How Long Does It Take for SEO to Work?
SEO Is a Long-Term Play—But Exactly How Long Does It Take to Work?
It’s no secret we live in a world of instant gratification. When we spend money on marketing, we expect immediate results. However, deep down we know this isn’t always the case. A good brisket takes 14 hours on a smoker to develop that Texas BBQ flavor. It’s the reason you wait 30 minutes for a burger at a classy restaurant versus going through a drive-through at Burger King.
SEO falls in a similar category. It’s an exceptionally reliable marketing strategy that routinely sees solid return on investment, but the caveat is that it’s not an instant needle-mover—far from it, in some cases.
At Alter Endeavors, we’re often asked how long it may take for an SEO Foundational or Ongoing engagement to produce results—that is, more clicks and more leads from organic search traffic. The answer we pretty much have to give is “it depends,” but we know that’s not very satisfying to hear.
So today, we’re giving the most complete answer we can provide on the timeframe for SEO to work. We’ll break down typical time scales, examine the major factors that can determine how quick SEO may work for you, and provide some advice on how to improve your odds of ranking quickly.
Let’s get started!
How Long Does It Take for SEO to Work?
Our typical ballpark estimate is that SEO takes around 3–6 months to work. This estimate is drawn from our years of experience working in search engine optimization and seeing firsthand the effects that a focused organic strategy can have.
While “work” is a very fuzzy term, the reality is that most websites will see some benefit from SEO in this timeframe—whether it’s more impressions, more clicks, or yes, even a noticeable increase in conversions via organic search traffic.
You don’t have to rely exclusively on our experience, either. According to a recent study by Search Engine Land, over 60% of businesses that invest in search engine optimization see an increase in traffic within 6 months. Here’s a breakdown of the proportions of businesses that saw an increase in traffic within various timelines according to that study:
- 1–3 Months: 16.2%
- 3–6 Months: 45.6%
- 6–9 Months: 21.1%
- Longer than 9 Months: 17.1%
There are some really fascinating takeaways from this data:
- By 9 months into an SEO engagement, over 80% of businesses saw an increase in traffic.
- Between 3–9 months, businesses saw the most consistent gains in traffic.
- It’s possible to see an immediate jump (16.2%), but for the large majority of businesses patience is key.
But of course, there’s a pretty substantial gulf between “within a month or two” and “more than nine months from now.” So what gives? Here are a few factors that will impact how long it takes SEO to work for your business’s website.
Current State of Your Site
The state of your website will play a major role in how long it will take for SEO to work and drive more traffic for your brand. The main considerations here are how much traffic you’re currently receiving, what kinds of keywords you’re already ranking for, and where you’re ranking for those keywords.
For example, if your website already drives a modest amount of traffic and you rank for some high-value keywords on the second or third page of Google, investing in SEO could show very quick returns—even within the first month of optimizing your content. This is because it’s much quicker to build on existing success than to build your traffic from scratch
On the other hand, if you have very little traffic or few ranking keywords to speak of, SEO will take longer to show results. This is especially true for those with brand-new websites, as Google may take a couple weeks (or in rare cases, a month or longer) to fully crawl and index your site—a prerequisite to ranking.
Your Industry & Competition
The industry you’re in will play a major role in how effectively and quickly SEO will work for you. For example, we consistently see service-based businesses reap huge returns from SEO simply because these industries have a large potential customer base to tap into.
We’ve written a whole article on why SEO is so effective for service-based companies, but it boils down to how urgent people are when looking for services and the ability to capitalize on local search.
On the subject of competition, ranking higher in search requires outranking your closest competitors. In other words, the SEO strength of your competitors will heavily influence how quickly you can expect to rank for high-value terms in your industry.
This is related to your industry as well, as we’ve found that in many industries, there is still a wide-open opportunity for companies to invest in SEO. While some niches have caught up on SEO quite a bit over the years, many haven’t, and this is also heavily dependent on where you’re located. In other words, depending on your industry and service area, you could be positioned to take advantage of a major market inefficiency and reap results quickly.
(For a great example of how successful SEO can be in this situation, check out our case study on Polished Metals!)
Additionally, the general difficulty of keywords within your niche will impact how fast you can rank. In many ways, keyword difficulty is a function of time—that is, more competitive keywords will take longer to rank for. So if you have a large amount of low-difficulty keywords available to you, it’s more likely that you’ll see quicker results from SEO.
You’ll hear it over and over: content is king. That’s especially true when it comes to SEO, as content is a critical requirement in order to rank for valuable keywords. That means your “content potential” plays a major role when it comes to how quickly SEO will work, but also how effective it will be overall.
When we say “content potential,” we’re referring to two main factors:
- How much content your site currently has available to optimize
- How amenable your industry is to creating new content, including blog posts and service pages
The first item will be most relevant when it comes to how quickly SEO will work for your website, while the second will determine how effective SEO will be over the long term.
For example, if you’ve been blogging for a long time, this content is a major SEO asset. Not only is there more potential that you’ll rank for some keywords already, but pages with a longer history have more of a chance to build up authority in Google’s eyes. When you optimize these pages, you may rank for your chosen keywords more quickly than you would by publishing new content.
Meanwhile, the second factor will determine the overall effectiveness of SEO. If you operate in an industry or niche with a high potential for writing new blog posts and service pages, you’ll have many more opportunities to optimize for certain keywords. Even better, if your team is able and willing to produce new high-quality content, this is a major asset on the SEO front.
SEO is one part art, one part science, and one part luck—and the more high-value content you have or can produce, the more likely it is that Google will look kindly on some of those pieces and begin sending more users to your website.
How Fast SEO Works Is Variable—Whether It Works Is Not
How long does it take for SEO to work? As you can see, the full answer can be pretty long, so that’s why we so often say “It depends!” But as a quick recap, here are the important takeaways for this question:
- SEO typically takes around 3–6 months to start driving more users to your website.
- SEO will work more quickly if: you already have a website; you have existing traffic and keyword rankings; you operate within a niche or industry where competition for keywords is lower (i.e. if you’re a local, service-based company); you have content available to optimize.
- SEO will take longer if: your website is brand new; your website lacks any traffic or visibility in search; you operate in a highly competitive niche with few available keywords; you aren’t service-based and/or don’t have a specific service area; you lack available content and/or it will be difficult to produce content in your niche.
If you fall in the former group, that’s great news! SEO will not only provide great returns for your business, but will likely provide them sooner rather than later.
But if you fall in the latter group, don’t panic! SEO is a consistently effective method for bringing in new leads for your business, and the sooner you get started the sooner you can begin to see returns from organic traffic.
Get Started Today with an SEO Audit
Do you know the current state of your website? Are you showing up in search results for high-value terms in your industry, or still struggling with search visibility? Is your industry behind on SEO, providing you with a golden opportunity to take advantage?
If you’d like to learn more about how quickly SEO will work for your business—and how effective SEO will be in the long run—reach out to the Alter Endeavors team for a free SEO audit!
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