How Long Does SEO Take to Provide Meaningful Results?

Most business owners trying to know more about SEO usually start with one question: “How long does SEO take to show results?”.

And this is a very valid and meaningful question: SEO is an investment, and people rightfully want to know if that investment is worth it (spoiler alert: it usually is).

Let’s answer the question right away: SEO takes around 6 to 12 months to start showing results.

Can it kick in much sooner? Yes, absolutely: some companies see massive increases in traffic & conversions mere months after starting their SEO investments.

Can it take much longer? Yes, as well: some campaigns take up to 18 months to show results.

But why? Why does it take so long and why such discrepancies?

Let’s look at what makes SEO so long to kick in, what the different factors are, and how to make sure you make the most of your SEO investments!

How Will You Measure SEO Success?

Before diving deeper into why it takes so long to “work”, we should stop for a minute and think about what “working” means when it comes to SEO.

In other words, do you know how you will measure your SEO success?

SEO is a tool, and it should be used only if it is the right tool for the job at hand - only if it can help your business.

Business owners usually focus on a few KPIs.

The regular SEO KPIs

SEO is usually measured through metrics from Google Search Console (GSC - formerly Webmaster Tools) and Google Analytics: 

  • Clicks (GSC): the number of times a page is clicked on the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). You can think of it as how much traffic you got from Google.
  • Impressions (GSC): the number of times a page is shown on the SERPs, regardless of whether it was clicked. Think of this as your overall visibility.
  • Average Ranking (GSC): the average position of your site as a whole or for a specific query, URL, country, etc. This metric is often misunderstood by non-SEOs and is very counterintuitive - I suggest you stay away from it, at least at first.
  • Organic Sessions (GA): organic sessions are the Google Analytics counterpart of clicks. Clicks are measure by Google on SERPs, whereas organic sessions are measure by Analytics on your website. Organic sessions are a much better indicator of the actual traffic that got to your site from search engines.

These are the “basic” KPIs - you can track much more depending on your industry, the type of website, etc. - but this is not the topic here.

Outputs vs outcomes in SEO

However, let’s make a very, very important precision when it comes to measuring SEO success.

You should focus on outcomes, not outputs.

There is a great article by Adam Gent that you should definitely read if you are interested in learning more about this concept.

The gist of it is: you are investing in SEO in order to reach a business goal, e.g.:

  • Getting more traffic to sell more ads
  • Getting more newsletter subscriptions to monetize your newsletter
  • Getting more visible to reach bigger accounts
  • Scaling your company to 7 figures
  • Reducing your reliance on paid ads
  • Etc.

In other words, you are not interested in anything other than these goals: these are the desired outcomes of your SEO investments.

How long does SEO take to work depends on your business goals

Those goals should be used to carefully select metrics that will measure outcomes, such as:

  • Conversions (leads, sales, newsletter subscriptions, etc.): you have to decide what a desired outcome looks like to you.
  • Return buyers share
  • ROAS fluctuations (yes, SEO can improve ROAS!)
  • Phone calls or direct inquiries
  • Etc.

As you can see, even before knowing “how long SEO will take to show results”, you have to have a very clear idea of the type of results you want to achieve.

SEO Takes 6 to 12 Months to Work

Ok, back to our main point here.

SEO takes 6 to 12 months to work, even 18 sometimes.

As a business owner, you should expect to see some outcomes (i.e. progress towards your goals) in a 6 to 12 months timeframe.

Google says it in their “How to hire an SEO” video at the 1:40 minute mark:

https://youtu.be/piSvFxV_M04?t=100

“In most cases, SEOs need four months to a year to help your business first implement improvements and then see potential benefit.”

Be careful here: it says “potential benefit” - it doesn’t mean that your goal will be 100% achieved within that timeframe - you will be seeing progress towards that goal.

Ok, that’s great, we’ve ripped the bandaid. Now let me explain why it takes so long to see results.

Why Search Engines Have No Interest in SEO Being Fast at Showing Results (the Secret to SEO)

The Secret to SEO

I’m going to give you the secret to SEO - I’m not even kidding.

It’s not even the first time - I already gave it away in this podcast episode that Email Marketing Agency Flowium was kind enough to invite me to.

Here it is … drumroll … Google’s business model is to sell ads.

Underwhelming, right?

But if you think about it every time you have to make an SEO decision, you will be making good decisions.

Let me explain.

Google’s search engine is a platform - a tool. Google monetizes this tool by selling ads.

Ads are the product, advertisers are clients, and users are just … well users.

Google’s business interest is very easy to understand: having as many users using the platform so that it (Google) can show more ads, and make more money.

Google has not interested in SEO being fast at taking effect

But how do you get more users on your platform?

Very simple: you build the best platform possible.

