SEO | December 2, 2022
How Much Should I Invest in SEO? How Long Until I See SEO Results?
The business side of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is becoming a more regular topic of conversation between marketers, business owners and their agencies. Assigning budgets and resources while understanding expected ROI is now regularly being discussed before contracts are signed. They all want to know how long SEO takes to work.
This is absolutely a good thing to ensure expectations are met across the board. However, there are still huge misconceptions about how SEO projections work: how much budget is needed, what’s needed from the client and how long it takes to see the desired return.
The subject of SEO projections is notoriously difficult. At the new business stage, accurately answering questions like “what should my SEO budget be?” and “when will my SEO investment generate a return?” is nigh-on impossible.
Not only are you dealing with fluctuating search engine algorithms, competitors and search demand, but also the numerous internal and external factors that impact the level of investment needed, as well as the time it’ll take to see SEO results.
To get an answer, you need to understand the variables. When they’re taken into consideration, you can identify an appropriate budget that suits your situation and are set up to get results sooner rather than later.
First things first: Your investment
I use the word investment as that’s what it is. Your website is a business asset that you are building. The more it ranks and the more website results and traffic it generates, the more visitors, leads and sales you make. It takes time to build this up, but once it’s working it often snowballs each year.
Here’s an example for a retailer we worked with for 6 years. We first partnered with them on a modest SEO budget but once our work started paying off and they were comfortable that it was a good place to keep allocating budget, that investment grew along with the SEO results.
The journey was remarkable:
- From 585 ranking keywords to 40,000.
- From 20k visitors to more than 6 million.
- From revenue of just over 100k to more than £32m
The value of that business grew by tens of millions of pounds. The people that own the business are now very wealthy individuals, because they understood it was a long process that takes a lot of hard work – including more than £1m of SEO investment.
That’s why it’s an investment. If you are being asked about big returns you need to be prepared to talk about months and years, not days and weeks to see increases in your organic search results.
An Inexact Science
That big uptick at the end? Covid. The lockdowns really helped that revenue jump much higher. This anomaly is a great example of why SEO investment isn’t an exact science. You don’t know what’s around the corner, so projections and planning can’t ever be foolproof.
It also vindicated the prior investment in SEO. Without that, they’d have missed this extra traffic when everyone was forced to shop online.
Due to results like those above, it’s the main area of marketing spend for many businesses and there are plenty of SEO-first start-ups that see this as their most important route to market.
This is great for agencies like Liberty, but not so great for a brand looking to get started. There’s a mountain to climb, competing against rivals that are focused on consolidation not just growth. But every business is different.
How Much Should Your Business Invest in SEO?
Examining the Variables
The motto of the SEO industry is “it depends”. Used tongue-in-cheek, these two words are said to be the default answer to any SEO question. Rarely is there an exact answer to an SEO request as there are always multiple things to consider, especially when trying to decide on investment that aligns with a marketing plan.
But there are core areas that determine the SEO budget that is right for you and the goals you should expect from this spend. I’ll discuss them in detail further down, but they are:
- Your competitive landscape
- Your website’s SEO needs
- Your internal resources
- Your previous and future marketing activity
Understanding all of these, combined with your business goals, gives you a pretty good idea of the investment needed.
It Depends on the Competitive Landscape
How aggressive is your market when it comes to SEO? The work you need to do is influenced more by your competitors than anything else.
You’ll obviously see results a lot sooner if you are in a uncompetitive niche targeting low competition keywords. If you are looking to take on the big boys in sectors such as travel, car insurance or personal finance then expect a long and expensive battle.
The word “competition” isn’t straightforward. We’re not just talking about your direct rivals but every site that shows up within Google for your keywords.
There will be online-only rivals you’ve probably never heard of, and as they get all their business via the internet, they are usually quite good at SEO. On top of that, your blogs will compete with news websites, review sites and forums for informational searches, whilst your product pages will compete with marketplaces such as Amazon and Etsy as well as your direct rivals.
The list of competing domains is almost endless and many will have been doing this for a long time, either with agencies or internal teams (the ones at the top probably have both) and they aren’t likely to stop investing any time soon, so it’s a moving target.
