Of all the frequently asked questions in search engine optimization, perhaps the most common topic is always around time. “How long will SEO take?”, “How long does it take to rank?”, “How fast can I get my store to rank number one?”.
And perhaps most frustratingly of all for ecommerce merchants looking to invest in SEO, the answer to almost all of those questions is “well, it depends”.
There are some questions in ecommerce which have more easily defined answers. How long will it take to build a new website? A good agency can give a pretty solid estimate depending on the work that needs done. How long will it take to implement a new app? Usually pretty quickly. SEO on the other hand depends on so many different factors and variables that make it difficult to give a truly reliable timeframe.
So, let’s look at what those variables are, and try to come to a more satisfying answer.
SEO is a long-term game
Before we talk timeframes, you need to look at what exactly your goals are with SEO, and what success looks like for your store. Is it to drive more traffic generally to a specific page? Or is it to rank for a specific keyword? How about driving quality conversions vs low quality traffic?
Once you define what your goals are with SEO, you can start looking at what you need to do to achieve those goals. Some tasks in SEO take a relatively short amount of time to complete, and some take much longer. Especially if it isn’t something you’ve done for your store before or it’s been a long time since you last looked into it, then it can take longer.
Generally, it will take somewhere between 6-12 months to start seeing results from SEO. It’s also going to depend on the resources you have available to allocate - for example if you have a full-time search marketer vs a few hours per week or month with an agency. Not only that, but once you start to see results you can’t just call it quits. SEO is a long-term game, and that requires a long-term strategy that’s constantly being monitored, tweaked, and updated as time goes on.
It’s also worth noting now that it isn’t always about being number one on the results page. The top ranking page actually only gets the most search traffic 49% of the time. That means even if you’re not number one, there’s still more than half of search traffic on a results page up for grabs.
As algorithms update and the parameters for what makes a site worthy of ranking changes, you need to make sure your store is always on top of things. That is to say, there are no quick fixes for SEO. You need to be prepared to invest in SEO continuously. There are optimizations that are relatively quick to implement and will have an impact, but they will still take time before you see measurable results.
Factors that can affect time-to-results in SEO
Search engines such as Google succeed by providing their users with high quality, relevant content. One way they ensure this is the case is by determining how much authority a link or domain has. This essentially means that the domain is trusted as a high quality source of content on a consistent basis. The content is weighted more heavily than another source.
Authority can be determined by a few different factors. One can be the age of the domain; for example, a brand new review blog is going to hold much less authority than one which has been around for a number of years. Another factor which ties into this is how many backlinks a site has. Backlinks are how many other domains are pointing to a link, for example if lots of sites link back to a source for a statistic. That source gains more authority the more backlinks it earns.
So, if you have a page which has been around for a long time and has a lot of other sites linking to it, it’s going to have more authority and this is going to help it climb search ranking. It’s the difference between a product review from a new, unheard of blog versus one from a source like the New York Times.
The difficulty there is what if you want to rank a new product page? You need to start building backlinks by having it included in gift guides on high authority sites. Even then, it’s still not going to rank instantly, it needs time to build authority. We’ll come back to this later, but for now what you need to know is that authority is a major factor in page ranking.
Like anything else in business, how much competition you have is going to have an impact on your goals. The same applies to SEO. If you aim for low value keywords, then you’ll have a bigger impact on rankings in a shorter period of time. However, they are low value for a reason - they don’t have as high a search volume, so you’ll likely reach less users. On the other hand, while targeting high value keywords can mean a higher volume of traffic, it is much more difficult to rank for these as your competitors will be targeting the same keywords.
Obviously, you want to reach as many people as possible and rank higher for those high value keywords. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. The best strategy is to have a mix of keywords, targeting both high value and low value keywords. Having content which ranks even for lower value keywords is going to ultimately boost your store’s profile with search engines.
Start by looking at your SEO competitors for your top target keywords. These should be the pages currently ranking higher than yours on SERPs. By looking more closely at the content and site performance, you'll be able to better understand what you'll need to do to improve your page's SEO and climb the rankings.
Tied into keywords and competition, search relevance is a key pillar of SEO. This is how closely search results relate to the user’s intent. Let’s use an example - say a user searches for “dog treats”. First of all, the results page will likely be filled with content about dog treats. It won’t suddenly give results related to gardening or mattresses. However, that keyword alone is pretty vague when it comes to intent; is the user looking to buy dog treats? Are they looking for recipes? Local stores? Reviews? It’s unclear from just that search term exactly what the intent is. Google will then provide a broad range of results to cover a few different types of intent, in the hopes that some of the results will be relevant to the user.
Relevance is also related to authority, especially for topics Google considers YMYL, or “Your Money, or Your Life”. These are topics which may impact a user’s life such as financial or medical advice. With these topics, it isn’t just about relevance but authoritative relevance. Google will look for sources which provide both relevant content, and proven expertise.
