Experience tells us that it usually takes time — at least 2-3 months — for initial SEO results, and up to a year to see any significant ones. We asked an expert to break down the nuances of how long SEO takes to work.

Here, you’ll find:

  1. When to expect results from SEO
  2. Tips to start investing in SEO (the right way)
  3. Important SEO KPIs to track
  4. SEO vs. PPC timelines explained
  5. How to manage SEO timetable expectations
  6. SEO “quick wins” to try today
  7. How collaboration aids in SEO

Instagram, Instacart, Instant Pot — we all want things to happen ASAP.

But, as it turns out, “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it” isn’t exactly a realistic expectation — particularly for search engine optimization (SEO). 

When done right, SEO takes time to build – generally a few months at least. And, for what it’s worth, any team or agency that tells you differently is probably setting you up for disappointment. 

Below, HawkSEM SEO Manager Hayden Pochop helps break down how long SEO takes — and why it’s still well worth your company’s investment.

People renovating the house concept

Proper SEO is like proper home construction — you need a strong foundation to build on. (Image: Rawpixel)

 When to expect results from SEO

“While you may observe some initial improvements in search rankings or an increase in site traffic in a matter of weeks, a holistic SEO strategy typically takes upwards of a year or more to yield lasting results,” explains Pochop. 

“Search engines have a complex algorithm they use to rank websites,” he adds. “They take hundreds of factors into consideration and take time to crawl, index, and ultimately rank your website for specific keywords.” 

That may sound like a long time, especially when compared to other digital marketing methods like paid search. But SEO is a buildable tactic: Once you’ve created a strong foundation, you can focus more on optimizing, enhancing, and beating out the competition.

Keeping this process in mind can help you and your team set clear and realistic expectations for SEO strategies.

 Tips to starting investing in SEO (the right way)

If you’re at the beginning of your journey investing in SEO, chances are your site’s UX and SEO functionalities need to be built. 

Think of it the way a new home is constructed: before the bells and whistles can be added (like doors and a roof), the home’s foundation needs to be sturdy. 

Creating a sturdy foundation is often a multi-step process that includes (but isn’t limited to):

  • Disavowing toxic links that direct to your site
  • Assessing Core Web Vitals, site speed, and other technical SEO factors
  • Laying out a thorough, competitive SEO strategy
  • Keeping an eye on algorithm updates
  • Taking all the necessary steps to build trust in the eyes of Google and other search engines

For starters, even if you’ve worked with an SEO agency in the past, it’s still a good idea to have an in-depth competitor insight audit conducted. 

Before a new agency or team can tackle technical issues or content audits, they first have to look “under the hood,” so to speak, to make informed decisions. 

And when it comes to actions like revamping meta descriptions and title tags, content creation, link building, and other tasks, they’ll likely want to see what’s trending for your industry, what competitors are showing for, and understand the alignment of your brand’s target persona. 

All these elements work together to create slow but steady growth. Especially when organic search gets the lion’s share of clicks, the approach has to be well-thought-out and represent the brand accurately. 

 Important SEO KPIs to track

Pochop says it’s generally recommended to use KPIs (or key performance indicators) to help understand the positive impact SEO can have on your website.

Here are a few important KPI metrics to track for SEO:

  • Organic traffic: Monitor the number of visitors coming to your website directly from search results. Organic traffic reflects your site’s overall visibility in search engines and can help determine how relevant your content is to a certain target audience. This can help you craft a solid content marketing strategy as part of your overall digital plan. 
  • Keyword rankings: Keep an eye on how your top keywords are ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs). Strive to show up at the top of results pages for search queries targeting keywords that your business has identified through keyword research.
  • Organic conversions: Tracking the total number of conversions your organic strategy has driven is important, as well as understanding the conversion rate. 
  • Technical SEO accuracy: Determine the technical health of your website to ensure it is loading and functioning optimally. There is a technical aspect of SEO that should not be overlooked.

 SEO vs. PPC timelines explained

When it comes to pay-per-click (also called PPC or paid search) marketing, you can more easily convince Google to surface your ad for certain keywords. You can do this through your ad copy, bidding strategy, and keyword choice. 

With SEO efforts, it’s more of a waiting game — with constantly changing rules. Essentially, with SEO you have to wait for Google to notice that your content is relevant to a certain keyword. With PPC, you can pay to be relevant.

“From a business perspective, SEO is a cost-effective tactic that can balance out the ongoing advertising expenses of PPC,” says Pochop. “Once your content ranks well organically, it continues to attract visitors without additional costs.” In this way, your website’s SEO is crucial in obtaining a sustainable, long-term online presence.

He adds that most organizations with a digital marketing strategy have some level of both SEO and paid ad initiatives in play, whether that’s PPC or social campaigns.

As an SEO expert, he says organizations see the best results when they supplement their paid advertising with consistent SEO and content optimization that drives consistent traffic and conversions over time. 

