How Long Does SEO Take to Work?

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a “magic SEO snake oil” that will rank your site #1 on Google by tomorrow. Plenty of non-reputable internet companies promise SEO results in a practically-instant time frame, but let’s be realistic – SEO is a wine that gets better over time. Like a fine Cabernet Sauvignon from the south of France, you’d be doing it an injustice to judge the results after one month. SEO and red wine are both usually much better after years of care and development.

Wine metaphors aside, you no doubt want to know how long SEO will take so you can determine how soon to expect your investment to pay off. SEO analysts like me want to know too, which is why there’s a lot of research out there on this relationship between SEO and time. There are a lot of different ways to look at the data, butfor this article, I decided to focus on the power of content.

At Leverage, we’re big believers in content as a cornerstone of good SEO. Telling search engines and users what each page is about is a win-win: both humans and search engines need language to understand what’s on the site. With a good content-driven SEO strategy in place, a site can be optimized for search queries that match up with your offerings.

Content’s potential is often underrated and misunderstood by digital marketing industry insiders and outsiders alike. That’s why I’ve taken a dive into some of our agency’s data to get a better idea of how quickly SEO works with a content-focused strategy, and how long the strategy takes to increase site visibility and drive traffic to individual pages of a site.

What We Looked At

After noticing trends in the performance of the blog posts on the Leverage Marketing website, I wondered about the link between keyword-optimized content and organic search performance. How long after publishing an article did SEO take? How long did our blog articles take to start showing up on the search result pages on the first, second, or third pages, where someone would find them and click on them?

I was also interested in the relationship between time and SEO results for our clients, and knew we had the data that would help me get the full picture of Leverage’s SEO success.

I looked at a small sample of key landing pages from three sites – one lead-generation focused site, one ecommerce site, and our very own site,

I wanted to isolate the impact of adding optimized content to individual pages (while performing standard technical SEO optimizations to ensure top performance).

It’s easy to point at total organic traffic levels and say, “there, that’s where we started performing SEO, so that’s how long SEO took to work for my site.”

SEO improvement over time concept

Obviously, this growth is the bottom line that you want to see when starting an SEO campaign. However, it’s interesting to drill down and look at growth on a more specific scale – in this case, the growth of traffic to an individual page after a big SEO improvement, such as adding keyword-optimized content.

When you look at keyword-optimized content’s impact page by page, you can watch how quickly your SEO strategy really worked to start changing the way people find your site.

How We Defined “Success”

There are a lot of different ways to measure “SEO success”. The average SEO analyst knows that there’s an endless number of variables that can be analyzed to determine success – traffic levels, keyword rankings, leads/sales, site engagement, and much more. Asking “how long SEO takes to work” only has meaning if we define what it means for SEO to “work”.

For these cases, I chose to look at the number of organic entrances to certain pages.

Why? I wanted to be able to specifically isolate the effect of publishing good content on important pages. Total traffic is, of course, important, as are visits coming to your site via any page. But by just watching the growth of 5 fledgling pages into full-grown, highly-trafficked pages, I can get a much more granular look at the time frame of SEO results driven by that content improvements on a site.

What about conversions? Let’s be real – the reason you, as a website owner, care about SEO, is not higher traffic or lower bounce rates. You care that people are completing desired actions on your site, such as purchases, lead form completions, phone calls, newsletter signups, etc. The increased traffic level that SEO drives to your site is only important if those visitors are converting. We know this, and are by no means discounting that fact by just looking at site entrances in this article.

However, in all the examples I looked at, the increase in traffic also resulted in an increase in the conversions that keep these sites in business. Assuming that your offering is honest and is something people want, and that your site’s design makes it easy for visitors to get that offering, good SEO = more traffic = more conversions. But for the sake of demonstrating how long SEO takes to work, we’re just looking at the time it took to drive more traffic to the site, because that was good traffic that did translate into conversions.

