How long does SEO take?

It can take as little as two hours for a single blog post to rank; two weeks for a competitive landing page to rank; six months for a series of pages to rank, or over a year for a brand new site to see SEO traction. The generic ‘4-6 months’ answer is exactly that, generic. It’s like asking: ‘How long is a piece of string?’

The image below details the typical order of SEO activity at TopLine along with timescales for completion. Below that we take a deeper dive into the individual aspects, to give you a better idea of how long SEO should take before you invest.

Image showing how long SEO takes

Jump to section:

  1. Outputs vs outcomes
  2. Timelines for different type of SEO
  3. Factors that affect timescales
  4. How long will it take to measure the impact of SEO?
  5. Mistakes to avoid
  6. Conclusion

Outputs vs outcomes

As with most marketing disciplines the results of undertaking the work (outputs) and the effects of those results (outcomes), are very different. Let’s have a look at a few examples.

SEO outputs

Output: time it takes for a page to be indexed by Google.
Timescale: almost instantly – a matter of hours.
Explanation: it is easy to go into Search Console (the free tool Google gives you to manage your website) and prompt Google (see image) to index a page of content (crawl it and add it to its search results pages). Given there are no underlying issues with your site preventing content indexing, you should see almost immediate success.

Search Console index tool image for how long does SEO take page

Output: followed link/brand mention publication.
Timescale: instant (if you’ve been doing stuff that warrant links – think public relations for example – some of the best links we’ve ever generated have been a happy offshoot of a great PR campaign), otherwise, about a month.
Explanation: if you’re going to do it the manual way, you’ve got a couple of options: 1) create a great piece of content and promote it to encourage third parties to sue it a s a point of reference 2) pitch thought leadership to publications you suspect will link back to your website in return for great editorial (and no, I’m not talking about ‘guest blogging’, I’m talking about running an editorial session with your thought leaders to understand the prevalent issues in your industry, building interesting media pitches based on these conversations, researching relevant publications your target audience might be reading, pitching the journalists exclusive angles one by one, drafting the content once agreed with them and then submitting it for review – anyone who tells me that’s ‘guest blogging’ is getting a passive aggressive email) – I’m making the assumption that it’ll take you about a month to go through this process

SEO outcomes

Output: first place ranking for a target keyword.
Timescale: one month to never.
Explanation: key here is the word ‘target’. A target keyword is one that’s important to your business. A keyword or phrase that’ll result in you attracting the type of traffic to your site that you think will convert. Beware of the SEO agency that promises first place rankings on keywords that don’t matter. How do you know if they matter or not? Check what your competitors are ranking for and if in doubt test keywords in AdWords campaigns – yes you’re paying for the traffic, but it’ll give you an indication of what kinds of words and phrases attract your best customers and convert.

The ‘one month’ timescale is because first place ranking may simply require you to create an outstanding piece of keyword optimised content that perfectly satisfies your user’s intent. Oh and I say ‘never’ in the timescale section, because sometimes you’ll never be able to outrank the first place result – think an aggregator like TechRadar ranking first for ‘video conferencing software’ – it then becomes a case of ‘if you can beat ‘em, join ‘em’ (don’t beat yourself up; www.techradar.com’s got like 29.5 million inbound links, that’s a tough ask even for the most competent SEO…).

Output: more organic traffic.
Timescale: a few days to six months.
Explanation: let’s assume your website doesn’t rank for you brand name (and you’ve got a distinguishable one and you haven’t named your company after an animal or a colour or something). Let’s also assume you’ve got prospects actively searching for you online. Make a few changes to the meta data on your homepage, optimise the content and resubmit for indexing, claim your google My Business page and boom – you start ranking and prospects can now quickly and easily find you. This is useful, as this type of traffic is likely to convert.

The longer end of this timescale (six months) is me assuming month one of any SEO project involves technical audits and keyword research etc. Month two has been spent drafting the first batch of content. And month three involves you (the client) signing it off and us publishing it. It may be that the first few pieces of content don’t perform that well organically (though we do have a lot of success given the SEO research and creation efforts we put in) and you need to build up a critical mass over six months before you start seeing decent rankings and increased volumes of organic traffic. We normally find we have a few early organic winners with our content efforts and that’s where the increases in traffic come from.

Be aware – new regulations from the UK’s ICO makes marketing cookies ‘non-essential’ – if you comply it means your traffic analytics are about to become pretty much redundant – research shows the ICO lost over 75% of its traffic visibility following the move.

Output: more leads from organic traffic.
Timescale: a few days to six to eight months.
Explanation: once again if we assume you don’t even rank for your brand name and prospects are searching for you online (if they’re not, then this is a separate challenge and will involve targeting the kinds of keywords and phrases they are actually searching for) then as discussed, you could see some quick wins. If you’ve already exploited all the low hanging SEO fruit, then it’s a longer slog.

