How Long Does SEO Take to Work? Thoughts from SEOTesting

Written by Ryan Jones. Updated on 06, June 2024

In this blog post, we are going to answer an age-old question. How long does SEO take to work?

Stick with us, and you'll learn more about how to fully understand SEO, the different factors that impact SEO timing, and a breakdown of how a typical SEO campaign goes. And we will also give you tips on how to build an SEO strategy and measure your success.

So let's get into it.

TL;DR: How Long Does SEO Take to Work?

The time it takes for SEO to show results can vary significantly, largely depending on several factors.

One of the primary factors is the current state of your website and its existing online presence. A new website with no prior SEO efforts might take longer to see results, often ranging from six months to a full year. This duration is needed for search engines to index and rank the site's content and for the site to build the required authority and trust within search engines.

Additionally, the competitiveness of the industry and the keywords targeted also play a crucial role. Highly competitive keywords in a saturated market require more time and effort to rank compared to less competitive ones.

Understanding SEO

SEO is a massive aspect of a successful digital marketing strategy, and it's pivotal for enhancing the visibility and ranking of websites on the SERPs. Fundamentally, SEO involves a set of strategies and techniques aimed at increasing the quantity (and, more importantly, the quality) of traffic to a website through organic search results.

SEO can be broadly divided into three main components:

  • On-Page SEO: This focuses on optimising elements on your website to improve rankings. It includes optimising your content, improving page performance, and ensuring you're using different keywords throughout your site. Effective on-page SEO involves creating high-quality, relevant, informative, and keyword-rich content. It also entails optimising headings, HTML tags, and images. The goal is to make each page of your website an accurate reflection of the content's subject matter, easily understood and categorised by search engines.
  • Off-Page SEO: Off-Page SEO refers to actions taken outside your website to impact your rankings. It revolves around building backlinks. High-quality and relevant backlinks from reputable sites can significantly boost your website's credibility and, in turn, its ranking. Off-Page SEO also includes strategies like social media marketing and influencer outreach, which help increase your website's exposure and reputation.
  • Technical SEO: This area focuses on your website's non-content elements. It includes strategies to improve a site's backend structure and foundation. Technical SEO improves readability and provides users with a good experience, which helps search engines see that the site is high-quality. Critical aspects of technical SEO include site speed, mobile-friendliness, the ease at which pages are crawled and indexed, site architecture, structured data and security.

An important note to remember is that SEO is an ever-evolving field. Search engines like Google continually update their algorithms to provide the best search results for users. These changes can affect how they rank websites and interpret the different on-page, off-page and technical things you do to rank higher. Therefore, staying ahead of the game and keeping yourself up-to-date on Google's algorithms is crucial.

We can see just how many broad core algorithm updates Google are doing when we look at our data within SEOTesting:

On SEOTesting we add Google updates to graphs for better context.

That's nine updates in the space of 12 months!

By understanding and implementing these components of SEO effectively, businesses and content creators can significantly enhance their online presence, ensuring that their website not only attracts lots of visitors but also delivers a user-friendly experience that keeps them engaged and even gets them to convert!

Factors that Impact SEO Timing

Various factors will influence the timeline for seeing tangible results from your SEO efforts. These factors are crucial in setting realistic expectations and timelines for SEO campaigns. Understanding these elements is essential for any successful SEO strategy.

Industry Competition

When we talk about industry competition, the analysis of competitive keywords vs the more long-tail keywords you will target is vital. High-competition keywords, typically short and general, face stiff competition from numerous websites, making them more challenging to rank for. On the other hand, long-tail keywords, which are more specific and often longer, face less competition, presenting a more accessible entry point for new or smaller websites.

The search volume of keywords is another critical aspect. Keywords with higher search volumes indicate more competition, as more websites target these high-traffic terms.

Furthermore, the number of websites competing in the same space can significantly influence the time required to move up the SERPs, especially in crowded industries or industries with many competitors.

Starting Point

The starting point of any given SEO campaign is equally important.

The current state of a website's SEO, including its existing backlink profile, content quality, and technical SEO setup, sets the stage for how quickly any improvements can be made.

