This is a question that we are not often asked. More often, clients are keen to know how long it will take for the SEO to take effect, and when will they be on the first page of google. Generally, we tell clients that SEO can take several weeks to start seeing a rise in organic rankings. Where immediate results are required, we advise (with caution) to use adwords or similar. For highly competitive keywords, getting to the top of google can take months, and in some cases over a year (depending on the budget, competitiveness of the keyword and the quality of content on the target website).
More recently, I've been looking back at some old sites that have had SEO on them in the past, but the contract has ended more than 1 year ago. The results are quite interesting:
case 1: milan clothing - optimised for keywords "mens designer clothing" - nearly 2 years after the SEO campaign ended, the main keyword was still in the top 3 results in Google. However, secondary keywords like 'Elvis jesus', 'luke 1977', and 'mens fashion' dropped quite a lot. This domain name has since been taken over by another company so it does not appear in the listings for the targeted keywords any more.
case 2: www.kneearthroscopy.co.uk - this was an old SEO project which had a limited budget. We installed numerous SEO facilities on the site, and made quite a lot of changes to the metatags, copy, code behind, and also did quite a lot of link building activities. Even after 2 years, the site was still on the front page of google for 'knee arthroscopy'. Rankings for secondary keywords dropped more quickly. 6 years after the SEO campaign ended, the site is still on page 3 of google.
case 3: Classic Hospitals - This project had a good budget and lots of intensive SEO was performed on and around the site. Satellite sites were created for specialist areas including weight loss surgery and cosmetic surgery and had separate SEO campaigns running on them. These separate sites all linked back to the main classic hospitals site. The project ended when the company was sold out to Spire Healthcare and the domain names redirected to new Spire sites. Those new sites hold very high rankings and get a lot of web visitors. It's not possible to say how much influence the previous SEO had, but there is clear evidence that the weight of backlinks to the referring domains have a significant impact on the SEO.
Why does SEO take so long to work?
The analogy I always use with SEO is that its like trying to move a heavy car. At first, acceleration is slow. The more time and effort you put in at the start, the faster the rate of acceleration, so if you spend a lot of time doing SEO work at the beginning, you will see results faster. However even with low level SEO, over time, the effects are cumulative and a long low budget SEO campaign is often better than a short campaign with a higher budget. In the car model, if you imagine that you have 1 litre of fuel to get from a to b, if you stamp on the gas, you will start going faster, but your fuel will run out quickly. If you feather the accelerator, you will take much longer to get to speed, but you will find that you end up going further.
With the cessation of the SEO campaign, the reverse happens. If you are in a car and you take your foot off the accelerator, you do not suddenly stop, but instead you gradually slow down. This slowing down effect can take months or even years depending on the quality of the SEO.
SEO quality is not often mentioned. Most people assume that if you have SEO on your website, then it is all the same. Different types of SEO have different levels of efficacy, and it can make a big difference to your conversions.
Low quality SEO
Low quality SEO usually involves doing some small changes to the target website, like adding keywords in the meta title, then a lot of time building backlinks to low ranking pages, forums or blogs. While this work does make a small difference, if you do not prepare a good landing page, or give a complete overview to the SEO of the entire site, you are never going to get a return on your SEO investment. I've seen a few companies offer to do this type of SEO on the cheap. My advice is to never enter into an SEO contract unless you have demonstrable results and a realistic idea of the time scale, budget and results. Never commission SEO without a contract.
Mid Quality SEO
Mid quality SEO has a more holistic approach to the website. Individual pages are targeted for specific keywords, and the meta titles and descriptions of the site are relevent to the pages. Good inbound links are procured and some linking to deep pages with long tail keywords is done. Done properly, this level of SEO service can have a good, lasting effect.
High quality SEO
High quality SEO can only be achieved if the SEO practitioners have a thorough understanding of the industry. With Blackbox, we are specialists in medical marketing. If you look up in google 'medical marketing' - Blackbox E-Marketing is quite high up. That level of SEO can only be achieved with a deep understanding of both SEO and the medical industry.
Similarly, with medical websites, in order to rank highly, you need to know about the marketing restrictions on individual consultants, the technical medical terminology. You need to know about the search strategies employed by potential private patients. You also need to know how Google ranks sites and what factors are deemed important in determining whether a page is an authority on a subject. Changes to the algorithm due to the caffeine update have benefited the rankings, since google is now quicker to respond to new content (although still not as quick as Yahoo/Bing according to my own experiments) but subsequent changes like panda and penguin have had mixed results.
The final piece of the puzzle for high quality SEO is that you need to understand your competitors. You might have great SEO and content, but if your competitor is doing it better than you, then you are always going to play second fiddle behind them. What you need to do is identify where your website has relative strengths over your competitors and take advantage of this in the SEO. This is something that cannot be done unless you know the industry inside out.