It’ll involve you having a very careful discussion with your SEO agency regards objectives. If the objective is to increase traffic by any means possible then they’re going to recommend high search volume long tail keywords – ones that are less competitive that you’re going to have decent chance of ranking for if you produce great, user focussed content. If that’s not the remit however and you make it clear you’re interested in quality traffic (i.e. high conversion traffic) rather than quantity of traffic, then a couple of things are going to happen: 1) your SEO provider will need to gain a good understanding of the types of keywords that prospects ready to convert are searching for 2) they’ll then need to prioritise content (often in the form of landing pages on your main website for example) designed to rank for these keywords and designed to convert traffic that visit these pages.

At TopLine for example, our SEO strategies will often focus on attracting bottom of funnel traffic in the opening six months before moving onto content designed for the research phase of a prospect’s journey.

Timelines for different SEO exercises

Now let’s take a look at what’s involved in specific SEO activities to give you a better idea of how long each should take.

  • Keyword research – a multi-step process that’ll involve your SEO agency talking to your sales team, doing industry research and reviewing your competitors’ websites (amongst quite a few other things). Then they need to create a matrix of target keywords, research search volumes, assess difficulty, and group them logically according to which ones belong on which pages on your website. Time required: up to 30 hours depending on the scope of the project.
  • Directory structure planning – an exercise stemming from the keyword research. Your SEO provider will want to analyse the pages that currently exist on your site and consider whether they’re fit for purpose. It may involve reorganising the directory structure (moving pages to new locations), it may require adding new pages or it may require edits to existing ones. Time required: depends on the size of the site but for an average site with a few hundred pages it should take around five hours.
  • Technical onsite/offsite audit – at TopLine our technical audit includes over 100 factors. While some of these can be automated using the SEO software we have inhouse, many require manual review by trained professionals. Time required: once again, depends on the size of the site, but for an average site with a few hundred pages it should take around five to ten hours
  • Inbound link analysis – reviewing the hyperlinks pointing at your site from other websites. Your SEO provider needs to understand (amongst other things) how many links there are (and how many are followed links vs nofollow links); the types of sites they’re on (are the sites spammy; are they contextually relevant?); the pages they point at on your site; the anchor text of the links; what your link profile looks like versus your competitors’ link profiles. Time required: entirely dependent on the volume of links to analyse, but budget up to five hours initially.
  • Editorial brainstorm – this session is required in order to develop interesting thought leadership angles that can be pitched to authoritative editorial publications in order to generate brand mentions and link opportunities. The SEO team will need to research your company (including an analysis of previous editorial coverage), your industry (hot topics etc.), and your competitors. They then need to conduct calls with your subject matter experts and turn the resulting information into PR angles ready for pitching. Time required: 20-30 hours.
  • Tracking and goal setup – adding agreed keywords to tracking software, setting up Google Analytics, Search Console, Tag Manager etc. Time required: 2-3 hours.
  • Strategy development – findings from all of the above research needs to be visualised in a month by month SEO strategy with rows pertaining to content, link/brand building, technical fixes etc. Time required: up to ten hours.

Factors that affect timescales

These are the classic factors that affect how long it takes from starting an SEO campaign to seeing it result in leads and revenue.

  • Domain authority – how authoritative is your domain? This will often be dictated by the number and quality of links pointing at it. Once you understand this (and it’s easy to grasp – use Moz’s domain analysis tool to take a look at your DA score – then search for a few of the keywords you think you’ll want to target. Take a look at the DA scores of your online competitors – is yours better? Worse? Comparable?) you’ll have a better idea of how long it’ll take to compete organically. Director of acquisition at HubSpot and co-founder of Traffic Think Tank, Matthew Howells-Barby, agrees:

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  • Competition – as mentioned above, the competition will often have a big impact on how long SEO will take you. Certain keywords will naturally return more competitive results, so if it looks like you can’t compete in the short to medium term, start thinking about the types of keyword you’re targeting. Maybe go after longer keywords (e.g. questions) that don’t return as competitive results. Howells-Barby agrees:

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  • Content – how much do you have on your site? How much of it is designed to rank for your target keywords? Even if you have a site with a relatively low domain authority you can still compete if you’re producing and publishing the best content possible that does a really good job of satisfying searcher intent.
  • State of site – you can use Moz’s free domain overview tool to give you a better idea of how healthy your site is from an SEO perspective. Classic issues we find include hreflang tag confusion, missing or contradictory canonicalisation, random no indexing tags carried over from staging sites etc. Getting most stuff fixed isn’t too taxing unless you have a big site with multiple stakeholders where making changes is difficult.
  • Development support – once again, if you have a big site and your web dev team has a lot other priorities then your SEO changes may end up a long way down the dev list. Tools like Google Tag Manager can help collapse these timescales by allowing your SEO team to inject tags (snippets of code or tracking pixels) directly to pages without making changes to the code.

