How Long Does SEO Take?

If I asked if you wanted a million dollars, I’m fairly certain the answer would be “yes”. But if I asked how long it would take you to make a million dollars, I’m guessing the answer would be less assured. The reason? It takes a lot of work and an undisclosed period of time to make a million dollars.

We’re over two decades into the digital revolution and Search Engine Optimization remains one of the most impactful marketing strategies around. It also happens to be a core service offered by Astute. We help websites across various industries achieve better online visibility in the SERPs. If the word “SERP” is foreign to you, check out our post about SEO lingo. Having said that, I’ll do my best to keep the jargon to a minimum.

While optimizing web content for search engines isn’t a new practice, the tactics have evolved significantly over the years (as have search engines). Much about SEO maintains an air of mystery – both in purpose and execution. The most common question we get when onboarding a new SEO client is “How long does it take to see results?”

This question is difficult to answer because there are so many variables to consider. It isn’t even the right question. But if pressed to answer, I would say…it depends.

While there are many tried and true optimization techniques, SEO is a moving target with delayed gratification. It isn’t like social media marketing or online advertising. It’s not uncommon for SEO efforts to take up to 4-6 months to deliver some real, measurable gains. In fact, 12 months is a far more reasonable time frame to witness the actual impact of an SEO campaign.


Why SEO?

Business is all about return on investment (ROI), and the ROI from SEO often remains intangible for several months. It’s worth noting that the fruit is well worth the wait. A top ranking keyword has the potential to drive thousands of relevant visitors to your site every month. But it takes time to get there.

Marketing strategies, like investment strategies, should be a diverse portfolio of long-term and short-term growth tactics. It’s unwise to put all of your eggs in one basket. If online advertising were the marketing equivalent to day trading, SEO would be a 401k. Just as the stock market fluctuates, keyword rankings fluctuate. Businesses sometimes get worried when rankings (and other KPI’s) inevitably ebb and flow from month-to-month. This is not a productive use of worry. Stay the course. Over time, keywords (like stocks) will grow in value. Patience and diligence persevere.

In short, SEO can provide an abundant ROI (among other desirable acronyms), but the expectation needs to be realistic. SEO isn’t about short-term gains, it’s about long-term growth.


3 Reasons SEO ROI is Difficult To Calculate

There exists a trilogy of reasons for why an exact timeline for SEO ROI is nearly impossible to calculate. Each website, industry, and competitive landscape is unique. Strategies that work for a doctor’s office won’t necessarily work for an e-commerce business. Even within those niches, there is unlimited variance.


#1 Finding the Right Cocktail of Keywords & Onsite Optimizations

Website optimizations must be carefully considered in the beginning, and thoughtfully adjusted over time as data is collected and analyzed. Content must be created surrounding relevant keywords. Backlinks must be built. Even when you do everything right, you still may not get your desired result. The point is to keep going back to the drawing board. Eventually, you’ll catch a wave.


#2 The Competition Keeps Moving & Shaking

Another reason it can be difficult to gauge how long an SEO campaign will take is the pesky competition. They’re always trying to one-up everyone. If you can’t beat them, join them…by being a one upper. Analyzing the strategies of key players in a given industry is a great place to start when launching an SEO campaign. Research their high ranking keywords and backlink profile to gain valuable insights on where to begin. It’s important to discover what strategies work for your competitors and then try to one-up them by taking it a step further.


#3 Google’s Relentless Pursuit of Frustration

The third barrier to knowing how long SEO will take is Google. That’s right, the hand that giveth can also taketh away. Google implements hundreds of algorithm changes every year that can either reward hard work or force a strategic reevaluation. The pains of Google algorithm updates aren’t just reserved for black hat SEO’s. Plenty of white hat SEO’s have fallen victim to Google’s ravenous desire to anticipate searcher intent (sometimes even before the searcher knows what they’re looking for).


…So How Long Does It Take To See Results?

It will likely take several months of consistent effort to see any significant boosts in keyword rankings and top landing pages. For great results, you’re probably looking at a year or more. Considering the life of a business, this is a small price to pay. The purpose of this article is not to steer you away from using SEO to grow your business.

On the contrary, the purpose is to educate you on why SEO is a worthwhile investment – albeit a long-term one. It’s important for business owners to understand what they are signing up for when spending their precious resources. In the name of diversification, I would highly recommend a comprehensive digital marketing strategy that covers both long and short-term growth goals. It’s just good business.


3 Key Factors that play a vital role in how long an SEO campaign will take

  1. Competitive landscape
  2. Backlink profile
  3. Quality of content


It is beyond the scope of this particular post to demystify the countless SEO strategies that can aid a website in its epic climb to the top of SERP Mountain. We’ll save that story for another day.


The Takeaway

Sam McRoberts wrote an excellent article where he equates SEO strategy to Warren Buffett’s investment strategy. I’ll leave you with a profound quote from that article that sums up the purpose of SEO quite nicely.


“You simply can’t approach SEO with a short-term investment mentality. If you’re looking for a quick hold-and-flip, that isn’t SEO. If you want to know with some measure of statistical certainty what your ROI will be over the next quarter or year, that isn’t SEO. If on the other hand, you’re willing to invest for the long-term, if you have a long-term vision and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to reach your end goal…that’s SEO.” – Sam McRoberts


If you have the desire to grow your business, SEO is one of the most effective ways to achieve the long-term viability of that goal. But you need to proceed without blinders. It’s going to take an undisclosed amount of time. If you seek immediate growth, SEO isn’t your best bet. But if you have patience and foresight, and are willing to shake off the inevitable increases and decreases month over month, then investing in SEO is a wise decision.

Keep in mind that if someone makes big promises about quick SEO gains, they may have a questionable ulterior motive. While it is possible to gain some quick ground by taking care of low hanging fruit, lasting growth is a greater time commitment. If you’re in need of a digital marketing agency that has a proven track record in the realm of search engine optimization, contact Astute and we’ll hunker down with you for the long haul.