Local, national and international levels of competition are big factors. If you just want to show in your city then it’s usually a lot less work than for the entire UK. If you want to appear internationally then your SEO resources and budget will need to go up in multiples.
The above keyword difficulty scores from Semrush how big a difference in investment this may need. The score on the right hand is, in their words “a metric that measures the effort it would take for your content to rank on the first page of Google for a certain keyword. In other words, if a keyword is difficult, then it would require a lot of time and attention on your part to see results”.
A mortgage broker based in Cardiff would find local keywords less than half the effort of national ones like “mortgage broker” and the very broad “mortgages”.
Something that needs reviewing is how your competitors got to their current positions. What activity have they done and is it something you can replicate? What are they doing to maintain and improve on their current position? What weaknesses are there that you can exploit? Your strategy needs to consider how you will not only catch-up to them but also how you’ll eventually overtake them and then stay there.
If your highly placed rivals are all creating top quality content using unique data that they then use to get links from the biggest and most trusted publishers, then you can’t go up against them by writing plain old Top 10 listicles. You’ll need to take their strategy and think about how you can not only do similar but how you can produce something that is much better.
In the below example, also using Semrush, we can see how many backlinks there are for the main comparison websites, such as Confused.com. This is an extreme example (a market that has been described to me as “a full on arms race”) where anyone looking to join this fight needs deep pockets and a lot of patience as the average site has more than 18,000 domains sending links to them.
It Depends on What Kind of SEO You Need
A big reason why businesses get frustrated with SEO progress is because they may not be buying the right kind of activity. Your SEO strategy might be lacking in the area that’s actually most important to you.
There are three main categories that SEO tasks tend to fall into:
When delivering SEO training we often use just one slide to show how this comes together:
I frequently see people say things like “SEO is a dark art” or “it’s all smoke and mirrors” but that just isn’t true.
There are 3 main elements to SEO success and each plays a different but equally vital part:
- Technical SEO is all about the experience you give to users and the experience you give to search engines. It concerns ‘on-site’ factors such as the speed of your website and how easy it is for search engines to understand all of your pages.
This is often the first place to invest your SEO resources as, without this kind of work, a site will struggle to rank well even if the web pages have great content and there’s plenty of inbound links. Search engines want to give users the best possible experience and if your site isn’t helping them achieve that goal, due to a slow website or pages that are hidden away, then they will favour your rivals’ websites.
- Content and on page SEO is all about relevance. Are your pages relevant to the keywords that your target customers search on Google? More importantly, do they engage people and give them what they want, rather than bounce them back to search results to find a better resource.
Google wants to serve users with the best possible results for any search query, so creating quality content that focuses on those search terms is vital. It needs to be better than what’s already out there, which usually means it takes time to create. You also need to be doing this regularly. Have you got a content calendar in place that allows you to address all of the problems your target customers have and will be searching for solutions for? Have you conducted adequate keyword research? Are you targeting relevant keywords?
- Backlinks prove to Google your site is trustworthy enough to justify a position at the top. Link building is all to do with websites owned and managed by other people. Each link acts as a vote of confidence from that site to yours. View Google as a popularity contest where the number of quality sites endorsing yours with a backlink or a mention needs to be stronger than your rivals.
You want quality over quantity here as the most relevant and high authority sites in your sector will give you the largest boost. It’s not easy to get these as they are editorially gained, hence the rise of Digital PR within the SEO world and many SEO agencies building PR teams over the past decade.
It usually takes lots of time, skills, data, software and subscriptions to earn these good links, as well as content that is strong enough that journalists and bloggers are likely to link to it.
Most SEO projects need parts of all 3 areas, though not in equal measure. Each area contains tasks that are one-off jobs as well as others that are on-going commitments. To further complicate it, none of these cost the same amount to deliver and each involves a completely different skillset. You can see why accurately suggesting the right marketing budget is a challenge.
It’s important to figure out which parts you are weakest in and then review rivals in all areas to see how they fare. Find out if you can calculate risk from future Google algorithm updates.
