How Long Does White Hat SEO Take To Improve Rankings?

Today I look at how long white hat SEO will take to improve your rankings and why slow and steady wins the SEO race.


In the 21st century, we don’t like waiting. We’re used to superfast broadband, instant frappuccinos and TV on demand.

So when I tell a new SEO client that it is likely to be 3-4 months before they start to see meaningful gains in organic search engine traffic, they normally respond with at least one raised eyebrow and possibly even a middle finger to accompany it.

But here’s the thing; good white hat SEO, the kind that will see your rankings improve and your traffic build month by month, year on year takes time.

Before We Start Building Content/Links

The first month of any new SEO campaign will generally be focused on internal housekeeping, keyword research and competitive analysis. I’ll come onto the housekeeping aspect in a moment, but for the research/analysis side, we’re looking to answer several questions: –

1) What are our money keywords?
2) Where is our client ranking currently for these phrases?
3) Where are their competitors ranking?
4) How are they ranking?
5) How difficult is it going to be to rank the client for the phrases?

Point 4 will involve a thorough analysis of our competitor’s link profiles, lots of spreadsheets, numerous cups of tea and many hours spent identifying hubs (sites linking to multiple competitors) and other potential linking opportunities.


There are of course exceptions, but in most cases there will be numerous changes which can be quickly made to improve on site SEO (for existing pages/content). I’m talking about the usual stuff here, i.e.

  • Correct use of title tags
  • Meta descriptions
  • Good internal linking
  • Actually using the key phrases on the relevant pages (difficult to rank for a phrase if it doesn’t appear on the site anywhere!)
  • Cleaning up any bloated html code

In some cases this can lead to some short term gains in traffic, but (unless the site was a disaster before – and some are) generally we are talking a marginal improvement. It is however critical to get on site SEO right first before we start the next phase of the campaign.

The Tortoise And The Hare

Apologies for using this much overused analogy, but it is has prevailed for two and a half thousand years for good reason.

So, we’re 4/5 weeks in and to recap: –

  • We know the keywords we are targeting
  • We know who our competitors are
  • We know how they are ranking
  • We have a list of potential link opportunities
  • We have sorted out any on site SEO issues

What we need now is content and links. Let’s get 100 new pages up and 2,000 links… let’s send out a template email to all those link opportunities… go go go right!?

Nope. The hare that blasts out of the blocks and gets a load of cheap links to the client’s site might (and I stress might) see some short term results, but just like that foolish lepus, our SEO campaign will be doomed to failure, while the SEO tortoise will soon be dining at google’s top table (even if it takes him a little while to get there).

Google likes to see consistency and a steady rate of links coming into the site will trump a burst of activity, which looks like obvious manipulation. The exception is of course if you are lucky enough to have a post go viral and a piece of content attracts a lot of editorial links all at once. If this happens, google and your client will love you!

Content Strategy

A solid on site content strategy is a key factor for long term SEO success.

While content can (if preferred) be prepared in a batch, it should be published on the site at a steady rate. This could be one article a day, one a week or whatever is appropriate for the site.

There are several reasons why fresh content is so important for any SEO campaign: –

1) Google is still a text based search engine, so the more text on the site the more chance it has of picking up traffic from long tail keywords
2) Google likes sites that are active (hence the reason for a content schedule). Fresh content generally receives a short term rankings boost too.
3) Good content can/will attract editorial links

Link Building Is All About Quality

I’ve said it before, but it’s so important that I’ll keep repeating it! Link building in 2013 is all about quality.

Just because a competitor’s site has 1,000 links pointing at it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we will require 1,001 links to outrank them. In fact, depending on the quality of their links we might be able to outrank them with just one link!

The thing is, these high quality links take time to acquire. If we are using outreach to target links we identified in our initial analysis we might have to exchange 10 emails before we get an agreement from a webmaster to link to our client’s site. In fact, we might exchange 10 emails and still ultimately get a no.

The key is however that those 9 nos are worth it for 1 yes from an authority site.

So building good quality links takes time!

An SEOs Work Is Never Done!

So, after a 3-4 month period of hard work, we have:-

  • Sorted out on site SEO
  • Added good quality, fresh content to the site
  • Obtained some high quality links to the site

We should now have some good things to show our client in their google analytics account. Here are some signs that our work is starting to pay off: –

  • An increase in long tail organic search traffic
  • Movement in the search rankings of our key phrases (even if it is from position 200 to position 50)
  • An increase in the number of keywords used to find the site

And now that things are starting to move, it’s important that the work continues! Just as before, steady content, steady link building and over the next 3 month period we will start to see a snowball of organic traffic and a satisfying upwardly trending graph.

Caveat Emptor

After reading the above hopefully you will realise that you should beware of SEO companies which claim to be able to rank you at page one in 3 weeks, 4 weeks etc. It’s a sure thing that they are doing things the old fashioned way and your site will eventually be penalised and lose it’s rankings.