How long will it take to measure the impact of SEO?

It’s important to consider micro and macro measurements to ensure you get a clear picture, asap, of whether you’re making progress with your SEO efforts. Here’s a few common measurements our SEO team at TopLine uses to measure success.

  • Content indexing – as soon as you publish a piece of content you can log into your Search Console account and request Google indexes it. If this piece of content then shows up in Google – success! – you’re well on your way to generating more organic traffic and leads. Use search operators to search for content in Google’s index. If you own the domain example.com and your write a blog about blue widgets that resides at the following URL example.com/blog/best-blue-widgets then type the following into Google: site:example.com inurl:blog/best-blue-widgets. If it’s been crawled and indexed by Google, the page will show up in the Googles search results. Time to measure results: hours.
  • Keyword tracking – there are loads of different types of keyword tracking software out there. Fundamentally they tell you where your website appears in the non-paid results for the keywords you’re interested in. Of course, until you have content designed to rank for said keywords you probably won’t rank anywhere for any of them, but once you’ve drafted content and published it you’ll be on your way. We normally find with every new project there are a few nice surprises where a client will rank well (somewhere on page one) as soon as the new content goes live. Be aware: new sites in particular will often enjoy a ranking spike, especially fi there’s a lot of PR/link building activity taking place at the same time as the new content going live – rankings will then settle. Time to measure results: not factoring in the time taken for content creation, almost instantly – as long as it takes for the content to be indexed. However this may result in a ranking on page five of the search results which is no good to you. Time taken to reach page one: depends on your marketing resource and the competition in front of you on the search engine result pages.
  • Impressions/clicks – impressions are how many times a user saw a link to your site in the organic search results. Clicks are how many times users clicked on those results. Below is a screenshot from Search Console for a site we launched in March 2019. It was supported with a rigorous programme of keyword research, content creation, PR (and as a consequence – link/brand building). Time to measure results: with a well-planned SEO strategy behind it, it only takes days to start seeing impressions and clicks.

Image of clicks and impressions over 12 month period for how long does SEO take page

  • Organic traffic – this is the good stuff! The outcome of the output (rankings) is increases in organic traffic resulting from users finding your content online and clicking through to your site. Time to measure results: days – as soon as the content starts ranking you’ll see a gradual increase in organic traffic. The faster you get great content live the faster you’ll generate more organic traffic. Below is a graph from a B2B site we launched in March last year.

Image of organic traffic from March to Jan for how long does SEO take page

  • Leads/qualified leads – this is the ultimate objective of your SEO efforts. The beauty of SEO is it targets prospects when they’re ready to buy (unlike PPC which will often target prospects based on keywords related to the research apart of the sales funnel). Time to measure results: six to twelve months (dependent on existing authority of site versus your online competitors) – given roughly equal levels of website authority, we’d anticipate lead generation to occur from around the six month mark, though it could take a lot longer if you’re working with a new domain. Either way the SEOs you employ should be able to give you an estimation based on the research they initially conduct. Expect to have to pay for this research – it will be a significant undertaking.

Mistakes to avoid

  • Assuming AdWords spend influences organic rankings and speeds up results – it doesn’t. Period.
  • Overnight results – the impact of SEO can be huge and the ROI incredible. However, it’s not an overnight fix. In the age of agile growth hacking, SEO still has its place, but it’s a long term strategy that needs to be maintained in perpetuity if you want to keep benefitting from those lovely organic clicks.
  • Fail to prepare, prepare to fail – you can jump in feet first but success will be limited. Plan, plan and plan some more. Come up with a strategy broken down into tactics – on and offsite content, technical fixes, link and brand building etc. and then prioritise them according to your unique situation. There is no one size fits all solution.
  • Getting what you pay for – would you expect someone who can help you generate hundreds if not thousands of qualified leads every year to charge you a thousand pounds a month for the privilege? No, neither would we. Yet we still regularly field calls from prospects with a budget in the hundreds of pounds a month. We currently bill £125 an hour and most of our SEO strategies will start at 30-40 hours a month.
  • Hiring an old school agency – the agencies that are telling you it’ll cost hundreds a month are the same agencies that price it low because they use spammy, outdated, cookie cutter tactics (they usually own a link network and charge by the keyword). Want to hire the right agency for your company? Check out Google’s advice on hiring an SEO agency.

Conclusion

Search engine optimisation is a fantastic investment for a lot of businesses but it’s exactly that, an investment. Key performance indicators will move in order: keyword rankings improving, organic traffic increasing, leads and qualified leads rising. But the answer to how long it takes is almost entirely dependent on your objectives, what success looks like to you, and the competition you’re facing. Let me leave with you with some final words from Howells-Barby on timescales:

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