Think of it like a school dance: Two people have equal dancing skills. PPC is cutting a rug out on the floor to prove they’ve got talent, while SEO is sitting on the bleachers, waiting to be chosen. 

Pro tip: SEO isn’t just about the on-site (or on-page) elements of your actual website — off-site SEO (aka off-page) matters too.

 How to manage SEO timetable expectations

Once your agency or in-house team has decided to start an SEO campaign, it’s key to manage expectations. In our years of working in digital marketing, we’ve found that it takes on average at least two-to-three months to see significant SEO results. 

The good news: Once you have a strong SEO presence, it’s easier to maintain. Not only that, but it can benefit your overall digital marketing efforts in a huge way. 

These benefits include:

Another way to manage expectations is by having your marketing team assess competitor profiles to see what’s achievable. This process can answer questions like:

  • How much are other companies investing in backlink profiles? 
  • What are their average monthly content outputs? 
  • What’s the history of the domain? 
  • What’s the keyword difficulty of desired terms? 
  • Is your monthly budget realistic to meet your goals?

African american female empowering other colleagues in workplace

Even if you’re outsourcing the content on your site, it’s important to work with your marketing team to keep the lines of communication open. (Image: Rawpixel)

 7 SEO “quick wins” to try today

There’s no secret trick to skyrocket your content to the first page of Google results. However, there is low-hanging fruit that SEO pros can go after right off the bat. 

1. Optimize for mobile

With the growing number of mobile searches via smartphones & tablets, Google’s algorithm gives preference to mobile-optimized websites. Make sure your website has a responsive design & has a user-friendly navigation in place.

2. Give your technical SEO a tune-up

Things like improving site speed, your website’s user experience, and keyword rankings are all examples of immediate short-term gains. It’s possible to see these results within a few months.

3. Focus on local SEO

It’s also wise to go after local SEO wins. If you’ve got a physical business location, make sure you’ve claimed your Google Business Profile and publish posts on your profile when you can. Google tends to reward companies that use their platforms. 

Local SEO is a great way to increase local brand awareness and site traffic for businesses with a physical location or multiple branches that directly serve a certain location.

Along with the above, organizations with strong local SEO tend to include location-specific phrases in their content and accurate NAP (name-address-phone number) directories. Online reviews and local citations are also important.

4. Revisit your keywords

It can also help to tackle low-competition keywords (those with lower search volume) first before going after those highly sought-after industry terms. This way, Google can start understanding that you’re an authority in your respective space. 

It’s also wise to prioritize ranking for long-tail keywords in your content. These keywords feature more specific phrases that tend to have lower competition on SERPs than shorter, more generic terms.

Because they’re so specific, they align with more bottom-funnel user search intent and attract a qualified audience. Ideally, this qualified audience will provide better, faster results for your site.

5. Don’t neglect promotion

Don’t forget to share your content marketing efforts on social media platforms. There’s a strong correlation between social engagement and organic website rankings

6. Include schema markup

Schema markup is essentially a script added to the code on the backend of your website. It helps to clearly present your site’s high-quality content to search engines. 

It’s also an alternative way to increase visibility in SERPs, and it can even help you snag those rich snippets. Consider adding this script to your site for elements such as product pages, reviews, videos, and FAQs.

7. Obtain backlinks

While internal linking can certainly help with SEO, getting quality backlinks shouldn’t be ignored.

Although hard to master, building high-quality links from authoritative websites in your industry has shown to have great results.

Search engines like Google consider backlinks an important SEO ranking factor and consider websites with a larger portfolio of backlinks to be authoritative and trustworthy. 

Pro tip: It can be tempting to explore black hat SEO tactics, or those that promise quick wins by blurring ethical boundaries or trying to rig search results. We strongly advice against this – algorithms are getting smarter every day, and your site performance can seriously suffer if (or when) you’re found out.

 How collaboration aids in SEO

Content is collaborative. Even if you’re outsourcing the content on your site, it’s important to work with your marketing team to keep the lines of communication open. 

You know your business best, and marketers know what it takes to get content to perform on the SERP. By working together, you can publish content that speaks to your audience, is high-quality, and that’s primed for maximum search engine success.

The takeaway

SEO is a long-term digital marketing strategy that is tasked with driving quality traffic to your site and converting that traffic into leads and customers. 

No matter how you slice it, SEO takes time to build. It’s a marathon, not a sprint and, as the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. (The race to the top of the SERP, that is.) 

Traffic to your web pages is bound to fluctuate over time, and SERP volatility will influence how well your site ranks for certain target keywords, no matter your efforts. 

SEO is hard work, but it can also be deeply rewarding. Keeping this in mind while implementing your SEO strategy will help you stay grounded in your efforts and force you to play the long game. 

Create a strong foundation, have realistic expectations, and set up a well-rounded SEO strategy that takes onsite and off-site factors into account. From there, you’ll be ready to see long-term SEO success for months and years to come.

This post has been updated and was originally published in March 2022.

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