The distinction between a brand-new website and an established one is also significant. New websites often need to undergo a period of earning trust with search engines and, because of that, may take longer to see results. Established websites, with their history and authority, might experience quicker SEO success.

Additionally, the budget allocated for SEO plays a pivotal role. A larger budget allows for a more comprehensive approach, encompassing high-quality content creation, extensive link-building campaigns, and significant technical enhancements.

SEO Strategies Employed

The choice of SEO strategies is critical to the success of any campaign. Strategies like content creation, link building, and digital PR are fundamental. However, integrating these strategies will often determine the effectiveness of an SEO campaign.

Let's say, for example, that you are not creating the best content but are acquiring some of your industry's most relevant and authoritative backlinks. You may find more success than a website creating industry-leading content but not earning any backlinks.

A holistic approach which combines content, links, and a digital presence (think social media) tends to yield more robust and sustainable results over time.

Quality of Content

The quality of a website's content is a cornerstone of almost every single SEO campaign being performed today. High-quality, relevant content engages the audience and is heavily favoured by search engines. Content that aligns with user intent and provides substantial value is far more likely to earn backlinks, social shares, and repeat visits. These factors are critical signals to search engines, indicating the content's relevance and quality.

User Experience

Finally, the role of user experience in SEO is undeniable, although some SEOs will still debate on Twitter about its direct importance to an SEO campaign.

Factors like site speed, mobile-friendliness, intuitive navigation, and user engagement metrics (like engagement rate and time on site) are crucial to any successful SEO campaign.

Search engines will prioritise websites that offer an excellent user experience, aligning with their goal of providing the best possible results to users.

Understanding these factors will help accurately gauge the time it might take for an SEO strategy to bear fruit. Remember that SEO is a long-term investment; success hinges on patience and consistent effort.

I have a quote I like to use here... It's important to be consistently good over occasionally great. Focus on getting quality content out there regularly, building relevant backlinks when you can, and maintaining importance on providing users with a good experience, and you will see growth.

The result of consistent publishing and good SEO work is likely to be similar to the graph in the picture showing traffic going up over time.

This is what you should expect to see from a good, long-term SEO strategy.

The SEO Timeline: A Breakdown

Understanding the SEO timeline is crucial for setting realistic expectations and effectively managing an SEO strategy. This is equally important whether you are setting out expectations for yourself or stakeholders in a project.

This section breaks down the SEO journey into two perspectives: the immediate and ongoing strategies and the typical milestones you can expect to see over time.

Short-Term vs Long-Term SEO

The distinction between short-term and long-term SEO strategies is foundational to understanding how SEO works over time.

Short-term SEO focuses on immediate actions that can lead to quick wins. These include optimising existing content, performing content refreshes, improving meta titles and descriptions, and ensuring website technical health, such as improving or maintaining site speed and mobile-friendliness. Short-term strategies often aim to capitalise on low-hanging fruits, quickly boosting search visibility and user experience. You'll often see SEO agencies employing this short-term SEO strategy when they first take on a new client to help the client see the value in a longer-term investment.

In contrast, long-term SEO is about ongoing strategies that build sustainable results. This includes new content creation, strategic keyword research & targeting, building a solid backlink profile, and enhancing the website's overall user experience. Long-term SEO is an ongoing process of refining and adapting to search engine algorithm changes, market trends, and evolving user behaviour. It requires patience and persistence, as the most significant benefits are realised over an extended period.

Typical Milestones in the SEO Journey

Several vital milestones can characterise the SEO journey, typically observed around the 1, 3, 6, and 12-month marks, assuming a well-researched and executed strategy.

1 Month: Within the first month of your SEO campaign, the focus is on foundational SEO tasks and the 'quick win' tasks we discussed earlier in the article. This includes conducting keyword research, optimising website structure, improving technical SEO, and setting up tracking and analytics tools. You may see some improvements in keyword rankings, particularly for long-tail and less competitive keywords.

3 Months: By the third month, efforts in content creation and optimisation (essentially, creating brand new content and refining existing content) should bear fruit. You may notice increased organic traffic, improved rankings for targeted keywords, and enhanced user engagement metrics. This is also the time to refine and adjust your strategy based on initial performance data.

