How Long Does it Take to Rank For Your Target Keywords?

How Long Does SEO Take?When you provide online services for businesses you get asked a lot of questions. One thing consumer site owners want to know is how long it will take to be #1 for their target keyword or words?

There are no magical rules to follow or pills to take to instantly earn a top search position in Google. It takes work to earn the coveted spots atop the results.

The more competitive search phrases the more work and time it takes.

But how long does it take? Isn't there some sort of formula geeks know to predict how long it takes to rank?

I get it, everyone want to know a firm timeline so you can plan budgets, resource allocations and more. Business owners want to know when they will see a payoff from the investment they are making in SEO and their web site.

Unfortunately there is no answer to the question, when.

What I can guarantee is if you make an intentional effort to improve your search rankings you will move up the ranks. It could be as little as a day or it may take 6-12 months or maybe more.

It depends on hundreds of variables, many are outside your control.

For example, no one outside of the Google search team knows how the results are determined. I am not even sure if members of their team know all the signals used and how they are used.

You also do not know what your competition is doing to improve their sites either. If there is an arms race, the type of competition does not matter, it is always more difficult to win.

The good news is most businesses do not make an effort to improve their site and their search engine rankings. This means a little intentional effort can go a long way.

Once you earn a top position in the search results it will drive free traffic to your site. At that point it is up to you to convert those visitors to customers.

Effective SEO is more than just increased keyword rankings, it is about increasing the total organic traffic to a website, which should result in more customers.

There are three main things you should focus your energy:

  • Identifying Core Keyword Clusters Customers Use to Find Your Products and Services
  • Producing High Quality Content
  • Having Your Technical Ducks In Tip Top Shape (Technical & On Page SEO)

What I want you to think about now, is why asking how long it takes to rank is the wrong question. Now I am going to explain how you can rank and give you the right question you need to ask.

Identify Keyword Clusters

Modern SEO is driven by natural language search. This means consumers are searching more by asking questions rather than two or three word phrases. The main driver is mobile. The majority of search and online activity comes from mobile devices, not desktop.

As mobile has become the dominant device interface voice recognition technology has also improved. Today more and more searches are done by speaking to the phone and using services like Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri.

This has forced Google and Bing to get much better at interpreting these natural language queries to match results to the user's intent. This is why Google has made RankBrain, or the articificial intelligence engine a major part of their ranking algorithms.

In the past you could identify a few major keywords, typically 2-4 words long and focus you effort on these keywords and a few variations. That is no longer true.

Personally I find this better when producing content. In the past you would need to write articles in a way that appealed to the search engine software more than the visitor to attempt to rank better.

Now, you can write 'normal' or naturally as if you were having a conversation with a human. Google can understand the content well enough to know what the topic is and what search phrase cluster to classify the page.

I like to call them keyword or search phrase clusters because you need to focus content on a broad spectrum of potential search phases.

I have heard Google search advocates say 20-25% of the 3.5 billion searches performed each day are brand new. This means the majority of searches are classified as 'long tail'.

Long tail phrases are terms used 1 to maybe 500 times a month. There are billions of these terms. This means you page wont just rank for 3 or 4 primary keywords, if you produced the content well it will rank for thousands of searches.

This is an example of a popular article I wrote eariler this year on controlling capitalization using CSS. There are currently 8 domains I know of linking to this article, but notice there are over 2800 keywords it is ranked in the top 100. If you dive deeper it also ranks in the top 10 for over 200 phrases in the US alone.

This broad keyword coverage is driving over 18,000 visits a month!

The sad reality is most web sites, and I mean over 95%, are lucky to get 180 page views a month. One reason is they don't know how to create content to reach the long tail.

The process I follow is to identify a set of core keywords with high search volume. Use my research tools and identify at least a dozen more secondary terms, questions people are asking online then create an article outline from those terms. Along the way I pepper in natural phrases to help the article reach a broader set of terms.

There is no way I could have known 2,800 possible phrases for this article to be found. I don't even have time to see what phrases it does rank for. I have learned to trust the process by creating better quality content and let Google worry about matching the article to the phrases.

