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How Long Does SEO Take?
When it comes to SEO, one of the most commonly asked questions by clients is “how long does SEO take?” For clients and SEOs alike, this question can lead to some rather frustrating responses. Are these answers dishonest or evasive in nature? Probably not. Experienced SEO professionals understand why clients ask this question, and know how to effectively manage expectations when responding. Read on to learn more about the role time plays in search engine optimization, and we’ll share the time frame we use for our Google Page 1 Guarantee and why we think this is an acceptable timeframe for SEO work.
Two weeks? Two months? Two years? What’s the right response? All may be correct as the speed with which results are achieved depends on quite a few factors: depth of on-site optimization, website load speed, domain age, and off-site optimization, just to name a few.

Most articles tackle this question by trying to vaguely identify a few elements of SEO that might tend to result in the quickest return, but the information typically negates the actual complexity of ranking performant keyword (KW) phrases in Google, specifically on the 1st page of Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs).

Here, we try to explain why estimating how long SEO takes is really an exercise in futility, and identify some of the elements that affect how quickly rankings are achieved without falsely leading you to believe there’s a magic formula for determining when your SEO will suddenly “work”.

However, we will share the timeline that we set with our clients for our Google Page 1 Guarantee at the conclusion of this article. This is a realistic timeframe to expect results from contracted SEO work given a typical industry and normal competitive landscape.

What Determines How Long SEO Takes?

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You’ll often find the answer to this question peppered with some combination of “it depends on backlinks” and/or “it depends on your content”. That’s rather broad and unhelpful.

Or the article will include survey results based on anecdotal evidence from SEO professionals (ex. 39.2% of SEO Experts say it takes 6 months to expect full SEO results). This doesn’t really explore what factors led to the authors identifying content, backlinks, six months, etc. as the driving force behind when your SEO will take effect.

Here, we identify and discuss a few of the components of search engine optimization and search engine indexing behavior (specifically, Google) that affect how long SEO takes.

INDEXING

Google Bots are constantly crawling the internet, compiling data on websites, and working to understand what the intent of the website is. Normal indexing of new web pages and websites tends to be fairly quick, but can take 4 - 6 weeks in some instances.

If your site or web pages are not indexing, you need to access your site’s Google Search Console (GSC) to identify potential coverage/indexing issues, and correct as appropriate (for step by step instructions, visit: “Google Search Console: How to Fix Currently Not Indexed Issues”).

What if there are no errors in your Google Search Console or coverage issues that need to be corrected, but your site is still not indexing? This can be an extremely frustrating situation, and the answer isn’t of much comfort. If you have submitted an updated sitemap.xml file, requested indexing of any non-indexed web pages, ensured your site is set to index/follow, and addressed any GSC issues and indexing problems persist, you’re left to wait on Google. Remember, it can take up to six weeks for a new site/web page to be crawled and indexed by Google, and there’s limited support options when this happens.

Worth noting, Google’s indexing system isn’t without flaws, and indexing issues may be unrelated to your site. In December of 2021, Google experienced redirect issues with their indexing system on the 13th, and a complete halt to new site and web page indexing occurred on the 16th. The halt in indexing had a bit of a trickle down effect as sites scheduled for crawl during that period had to be rescheduled. All of this is to say your website/web pages may be completely set up for indexing, absent issue, and still encounter unusual delays in indexing.

Primary Takeaway: the schedule for crawling and indexing/reindexing sites is variable, even if you’ve done everything right on your end. As such, updated SEO tooling may have a rather quick impact if indexing is rapid, and a somewhat delayed effect when time between crawling and indexing is prolonged.

COMPETITION

This is one of the primary determinants when it comes to how long SEO takes before seeing results. With SEO, marketers research, select, and tool-in targeted verbiage known as keyword (KW) phrases. These keywords help inform Google on what services you provide, products you sell, where you provide services, and how you provide services. The better Google’s understanding of your site, and the more specific SEO tooling is to the content on the site, the more performant your web pages will be in Google’s SERPs.

The most performant search queries in Google tend to also be the most competitively pursued, and often by big-name brands that are willing to throw cash at results ad infinitum.

Does this mean your business can’t rank for highly competitive KW phrases with a comparatively smaller budget? Absolutely not. We consistently outrank enterprise sites and aggregators on Google Page 1 with exceptional technical and on-site SEO, but we also know it’s going to be a longer slog to get to the top of Google in such instances. Here’s why:

Performant KW phrases tend to be highly competitive. How competitive? Consider “crystals for sale”, a keyword for which we ranked a client nationally in the #1 organic position above the likes of Etsy, Ebay, Amazon, and other national brands. This KW phrase typically receives 1,000 to 10,000 queries a month, and you can imagine the value for a business operating in the gemstone and crystal-sales niche. But take a look at the total results for this search query below:


The client isn’t just #1 out of ten entries on Google’s Page 1 - they’re #1 out of 3.22 billion entries.

