To people unfamiliar with SEO, it often seems complicated, unpredictable, and questionable in value. Its black-hat history and somewhat steep learning curve have led to countless business owners writing the strategy off entirely. Those who have ventured into the waters of SEO without much foreknowledge on what it takes to run a successful campaign are often nervous or surprised when a month--a sufficient amount of time to test most marketing campaigns--passes and the results are nonexistent or unimpressive.
Any SEO expert will tell you this isn't a cause for concern; it takes time to see SEO results. But how long does it actually take, and what kind of results can you expect to see?
What Do I Mean By "Results"?
First, let me clarify what I mean by "results"--a phrase as vague as "it takes time." There are many benefits of SEO (especially if you're using peripherally beneficial strategies like content marketing and social media marketing), but the most important one in my book is traffic that converts. As your rankings increase to meaningful positions in search engine results pages, you'll gain more traffic for your site, which means more brand visibility and sales.
Why It's Easy (and Common) to Mistake Success for Failure with SEO
The early stages of an SEO campaign usually require a significant investment with little payoff; your rankings will probably either fail to cross the threshold of the first page, or will only apply to non-competitive, low-traffic keywords. For example, even if you move from position 89 to position 11 in the rankings for your most-prized keyword (a gain of 78 positions in the rankings) you shouldn't expect to see any traffic increase, because the keyword still doesn't rank on page 1. Conversely, a ranking change from position 11 to position 5 (a gain of 6 positions in the rankings) would yield about a 5% change in traffic for that keyword. A jump from position 5 to position 2 would yield a change of another 5-8% in traffic, and a change from position 2 to position 1 would yield another 20-30% jump in traffic for that keyword.
For business owners or marketers unfamiliar with the mechanics of SEO, a first month that yields little or no traffic increase may seem like a failure, when in fact there are significant improvements happening across the board, hidden from plain view. This is why keyword research and rank tracking is so important for measuring the true progress of an SEO campaign. You've got to know what keywords to target and track, and you've got to track and graph them over time to get a realistic picture of your campaign's progress.
Variables at Play
Next, let's explore the five main variables that can influence how soon you see results from an SEO campaign.
1. Your competitive environment. Do you have a strong competitor or many competitors dominating the rankings for the keywords you were hoping to target? It'll probably take you longer to see results. Are you in a highly specific niche with few or no direct competitors? It should go much faster. Generally, the more specifically targeted you are within your niche, the better. An SEO competition analysis can help you understand who your competitors are, what the strengths of their campaigns are, and what sort of investment it will take to top them.
2. Strategic choices. There are several strategic choices that will affect how quickly you see results--and how strong those results are. For example, will you start by targeting one pivotal keyword phrase, or hedge your bets among a number of different keywords? Will those keywords be high-traffic, high-competition, or low-traffic, low-competition? Proper keyword research at the very start of your campaign is absolutely crucial to its success.
3. Channels and angles. The individual tactics you choose to execute will also play a role in your development, sometimes in unforeseeable ways. For example, will you focus on long-form or short-form content? Will you seek publication on lots of small-time publication networks or a handful of major players? What types of social media outlets will you use, and how active will you be on them?
4. Total investment. The total amount of money and effort you put into your strategy will have a major bearing on the speed of your achieved results. Put simply, you get what you pay for. Investing more will help you see better results faster. It's also worth noting that the amount your competitors are spending matters just as much. If you're spending $10,000/month on SEO and not seeing results, it could be because your competitors are spending $20,000/month. SEO doesn't happen in a vacuum; everything you do affects your competitors, and everything your competitors do affect you.
5. Learning curve and expertise. It's also important to note that there's a steep learning curve when it comes to SEO. If you're just starting out, you'll make mistakes, and it takes time to iron those errors out. The Internet is loaded with bad information from self-proclaimed "SEO experts" who tout products and services that will benefit no-one but themselves. Stay away from message boards and untrustworthy-feeling websites if you're new to SEO. Instead, stick with the trustworthy names and brands in the SEO space. Here's a list of marketing influencers who are trustworthy.
Excluding these variables--that is, assuming we have an "average" value for an "average" client across the board--there are some general expectations you can set about an SEO campaign. If you're starting from scratch, you can't expect significant change in the first month. If you're lucky and all the stars proverbially align, you might start seeing some traffic increases--but probably nowhere near anything that will make up for all your expenses.
Instead, you can expect to start seeing measurable results between three and six months after you begin. Of course, your results will vary based on the variables I listed in the previous section. But in general, this is about the timeframe where I see clients start to see measurable progress.
According to this article by Josh Steimle at Forbes, "Many SEO firms will tell you that it takes 4 to 6 months to start seeing results. That's generally accurate, but bear in mind this is when you start seeing results, and SEO results grow over time."
The Turn in ROI
The big question for SEO isn't just "results" or "traffic"--it's ROI. At what point do your results start returning a profit over your costs? Assuming you're paying a regular rate (or investing a similar amount of effort) every month, there should be a "turning point," at which your ROI becomes positive. Your early-stage results (in the first 12 months of your campaign's development) will help you start to break even, but in my experience, it takes a little longer to yield a consistently positive ROI.
Again, not to put too fine a point on it, but within 1 to 2 years, I typically see clients start breaking even and seeing a positive ROI. This can be accelerated by adjusting the variables I outlined previously.
If you aren't seeing success within that timeframe, it doesn't necessarily mean anything's wrong with your SEO campaign; it more likely means that your SEO competitor landscape is more competitive than originally estimated, in which case you should re-evaluate your budget. This assumes, of course, that you have vetted your SEO vendor and are confident that they're doing a good job. See 5 Signs It's Time To Find a New SEO Agency.
When to Start Worrying
Unfortunately, SEO is too multifaceted and too variable to accurately predict exactly when your campaign "should" start seeing results. Often, SEO requires trying different tactics, seeing what works, and what doesn't. While the basic elements of SEO are the same for everyone, the many unknown factors that apply uniquely to your company--such as past SEO campaigns conducted, competitor activity, how new your website is, and many other factors--make it almost impossible to have an expectation that applies to everyone.
Try to remain patient throughout your SEO campaign; SEO is a long-term strategy with limited transparency, since nobody fully knows the search ranking algorithms, and they're moving targets, changing daily. Make adjustments, measure frequently, and stay the course--you'll be glad you did.