The good news is you might rank for a low competition, long tail keyword overnight!

This is important because Google uses data it collects on these long tail keywords to determine if your page should be moved up rankings for higher volume phrases. These are some of the criteria you can 'prove' your page's quality to Google with long tail phrase matches:

  • Bounce Rate
  • Time on Page
  • Search Click Through Rate

These are all key search performance indicators Google uses to determine who ranks higher on keywords. Do well on long tail phrases and the high volume phrases follow.

The dirty secret about long tail keywords is they are a gold mine. Because it is easier to rank for these terms it is easier to gain visibility. The answer your page provides can be focused on the long tail keyword, which means you earn extra trust points with the visitor.

Research has also shown the longer the search phrase used by the consumer the closer they are to making a purchasing descision. This is great news for you because you provided the best answer for what they needed.

See - Gold Mine!

This is why the key metric your search engine strategy should have is conversions, not keyword ranking.

I could drive thousands of visitors to any web site, but without a call to action and some way to monetize the traffic it is just 'vanity exercise'. It may be a great online resource, but there needs to be an ultimate purpose, which for business is profit.

Make sure you convert these organic visitors to customers. This is the next phase to the plan. 😜

Instead of how long to rank, now you know the question should be:

"How long will it take for SEO to start generating leads and sales?"

Now, more about how to get ranked, generate traffic and create new customers and how to do it faster.

Producing High Quality Content

Produce High Quality Content to Rank in Search EnginesCreating long tail focused content does not mean lowering your quality, you still need to produce high quality content. If you make great content you can often rank well for long tail keywords without any backlinks.

Let me say that again, in case you missed it:

You can rank well for long tail keywords without backlinks.

A backlink is a link to a page from another site or page. I won't go into the details about backlinks here, but they are essential to good search rankings, most of the time. For high volume keywords they are mandatory.

However for long tail phrases you can rank the same day if you have a great article and no competition.

What defines high quality content?

Like art, it is the eye of the beholder. Or for search, something well thought out to match the 'intent' of the ssearcher.

Sometimes this means writing a long article. Research shows the average #1 ranked page contains over 1500 words. But that is not always the case.

Maybe you should create a good infographic on the topic. Another idea is a reference, like a cheatsheet or checklist they can follow. For software development it might be source code they can copy and use right now.

Don't forget video. Have you noticed how many search results now include YouTube videos. You should try to include a relevant video with your content as often as you can. They don't have to be your videos, but you should try to produce your own video when possible.

Create a YouTube channel, upload videos to match your written content and watch those videos rank in the search results. I know I have several articles and matching videos that show up in the top 10 results for some targeted keywords. This means I own two of the top ten spots and not my competition. Talk about building a brand!

Google rewards high quality content because it typically is the best answer to the searchers intent. This makes Google look good by providing the best answer.

Now, the secret reward for producing high quality content is more brand trust. If you produce slack content, visitors to your site can only assume you produce poor or lower quality products and services.

Sure you can use good stock photos and modern layout techniques to create a 'pretty site', but soulless content speaks louder than stock photos.

Technical SEO

Technical SEOImproving the quality of your site not only improves your search positions it will increase natural engagement with visitors and customers. I like to think of the Google search quality guidelines as a set of rules to follow for a quality site. Google is like a book editor marking your pages with errors and questions in an effort to improve the quality of the product.

Abide by the guidelines and you will earn higher rankings, get more traffic and convert more visitors. The results are not necessarily in that order. The better quality content engages visitors more, which leads to more organic traffic, etc.

Having said that, SEO does involve some technical fixes that can bring results fairly quickly. Maybe you’ve already got a well-established web presence, and are looking to refine the technical side of things. Or perhaps you’re looking to appeal to (or recover from) one of Google’s latest updates.

What steps would we take to provide those immediate results?

Some easy, low hanging fruit you can do is update your existing content and make sure you have all the core items in place:

  • Title tags
  • Meta descriptions
  • Structured Data
  • Social Media Meta Values
  • Header Elements with Target Keywords
  • Quality Content
  • Proper Grammar
  • Proper Spelling
  • Proper use of Media
  • Page Page Rendering Time
  • Navigational structure

Search Engine Ranking is a Process

SEO is a ProcessTo succeed online or as a traditional brick and mortar business, you need a process. For a new organic search campaign this is a multi-month effort. But it does not stop there, you need to keep the process going and continue to improve over time.