It’s also important that you pick the right agency partners or build the right team to address these weaknesses. There are many web development agencies that will cover some parts of the technical side of SEO, where they can address things like site speed but they won’t help you create great content or build links. Likewise, a content agency might write the best blogs in your industry but if they aren’t optimised for the right keywords, or your site is a technical mess, or your rivals all have way more links than you, then those pages won’t do a great deal.
This is where I feel SEO has generated a bit of a negative reputation with some marketers over the years as each of these agencies is offering SEO to some degree, but they have a different definition of it based on the services they provide. It can be treacherous when choosing where to spend your SEO budget as it’s important to make sure you are investing in the right parts of SEO for your unique situation and are getting advice from a team that understand how it fits into the bigger picture.
It Depends on the Resources You Assign To It
You can’t expect results if you outsource SEO to an agency and forget about it. SEO is a collaboration between your internal team, your SEO partner and often other agencies as well. All of our most successful SEO projects have been those where we’ve worked closely and collaboratively with clients and their web developers.
The most common resource needed for SEO success is development time, whether that’s an internal team of developers that you’ll need to negotiate time with or a dev agency that you’ll likely need to increase your retainer with. No development resource means few of those important tech changes happen and you don’t move the needle.
You also need to consider how each of these teams work, so you can pull them together with as little friction as possible. If your developers work in sprints then your SEO agency or SEO consultant will need to adapt their project plan to suit this style of delivery.
Getting Things Done Internally
Consider how long it will take you to implement tech SEO changes. I’ve lost count of how many times over the years essential SEO implementation tasks have fallen to the back of the queue internally. 6 month wait times aren’t abnormal and the worst we’ve had was 3 years!
If you can’t get website changes made for months or years then this either needs to factor into the timeline for when you expect to see organic search results or it needs to influence your overall marketing budget so you can buy more development time.
It’s a similar situation with content. Creating great assets requires writers, designers and even video producers. Whether they are internal teams or outsourced experts, they need to be notified of your strategy.
Then also seeking a better backlink profile involves collaboration between internal and external teams. You’ll need to ensure you can satisfy journalists and bloggers with quality data, presented well. You’ll also need a process to speedily sign off journalist requests and commentary they can add to their articles. This is always an area of frustration for agencies offering Digital PR where they have secured a great publication but the client takes so long to sign off on it, the opportunity is lost.
Someone internally needs to take ownership of this and if you don’t have that person, then it’s an additional cost to consider that will contribute to your total investment in SEO.
It Depends on How Soon You Need Results
Much like with most things in life, the sooner you need to see organic search results, the more you need to spend. A friend of mine who runs another SEO agency likes to use the gym analogy – you aren’t going to build big muscles in the first week. It will take months or years. Go every day and it’ll be months, turn up once a week and it’ll be years.
There are usually some SEO quick wins though and they are often to do with tweaking the keywords your pages focus on, as then it’s just a question of how long Google takes to notice those updates and add them to their index. I’ve seen this regularly happen in as little as a few days or weeks. Tech changes are dependent on the aforementioned development resource and are often fairly short-term, but if it’s great inbound links you need then prepare for a long-haul.
If you are getting into digital marketing for the first time and you need to see quick results then it’s likely that SEO isn’t the right place for you yet. Immediate traffic and sales or enquiries are available via Pay Per Click advertising, such as Google Ads. We get asked fairly frequently by brands looking to boost sales in the short-term and we often steer them away from SEO due to the length of time it takes to rank. Sure, you can see some improvements in a matter of weeks, but will they be enough to generate the kind of traffic that will quickly fill the diaries of a sales team, or clear out a warehouse full of products? It’s incredibly unlikely so that money would be better spent on advertising and then some of those profits reinvested into getting your SEO started for long-term success.
This is an interesting point as marketers often compare SEO to PPC. Just because those search ads appear right above and below the organic results, they don’t have much else in common. Paid ads will bring in traffic and sales almost immediately but you are then paying for those visitors forever. If you ever stop spending, this traffic and those sales dry up soon after. SEO traffic is the inverse, you work on it for a while and it starts to generate some new business but, over a longer term and once your site is performing well in the search results, it’ll bring plenty of sales you otherwise wouldn’t have had and often at a far greater ROI. Then there’s a snowball effect where results increase over time as each new ranking win is added to the list of previous wins.
