The short answer is “it depends”. I’m sure you love that answer because it’s so reassuring and final, but seriously, there are many factors in the search environment that affect results, many of which are out of your direct control.
We’ll break this down into three sections:
- what you control
- what you influence
- and what is out of your control
Factors you control:
If you don’t have this baseline covered, you should spend most of your time here first. Change what you have control over for faster results.
SEO results can be quickly improved from on-site optimization if your brand is strong, and if you have a continual flow of fresh content.
- Offering: Your business controls your offering. Do you focus your offering on the top converting personas? Do you even have personas outlined? Get to know personas in order to optimize your offering language. Your offerings are on landing pages, ad copy, blog posts. Why should anyone care about your business? You control the message about your offering, so make sure it resonates with the right people.
- Profiles: Your social profiles, directory listings and business citations should be under your control. Make sure to claim your brand in the majors like Google Places, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Google+, and don’t forget all the social content sharing sites like Flickr, Youtube, and Slideshare (to name a few).
- Content: You control your content, or you should. You need to have a blog and consistently update it. Vet the content to make sure it’s valuable to your personas just like your business offering. Why would someone care about your content? Your content should be insightful, helpful, and/or entertaining.
- Content promotion: Now that you have content, how does anyone know about it? Most of the time nobody will know until you tell someone. In order for people to find your content in search, it needs to be in the index through crawling, and given importance by links. Make sure your site is pushed to the search engines first through a submitted RSS feed to Feedburner, or through your XML sitemap submission with Google Webmaster Tools. Also, get feedback on your content through your social media profiles, and thank those that participate. Contact industry influencers with your content. The content better be helpful, entertaining or insightful, or your contacts will delete your messages!
- Usability: Can your personas complete the tasks they intended when landing on your site? What circumstances lead to barriers for completion of tasks? Is the site easy on the eyes? Does the site load fast? Usability is not necessarily going to directly impact keyword rankings. Indirectly a better user experience will entice linking which will directly improve your keyword rankings. Nobody wants to link to a site that is difficult to use, or takes forever to load, and you control this!
- Site code / structure: This ties into usability, however it mostly ties directly to providing Google a way to find your content. Make sure you have unique title tags for each page. Make sure you have semantic heading structures for your content. Make sure your internal linking structure provides keyword rich descriptions of the destination pages. Make sure you use link CSS files instead of HTML styling. These are a few of the items to be aware of when improving your site code.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, however it should help you get started in thinking about what you can change about your online presence for the benefit of improved search visibility.
Factors you influence:
The factors you influence are worth spending time in, however don’t expect instant results. These take time to build up, and require persistence and patience.
- User participation: Getting users to create content about your business takes time to build up awareness and trust. It starts with you showing an interest in them. You’ll need to built up a base of advocates that are not afraid of public brand affection. Start small and focused in order to build momentum. Engage in two-way conversations in order to help customers. Make sure your customer experience rocks so that your customers will show you love online.
- News / media: Stay current on your industry and keep a pulse on the top news. Subscribe to industry news RSS feeds, setup Twitter lists to filter down to your news feed. Modify your Google News page to include your top keywords. By keeping your ear to the ground you’ll be able to jump at opportunities quickly. You’ll want to be able to speak out on issues, or events using press releases, blog posts, social commentary in social networks in order to help your message spread and get picked up from news outlets, and/or leading blogs. Also, make sure your SEO strategy is integrated with your PR strategy.
- Brand awareness: Typically business sites receive a plurality if not a majority of their traffic from branded terms. Many times SEO strategies revolve around getting more traffic from non-branded terms, however brand awareness campaigns can deliver huge returns if done right. Use your website analytics to gauge your brand awareness levels. If a campaign is working, you should see an increase in branded traffic to your website. Make sure to display your main website address in any of your brand awareness campaigns whether its printed, televised, or event-based. If your site address isn’t your brand, make sure you are ranking for your brand. Also, check the search engine results pages for your branded terms to make sure you dominate the space with paid media, and multiple types of content and social profiles that should be listed under your website and site links.
Factors you don’t control:
These factors are outside your sphere of influence, however they are useful when studied. You need to stay informed of the environment so you’ll know how to adapt.
- Competitors: Keep an eye on what your competitors are doing. See how they present themselves online and explore how they are executing on their online marketing campaigns. Understand their value propositions to understand how they differentiate themselves. This will help you to refine, evolve and fight. Sometimes you may lose an SEO fight, but you may also find a weakness in the competitors’ rankings that can be broken. Know your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses in order to understand your own threats and opportunities in search.
- Search algorithm changes: Stay aware of the recent changes to Google, Yahoo and Bing. If you are doing business in China, check out Baidu, and if in Russia, Yandex. Changes to search algorithms can’t be anticipated unless you’re a search engineer for a top search engine. Make sure to be aware of when search engines change their interface, how they display results, how results are ranked, and review industry commentary on the changes to get a well-rounded perspective on what the changes mean to your business.
- New technology habits by users: Do you remember how people used the Internet only 6 years ago? In March of 2005 Google had 36% market share, and Yahoo! had double the market share of Microsoft. Fastforward to 2011, and Google has eaten Yahoo!’s share, and Microsoft’s Bing is just slightly less than Yahoo!. Also, Yahoo! is using Bing’s search engine for all US searches. So, users may change which search engines they use, however Google has been the main beneficiary of the change. Also, I’d be surprised if you havn’t heard of social media. Back in 2005 social media was new, and all the rage with hype around “Web 2.0.” Look out for the next hot trends, but be a fast follower instead of an early adopter. Observe how the system is being built, and play with the tools before fully integrating into your marketing mix. Find out for yourself how the technologies work. Some things to look out for all revolve around local, social and mobile, and interfaces. Think Siri, it addresses all of these issues.
So, when you ask, “how long does SEO take to get results?” the answer “it depends” really means it depends on you. How long does it take to plan and execute? Are you targeting the right personas? Are your goals focused on revenue instead of rankings? Are you integrating SEO into your inbound marketing practices? Are you integrating your PPC campaigns with your SEO strategy? How are you measuring the success of your SEO campaigns?
To really understand how soon SEO will bring results, you need to have a site SWOT analysis, a competitive analysis, and top notch keyword research that outlines your best opportunities. Armed with the right data, you will have a much better idea of how much time will need to be invested to get results in SEO for your website.