6 Months: At the half-year mark, the impact of consistent content creation, optimisation, and link-building efforts becomes much more apparent. Improved rankings for more competitive keywords, a steady increase in organic traffic, and a higher domain authority (if you or your clients are tracking this as a KPI) are common indicators of progress. You should also see increased indexed pages, as you should have continued creating brand-new content.

12 Months: After a year, a well-implemented SEO strategy should have yielded significant improvements by now. This includes strong rankings in SERPs, substantial growth in organic traffic, and improved conversion rates. At this stage, the focus shifts to maintaining the rankings you have gotten over the year, exploring new keyword opportunities, and continuously improving and optimising user experience on your site/s.

It's important to note, however, that these milestones are indicative and can vary based on industry, competition, and the effectiveness of the SEO strategy itself. SEO is a long-term commitment, and the actual value lies in ongoing efforts and adaptability to the ever-changing digital landscape.

Building your SEO Strategy

Crafting an effective SEO strategy is a meticulous process that requires setting realistic goals, implementing strategies for short-term wins, and establishing long-term tactics for sustained growth and success.

Here's how to approach each of these crucial components.

Setting Realistic Goals

Setting realistic goals is the first step to building a successful SEO strategy. These goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

Yes, that's right, your goals should be SMART.

Start by assessing your website's current state and understanding your market's competitive landscape. Goals could include improving keyword rankings, increasing organic traffic, enhancing user engagement, or boosting conversion rates. It's important to align these goals with your business objectives and to set benchmarks that can be realistically achieved within a given timeframe.

Remember, SEO is a long game, and setting overly ambitious goals can lead to disappointment and the misallocation of resources.

Key Strategies for Short-Term Wins

Specific strategies can yield quick results in the short term and set the stage for more extensive SEO efforts.

On-page optimisation should be a priority, as well as enhancing title tags, meta descriptions, headers, and images with relevant keywords.

Tackling technical SEO improvements is also vital. This includes boosting site speed as much as possible, ensuring any websites covered within the SEO strategy are all fully mobile-optimised, and fixing broken links.

Optimising for local SEO can provide an almost instant visibility boost for businesses with a physical presence, like brick-and-mortar stores. This entails claiming and refining your GMB listing and getting listed in relevant local directories.

Another effective strategy is to refresh existing content. Updating and republishing older posts with current information and relevant keywords can significantly impact your rankings.

Graph showing growth in traffic after a content refresh.

Here's an image showing the results of a content refresh we completed in 2022. Following the content refresh, you can see the near-immediate increase in clicks and impressions.

Long-Term SEO Tactics for Sustained Growth

The long-term success of an SEO strategy hinges on building a robust foundation for ongoing growth.

Developing a comprehensive content strategy is central to this. It involves creating and regularly publishing high-quality, relevant, and informative content that resonates with your audience.

Building a strong backlink profile is another critical long-term tactic. This can be achieved through guest blogging (although the effectiveness of this varies), content collaborations, and creating fantastic content that naturally attracts backlinks.

Continuously improving the user experience is also essential. Key factors include a user-friendly website design, fast page loading speeds, and intuitive navigation.

As your website gains authority, gradually expand your keyword targeting, moving from niche, long-tail keywords to more competitive ones.

Regular performance tracking is crucial as well. Utilise analytics tools like GA4 to understand user behaviour, track keyword rankings, and refine your strategies based on these insights.

A successful SEO strategy is dynamic and requires continuous attention and adjustment. By setting realistic goals and balancing short-term tactics with long-term work, you can build a robust SEO framework that drives sustained growth and success for years to come!

Measuring SEO Success

Understanding and effectively measuring SEO success is crucial in determining the impact of your strategies and allowing you to make necessary adjustments. This involves diving into SEO metrics and KPIs, leveraging the right tools and techniques for tracking progress, and knowing how to pivot your strategy based on insights.

Understanding SEO Metrics and KPIs

SEO metrics and KPIs are essential benchmarks for measuring the effectiveness of your SEO strategy.

Organic traffic, for example, is a primary indicator, where an increase suggests (on the face of it at least) successful SEO. Keyword rankings reflect the visibility of your website in search engine results, with higher rankings typically leading to more traffic.