What you should focus on for SEO success
We’ve covered how long SEO takes, and what’s going to impact that time-to-result we all want to know. Now let’s talk about what you can actually do to influence your store’s success with SEO.
In SEO, content is everything. After all, your product page could load really fast but without great content how will a customer know anything about your products? Content can be the difference between a sale and a page bounce, and it’s also how Google is going to determine if your site is worth ranking.
There are two sides to content in ecommerce. The first is mainly static content like product pages, and the second is fresh, published content like blogs.
With static content, we mean pages that don’t change very much over time. Your product pages will remain largely the same, with some tweaks here and there. Even if you occasionally go through a major content update across your site, most of the time it won’t change much. However, the content that is there needs to be optimized, relevant, and high quality nonetheless. Pay special attention to your product descriptions and technical specifications, as 98% of customers say they’ve been dissuaded from a purchase due to insufficient content.
Publishing fresh, interesting content regularly is key to building your store’s SEO. This constant stream shows Google that you always have new content and encourages search engines to crawl your store more frequently. It also shows visitors that you’ve always got something new and interesting to discuss, which can help with repeat site visits. The easiest way to do this in ecommerce is by maintaining a blog. This should be content which appeals to your ideal audience, is relevant to your niche, and targets long-tail, question based keywords. This gives you scope to target more keywords than your product pages will be able to, and cement your site as a source of authoritative information on your product niche.
So, on the flip side of the point about content - your product page may have a lot of great content, but if it doesn’t load quickly then customers won’t see it! Technical SEO refers to all the optimizations that affect how a page is crawled. Many of the optimizations you’ll make will relate to user experience, and by improving your UX you’ll perform better in SERPs. Google want to provide high quality results, and that means not just giving good content but a good technical experience. If a page is slow to load, or its site structure is difficult to navigate, that’s a poor experience.
Here’s a quick list of what you need to look at:
If you’re a Shopify merchant, then you’ll have a headstart with a lot of aspects of technical SEO. That includes site architecture, URL structure, security, and responsive designs. Therefore if you add extra effort into these other areas like page speed, you’ll put your store in a really strong SEO position.
If you really want to build authority for your site, then you need to engage with off-page SEO. Between review sites and backlinks, off-page SEO really is vital in growing your presence on search results pages. Off-page SEO essentially gives Google even more trust signals to show your content is high quality and your site is worthwhile for their users.
Some factors of off-page SEO you’ll want to pay attention to include third party review sites, your Google Business Profile, and building backlinks.
Trusted third party review sites act as an extra way to show search engines and their users that your site is as good quality as it claims to be. Some of these sites include Trustpilot and Yelp - some will be more relevant to your store than others, though you’ll most likely be aware of which sites to pay attention to. Think about it, if you were searching for a new brand of headphones and Google’s top result had really poor reviews on Trustpilot, you’d be suspicious and likely wouldn’t buy from that brand. So, it wouldn’t make sense for Google to show that as a top result for the query. The more you can do to encourage customers to leave reviews on these sites, the better for your off-page SEO.
On a similar note, your Google Business Profile is an excellent and free tool to boost your off-page SEO. Especially if you have a brick-and-mortar retail outlet, you’ll want to optimize your profile as much as possible. Even if you don’t have a physical storefront, it’s still valuable to have an up-to-date profile with recent reviews. For customers looking for a local business, it’s invaluable as it can help boost your ranking within the local pack.
Part of the reason why reviews on Google and even on third party sites matter so much is that they’re harder to manipulate than on-site reviews. You can hide and even delete negative reviews on your own site, but you can’t do the same with Google or Trustpilot. Therefore if you have amazing reviews on your own website and your off-site reviews match up, it’s going to show search engines that your store is trustworthy and high quality.
Lastly, backlinks are also known as “inbound links”, in other words when another website links to your site. These act as a sort of trust marker from that other domain; by citing and linking to your content, they’re almost endorsing it as being of high quality. After all, you wouldn’t link your customers to something low quality, right? The same applies to these other sites, they’ll only link if it’s worthwhile to their visitors. The more backlinks you earn from high authority sources, the better this looks to search engines.
And remember - it’s all about the quality of the backlinks, not the quantity. You could have 100 backlinks but if they’re all from low authority domains, they won’t be worth nearly as much as a handful of backlinks from high authority domains. Building backlinks can take time, but having these is essential to building your store’s SEO. It can be as simple as reaching out to sites that are of interest to your target audience, and asking to be included in a gift guide.
SEO may be a long game, but it’s one worth playing. While it may not have instant results, by optimizing your site now and maintaining your SEO strategy over time, you’ll eventually see results that will serve your store for the long-term.