How Long Does SEO Take?

On this page
On this page
Let's work together?
Discuss Project

A typical timeframe thrown around by various publications and voices in the industry is that SEO takes around 6 months to really “work”. Google themselves have even chimed in on this by stating that “SEOs need four months to a year” to start to see real benefits.

However, there are so many contributing factors to this that any generalised answer to this question will be somewhat disingenuous, particularly given the fact that all businesses’ situations will be unique.

A perhaps more accurate answer to this question, yet one that is also uttered all too frequently across the SEO industry that it has become a meme unto itself, is “it depends”. While “it depends” may sound vague and unhelpful, particularly if you’re a business owner who would like to know when they are likely to see a return on their investment, it is perhaps the most accurate answer to the question. This can be particularly true given there are so many factors that can influence SEO success. 

Let’s take a look at some of these factors in more detail and how businesses can monitor progress, set expectations and measure success.

What factors influence timeframes over SEO success?

There are a number of factors that can impact your SEO success and timeframes around how long SEO can take to show results.

  • Budget and resource

While it may be somewhat of an obvious one, it’s clear that the more time and money that you’re able to invest in SEO, whether this is on technical SEO best practice or SEO-led content strategies, the faster you’re more likely to see results. If you’re able to invest in a website CMS that allows quick and easy implementation of SEO changes and performs well in terms of user experience as well as marry that up with the headcount to press on with SEO efforts, this will speed things up massively.

Higher SEO budgets will also allow you to invest in marketing leading SEO tooling and reporting software as well as attract the best SEO talent. If you’re able to afford the latter, this will also allow you access to the type of experience that will be able to isolate meaningful SEO changes that are more likely to make an impact over time. This is where a good strategy comes in.

Less so with agencies but some SEO consultants are able to frontload an SEO project. Therefore whereby an agency may take 3 months to deliver recommendations a less rigid consultant maybe only take 1 month, therefore allowing you to implement your SEO recommendations earlier.

  • SEO Strategy and goals

Anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of SEO can readily jump into an SEO tool and start to suggest changes based on what the tool might be telling them. The same can be said for someone reading an SEO article on a topic such as structured data markup and subsequently coming away with some generic directions off the back of it. While some of these optimisations and approaches may work if applied en masse over a long period of time, a lack of a clear cut and robust SEO can be hugely costly, particularly when expecting solid, sustainable results.

Hiring the right resources and experience to devise a strategy that targets a certain series of prioritised technical SEO ventures, or a clear target consumer type based off some thorough keyword research will see results return faster than flying blind.

Sticking to your SEO strategy is much harder than most appreciate. Clients or key stakeholders can become impatient without proper expectation setting or education. SEO strategies and long-term goals are often immediately forgotten, and consultants/agencies end up making website changes to appease clients expecting weekly lists of recommendations.

  • SEO Competitor activity

One of the key areas of a successful SEO strategy is understanding where you can usurp or make up ground on your competitors in search rankings. Make no mistake however, if your competitors are equally as serious about their SEO then they will be looking to do the same to you. This is particularly true in competitive online niches such as gaming, electronics, wellness and travel. There may be periods where they invest heavily in SEO or re-focus their efforts on a particular content niche in your industry to gain ground. Make sure you’re keeping a steady eye on what your competitors are doing in their search rankings and pivot if you need to. Not doing this and focusing all your efforts on areas for example where it might be difficult to outdo your competitors, will see your SEO efforts take a long time to bear fruit. 

Clients and those looking to invest in SEO need to be aware that monitoring your competitors’ performance comes with costs. In particular, if you are looking at monitoring tens of thousands of keywords within Search Share of Voice reports, then there are costs involved in mining data, calculating, and storing such information in a database.

  • Algorithm and search landscape updates

Something that might be out of your control (in some cases) but are an area that can deeply impact how long SEO takes, are search engine algorithm updates. This can also include updates to search engine features, such as Google’s new Search Generative Experience rollout which can alter user behaviour on search engines. Algorithm updates in particular are occurrences where Google will shift its search rankings across certain industries and queries, with businesses typically seeing improvements and declines in their performance. While some of these changes may be out of your control, you can negate any potential disruption to your SEO success timelines by adhering to Google Search Essentials. While “white hat” SEO strategies may take longer than shorter term, hackier approaches (such as aggressive paid link building) you are no doubt setting yourself up better for future long-term success.  

