- The only way to determine any time frames is to determine your client’s goals and flesh out a lot of “it depends” before a commitment
- There are a lot of “it depends” you will need to clear out with your client before giving any time estimate
- Factors that can influence how long SEO may take include the site’s age, its previous history with SEO and Google, its size, CMS, and any business specifics that may slow you down
- The minimum amount of time required for SEO work to show obvious results is 6 months (but a 12-month period is more realistic)
- There are certain credible strategies that can yield quicker results (if done right)
There’s no way to guarantee SEO results within a definitive timeframe, simply because we can never guarantee what we cannot control, and Google is not under our powers.
There can be rough estimates that should be clearly explained to the client as they are, that is, expectations that are not guaranteed.
Your client should understand that there are no magic bullets and you don’t know any secrets. All you can do is follow the best practices to ensure gradual growth. This is key to managing clients’ expectations properly.
But let’s get back to the question: How long does SEO take to show results?
What is it we are trying to achieve?
First of all, it is important to understand and adjust your client’s goals. What is it they are looking for when investing in an SEO strategy?
Most clients would insist on improving rankings for the keywords they already know they target. In many cases, these are unrealistic keywords that may take years to achieve.
This is where “adjusting” the goals comes into play.
By expanding those keywords to make them longer and less competitive, you can be more confident in achieving SEO goals within a realistic timeframe. Make sure the client is made aware that:
- Long-tail keywords can actually bring organic traffic that converts much better: The more specific a search query is, the closer that searcher is to complete their buying journey.
- Keyword gap analysis helps identify business gaps that can help a business stand out and find its unique audience.
- Discovering new keywords and expanding existing keywords help diversify organic traffic sources which, in turn, helps maintain a more consistent organic visibility. If you lose one or two positions for a short-tail search query with a huge search volume, you risk losing 20 to 30 percent of your traffic. If you lose a few long-tail rankings here and there, your site will still be driving pretty much the same amount of organic traffic. Google’s SERPs are very dynamic and versatile: Losing rankings is inevitable, so diversification is key to stability.
Overall, the best way to set the client’s expectations right is to set a goal of gradual organic traffic (and conversion) growth. This way you focus on positive results that come from a big number of pages instead of stressing over rank monitoring for a few key pages that may be moving up extremely slowly.
What actually are the metrics “it all depends on?”
And yet, the inevitable “it depends” will still come up.
Every site is different: Some sites will benefit from active SEO work quicker than others, even if you focus on gradual traffic growth, rather than a few rankings.
The SEO time frame primarily depends on:
- The size of the site: It is easier to achieve accumulative growth when the site is large and already has quite a few possibilities
- The site’s history: If the site has been seeing a slow but steady decline in rankings and organic visibility for a few years, it may be difficult to flatten that curve and ultimately turn it around. Plus, if a site was affected by certain updates (like Product Review Update) requires Google to re-run that update for all the previous work to reflect (or not) on rankings. No SEO professional can ever be sure when the next refresh happens, so that will impact your SEO results to become obvious. And let’s not even talk about a pretty unpopular fact that none of the recent Google updates has any obvious remedy: You need to work on everything under the sun in hopes it will help and sometimes it doesn’t.
- Current backlinks profile (and possible actions): Things like backlink clean-up may take quite some time for Google to recognize and react to the changes
- The age of the site: New sites take longer for Google to finally accept the fact that they can be trusted.
There are more factors, of course. Whether a site is already an entity is another factor that can impact how fast the results will come. The current structure of the site is another big thing that can be challenging: Restructuring a site can cause Google to figure it out for quite some time, even if you do everything right.
Obviously, the client’s turnaround is another factor to discuss: Some businesses require a long process of approving any change that is needed to make their sites SEO-friendlier. New and optimized content may take weeks or months of the legal reviewing process.
Other businesses simply have no development teams to help them with on-site work, so they rely on freelancers. This is another level of back-and-forth process slowing them down, especially when ongoing technical tasks are required. Additionally, some CMSs are easier to manage (these are Wix, WordPress, and a few others), while others require technical skills.
SEOs are seldom lucky enough to get the keys from clients’ sites allowing them to push all the required changes live within days.
So how long does SEO take?
With all of the above in mind, the minimum amount of time required for SEO to start delivering tangible results (i.e. relevant traffic that converts) is six months.
In most cases, you will need about 12 months to proudly report on the results you were able to achieve.
There are quick wins possible…
Of course, there are tricks to start delivering some results within a shorter period of time to keep your clients happy.
For example, optimizing for branded search is something that can quickly help your clients see more traffic that converts like magic (because people searching for a brand name are very likely to convert once they manage to land on that site).
Internal linking can quickly boost the performance of existing pages, especially if those are optimized for search queries with lower competition.
Exploring rich snippet opportunities and using structured markup (where it makes sense) will likely improve click-through without having to wait for the rankings to grow (which will be slower to happen).
Updating old articles that currently rank within the top two pages of search results may also deliver quick wins, if you do it right.
Those are the first steps to take when starting active SEO work.
It is actually an endless process
This is another thing to make clear when clients ask that inevitable question: How long will it take?
SEO actually never ends. You cannot just optimize a site and watch your organic traffic come and convert. Google’s algorithm is evolving, current content becomes stale (so it needs to be monitored, updated, and re-optimized), and competitors keep getting backlinks, and other key boosts.
You need to always stay on top of your SEO efforts, develop new content and new link-generating assets and lead magnets, explore new searching patterns… the list goes on and on.
An effective SEO service will also always include exploring new tactics, detailed competitor monitoring (and learning from them), and ongoing investigation of new SEO opportunities (like new keywords, new rich snippet opportunities, and new media).
Ann Smarty is the Founder of Viral Content Bee, Brand and Community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas. She can be found on Twitter @seosmarty.
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