I have found six months to be a good minimum time to establish a complete search focused process for any site. This does not mean it takes 6 months to rank, or you can just sit and do nothing after the 6 month period. It means it takes about 6 months to take care of the core tasks and estabish a process to continue to produce content your customers and potential customers want.

Once the baseline is established it becomes easier to continue to gain new traffic and market share. It is like losing weight and getting into shape. It took me 108 days to drop 66 pounds. But I did not change what I did to get back in shape, I refined the process to become even better.

So what does a 6 month plan look like?

Month 1 - Establish a Benchmark

Before making any changes you need to know how your site and your competitor site's stand. There are many factors involved in this process.

When we start managing SEO for a client, or ourselves, we do a deep dive to learn what we have to work with. This involves the following areas and more:

  • Existing Content and its State
  • The Site's Technical Health
  • How does the site convert traffic to customers
  • Where is the site ranking now, what's missing and what needs improvement
  • What Keyword groups need to be addressed

You will want to do this for your site as well as you primary competition. If you don't know what you are competing against you have no idea how well you need to perform.

Remember you are doing this to win a competition and if the other guy has all the traffic they are winning. You need to do better than they are.

Month 2 - Establish Editorial Calendar

Now you have hopefully corrected technical issues and identified areas to create content it is time to start making high quality content.

So where do you start?

Here is where a editorial calendar helps. Not only will it keep you focused on creating content targeting specific keywords, it helps you to see exactly what you need to create.

Part of the first month's effort was identifying target keyword clusters to target. These clusters should be used to plan your calendar. I like early wins, so I look for high volume, low competition keyword clusters. Targeting these first provide a faster feedback cycle to make adjustments for future content.

Everyone's calendar looks different, so I wont share one here. But it might be focusing on a keyword cluster each week. This includes publishing targeted articles, making videos, infographics and other media. It also means having a process in place to promote the new content, such as social media signals and publishing the content around various web 2.0 properties like SlideShare.

It could mean publishing a new article each week, or maybe twice a day. It all depends on the niche and your available capacity to create new content.

Month 3 - Establish Editorial Calendar

Now you have a content creation process in place it is time to start building links to the content. This involves outreach and mannual efort. It should not be a one time process, but an ongoing effort for all the content on your site.

Currating potential link sources is time consuming and sometimes fruitless. Stick with it, real links mean a lot for your ability to rank and not be out ranked by competition.

Month 4-6 - Scale and Improve the Process

By now the process should be established. This does not mean it is finished. It takes time to polish and keep a good organic search process working efficiently.

Because the core process is proven it is time to step things up. Maybe you added a new article and updated one article a week. Now try doubling that effort and continue to experiment to see what converts the best.

By the end of 6 months you should have a well oiled machine that will get consistent and reliable results.

Don't stop here, keep going. Remember, almost all niches evolve over time. This means there is always something new to create content. You will almost always need to update existing content. I update at least 15 articles each week on this site alone.

The biggest gains will be these initial gains. But there are so many more to be had. You will continue to see more gains over time. What eventually starts happening is brand loyalty. This means you are present in search results more often, which translates to more consumer trust. A consumer that trust your brand it much more likely to buy from you than a new visitor.

You want to be in the top 10 of every search result in your niche. This tells the consumer you are the market leader and thus easier to trust and buy products and services.


If you’re looking to make an immediate impact with your marketing, SEO isn’t the way to go, or at least not yet. If anyone tries to tell you (or sell you) otherwise, let us know. We’d love to set them straight. (ha-ha!)

If you are new, and want immediate results then you must promote through other, mostly paid, channels.

Over time SEO can pay big dividends. When done effectively, SEO will drive organic traffic to your website and increase your ROI on a sustainable level. However, SEO requires a long-term outlook, and must be cared for in alignment with other marketing strategies at the same time.

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