I was sitting with a client not too long ago, talking about the role of SEO in a comprehensive digital strategy, when the question came:
“How long does SEO take?”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that question, I’d have a very large stack of nickels indeed. Still, it’s a great question, and one worth answering seriously, for a couple reasons.
Reason number one is that honestly, the answer isn’t all that easy to find. There is an ocean of SEO information out there — tactics and strategies, speculation and prognostication, and even a fair bit of numerical analysis.
But most of that information is written for people who actually do SEO for a living, and a question like this is not one that professionals need answering.
A second reason is that the people who do need the answer gain a lot from knowing it. I can tell you first hand that it helps an awful lot when both sides (the SEO agency and the client) have shared expectations about how long it will take.
But really, “How long does SEO take?” is two questions:
- “How long does SEO take to implement?” and
- “How long before I see results?”
The best way to answer both of those is to start with an explanation of the process. So let’s break it down…
Site Audit and Analysis
If you already have a website, the site audit is the starting point for all optimization to follow. Without a clear idea of what needs to be fixed, tweaked, or adjusted, there is no plan. Without a plan, it’s a slapdash effort that will take forever.
Think of it like renovating a house. You don’t tear down one wall, then jump over to another room and put in a few pipes for plumbing, then head to somewhere else and start rewiring. That way lies madness (and cost overruns, and missed deadlines, and much cursing…).
The audit and initial analysis should take anywhere from a couple of days to a week or so, depending on the size of the site. (If your site has 1,000 pages, we’re into renovating a decent size apartment building. It’s going to take a little longer to get a handle on everything.)
Now, if you are building a new site, this is a little easier. Instead of an actual audit, what you have is a collaborative effort with the web developer to make sure you’re doing everything right to begin with. This is building a new house from the ground up, and we’re providing the blueprints.
Developing an SEO Strategy
Believe it or not, this can also be one of the less time-consuming parts of the process. This can incorporate how to get site changes made from the results of the audit, but we’re also talking about the long-term, big picture strategy for SEO.
Some guiding questions for strategy:
- What is the best way to reach your ideal customer?
- What motivates them to reach out to you?
- What kind of information would help them decide to choose your company?
- How is the competition doing, and how are they approaching SEO?
- What kind of face do you want to present to the world?
We work with you on this to make sure our goals are aligned and to understand what you want the voice of your company to sound like.
The strategy process could take anywhere from 30 minutes to several days, depending on whether or not you already have an overarching branding or marketing strategy in place.
Getting to Work
Okay, now for the fun stuff — making those changes to the website from the audit, writing and tweaking content, setting up analytics (or optimizing it, if you already have it set up), cleaning up backlinks, etc.
Some sites come to us pretty clean with only a few necessary changes. Others might have structural issues that need a lot more work, or were built long ago using outdated code and SEO practices that are now passé and even harmful.
So this can take anywhere from a week or so at the short end to a couple of months or more at the long end, depending on those audit results and the size of your site.
Ongoing SEO Efforts
At this point, it might seem like a lot of the work is front-loaded, and that’s true to an extent. But real SEOs know that there is never really a time to twiddle your thumbs.
Optimization is also about constant vigilance, monitoring site analytics to ensure the right traffic is coming to the site and nothing gets inadvertently broken (you might be surprised how often a site goes down or is otherwise changed to its detriment by clients who wanted to do some things on their own).
And then there’s keeping up with changes to search algorithms. Google rolls out changes at the rate of several hundred per year, and if you’re not on top of those changes, things can fall apart fast.
I’ve had companies who gave up on SEO once things were looking good, then come to me after traffic plummeted overnight. These are not always temporary dips nor are they usually easy fixes.
And if you’ve ever read anything about SEO, you probably know what an important role backlinks play in how well your site performs. Reaching out to other sites for linking opportunities is an ongoing effort for most successful SEO projects.
Unless you’re the New York Times or some other such publication that people link to thousands of times a day, there’s a good chance that the natural links to your site will be improved by more proactive efforts.
Going back to our house analogy, once your house is built or renovated, that doesn’t mean you’re done with it. It will always need upkeep, maintenance, and improvements to keep it looking good.
And here we come to the answer to the first question: How long does SEO take to implement? The mass of optimization can take from a couple of weeks to a few months. But if you’re serious about getting valuable, sustainable traffic from your site, you have to know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Why Isn’t Anything Happening Yet?
Salespeople who will tell clients SEO is an overnight solution to their traffic problems are plentiful. But that’s one reason I started Ballyhoo Digital — to give clients honest answers to their questions.
The truth is that if your website isn’t in the top 100 or even the top 50 search results, you’re not likely to get on page one next week, or even next month.
I’ve had some relatively quick success (read: a couple of months) with sites in the past, typically ones that had a history of good rankings and solid backlink profiles but had been left unattended for too long. Starting from scratch with a new site or one that hasn’t been especially successful before can and probably will take longer.
Complicating matters along the way are competition (someone has to move down for you to move up) and the mysterious, changing nature of search algorithms. How those algorithms value sites is a tricky thing to pin down, by design of course. Google, Bing, and the others are better served by keeping their secrets. If the algorithms were too easy to game, the sites at the top would be a rotating pile of rubbish.
In the end, there is no concrete formula nor any ironclad promise we can make for how long it will take to see results from SEO. Be wary of anyone that does. But what we can promise is to bring years of knowledge and experience to get you results just as quickly as possible.