What You Should Consider About This Data

You can get really in the weeds trying to judge different sites’ SEO successes next to each other. It isn’t as simple a task as it might seem. There are a lot of factors that can impact how long SEO will take to work on a site, such as:

  • Site upgrades, redesigns, domain moves, CMS updates, etc. – Were there any big technical changes that impacted SEO-related facets of the site? Big changes can affect rankings and site visibility in many, many ways.
  • Investment – How much time has been spent investing money and time into SEO for this site? Higher investment can often mean quicker results.
  • Starting point – How much work was needed to solidify the technical aspects of the site before core SEO activities like content creation and implementation could take place? How old is the domain? If there was a lot of setup work taking up resources early on, or if the site is brand new, sometimes it takes time to gain momentum.
  • Competition — How competitive are the queries that you’re trying to rank for? It’s going to take longer to see results if you’re looking to rank for something highly competitive or something that is already dominated by a large set of strong websites – the higher the mountain, the longer the climb.
  • Conversion-friendliness/site design — How good is the user experience of the site? If the design is poor or the calls to action are not clear, people are going to bounce off your site, which will not help SEO.

That’s just a shortlist. There are many factors that play intosite rankings, and even the most seasoned of SEO professionals are still trying to determine the exact algorithmic minutia. The results we saw in these three cases are by no means standards, guarantees, or expectations – every single site is different, and therefore, the time frame for SEO results is going to be different, too.

That being said, I listed all the underlying factors that affected how long SEO took for each of these cases so you could get an idea of how much variation we have to take into account, even just across three sites. There’s no one great way to “hold all other factors constant” as you would in a classic scientific experiment, so I’ve taken care to state the facts, make conclusions about their effects on our data, and to give you the opportunity to do the same.

Case #1: Lead Generation for a Local Service Business

For a client with a local business and several strong competitors in the area, we knew before beginning our SEO campaign that we needed to strengthen the sparse content on their site to grab top local rankings. To do this, we began to build out pages that addressed each specific service the business offers. Let’s look at the effect that expanding and editing all that content, along with making technical improvements in the background, had for this site.

Some factors playing into how long SEO took to work for this site:

  • This website had some less-than-great SEO work performed on it before becoming a Leverage client, spammy link-building being the main issue. Our team was able to resolve existing problems, but a domain’s past can never truly be erased.
  • The site already had some thin content on most of the pages we looked at here, but our team expanded and optimized these pages upon beginning the SEO campaign.
  • We performed a redesign of the site to improve and simplify many factors, SEO and otherwise.
  • This is a local client, so traffic tends to be relatively light, as it is with most specialty local service websites.
SEO over time first case study

Fig. 1: Percentage growth in organic page entrances for 8 studied pages, as compared to pre-campaign benchmark (week 0)

We spent several weeks at the beginning of the campaign (weeks 0-22) redesigning the look and feel of the site, as well as squaring up technical issues and cleaning up bad links and citations. Content was implemented at the same time the redesign of the site was launched. Afterward, the number of entrances to the site via those pages over each following week was an average of 357% higher than it was in the weeks before content optimization.

organic page entrances by month

Fig. 2: Number of organic page entrances each month, with each page represented by a different color line.

We’ve built a lot of new pages on this site since we began our big SEO campaign changes in February 2017, so we just looked at pages that had been on the site for a while rather than new ones that we added as we continued the campaign. As you can see, there’s a big lift after the date where we implemented SEO-optimized content. We did a lot of the technical clean-up behind the scenes over the August 2016-January 2017 period so that the foundation of the site would be as clean as possible when we relaunched it with a new look and new content.

Another interesting note is that some pages performed significantly better than others – notice the dark blue line representing one page that obviously took off, while the black line representing another only saw small improvements. That’s going to happen in any SEO campaign – some pages are simply searched for more often than others. In this case, the black line is a main page speaking to commercial services, while the blue line represents a specific residential service page. In this client’s industry, a lot more people are searching for residential services than commercial ones, so we weren’t surprised to see a lot more growth on the residential page.

So how long did SEO take to work for this site?