It Depends On Your Definition of Success
What is the end goal? Are you investing in SEO because you want to rank for a certain keyword or set of keywords? Do you want to attract a level of new business that you need to hit your commercial goals? What happens when you get to that place, what’s next?
SEO is never really done. When a business has achieved their initial goals they almost always start pushing further, and have to push hard to stop competitors making ground back.
I’ve seen some businesses go with the strategy of investing heavily for a few years and then, once they are achieving the level of organic sales/enquiries needed, take their foot off the gas and diversify spend into other channels such as social or paid media.
The SEO budget is then given the task of consolidating rather than aggressively growing. But the world of SEO, as you’d imagine, is always changing. And if you stand still, you get overtaken.
Investing In An Ever-Changing World
You’ll always need to invest in analysis and strategy. After all, people change. Keywords fluctuate over time. You might be ranking well for a set of search terms but they may not be the ones you want to show for next year.
Here’s how keyword popularity changed in one category when the term “vaping” became mainstream and overtook all other keyword variants. If you ranked in position one for all the electronic cigarette keywords then you needed to change your SEO strategy to also show up for the emerging searches which turned out to be the dominant part of the market:
It’s also an ongoing investment because search engines change and you need to keep up with those changes. Recently user experience factors such as site speed have become more important, so slower sites have fallen behind. Technical SEOs have had to monitor this for clients, audit competitors and work with the developers to make sure that things such as Core Web Vitals scores are good enough.
The big Google updates also mean that further investment will be key in most sectors and that SEO doesn’t have an end date. When the EAT (Expertise, Authority and Trust) update landed, many businesses in the medical and financial sectors needed to invest in improving the quality of their blogs and the latest Helpful Content update has seen many content teams quickly review and rate the pages on their website and either quickly improve them or prune their blogs.
When you are considering how much you should invest in SEO, think about the long-term and what you’ll be happy with over the years to come. Likewise with results, don’t just think about what those sales and leads are worth to you now but what it’s worth to keep them coming when you’ve got them.
It Depends On Your Other Marketing Activity
SEO doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like all other marketing channels, your other activity will impact the performance, sometimes positively and sometimes detrimentally. It should just be one part of your overall digital marketing strategy.
Here are a few common examples:
- If you are doing a lot of paid search then it can help your SEO. Research shows appearing twice on the first page of Google will bring an uplift in the total number of visitors that come to your site. But if you are brand bidding (appearing with a paid ad for your brand name and product name searches) then your ads will take a lot of visitors who would have clicked your organic link.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’ve got rivals bidding on your brand, but it will lead to artificially inflated PPC results and lower total organic traffic. You’ll need to bear it in mind when comparing how each channel performs. I’ve seen many brands in this scenario think that SEO isn’t doing its job so consider investing less due to their PPC stats looking healthier than they should.
- Many ecommerce brands come to us with the same situation – they are overly reliant on Amazon and eBay, but want to invest in SEO to have a direct channel that they own also performing well. If you are present on the big marketplaces then you’ll need to weigh this into how much you want to invest in SEO. It’s common place for these brands to start with a smaller investment in SEO to get started and then reinvest at a heavier level when results are proven. That’s what many of our most successful clients have done. You’ll likely find that the ROI from those channels is a lot lower than from your future direct organic visitors so, if you have the marketing budget available now to spend quite heavily on SEO then doing so will mean you achieve a greater overall return sooner.
- Do you have a strong social presence? Lots of fans and followers on places like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn means that when you publish content there, it’ll likely do well. The more that people see your content and the more positive their reaction, the greater the likelihood that it’ll be seen by others. This increases the chances that it’ll be mentioned elsewhere and even linked to not just by your target audience but also by those valuable journalists and bloggers you want to be sending links to your site.
- If you are doing a lot of brand awareness work, either online or promoting who you are offline, then it’ll result in more searches for your name. Those people will be very likely to click on your site rather than your rivals, which helps because this is a ranking factor. A better Click-Through-Rate from organic searches positively impacts your SEO due to it being a clear sign to the likes of Google that you’re a site worthy of high rankings as you are giving users what they want.