How does this impact how long SEO takes? Think about it logically and the answer becomes obvious. Ranking a client on Page 1 when competing against 230,000 entries is going to be much faster than ranking on Page 1 when competing against 3.22 billion entries. Google has to crawl, index, re-rank, implement updates, etc. all while your site is competing against hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions of competitors. If you’re climbing a mountain, all things considered equal, climbing the 7,000 ft peak is going to be quicker and less arduous than climbing a 14,000 ft peak (there are low-volume competitive niches, but you’ll likely leapfrog the weak performers more quickly than in a high-volume query - the top of the search results is where that work gets interesting).

You may be wondering how domain authority (DA), a metric created by Moz to reflect the perceived competitiveness of a site to rank in Google based primarily on backlink profiles, factors into competitiveness. We’ll address that in the next section.

Primary Takeaway: The competitive landscape for a targeted KW plays an important role in how quickly SEO will lead to results, but highly-competitive search landscapes aren’t auto-losses or insurmountable endeavors by any means. Rather, you may have to exercise a bit more patience as Google works its way through thousands, millions, and even billions of competing entries. Significant leaps up the SERPs are common, and your site will not necessarily compete against every entry, but the more competitors you have, the longer you can anticipate waiting for Page 1 rankings.


DOMAIN AGE

This is likely the first time you’ve seen domain age listed as a determining factor in how long it takes for SEO to work. Most articles will pivot to a discussion of content or domain authority rather quickly, but one of the anecdotal truths we found is exceptional SEO almost universally beats out spammy backlinks.
Even if you spam an inordinate amount of quality backlinks to your site and achieve a rapid climb in rankings, it’s unlikely to be sufficient for retaining top organic positions, and may even lead to manual action by Google if the platform perceives your site as intentionally harvesting links, whether via a comment section, directory blast, or paid blog networks (PBNs).

This is one of the reasons we don’t use domain authority as a metric, and neither should you. The site that ranked #1 on Google’s Page 1 SERP had/has a domain authority score of 17. If you find value in that metric, you’d likely consider this a lost cause until the DA of the site increased to > 40 (generally accepted that a site at DA of 40 is competitive for most search phrases). As you can see, it mattered not.
Backlink profiles are often in flux, and while they play a role in sending signals to Google about the legitimacy of a website, they are not the end-all/be-all to ranking in Google (contrary to a significant amount of content on the internet). Natural backlink acquisition from high-quality sources is the only real, safe means of improving a website’s backlink profile.

Of greater importance, as we’ve consistently found, is the age of a website’s domain. SEO Idaho™ does not enter into contracted, ongoing SEO work with any client who possesses a website with a domain age of less than five years.

Why?

Because Google is spammed with new businesses and websites daily. When ranking entries for search results, Google’s goal is to get the most accurate, current, and useful information displayed as quickly as possible.

Showing entries for newer, non-vetted businesses without any signals about quality of service is pretty far down the totem pole for Google, as ranking such sites highly risks a poor user experience for the searcher. Consider this: how many businesses on Google will close within a year; within a month? Ranking new sites for performant KWs isn’t impossible, but it will certainly lengthen the amount of time needed before the SEO can be considered performant.

Primary Takeaway: When a domain has been live and active for five years, we know it’s been sending signals about the longevity, trustworthiness, and performance of the website for a period of time that allows us to achieve superior results with technical and on-site SEO optimization, vice needing to pursue a spammy backlink strategy. Domain authority is seldom if ever considered when we strategize for a new SEO client. Aged domains rank much more quickly and are more competitive at the local and national level compared to newer domains, and this is a data point we view as inflexible in Google’s eyes (i.e you can’t overcome domain age by merely optimizing better).

CONTENT

This factor should be a bit of a no-brainer. Again, Google is primarily focused on presenting the most accurate and pertinent information related to a search query as quickly as possible. Google doesn’t want the end user scrolling through multitudes of entries to find the information they’re looking for. Rather, Google wants to deliver the exact information being searched for at the top of the SERPs - ready for use.
If your site is inundated with fluff content, not optimized, and going through the normal indexing/ranking process, it’s going to take a very long time to reach Page 1, if it’s even possible.

If you have fluff content with excellent optimization, you may be able to rank for performant KW phrases, but you’ll likely drop in rankings quickly after reaching Google’s first SERP as people begin to click-through to the content and leave due to its poor quality (bounce rate on a web page is not a ranking signal in itself, but is a strong indicator of content quality issues when high).

Finally, if you have grammatically correct, easy-to-understand, informative written copy on your web pages, and it’s been optimized for SEO fully, your content will rank higher more quickly than the other options above. Provide value to the end-user, and Google will reward your site with favorable rankings.

Primary Takeaway: Strong content that is closely related to your targeted keyword phrase is likely to be rewarded with higher rankings achieved more quickly than if you try to get by with fluff and filler. Remember, Google wants to present the content that is most-pertinent to the query, and you need to do your best to ensure Google sees your content as one of the most authoritative and informative content pieces to speed up the SEO process. Use filler and you may reach the top of Google, but longevity is doubtful and user behavior will eventually drive your site down the SERPs.