From the time frame when we launched the core content implementations, SEO results tended to grow more impressive each month. The biggest jumps in growth, when compared to our benchmark monthly entrances, occurred 1 month after the initial improvements, where entrances were ~200% higher than benchmark, and saw more growth about 8-9 months after implementation.

growth in organic page entrances

Fig. 3: Percentage growth in organic page entrances over 8 studied pages, by month, as compared to pre-campaign benchmark.

Case #2: Ecommerce in a Niche Industry

Next, I looked at a slightly different scenario. This client’s website is a large ecommerce store that offers many products in a high-dollar, high-demand niche industry.

For our SEO strategy, we focused on strengthening this client’s content resources, mostly on product category pages. By indicating to search engines what each category was offering, we hoped to see an improvement in rankings as a reward for providing more information.

Some factors playing into how long SEO took to work for this site:

  • This website contained little to no content before the SEO campaign began.
  • The site is quite large, containing hundreds of categories and subcategories of products.
  • The domain has been operational for a relatively long time, giving it a great amount of authority.
  • No SEO practices had previously been pursued on the site.
  • Traffic levels are very high on this site.
  • The client has pursued SEO for a shorter time – 7 months.
percentage growth of organic entrances

Fig. 4: Percentage growth of organic entrances over 5 studied pages, as compared to pre-campaign benchmark.

After adding optimized content to 5 core product categories, we saw an average of 164.53% more organic entrances to the site each week through these pages.

I noticed that one of the pages I studied was a serious outlier. “Page Z”, as I’ll call it, performed significantly better after adding content than the other four pages did, though those four pages still performed far above benchmark.

organic entrance comparison

Fig. 5: Total number of organic entrances to Page Z (blue) as compared to the total number of organic entrances to the other 4 studied pages (orange)

Page Z saw entrance numbers that were, on average, 204.39% higher than its pre-campaign number of entrances, while the other four pages averaged about 44% higher each month than the benchmark. While all 5 pages represent a great improvement for this short time period, the outlier is an incredibly high performer!

Since the site previously had little to no content for search engines to crawl, we suspected that search engines weren’t truly getting the best understanding of what each page was offering shoppers, and therefore wasn’t ranking the pages all that well in the search results. Once we added some optimized content to these 5 top-priority, high-traffic product category pages, we saw huge growth. From May (pre-SEO) to July 2017 alone, there was a 79.1% increase in entrances through these pages, and the rest of 2017 saw weekly entrances to these pages about 165% higher than before the campaign started.

In Page Z’s case, there is a ton of relevant search volume that the page simply wasn’t capturing before we added content, because Google didn’t fully understand the offerings of the page without written content. Once we added content, results showed up almost immediately.

So how long did SEO take to work for this site?

combined organic entrances

Fig. 6: Percentage growth in organic page entrances over all 5 studied pages, by month, as compared to pre-campaign benchmark

With this site, we’ve only been running the campaign for a bit over 6 months now, so time will tell how much more growth we’ll get over the next few months. The reason I chose this client to look at, despite the short time period, is that some of the pages we observed performed incredibly well once content was added to the page.

The boost in entrances to the site via this single product category was as close to “instant” as exists in the SEO world. Why? Well, it’s never possible to be 100% sure, but this is a big site on an established domain that receives thousands of visits a day. It already held pretty good authority and has a healthy amount of good backlinks. For big, established sites, the time frame of SEO results may be a little shorter – in this case, big gains only 1-2 months in.

Case #3: Blog Post Performance on the Leverage Marketing Website

I also looked at the performance of content on this very site to get an idea of how long SEO efforts were taking to work for our site – in this case, how long it takes our articles to gain value and show up in the search results. We decided to look at some of our top-performing blog posts from the past couple of years to see how long it took for content pieces to really take off.

