Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the most frustrating marketing channels, and that’s because the upside is so high. You know that if you can crack the top 3 results on Google, you will make a significant amount of money. But getting there can be incredibly difficult, and it requires a tremendous amount of patience.

But how long will you have to “stick it out” before you get a return on your investment? What is a reasonable timeframe for SEO?

I offer SEO services in Philadelphia and nationwide, and in this article, I will draw directly from my experience to give a clearer picture of Google’s timeframe.

How Long Does It Take For SEO To Start Working?

Search engine optimization (SEO) can take 12 months to deliver significant traffic, leads or sales in a competitive niche, and in less competitive niches, you can get results in six months or less. That said, if your website has existed for a period of time and you already have some brand equity, you can see great results within a month.

If that general timeline alarms you, consider that “web inflation” continues to happen at incredible rates – thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of websites are launched every day. By the time you read this blog, the SEO timeline might be even more daunting. As a result, it gets harder and harder to rank on Google the longer you wait.

Also note – this is far from a perfect science, and many factors influence this timeline. I’ll discuss these factors below. 

SEO Takes Longer For Brand New Websites

New websites are probably looking at close to a year before they get much organic value. One reason for that is something we SEOs call the “Google Sandbox Effect,” in which Google severely limits the visibility of a brand new site and seemingly filters out the value of backlinks for a period of time. This does not happen 100% of the time, but it is common.

Here’s an example scenario:

You launch a brand new website for your service business. You optimize your site, write a number of high quality pages, and build 100 backlinks in the first two months. By using SEO research tools like Ahrefs, you also notice that you have more backlinks than all of your local competitors, and your website is better than theirs too. Unfortunately, even five months later, you aren’t ranking well for your money phrase, “window installation in [city].”

Sadly, that’s normal! Welcome to the Google Sandbox Effect. Time is often the only remedy for this, and your keyword rankings will eventually spike upwards if you keep publishing content and building quality links at a consistent (even slow) drip.

Advice: Plant The Seeds of SEO Long Before You Need Your Site To Rank

If you wait to start doing SEO until you need the leads or sales from keyword rankings, you will probably get frustrated. You need to get the ball rolling six months to a year in advance. For businesses that need leads right away, I usually recommend getting a good PPC consultant.

Established Sites Can See Quick SEO Results

If you’ve had a website for a few years, acquired links (even by accident) over time, and are already getting some traffic, you can see great results from SEO work within a month or two. I’ve seen some wild results (#1 rankings even) for clients who owned established websites and had simply never built backlinks, wrote blogs based on keyword research, built an intentional internal link ecosystem, and such.

How Long Does It Take To Rank #1 On Google?

This is impossible to predict, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you are personal injury law firm in a major city, you will probably need multiple years of serious SEO work to be eligible for a chance at the #1 ranking. If you are in a less competitive niche, you can get to #1 in under a year for your target terms, but:

  1. You absolutely must acquire really good backlinks (legitimate PR, editorial backlinks, etc.)
  2. You must have a significant amount of content (pages and posts) on your website
  3. Your onsite SEO must be dialed in; you can’t have 404s, slow pages, no internal links, etc.

Are SEO Results Gradual or Sudden?

Most of the time, for brand new websites, you will see gradual traffic and lead growth over a period of months before the “lid comes off,” so to speak. For established brands that have simply never focused on SEO before, you may see dramatic traffic and revenue growth almost right away. But many websites experience a timeline like this:

  1. After three months of work, one or two keywords start to drive traffic
  2. In month four or five, your organic traffic might increase by another 10% or so
  3. In month six or seven, you might see a breakthrough in which your traffic increase by 50% or more

Growth Is Often Gradual Or Non-Existent At First, Then Dramatic

Growth Machine, an excellent content marketing agency, calls this principle the Critical Authority Threshold. The gist is that your traffic will remain low for a period of time until you acquire a critical mass of “authority” in Google’s eyes (through backlinks, quality content, good on-site SEO, and age), then once you hit that threshold, you’ll see dramatic growth.

Here is the organic traffic growth of my music teaching business, the Philadelphia Piano Institute:

how long does SEO take?

Traffic remained relatively low and flat for a long period of time, then it suddenly started to spike once the website earned enough trust in Google’s eyes. Yes, I was blogging and link-building the whole time, but Google didn’t reward that effort for several months. The more competitive the niche, the longer it will take before you see meaningful traffic.

Keep Going – “No Results” Is Usually an Incorrect Assessment

We SEO consultants have heard this feedback over and over: “I’ve been paying you for 60 days already, how come we aren’t getting results?”

If you dig into the website’s Google Search Console data, you probably will see significant results. Search Console shows you all of the queries your site is showing for, even if you aren’t getting clicks yet. So after 60 days of SEO work, even if there isn’t an increase in traffic or leads yet, you are probably seeing a significant increase in impressions in Search Console.

Search engine optimization timeframe
Chart showing increase in impressions, not clicks, in Google Search Console

If your website is starting to show on Google for more search queries, the SEO work is starting to kick in. If you stay the course, those impressions will turn into clicks, leads, and sales.

How Can You Speed Up The Results Of SEO?

If you want to get significantly above average results from SEO in the early days of your project (assuming there is some competition in your niche), you will need to acquire serious editorial backlinks. That means getting quoted in Fox Business Journal, placing an editorial in an important industry publication, or landing a quote in your local news (with a backlink).

I’ve done all of the above for clients, and that is the only way to move the needle for competitive phrases in a month or two.

The issue is that you can’t guarantee these kinds of results. If the founder of your company is sought after as a thought leader, your chances are good. Or if your product has inherent PR qualities, you may be able to land pitches. But in short, rapid SEO results require genuine PR.