up for success down the road.
Month 2 - Implementation
Assuming that one month was enough time to do the analysis and set-up tasks, month two is when most of the implementation will start. Some websites need a complete overhaul and some only minor tweaks, so what month two looks like varies from project to project. You will implement more technical fixes that you identified in month one. You should also have started on your content strategy but first you need to make sure that the website is firing on all cylinders, so people can find all that quality content that you will be producing.
Month 3 - Add Quality Content
While it is possible to see some near-immediate improvements to your website, expect to continue to put in work without big jumps in the rankings. Now is the time to focus on adding quality content to the site. Consumers enjoy reading custom content and feel more positive about a company after doing so; this is an important aspect of making SEO work for you.
Month 4 - Monitor Preliminary Results
In month 4 you should start to see some improvement to your rankings, but not nearly where you want to be. At this point in the process, there aren’t necessarily any big new items to implement, but rather it’s about keeping up the good work. You should continue to produce quality content and monitor for any technical issues on Google Search Console. While it would be nice to have all technical issues resolved by now, time and budget constraints don’t always allow that. Try to prioritize so the most important edits are done earlier, but leave some technical optimization for later months. This will be an ongoing process anyway as new issues arise.
Months 5 & 6 - Start Link Building
Now that you have all this great content and your website runs like a well-oiled machine, it’s time to work on those links. One part of technical SEO is getting rid of all the toxic links that Google could penalize you for; this should have been done in earlier months. Now it’s time to replace them with quality links from authoritative sites. A big part of link building is doing Public Relations. You should be promoting your content across multiple channels, like social media and email. Reaching out to and maintaining healthy relationships with industry partners is your best avenue into gaining quality links and generating leads.
Months 6 - 12 - Conversion Rate Optimization
Until now we have been focused on a technically optimized site with quality content generating a lot of traffic. But if that traffic doesn’t lead to conversions can you really say that your SEO is “working”? This might be a good time to look at optimizing your webpages for conversions. We need the traffic first, there’s no point in a conversion-friendly page that nobody can find, but without conversions, it will be tough to keep the lights on and the employees paid.
In addition to optimizing for conversions, you still need to continue to produce quality content and monitor for technical issues. You should be actively managing social media and, if you serve local clients, your Google My Business profile. This means replying to all reviews and engaging with your audience.
So, How Long Does SEO Really Take?
SEO is an ongoing process and not something that only happens in the first 4-6 months. This period is just as crucial for your SEO to work. At month 12 you should expect to see a lot more traffic and a lot more conversions than you did in month 4. While this might not be a satisfying answer, since it depends on each individual case, I would say that after 4 months you should expect to see some improvements from SEO in almost all cases, but you should expect to see a lot more after 12 months.
The longer you wait to start SEO, the longer it’ll take to see results — too obvious? So if you’re ready to optimize your website, partner with the Bayshore Solutions today. We have a full-service SEO department that covers all aspects of website optimization.
Joe Unhammer is an SEO specialist at Bayshore Solutions.