Why Does SEO Take So Long?

By Will King | December 2, 2019

Last updated: December 3, 2019

A question clients often ask me is “how soon will we see SEO results”. The honest answer to this question is “I can’t say exactly. It depends on many different things”. We can speculate and make assumptions based on experience and common sense but ultimately we just don’t know. 

The purpose of this guide is to explain why SEO is so unpredictable and some of the causes of this.


Why Does SEO Take So Long?

This is the frustrating question lots of business owners want a clear answer to. They understand the importance of SEO and want to invest, but the ambiguity on when to expect a return on investment is offputting.

What I can say for sure is that the sooner you start improving your SEO, the quicker you will see positive change. SEO needs to be thought of as a long term investment. There may be low-hanging-fruit, quick-win opportunities that bring about immediate improvement but sustained SEO growth only comes about through long-term effort.

Whilst no SEO can predict exactly how long it will take for SEO investment to pay off, we can assume why it can take so long.

Google Needs to Crawl and Process Site Changes

Search engine crawlers need to discover your changes before any effect can be applied to ranking. Depending on the nature of your SEO activity, this can take some time. For example, you might have executed a successful content marketing campaign that secured lots of new links. Google needs to crawl the web and discover these links. Google then needs to crawl and process the links and apply any reward to the linked site.

None of this happens instantly and can take weeks or even months for this process to reap rewards.

Recovering from Algorithmic Updates

Google’s core algorithm updates can obliterate the organic visibility of a website. Unfortunately, the official guidance from Google on what websites can do to recover from these updates is vague. The official word from Google is that these updates improve the rankings of pages that were previously under-rewarded. But try telling that to a site owner who just lost 50% of their search traffic.

If your site has been hit by one of these core updates, the likelihood is that you need to commit to improving quality across your site. There’s usually no quick fix and what Google wants to see is your content, user experience and overall site quality continuously improve over a sustained period of time. Focus on this and eventually, your site should recover the lost organic traffic.

Glenn Gabe from G-Squared Interactive has written some really insightful articles on this subject over on his blog.

Your Site Has Weak Technical Foundations

Many sites carry bloat and technical debt. This can be anything from legacy content that lowers the overall quality of the site, to technical issues that confuse search engines. Healthy websites normally experience faster organic growth because there are fewer factors interfering with positive improvements to content quality and link growth.

Imagine you’ve created some amazing content that your audience loves and it gradually starts attracting links. You’d expect this to help your SEO. However, the effect of your content and links will be diluted if the technical foundations are not in place to support growth.

Technical debt and bloat are like an anchor holding back full SEO performance. This is why I’d recommend websites fix major technical problems before investing heavily in content.

You Might Need an Algorithm Update

Some SEO work will only take effect when Google updates its search algorithms. This used to be the case when Panda and Penguin were incremental updates. But both of these are now baked into the core algorithm and work in real-time.

That being said, some sites see huge ranking shifts when Google release core algorithm updates. Sites definitely surge and drop and there’s a clear pattern and trend. Sometimes you have to put in the work to improve your site and wait it out.

It Takes Time to Establish Topical Relevance and Authority

Relevance and authority represent some of the most important SEO signals. If your content is neither relevant for your target audience nor important enough to compete against other sites, you will struggle to rank. It takes time to establish relevance and authority. It doesn’t happen overnight.

You need to create enough high-value content that search engines recognise the topical context of your site and associates you with the right topics. Your marketing needs to generate awareness and exposure for your brand so that other sites link to yours.

This takes time and effort, especially for new sites. Eventually, search engines will form a perception of your website and understand the purpose and importance of your content.

Your Competitors Might Be Working Faster Than You

The web is an evolving system and the activity of other websites can and will affect your own SEO performance. For any page to go up, another must go down. If your competitors are acquiring better links and faster than you, that’s probably going to blunt your efforts. If they’re pushing out better content than you and more frequently, they’re going to grow faster.

A lot of SEO is relative. Your page always competes against rival pages and will be measured relatively against them. If the pace of rival websites is greater than your own, it could slow down the impact of your efforts. This is why it’s so important to perform thorough keyword research and optimise around keywords where the competition is beatable. You will grow faster optimising around high-intent, long-tail keywords than popular and competitive generic search terms.