One of the questions I'm asked most often is how long it's going to take to get on the Google's first page of search results, become highly visible across the social web and enjoy a flood of visitors eagerly subscribing to mailing lists, filling in request for information forms or pulling out the plastic after clicking the checkout button.
There are many factors that affect the time frame, and the answer is far from simple, but here are some of the considerations that I address in my answers.
For most products and services, there will already be well established competitors holding the first page of search engine results. To outrank these websites, your site must eclipse what the competition's doing, in engaging content, authority, inbound links from authority sites, social media, etc.
Even the very best SEO analysts need time to discover who the top competitors for your niche are and where your site stacks up by comparison. Why do these sites outrank yours? With this data it is then possible to map out a strategy for catching up and eventually overtaking these well-established sites.
Is Your Website's Structure Sound?
Very often, a website is not user friendly, it loads slowly, it may not accommodate mobile devices, some web standards issues exist, there may be no blog, missing social media integration, it might not be possible to provide unique titles and descriptions for pages and posts, search engine spiders can't index the content properly… the list goes on.
Your site may be drop-dead gorgeous, award-winning and absolutely everything you wanted, but for SEO purposes, there's a chance it's “broken”. If there are deficiencies to address, these can delay progress.
Effective content development and SEO should always begin with discovering who you want in your audience. Creating personas for your customers can be a very useful exercise. Who are they? Where do they hang out on the web? What is the language they use when discussing the problems your product or service solves?
When you know your audience, it's time for keyword research. Keywords are just as important in creating content, and promoting it through social channels, as they are for SEO.
There is considerable risk in pushing out content right away, just to be doing something, or to have something to show on a performance report. Blast out the gate, half cocked and in the wrong direction, and you will have to backtrack before you can point yourself in the right direction later.
Most websites need some pillar articles to target niche keywords, accompanied by a commitment to additional articles and blog posts that will be published on a very regular basis. It takes considerable research, thought, and unfortunately time, to put a solid content marketing plan together.
Your primary competitors will be earning much of their rankings and traffic through rank-boosting backlinks from authority websites. Our experience indicates that a database of all of the links, pointing to at least the top 50 pages for each of your target keywords, will be required. Backlink analysis will reveal common sites, specific pages on these sites and how often links are being added.
Armed with this data, it is possible to map out a strategy for securing links from the same pages that are driving your competition's traffic.
It is also important to lay out a linking strategy for sites only a small percentage of the top pages receive backlinks from. In addition, you'll want to research authority sites none of the top pages have currently secured links from.
Following Penguin 2.0, it has become increasingly difficult to locate quality sites for backlinks, but it is possible. Tools like Cemper's LinkResearchTools can speed up the process of evaluating links . If it sounds like earning crucial backlinks is a lot of very time-consuming work, even with specialized tools, it is.
Building Quality Links
There are many ways to cultivate links. Creating and sharing brilliant content is our favorite. You can make friends in both the blogging and social communities. Hours spent providing helpful comments will often yield backlinks. We're finding that writing guest posts for other blogs is still effective.
Developing content and building relationships involves a long term commitment and a lot of time. It's not something that can be checked off the list after a few hours.
What if We Do All the Work Up Front?
I'm often asked if it's possible to speed up the process by just completing a big chunk of SEO up front. “If I just pay you for the whole year in advance, rather than as a monthly retainer, how quickly can your company get everything done?” Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work that way.
Some of the components of the strategy can indeed be accelerated. Completing all of the initial research up front does let you hit the ground running. Where some existing content needs revision and pillar content is required, to support targeted keywords, these pages and posts can be handled in a very short period.
Google is looking for the organic development of quality content, with links and social mentions that develop naturally out of recognition of the value you're providing. This involves a long term commitment to publishing really great content. And this is the part you cannot pound out in a month or two, even if there's a budget for it.
Google is wary of links that develop too quickly. While it is possible for an article to go viral, developing hundreds of genuine links on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest within a day or two; any strategy that involves the rapid development of links in a way that does not involve creating extraordinary content, could get your site penalized.
Fine Tuning is Required
Even the best strategies, developed by the world's most knowledgeable SEO consultants, implemented by teams of highly skilled experts, require tweaking.
The SEO process begins with research and is then followed by analysis of the data gathered, strategy development and careful implementation. You then enter a wash-rinse-repeat cycle of content development and link promotion, evaluation of progress and course corrections based upon empirical data.
There's no one-size-fits-all solution that hits the target dead center on every site, the very first time. It's a process that is fine tuned over time on a project by project basis.
SEO is a Moving Target
“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men…” You map out the perfect strategy, thoughtfully prepared and executed with precision. Analytics, ranking reports and sales all confirm that you nailed it. And then Google releases an algorithm update. And that's the day you are soooo glad you chose the “sure and steady” white hat approach over any grey or black hat shortcuts you may have considered.
Google, Yahoo! and Bing are going to continue updating their ranking algorithms, and these changes can occur literally overnight. Many highly profitable websites have been wiped out by algorithm updates like Panda and Penguin.
The best we as professional SEO's can do is provide an estimate on the time frame, based upon our years of experience and our understanding of what it takes to get the job done today. Tomorrow Google could change everything.
You want to pursue market share online aggressively, but the higher risk ‘grey' hat strategies that promise short term gains may come back to bite you.
And SEO is War
Assuming that your content marketing strategy is sound, you should begin moving in on enemy territory, displacing competitors from some of the top ten positions. Your social influence and traffic will also rise and your competitors will begin to feel that difference on the balance sheet.
If their SEO company has an eye on their data, they'll respond very quickly. They'll research what the new player (you) is doing and take countermeasures. Worst case, they'll be awakened to the problem by an agitated call from the client, demanding to know what is being done about the drop in traffic, web responses and sales. It is highly unlikely your competitors will take your advances into their territory lying down.
If you view SEO as war, when the enemy increases manpower and resources, you need to do the same to defend your position. You must counter with even more force to advance. There will be some setbacks and lost ground. If you come in strong enough, only minor adjustments will be required and losses in position and time should be minimal. Go in light and you may experience many setbacks, perhaps lose the battle entirely.
Your budget is probably the #1 factor influencing the time it takes to achieve your goals.
Let's say that your site currently has 20% of the quality content, social influence and backlinks from sites of authority that your primary competitors have; a lot of labor stands between where you are and your marketing goals. Whether you have in-house staff trained and coached, or you hire an SEO agency for consulting and implementation, there will be a cost to that labor, so the budget you've approved governs SEO success and its timeframe.
To use an example, if you have 2 people investing 2 to 3 hours a day, writing interesting content that connects with your audience, actively engaged in social discussions and cultivating quality links from authority sites, you are going to get there a lot faster than if your budget covers 1 person for part of a day each month.
I have seen remarkable traffic and sales gains in as little as six months. Other companies realize a solid return on investment in a year or sometimes two.
The greatest obstacle is going in too light. In other words, bringing a knife to a gun fight. To illustrate, let's suppose you want a $200 return on investment. If you paid someone $5 to increase that to $205, and another $100 to increase it to $300, I believe you'll agree that the chances of the second person succeeding would be significantly greater than the first.