Some factors playing into how long SEO took to work for this site:

  • These blog articles aren’t being posted in a vacuum – we’re always updating other things on (and off) our site.
  • We obviously didn’t post every one of these studied blog posts at one time, so I compared their progress by the time for which the article has been published on the site – not the exact dates, but the time elapsed.
  • We only looked at brand-new blog posts for these numbers – these are our top-performing posts excluding posts that were older and updated by a member of our team. The effect of making changes to content is not comparable to creating all-new content, so refurbished content performance is another SEO analysis for another day!
organic growth of Leverage blogs

Fig. 7: Percentage growth of organic entrances over 13 studied blog posts, as compared to the first full month of having published each page. (“Month 1” is the first incomplete month of blog’s existence, “Month 2” is first full benchmarked month)

The percentage of improvement from the first full month of each blog post’s existence is notable – out of 13 of our top-performing new blog posts, we saw an average of 691% more entrances to the site via those posts than the month they were published.

So how long did SEO take to work for this site?

The biggest average improvement from initial entrance measurements were around the 7th and 8th month since the blog was published, and again around the post’s one-year anniversary. We did see growth right off the bat, as with the other cases, but it took over half a year to see things REALLY pick up.

To get an even better idea of how these blog posts affected the SEO results on our site, we also looked at what effect these blog posts had on the site overall. To do this, we compared three things:

  • Percentage growth in organic entrances to the site as they are now (orange)
  • Organic entrances to the site not counting the entrances via the 13 blogs we looked at in this analysis (blue)
  • Organic entrances to the site without any of our blogging efforts counted (gray)
site entrance benchmark

Fig. 8: Percentage growth in total entrances to any page of the LM site, as compared to a benchmark in August 2016

The most interesting note here is how much our digital marketing blogs have contributed to the growth of our site. If we hadn’t started focusing more on adding content about digital marketing on our blog’s site, the organic entrances to our site wouldn’t have grown nearly as much – or possibly even at all. Again, this test is somewhat impossible to truly recreate, as each page of our site affects the health of the others, so it’s hard to say that the entrances to our site really would have been looking like those sad gray bars. However, it is clear that our blogging matters – to the long-term health of our site, our company, and our readers. (Don’t believe it? I wrote more about why blogging matters here)

What Does It All Mean?

So how long will you have to wait for SEO to start working and for those newly-optimized pages to start driving big growth to your site? The answer is the same here as in other aspects of SEO: it depends.

I’m not going to tell you that you’re always going to need to wait 8 months to see big jumps in results, like we did in Case 1 and Case 3 – because as we saw in Case 2, the time frame for SEO results isn’t always that long! On the other hand, I would never advise you to expect certain results in month 1 or 2, because as we saw in Case 3, our posts saw very few organic entrances until long after that. If we’d given up and deleted them in month 3 (or not even posted them at all), imagine all that traffic we would’ve missed out on!

The Disclaimer

Don’t forget: there is no secret SEO success formula. Optimizing content and adding it to your site may not always be enough – if your site has a lot of underlying technical issues that are preventing or hampering indexation, affecting the way your page renders to search engines or users, or causing users to bounce off your site, all the content optimization in the world isn’t going to really impact your site as much as you’d like it to. Sometimes, we SEO analysts find ourselves fixing many problems clients didn’t even know they had, but that were hurting their rankings badly.

Content itself isn’t really an easy win either – if you optimize your content for too many or too few keywords, use keywords that aren’t quite the right fit, or optimize without a clear strategy, you aren’t going to see results, and you might even run into site penalizations for trying to “trick” search engines.

If you’re waiting on your current SEO strategy to start driving results, it’s possible that it’s just going to be a long game – but it’s more likely that you should think about bringing in the experts to make sure your time and money are being maximized the way they should be. Getting a holistic and detailed review of your site’s current SEO standing can help not only get your site on the right track, but can also help you uncover the underlying problems that may be holding it back.

So, how quickly does SEO work? Work with Leverage and find out for yourself.

Special thanks to my fellow Leverage Marketing analysts Michael Holeman, Dan Valle, and Madeline Jacobson for pitching in some of their time and brainpower for this article!

Ready to see big SEO results sooner rather than later? We can help with that. Get in touch with our all-star SEO specialists today to get your site up to speed, or sign up for our email newsletter to get more SEO knowledge like this dropped into your inbox every few weeks.

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