One of the most common questions we receive as we interact with prospects and clients is simply this: How long will it take for SEO to work?

Most people we speak with believe SEO can work, but they have an understandable skepticism of whether it actually will. We’ve spoken with many people who have been burned by other SEO companies. They walk away after a year not knowing what was actually done for them and feeling like it was all a scam. If this describes you, we certainly understand your skepticism when yet another SEO company tells you that SEO is a long-term play and you’ll have to be patient before you see results.

However, a little education goes a long way, and once we create a clear strategy and explain the factors that determine how long it will take to get results, we find that business owners get on board. There are many factors to consider before giving someone an estimate on how long it will take for the campaign to get traction. While there is no specific number that applies to all companies, Google themselves say to give an SEO company 4-12 months to produce results.  At Firestarter SEO, we usually see campaigns get their first real success between 4-6 months.

Most clients’ data closely follow what you see in this graph. Movement is usually fairly slow for the first 3 months or so. Inevitably there are small wins here and there, but things don’t really start happening until between months 4-6. Once the momentum starts building, it continues to accelerate each month after. This absolutely varies based on a number of factors, which we’ll dive into now.

Keyword Strategy

One of the biggest factors in any SEO campaign is the keyword strategy implemented. Many companies have unrealistic ranking expectations due to a lack of experience with keyword targeting. For example, a small landscaping company may think they want to target and rank for “Landscaping.” Once we explain that the competition on such a broad keyword is enormous and that a better, more targeted keyword may be “Landscaping Company in Denver” they reset their expectations. There are a few key things that go into choosing target keywords, so check out our guide here. What we want is to choose keywords that will increase our clients’ bottom lines and do so in a reasonable time period.

Starting Rankings

Once the keywords have been identified, a major factor that helps us understand how long a campaign will take to start getting results is where the client’s starting point is. If our client is sitting on the second page for a variety of our target keywords, the timeline is bumped up. Conversely, if they have zero rankings at all, it’s going to be a longer push. It is significantly easier to move someone from the second page to the first than if we’re starting from scratch.

Competition

The hard reality is that in most cases, your competition is also doing SEO. Depending on the industry, though, we find that only a select few companies are putting enough focus on their SEO strategy to make it truly effective.  These instances produce an opportunity to leapfrog competitors who aren’t doing anything for their online visibility. On the other hand, some spaces are full of companies actively working on SEO. In these cases, it’s crucial to have a clear strategy and work smarter than your competitors and their SEO firms. Ultimately, a good SEO company should be able to quickly identify what the competition looks like and how active they are with their own SEO.

Link Profile

Part of assessing the timeline for SEO is looking at your link profile, along with your competition’s. A quick scan of your links allows us to see exactly how established you are and what you’re up against.. Here’s an example of what we run:

 

Metric CLIENT COMP 1 COMP 2 COMP 3
Domain Authority 25 35 34 27
Total External Links 1.3k 6.8k 7.8k 4.1k
Total Links 13.5k 161k 219k 3.9k
Total Linking Root Domains 221 681 554 158

 

Let’s break it down into more understandable terms. The first thing we look at is the Domain Authority. DA is a Moz-specific metric and not an exact reflection of Google’s algorithm. However, it gives us a general idea of how authoritative your site is on a scale of 1-100, and where you are compared to the competition. In the case above, our client is established (Domain Authority of 25), but we can see that they are behind the curve compared to their top three opponents, who all post higher DA scores.

Next, we look at the link breakdown. While Total Links and Total External Links are important, we often pay more attention to the Total Linking Root Domains—in other words, how many unique websites are pointing to your site. This metric gives us a much better gauge of how difficult it would be to overtake your competitors. With the numbers above, it’s clear that link acquisition will play a major role in this client’s SEO strategy since they are well behind their top two competitors. It will probably take a longer, consistent effort to catch up since we likely won’t be able to acquire 400 links in just a couple of months.

Content

The next area we want to consider in a timeframe estimation is the content on the site. We often inherit content that is extremely basic and thin. Our job when a client comes on board is to optimize this content. This means adding relevant, valuable content for your customers. In the process of enriching the site content, we also have opportunities to optimize it for that page’s target keyword. Contrary to what many people believe, this does not mean keyword stuffing at every opportunity we get. Usually, the keyword or a variation of it is only used 2-3 times in the text of any given page. Most importantly, we want the structure optimized with proper titles, headings, bullet points, pictures, etc.

Crawl Errors 

A very influential component of how fast SEO can work falls down to the crawl errors we find. Using tools like Moz or Agency Analytics, we are able to identify items on a client’s website that could cause search engines to diminish their trust in the site. These span a very wide range, from 404 errors all the way to missing alt text on images. When auditing a site, we want to know how many errors are found, and what type. There are critical errors (like 404’s), and some that have minimal impact (like a missing meta description). The answers from that audit will give us a good idea of what the scope of the project looks like.

Site Speed

Website speed has grown more and more important over time. With Google’s emphasis on mobile-first search, its importance has increased even more. We need to ensure that your site is mobile friendly and fast on a mobile device. Using tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights, we can quickly see a site’s performance and what needs to be done. Page speed can be tricky to fix, though. Sometimes it can be a simple plugin, and other times it may require much more extensive work like re-coding areas of the site, upgrading hosting, etc.

Site Size

At Firestarter SEO, we often have companies primed and ready to roll, but in our initial audit we find a glaring problem – their site is extremely small. What we mean by this is that they have a home page, a services page, maybe an “About Us” page, and a contact page. The issue arises when we learn they have 20 key offerings for their business, and all of them are found on the services page. Ideally, each page should have its own target keyword. At most, you should target 2 keywords per page. This means if the site size were to stay the same (4 pages), you’d be limited to targeting 4-8 keywords, and the rest of your services would be underserved. To combat this, we often need to build out the website. By creating unique service pages for each core service, we bolster our ability to target the right keywords on a given page and to target many more words overall.

Site Age

One last factor we take into consideration in determining how long SEO takes to work is the age or longevity of the site. Google likes established sites who have survived the test of time. Think of it this way – let’s say you were looking to build your dream home. This is what you’ve worked towards your whole life. If all things were equal, and you had to choose between a custom home builder who has been around for 30 years, versus a custom home builder who just started a couple of months ago, who would you trust to build your dream home? Chances are you’ll go with the company who has been established. Google treats your site the same way. Most brand new sites take a while to establish trust with the search engines.

Putting it All Together

While there are certainly other factors at play in projecting the length of an SEO campaign’s success, at the end of the day there is no exact science. Google could release a major algorithm change a few months in, which would push back the entire project. The key to success is consistency and fine-tuning all of the elements we mentioned above.

SEO is truly a process of accumulation that relies on consistent effort. It requires patience and the ability to put in the work, and if you give up after a month or two, you’ll never see results. We always position SEO as a long-term play. When done right, it can produce truly remarkable results and a phenomenal ROI for nearly any business or industry.