Why You Need a Long-Term SEO Strategy

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If you made it through the above content in this article, you probably have a solid understanding of what factors influence the SEO industry’s most popular query, “How long does SEO take?” You also likely have a better understanding of what factors can be addressed to increase the speed with which SEO tooling becomes performant; factors such as:
  • Google indexing behavior (addressing indexing/coverage issues)
  • Competitive landscape of the targeted keyword phrase (how many entries are you competing against affects how long it takes to achieve high rankings)
  • Domain age (5 years or older with a live site on it; not a domain that was simply registered 5 years prior and parked)
  • Quality content (informative, authoritative, and fully-optimized) that closely pertains to the targeted keyword phrase(s)

The primary issue with addressing the above items and then walking away is there’s still yet another significant factor in ranking web pages for performant KW phrases and how long it takes - ongoing optimization.

Google implements approximately nine algorithm updates per day (these updates tend to largely affect specific niches rather than generic search behavior), and 2 - 3 core algorithm updates a year (these affect all search behavior with differing results for businesses depending on the algorithm adjustments - some sites rise in rankings, some plummet, and some remain unaffected). Due to these updates, it’s almost impossible to “set it and forget it” with SEO.

With a long-term SEO strategy, your agency will seek to reverse-engineer algorithm updates that negatively impact your rankings, and implement corrective action. Absent ongoing SEO support, your current tooling is vulnerable to becoming outdated, or suffering ranking drops as algorithm signals flux with updates and shifting trends in search queries.

This is where a long-term SEO strategy becomes imperative to sustained success.

Contracted SEO services keep your SEO team engaged on changes in Google’s search behavior, allowing them to quickly address issues as they arise to protect your organic rankings. Additionally, long-term SEO strategies allow your business to continue forward-focused growth of your digital assets, allowing you to reach a greater volume of prospective clients once your rankings have nestled into the top of Google and additional reach is needed.

When competing against millions of entries, it’s important to remember that the other entries on Google’s first SERP are working as diligently as you and your team to improve and maintain rankings. If you halt work after achieving a high ranking, your entry risks quickly bouncing off the first page of Google through no fault of your own. Sustained success in SEO is dependent on sustained engagement and continued correction of issues that arise as the search engine optimization environment changes with Google.

How Long Does SEO Take - SEO Idaho’s Page 1 Guarantee

At the start of this article, I said I’d share the timeframe used by SEO Idaho™ for our Google Page 1 Guarantee. As you can see, there’s really no definitive answer to the question “How long does SEO Take?” There are multiple factors at play when it comes to how long the SEO on your site will take to work as discussed above (to clarify, the list above is not wholly inclusive of all factors that determine how long your SEO takes, just the factors that we have found to have the most significant impact on how quickly rankings are achieved). But, we’ve identified a timeframe for effectively gauging SEO performance for our clients.

SEO Idaho™ enters into contracted, ongoing SEO work with a Google Page 1 Guarantee for clients signing a 12-month contract. That provides us a one-year demarcation to definitively assess if our SEO tooling is working for the client (we assess ranking changes and need for additional optimization on a monthly basis, but results aren’t guaranteed until the 1 year mark).

We set this expectation with all our SEO clients - local, national, eCommerce, service-based, etc. - and we’ve consistently hit the mark, usually well ahead of the deadline.

Why 12 months? Because we know aged sites in less competitive niches can see ranking increases in as little as 30 days, while younger sites in competitive niches may take the entirety of the contract to finally reach the targeted entries on Google Page 1. What we typically see is Page 1 rankings in approximately 3 - 6 months for aged sites competing in less competitive niches. For aged sites in more competitive niches, we tend to see a pronounced movement of KWs up onto Page 1 at the 8 - 10 month mark.

With consistent, effective, professional SEO, a general estimate of one year for SEO to “begin working” is safe. SEO will likely begin driving rankings upward much more quickly than annotated above, but the time needed to reach Google’s first SERP can vary greatly. From our own anecdotal experiences, 12 months is a reasonable and sufficient time to fulfill our Google Page 1 Guarantee, and is a good cutoff point for clients to gauge the performance of their own SEO work/services.

In a year, if your site hasn’t improved in rankings appreciably, it’s time to re-evaluate your SEO marketing strategy (unless you are working on a new site in a highly competitive niche; patience is a virtue in that case). Twelve months is sufficient time for Google to re-index and re-rank your web page entries multiple times, factoring in new and revised SEO tooling.

If you’ve been working with an SEO firm or digital marketing agency and you’re not seeing the results you should, contact the professionals at SEO Idaho™ for a free quote, consultation, and/or SEO Site Audit. We’re happy to help, and focused on growing strong client relationships by achieving superior results with integrity-driven work.