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).
A better question is “How long will it take for our SEO efforts to start generating leads and sales?”
The metrics you should measure should 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.
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.
- The age of your domain and website
- Your domain history
- Your previous SEO efforts
- Meta data
- Geographic location
- Target market/audience
- Size of your business
- Size of the website
- Web design
- Link profile
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
In order not to leave you with just an “it depends” answer, here are the 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.
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.
However, as mentioned before, 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
Companies have three months in mind as the magic number for when SEO starts to ‘work’. They often give 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.
Three to six months is more realistic; six to 12 months most likely.
Empty rankings and empty traffic are useless. If the traffic doesn’t translate into leads and purchases, you’re focusing on the wrong part of SEO.
Three to six months is a realistic timeline to start seeing positive results from SEO. Six to twelve months is most likely.
PS. The sad thing is (well, it’s a happy thing for SEO companies) that you can’t stop. Over time the positive changes begin to taper off. Competitors start innovating, some links disappear, etc. The moment you stop, you slowly start moving backwards.