It Depends On Your Past SEO Activity
The last area I want to mention is how historic activity plan a part in determining future success.
If yours is a new domain then it’ll take a while no matter how good you are at SEO. Google won’t trust it yet as it has no authority due to no backlinks and it’s untested in the organic results. However, an established domain isn’t automatically a good thing. Sometimes it can be problematic due to negative SEO work in the past. If your site has been affected by a penalty or has suffered SEO work against best practice (such as dodgy links or low-quality content), you may need to consider cleaning up before you can get started on SEO domination. This obviously takes time.
Dealing with the past
Your investment into SEO may need to be spent addressing these old issues first before you can grow. If so, you’ll need to understand if this will affect your timeline for getting results.
We’ve had plenty of projects where the first 3, 6 or even 12 months is cutting junk pages and stemming the loss, with no growth even being considered until after this. If this is your situation then don’t despair, it was the scenario for the 6-year retail client I highlighted earlier, where for the first 8 months we focussed on getting them back to square one. When these problems were addressed they soon started to enjoy growth.
Even if nobody has plagued your domain with any dodgy, black-hat SEO work in the past and everything you’ve done has been with the best intentions, it can still harm your SEO efforts. When those of us in the SEO world are asked how much content you should create, we always say “as much as possible”, though that comes with a caveat: You could actually already have too many pages.
Here’s an example for one hospitality client and we refer to this as “keyword cannibalisation”. They’d created so many pages that were similar, they were competing with one another and dragging one another down the rankings. We trimmed a load of them and optimised the rest for different keywords, which had a profound effect:
This is quite common, especially with ecommerce sites that feature many similar products. It’s something that needs addressing straight away with a detailed keyword strategy and meticulous optimisation.
It sounds boring and burdensome, but pulling pages apart and re-optimising them offers quick-win opportunities. If you have this issue (which is often easy to spot as you’ll see two of your pages ranking next to one another in the results for a search), then it can lead to some good, quick results.
The other big factor here is of course your starting point. If your site is at the top of page 2 for your most desired search terms then it’ll need less activity and therefore less money to get on to page one than if you aren’t in the top 100 results.
Again, this also comes with a caveat and that’s that there’s an intensifying level of competition the higher up you go. It might take you just as long to get from position 10 to position 5 as it did for you to climb there from position 50.
For any commercial keywords, the first page results are usually made up of websites that know what they are doing when it comes to SEO – so get ready to fight for every extra ranking.
To Conclude: Assessing Your Market
Hopefully I’ve been able to convey that this is far from an exact science. There are many, many variables and all of them change over time. To accurately see how much SEO investment you need, I recommend doing this to get started:
- Audit your rivals within your market, and how your website compares to them
- Understand the technical challenges your website faces by conducting a technical SEO audit
- Analyse the state of your content and how it meets users’ problems
- Audit the quality and quantity of your current backlinks against your rivals
Then you can make an educated guess on how long things will take and how deep your pockets need to be.
Getting Results: How Long Does SEO Take? How Long is Too Long?
Too many SEO agencies tell people what they want to hear just to win the work. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve spoken to a prospective client who are leaving their incumbent agency because their expectations were mismanaged.
They were told they’d be ranking at the top of page one within weeks when the reality was it needed months, if not years.
You’ll hear plenty of SEO people say you should see results in 6-12 months but that’s too simplistic. It depends on what exactly those results are and where you’re starting from.
However, with the right SEO strategy in place, within 6-12 months you should have ticked off some quick wins and put yourself in a place where you can judge the impact of the work. You’ll be able to put a price on the value of organic traffic and justify the case for further investment.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Luckily, there are SEO agencies, SEO service providers, freelancers and consultants out there who can help. We can audit everything and create an SEO strategy which considers all of the points in this article.
Speak to us about our professional SEO services if you want to have an answer to questions like “Where should I invest my SEO budget?”, “How much should I invest in SEO?” and “How long until I see results?”. It won’t always be what you want to hear, but it is what you need.