There are many named Google algorithm updates, which include Core, Penguin, Panda, and Helpful Content Update. The release of announced algorithm updates can be found on Google.

  • Your long and short term SEO goals

Perhaps the most important method of working out how long SEO takes is how you define actual SEO success. There are some typical SEO metrics, such as organic traffic and keyword ranking improvements that can be monitored to help define success. A lot will also depend on what types of keyword rankings you’re targeting: low competition keywords where you know you can outdo your competitors will no doubt see improvements much faster. Ultimately, your goals should be commercially centric, with conversions from organic being a vital indicator of success. Work with your team to ascertain some realistic goals in terms of SEO growth, be it organic traffic, keyword rankings and sales that are forecasted based on your available resources and target timeframes. 

Expected timelines may differ by type of SEO activity

SEO is of course a multi-pronged discipline, and any SEO venture should feature a good combination of short-term tactics to achieve quick wins as well as some longer, overarching strategies to ascertain sustained growth. Let’s take a look at some of these examples and what you might expect in terms of SEO success timelines.

  • On-page SEO

On-page can cover anything from optimising existing content to crafting new pieces of content, be it in the form of long-form guide publications or product-led pieces. In general, a brand new, well-researched, well-written piece on a certain topic that users are clearly interested in may take several weeks to start performing well in search rankings. A lot of other factors such as site authority and your businesses’ backlink profile may impact how long this takes too. However, if you’re crafting a brand new article covering a topic that matches search intent and hits all the right signals in terms of UX and helpful content, there’s no reason it can’t hit the top ranking spots over the course of 1-3 months.

Oftentimes however, optimisations or tweaks to existing content that is already performing well can reap the best rewards in terms of quick turnarounds. A typical term applied to this might be “low-hanging fruit” optimisations, where there is content that ranks well on search engines though may just need a few tweaks and updates here and there to rank better. Done correctly and carefully, this can often take as little as a week to see tangible improvements.  

  • Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO relates to tactics such as digital PR or link building that serve as a purpose to promote a website’s authority and profile on third-party sites. Back links remain a ranking factor in SEO and are often a key component of how long SEO success can take. Again, a lot will depend on your industry, competitor behaviour and how much budget you can assign to link building. If you’re conducting “big idea” link building tactics such as the creation of a whitepaper, study or industry story, then the landing of a single well-researched and well-written piece on a major publication can work wonders. A single piece of “digital PR” content being published on a platform such as The Daily Telegraph can bring in huge numbers in terms of referral traffic and additional backlinks to your site if picked up by others.

If you’re targeting the right type of websites with compelling stories and content for them to link back to, then you could start to see ranking improvements on individual content pieces within several weeks. A general rule of thumb however is that if you’re matching your industry’s standards in terms of quality and quantity of links being brought in, then you can expect sustained improvements in organic metrics over a 12-month period. 

  • Technical SEO

Technical SEO covers a lot of activities, and the speed at which you can expect to see real SEO improvements really depends on the nature of your fixes and the opportunities your team have identified. A lot will also depend on the size of your site and the breadth of your technical SEO changes. 

If for example you have a lot of quality content that isn’t indexed or is hidden deep within your site and requires some internal linking, then fixes around here may take as little as a month to see real improvements.

If you’re undertaking a larger technical SEO venture, such as a CMS migration with a view to improving site speed and user experience, then, again depending on website size, it could take as long as 3-6 months or more to see real progress.

Much like the aforementioned “low-hanging fruit” approach of on-page SEO tactics, tweaks to individual pages such as site speed improvements, structured data markup or fixes such as incorrect canonical URL implementation can see micro improvements over the course of a week or so.

Technical SEO is the less glamorous and often overlooked element of SEO these days, with web content platforms claiming to be “SEO Optimized” or “100% SEO Compliant,” which, unfortunately, is not always the case. Most websites that have been on the internet for a number of years will have many technical-related SEO issues.

Marketplaces, publishers, and ecommerce websites tend to suffer from compounding effects and many smaller technical SEO issues. As more content, user-generated content (UGC), or SKUs are added to a website, the issues with Google become more significant.

What are some key metrics to measure SEO success?

We’ve touched on this slightly in our section of establishing goals, though there are some clear indicators that are universal across SEO in terms of “What good looks like?”. 