If your competitors have spent years in building their rankings why should you be able to blast your way past them in a month. The answer is you shouldn’t and if you are then there is something not right.

So, slow and steady wins the SEO race! If you’d like to read more, here are some good articles from a couple of the top SEO sites and one from google itself!

Do you agree with this article? How long do you find it takes to rank a website?

If you have a website and would like help in improving its search engine rankings then check out my SEO consultancy services.

About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

Reginald - August 25, 2013

Hi David,

I think this is great. Can’t agree more with the slow and steady. Last time, I wanted fast, fast, fast results in SEO. Okay, I thought I was able to ‘win’ Google.

Guess I was wrong…big time! I didn’t took the initiative to see on smaller things that could affect my SEO; social shares, website layout etc.

Nowadays, I tend to be more relax and take it light. Focus more on light SEO while make sure my readers leave with a smile on the face … or at least, I try!

Nice write up and keep it up mate!

    David McSweeney - August 28, 2013

    Thanks Reginald, yes focusing on user experience is key to success these days and if they leave with a smile on their face then you are doing things right!

Bernard Z. - August 26, 2013

Hi Dave,

I had fun reading this article and I completely agree. This info, even though I was aware it still comes on handy for me and the large scale eCommerce site I’m working on for my job.

The site I’m referring to has been seeing a lot of ups and downs due to technical issues where it was made live, then taken down several times. Needless to say it jerked its rankings left and right. But this time around we are trying to do things the right way. We added a good number of products and we are close to being ready to apply off site SEO to it.

Your post sparked an idea for some articles I could write. The articles will be related to eCommerce sites. But let me ask you, from your experience. If a company has the money to invest, what SEO related investments do you think would be best for an eCommerce site? I have not found any articles that address this in depth.

Anyway, thanks for sharing these gold nuggets with us.

Stay Awesome.

    David McSweeney - August 28, 2013

    Hi Bernard,

    For an ecommerce site, firstly I would make sure that all the products have unique descriptions (minimum 300 words). It’s a total pain, but it will give you a lift over your competitors. Duplicate/thin content is one of the biggest things that drags ecommerce sites down. If you don’t have the resource for this in house, then you might want to hire a content writer.

    With regards to a budget, I would think about approaching some top bloggers in your niche and firstly pitching the site/some content to them. If this doesn’t work then you might think about offering them an incentive… Go for high profile, sites that will actually generate click throughs and sales and if you are appearing on influencers sites, then you should pick up some additional reviews/links.

    Without knowing your niche it’s difficult to give specific advice, but you might also look at paying for some youtube reviews from gurus in your industry.

    Also, not an SEO investment as such, but an affiliate program can bring in huge revenue (again depending on the niche). Can sometimes be a bit costly to set up, but (assuming you have the margin for the commission) can really sky rocket your business. Again, the visibility of appearing on the affiliate sites/blogs etc will give your brand credibility and should result in more interest from potential linkers.

    Hope that helps. If you want some more specific advice, drop me an email!

Cole Wiebe - August 28, 2013

Hi David,

The words I like to use in describing a client’s response when I tell them we’re looking at several months at least before there are meaningful results are “crestfallen” and utterly “deflated”. One minute they’re bouncing off the ceiling like a helium balloon, chattering excitedly about all the traffic they’re going to have, spending the added revenue that will surely result in their mind; and the next it’s like the balloon was released, bounced off the wall once or twice and now lies limp on the floor.

Unrealistic expectations are a bitch, brought on by entirely too many spam “snake oil” sales emails promising top rankings within 24 hours.

As always, very well written. As SEO’s, we’re not magicians. I often will draw a balance scale, showing the 1,000+ well written blog posts, pillar articles, thousands of social mentions and hundreds of really solid links one of their competitors has on the one side, with their paltry 3 blog posts and 20 questionable links, 2 tweets on the other. I then ask them how long they would estimate that particular competitor has been working on kicking their ass as badly as they have.

Look forward to more good stuff,


    David McSweeney - August 30, 2013

    Thanks Cole, drawing a scale is a good shout. I normally try and put a positive spin on it too – it’s a good thing that it takes time to do thing properly. After all, although it’s going to take time for them to get up there, once they are in place it will take the same time and hard work for a new competitor to come along and force their way up the rankings.

Denis D. - September 29, 2013

Good things take time and it’s the same with the SEO and rankings. I like to quote a line by Lou Mannheim from the movie Wall Street (1987) as I think it best summarizes this whole post “Stick to the fundamentals, that’s how IBM and Hilton were built…good things sometimes take time”.

    David McSweeney - September 30, 2013

    Or as Guinness say… the best things come to those who wait!

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