The quality and quantity of backlinks pointing to your website signify your site's authority and general credibility.

Your site's CTR measures how compelling your page titles and meta descriptions are, and metrics like bounce rate and time on site indicate user engagement levels with your content.

Tools & Techniques for Tracking SEO Progress

Tracking SEO progress requires the use of specialised tools.

Google Analytics is fundamental for monitoring website traffic and user behaviour. Google Search Console provides insights into your website's performance in Google's search results. SEO suites like Semrush, Ahrefs, and Moz also offer advanced capabilities for keyword tracking, backlink analysis, and competitor research.

These tools are invaluable in providing the data needed to understand how well your website performs in terms of SEO.

Pivoting your Strategy Based on Analytics

The insights gained from analytics are not just for observation but are crucial for strategic decision-making.

If specific keywords are underperforming, consider targeting different keywords or revising your content. A stagnation or decline in organic traffic calls for investigating potential causes like technical SEO issues, algorithm changes, rising competition, and a subsequent adjustment in your content and SEO strategy. If backlink efforts are falling short, try creating more linkable content or exploring other link-building strategies. You can improve content quality, site speed, or user experience for pages with high bounce rates or low time on site.

This process of continuous monitoring and willingness to adapt your strategy based on analytical insights and actual data ensures that your SEO efforts remain aligned with your goals and are effectively driving the desired results.

SEO is a dynamic field that requires constant attention and adjustment. By regularly tracking key metrics and being flexible in your approach, you can effectively guide your SEO strategy towards success.

Common SEO Myths and Misconceptions

In the realm of SEO, misconceptions often lead to unrealistic expectations, particularly the myth of instant SEO results. This section aims to debunk this common misunderstanding and set a more realistic perspective on SEO timelines.

The Myth of 'Instant' SEO Results

One widespread myth in SEO is the expectation of immediate results after implementing various SEO strategies and tactics. This myth arises from a need for more understanding of search engine operations and the fundamental nature of SEO.

Contrary to this belief, SEO is inherently a long-term endeavour. Search engines use complex algorithms to crawl, index, and rank websites, and these processes do not bode well for instant changes. Adjustments to a website's SEO take time to reflect in search engine rankings.

Why Instant Results are Unrealistic

Expecting quick improvements in rankings and traffic falls short of acknowledging several key factors:

Firstly, search engines periodically update their index, and it takes time to recognise and assess the changes made to a website.

The competitive nature of most industries also means that climbing the SERPs is a gradual process, requiring you to outperform competitors in content quality, user experience, and other SEO aspects.

Additionally, developing high-quality content and building a robust backlink profile are crucial but time-consuming elements of SEO. These efforts require recognition from users and search engines, which only happens after some time.

Furthermore, frequent algorithm updates necessitate ongoing adaptations and changes to SEO strategies, which takes time and effort.

Setting Realistic Expectations

For businesses and SEO practitioners, setting realistic goals is critical.

Significant changes in rankings and traffic are measured over months and years, not immediately. Whilst initial improvements, especially from technical SEO adjustments or content optimisation, might be visible in the short term, more substantial progress is typically slower.

Success in SEO hinges on a consistent, quality-focused approach, emphasising aspects like content, user experience, and technical optimisation. Viewing SEO as a long-term investment rather than a quick fix is vital.

In conclusion, understanding and effectively implementing SEO is a journey marked by patience, persistence, and adaptability. While immediate actions can yield short-term gains, sustained, strategic efforts truly shape a website's search engine presence trajectory. Debunking common myths, particularly the expectation of instant results, is crucial. Businesses can achieve substantial and lasting SEO success by setting realistic goals, diligently tracking progress, and being prepared to pivot strategies based on data-driven insights. Remember, SEO is not a sprint but a marathon, requiring ongoing commitment and refinement to navigate the dynamic landscape of search engine algorithms and user behaviour.

Did you notice the screenshots we used within the article? These are from our tool, SEOTesting, explicitly designed to help you implement SEO testing within your SEO strategy and yield long-term results. Sign up for a 14-day free trial today, with no credit card required.