There will be of course some metrics and goals unique to each business and what the core focus of the respective SEO campaign will be. This might be rankings on specific keywords or conversions from a certain goal on a certain page. It may even be as simple as “get this page to position one of Google for this keyword”. 

However, from day one of your SEO strategy, there are a number of metrics to track that are associated with SEO success. Many of these can be readily monitored (often for free) in Google’s existing toolset, such as Google Search Console and Google Analytics: 

  • Indexation of key pages on Google or other search engines
  • Reduction in various “errors” (crawling or otherwise) displayed in Google Search Console or other third-party tools 
  • Share of Voice
  • Total impressions of your website showing up in search results
  • Total clicks of your website showing up in search results
  • Average click-through rates of your website over a certain period
  • Number of keywords ranked in top positions (1-20)
  • Increase in rankings of “non-branded” search terms 
  • Site speed performance and Core Web Vitals scores
  • Number of high-quality links built to a domain over a certain period 
  • Analytics metrics such as bounce rate, average session duration and event counts 
  • Organic traffic conversions

Regardless of what metrics you choose to monitor SEO success over time, it’s vital that realistic expectations are set with your teams and that budget, resource, competition and some degree of forecasting are taken into account. 

Are there any common misconceptions over how long SEO takes?

We’ll go into a detailed example of this shortly, but a common misconception over SEO timings is that there are a series of sustainable “hacks” that will speed up your success rates for the long term.

Of course, experienced SEO teams will be able to be nimble enough to spot quick areas for growth via quick-win content or technical optimisations. However, despite what some may echo on social media, be wary of those claiming that they can offer you instant routes to SEO success. This particularly rhymes true when they aren’t being explicit about what means they use to achieve this. 

Here are a couple of other recurring misconceptions about how long it takes for SEO to work or about SEO in general:

  • SEO is a one-off activity: Like most marketing channels, the opportunity and requirement for businesses to keep up their SEO efforts doesn’t stop once a certain time period has elapsed, or certain goals have been achieved. SEO is ever-changing and your competitors certainly won’t stop. You will need to continue to carve out sustainable SEO activities over an ongoing period in order to maintain and enhance growth.
  • You can do SEO without a strategy: We’ve alluded to this one earlier, though good, sustainable SEO campaigns really need a robust and data-led strategy behind them in order to work. Flying blind or throwing mud at the wall and hoping something sticks eventually in terms of SEO activities won’t work in the short or long term. 
  • Focusing on one area of SEO will work: While there may be some instances where a business may have a good content offering but a terrible user experience (or vice versa) and simply need a focused fix on one particular area, SEO is a holistic discipline that encompasses a lot. Focusing only on link building without a solid content offering won’t work.  

Real world SEO case studies: How not to speed up SEO

There are many case studies of SEO success published online that detail tactics used and how long the campaigns took. Oftentimes, these are published by agencies, consultants or third-party tool providers that are showcasing their own case studies with a view to generating leads. 

While we could detail such similar instances, there are also a number of fascinating examples where common misconceptions over how long SEO takes can be proven in how they showcase how not to approach SEO.

A recent example of this which recently gained a certain degree of notoriety on social media was an example where a user claimed that they’d “pulled off an SEO heist” by stealing 3.6 million visits from a competitor. In terms of timeframes, they’d claimed that they’d generated nearly half a million visits in one month alone.

The tactics used here were largely comprised of using unsustainable AI-generated content practices to re-publish slightly altered variants of a competitor’s content base and republish these articles on their own website. The user claimed that 1,800 articles were published in a few hours, and that alongside their organic visits, they had 13,000 keywords on the first page of Google.

While this may sound like an impressive feat given the speed at which it was done, the morally ambiguous nature of the approach (like many black hat tactics) quickly caught the eye of Google and his SEO performance tanked as quickly as it spiked.

This proves that regardless of how long SEO may take across a certain business or niche, there really are no sustainable short-cuts to real growth. Any SEO campaign worth its salt needs to have the big picture in mind and should be about overall business growth for the long term. 

With that in mind, there isn’t really an exact cut off point when it comes to timelines for how long SEO takes to see success, even if we are mentioning periods such as 6 or 12 months. It should really be viewed as a long-term steady route to gradual growth. 

Let's work together?
Discuss Project

More Useful Insights