SEO today is increasingly driven by natural language search, that is, people doing searches that are more like normal questions than two or three keywords. This is happening because people are using tools like Siri and Google Now to speak their searches, rather than typing them in. And because people are including more detail in their typed searches as they seek to find what they’re looking for faster. These keywords are much easier to rank for, because they’re not as competitive. They are much more relevant because they include more detail, and therefore traffic from these keywords converts at a higher rate. And in aggregate, the number of searches in the long tail often adds up to many more searches than you would get from your “golden keywords.” Therefore the objective, when it comes to rankings, is not to rank for a few top keywords that remain the same over time, but to focus on a much larger number of natural language searches that is growing and changing rapidly.
Rankings Don’t Matter As Much As You Think They Do
Rankings matter. But they’re not the metric you should be focusing on. If, by asking “How long does SEO take to start working?” you mean “How long will it be before I get top rankings?” then you’re mistaking outputs for outcomes, as Seer Interactive founder Wil Reynolds is fond of saying. Getting rankings is an output SEO firms can easily sell because they’re emotionally satisfying, but they’re worthless unless they generate leads or sales–the outcome you want. That’s why you should only hire SEO firms or SEO professionals who focus on outcomes, rather than outputs.
The Question You Should Be Asking
Now that you know how SEO has changed and that you want leads and sales from your SEO firm rather than just rankings, the question you should be asking is “How long will it take for SEO to start generating leads and sales?”
How Long It Takes For SEO To Start Working
Now we’re ready to answer the right question. And the answer is…it depends. Frustrating, isn’t it? But it’s the truth. What does it depend on? It depends on how long your website has been around, how much SEO has been done on it previously, what shape the website is in, how much content is on it, its link profile, and many other SEO factors (see infographic below). No two websites are starting from the same place, even if they’re in the same industry and competing for the same customers. However, here is a plausible scenario for what your SEO efforts might look like during the initial months, and the results you might expect.
Month 1 – Research and discovery, website audit, keyword strategy, and planning. If research and discovery can be done quickly, then technical changes may start being made to the website within the first month. In other cases a thorough research and discovery phase can last more than one month.
Month 2 – Begin technical SEO work, that is, making modification to the website based on site audit results. In some cases the website needs to be overhauled, and this of itself can take months. Other SEO activities such as working on the link profile and building content can be done at the same time the overhaul is happening. If you find yourself in this overhaul situation, you’ll be doing “SEO” but you still won’t be seeing any results at all, since the changes being made will only start to have an impact once they’re finished.
Month 3 – Start focusing on content creation. Blogging, FAQs, whitepapers, articles, expanded product and company information, etc. Ideally you would have started on this right after the strategy and planning, but often budgets restrict what can be done at once, and so a technical overhaul needs to come first. This being the case, you might start seeing some improvements in rankings by the end of this month. If those rankings are translating into leads or sales then even better, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect them yet.
Month 4 – Continued content creation, technical optimization of the website, and development of a healthy link profile (which may include cleaning up low quality links). By this month you could expect to see a marked increase in rankings, traffic, and lead generation. It won’t be anywhere close to the improvements you should 12 months into your SEO efforts, but it should be significant enough that you know SEO is working.
Month 5 – By this month or perhaps earlier in the process you may have started incorporating social media management into your plan to amplify your content and increase direct traffic to your website. This can lead to a healthy, natural link profile, and of course generate leads in and of itself. You would continue with content creation and perhaps engage in some PR or media outreach. You should be seeing more and more traffic coming in from SEO at this point, and your leads should be growing as a result.
Month 6 – If your traffic has reached 5,000 visitors per month or more by this point, you could benefit from adding conversion rate optimization to your efforts to improve how the traffic you’re receiving converts into leads and/or sales. From this point on, your activities may be consistently focused on content creation and promoting that content, or you may be doing things that are more creative. The specific activities can vary greatly depending on what type of company you are and what kind of website you have.
Many SEO firms will tell you that it takes 4 to 6 months to start seeing results. That’s generally accurate, but bear in mind this is when you start seeing results, and SEO results grow over time. Whatever results you’re getting at 6 months should be considerably less than what you’re getting at 12 months. At some point, you may see your results taper off, and then it may be a matter of maintaining results rather than growing them.
Don’t Stop Too Soon
Many companies underestimate how much time and money it takes to be successful with SEO. Success by any standard rarely comes within the first 3 months, even with a healthy SEO budget. I’ve seen companies get started the right way, but quit after 2 to 3 months and say “We just weren’t getting the results we needed to justify the cost.” This tells me they went into the exercise with unrealistic expectations. If you can’t budget for 6 to 12 months of SEO, you might be better off putting that budget somewhere else. Paying for just a few months of SEO is, in many cases, no better than throwing your money away. SEO is a long term marketing tactic, and shouldn’t be seen as a way to generate sales quickly. However, if you make the proper investment, and plan on being in it for the long haul, SEO is a marketing tactic with one of the best ROIs out there.