When you own a search engine, that entails several things:

  1. Provide the best results
  2. Provide the best user experience
  3. Provide the answers as soon as possible in the search process (Shopping center, knowledge graph, MUM, etc.)

 And this is what Google is trying to do.

Google does not want to show YOUR website - it wants to show the best set of websites

A very important thing follows: Google doesn’t care which specific websites are at the top of the search results - it just wants to provide users with the best results.

Every time Google shows a new website in search engines, it takes a business risk. A risk to provide worse results.

And like any business, Google doesn’t like risks.

What does that mean for us with regards to SEO? 

It means that Google needs time to understand your website and start showing it. Because it wants to minimize risk.

And our job as SEOs? Well, very simple.

An SEO’s job is to help Google know, like, and trust the website, so that it can be shown consistently in search engines and attract the right audience.

This is the reason it takes time - this is the reason we’re saying 6 to 12 months. Because it takes time to establish trust.

And you’re doing the same every day. Imagine you want to host a birthday party at a restaurant: will you choose a newly opened one you’ve never visited before or an established one that your friends and family recommend all the time.

Yea, Google does the same with websites.

SEO is a zero-sum game

A quick note that I have to mention in passing: remember that SEO is a zero-sum game.

When someone wins, another person has to lose - it’s mechanical.

A SERP for a specific keyword only has up to 10 slots - if you want to be #10, then Google has to remove someone.

It has to have very good reasons to do so - it’s on you to prove that you are worthy!

It can take 6 to 12 months to see SEO results

4 Factors That Determine the SEO Results Timeframe

I’m sorry I went a little bit off-track here but I like to explain things as rationally as possible.

Let’s still explore 5 factors that can influence the time it takes to see results from SEO.

1 - Website History

Even though Google has repeatedly tried to deny it, a website’s history and “age” can make a difference.

It’s not that Google is going to “penalize” you for being young - that surely doesn’t exist. But age is a very important signal when it comes to reliability.

It’s much more likely for any business to be well managed if it’s been around for 40 or 50 years. That doesn’t mean that a young business can’t be managed well - it means that a 50-year-old business is more reliable.

In Google’s book: more likely to provide quality results.

This paragraph should also include a note about backlinks (i.e. links from other sites to yours).

Backlinks are a good indicator of how trustworthy a website is, and old domains tend to have more backlinks - just because they’ve been around for longer.

The younger your domain, the longer it will take to see results - but 12 months is still a good estimate to keep in mind.

2 - Competition & Niche

The SEO competition also plays a big role.

Trying to be a reliable source of information (this is what Google is looking for) is much harder when there already are a lot of reliable sources of information.

The niche your company operates in will also influence results: it can be much, much faster to excel if you’re the only company doing SEO and providing value to users in your niche.

Conversely, if you have lots of established competitors, it might be harder to rank.

This is where working with SEO professionals can be very valuable: we can find ways to approach your market even if you’re new to the game.

In SEO, “competition” is usually measured by a “Difficulty” metric that some tools like SEMRush or Ahrefs provide.

Keyword Difficulty is an indication of how hard it can be to rank for a certain keyword, but it has its limitations too - another story for another time.

3 - Your investment capacity

Obviously, how much you are able to invest (i.e. your firepower) will determine how much can be done within a certain timeframe.

No one can control your investments, and required investments can greatly differ depending on the desired outcomes.

There is no way to tell you “if you spend x amount of money, you will get results within x months” - there are too many factors at play (and no one can guarantee SEO results).

But it is clear that the more money you’re able to put on the table to improve your website’s technical state, content, conversion optimization, overall UX, page speed, etc., the faster you’re going to get where you want to be.

4- Your website’s value to your users

Finally, the main factor that can influence how long it will take you to get results is simple: is your website good?

Is it relevant to your audience - does it provide value to your users?

In the end, Google is just trying to build a better search engine: can your website be a part of that?

“Value” is very vague - and it encompasses many, many things. I can still name a few: 

  • Is your content helpful?
  • Are you trying to provide answers to questions and solutions to problems rather than just sell your products & services?
  • Is the website easy to use?
  • Does it load fast?
  • Can one find information quickly and efficiently?
  • Is it clear to your users who you are and how you make money?
  • Are you offering value on your website (downloads, ressources, etc.).
  • Etc, etc.

The more valuable a website, the faster (and higher) it will rank.

Final Considerations: Another Take on What Success Means

Before you stop reading, I just want to draw your attention to this: do you really need “more organic traffic” or “higher rankings”?

Most business owners describe their pains as a lack of organic traffic or rankings being too low, but in the end, they are trying to achieve a bigger goal.

You do not need a lot of traffic to make your business successful online - you just need the right kind of traffic.

Once you are able to identify who buys your products or services, the only thing left to do is attract these people.

And you may not need as many as you think …

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