At the end of the day, the ultimate goal in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is to generate organic traffic. To achieve this goal, you need to rank in organic search. Which basically equals to ranking on Google (which handles over 90% of all search queries worldwide!).
What does "ranking" mean?
First of all it means getting your page in the index of the search engine, that's step one, then entering the top 100 of search results for a specific query, step two, then moving your page up the SERPs, ideally to the top of page 1, the Holy Grail for all SEOs, especially for high volume keywords.
No ranking, no chance of traffic, it's as simple as that. That will be the guiding principle of your SEO strategy.
One of the questions frequently asked by clients is how long it takes for a page to appear on Google, enter the Top 100 and move up to page 1? This velocity will be determined by multiple SEO factors.
Before delving into specific details, let me tell you the most important truth, which can be hard to swallow: it takes time, a very long time, to move out of the sandbox and see some activity on Google Search Console. You'd better be patient and have realistic expectations if you want to play the SEO game. This blog post won't be an exception: I'll give you my personal answer to the question raised in the title at the very end of this content piece. But first, let's talk about ranking factors. We'll focus on the main ones. But bear in mind there are thousands of factors computed in real time by Google's algorithms.
What is the most important ranking factor?
There is one factor you can't fake because it depends on your actual history in the index, it's you domain authority.
All SEO tools have their own recipe to calculate domain authority. Moz will call this DA, ahrefs will call it DR (Domain Rating), others will give it another name but all reflect the same concept: how much authority does your site (or someone else's site) have in Google's algorithmic eyes?
The domain authority is determined by its own set of factors:
- domain age (that's why some people buy aged domains)
- brand awareness (how much authority does your brand have on the internet, this is a crucial ranking factor in Google's eyes)
- backlink, aka incoming links, profile (at the core of Google's Pagerank. That's why people invest in outreach and link building)
- social signals (that's why people are active on social media)
- user metrics (that's why you have to optimize your UX to increase the average time spent on your site and reduce bounce rate)
- entity snapshot (are you covering relevant topics referring to the entities expected by Google Knowledge Graph, in a consistent way, with enough breadth and depth)
In this set of factors, you can't influence age (except if you build on an aged domain) but you can control pretty much all the other factors, both with hard work and cash investments.
Brand awareness can be boosted through smart PR and advertising. Make sure your company is clearly associated with a strong brand. Claim your Google Business Page if you're a local business, that will be the foundation of your presence in Google's Knowledge Graph.
Links can be built via organic outreach, including offering replacements for broken links (and sometimes, when appropriate, via paid placements). Make sure the links you're building are dofollow since nofollow links don't transfer any SEO juice.
Social signals can be collected by being active on social media (organically and through ad campaigns)
The average user metrics on your site can be improved by enhancing your content quality and improving the user experience.
With hard work, patience and resilience, you'll gradually improve your domain authority. SEO is a long term process.
Speed, another quick win to improve your rankings
Google has the capacity to measure the speed of your site, both on desktop and mobile. You can test it at your end using Google PageSpeed Insights. If Google has the choice between a slow and a fast website for a specific query, it will always pick the fastest to maximise user satisfaction.
Can a single page rank for multiple keywords?
Usually, when a page starts ranking it will generate traffic from multiple keywords, even from unexpected random keywords. When publishing content, you should start with low competition keywords, also called long tail keywords, with a decent search volume, not the most popular keywords, the single word head terms, except if the competition is very low in the SERPs. For instance, it will be easier to rank for "the best way to find long tail keywords" than for "SEO strategy". Even low volume keywords can provide a steady flow of traffic if you have a good CTR (click-through-rate) between impressions & clicks. And they are less prone to suddenly falling to page two. You have to find the right balance between competition and volume, depending on your traffic needs and your content production capacity. It's worth getting 3 visitors per month on a page if 1 of them converts into a sale for a $1000 contract. But it makes no sense investing copywriting resources to chase a distraction keyword bringing in tens of non-engaged bouncing eyeballs.
Using SEO tools (ahrefs, semrush, serptstat,...) you can constantly monitor the ranking position of a piece of content for a range of keywords. The advantage of long form high quality content is that you'll start ranking for a long list of keywords beyond the one(s) you're initially pursuing. That's the beauty of SEO. You can improve your chances to rank for more keywords by enhancing your topic density on a regular basis, with tools like Frase.io or Surferseo.com). Those applications will mine the SERPs and give you a full list of the topics addressed by your competitors for a specific query. They will also give you insights about the average article length and the structure of the articles (how many headings, how many images, etc.). You can even write your article in Frase and see the dynamic evolution of your topic score.
Actually, we're entering a post-keyword search environment. Google is getting smarter everyday, both via its Knowledge Graph and the constant analysis of user behaviour. It gives them an understanding of topics which goes far beyond the juxtaposition of keywords in your pieces of content. You still have to mention keywords and related terms in your main title, in your meta description, in your headings and in the alt image tags, of course. But the most important part of your copywriting strategy should be to answer questions. Google wants you to provide clear answers to the questions asked by the users. Clarity can even get you a spot on what we call Position Zero (just after the ads) in the SERPs, in a Featured Snippet or another form of quick answer.
Internal Links help Google figure out the structure of your site
Google loves structure. You have to help the crawler figure out the architecture of your site. An easy way to do it is to link between pages when appropriate. This can even transfer some SEO juice between a high authority page and brand new pages. Don't go crazy though, these links have to make sense, not transform your site into a spaghetti mess. Your menu is the #1 spot for internal links, as well as your site map. Properly designed category pages and content hubs are also a structured entry point for Google's bots.
It takes 6 to 8 months for a clean domain to notice a significant increase when starting from scratch
If you invest time in all the above mentioned methods, the needle will start moving in a couple of weeks if you already have some domain authority.
If not, be prepared to wait for a few months. Neil Patel wrote an article where he shared that it took on average 3.39 months for the websites he analysed to reach the #1.81 position, but this was for domains with an average rating of 49.6, not brand new websites. Most of the brand new domains for which I personally saw Google Analytics reports experienced a pretty low organic traffic for 6 to 8 months before enjoying a significant increase. Then, usually, if everything goes well (i.e. if you haven't used dubious tactics), the growth can be exponential, that's what we call the Snowball Effect. Another article, written by Lean Labs, shared that the top 3 positions in Google have less than 4% of content which is less than 12 months old. A vast majority of the top 10 results consist of older content which took months if not years to reach those positions.
The duration of the initial ghost town / sandbox situation depends on the (keyword) competition level. The average duration was probably far shorter 10 years ago and it will probably be much longer in a few years, since we're living in a constantly moving competitive landscape, with more sites created everyday and more efforts invested in SEO by the leading players.
You've got to be constantly on the ball. To stay relevant, you have to regularly update your site with fresh content, while focusing your core efforts on evergreen topics. Make sure to plan moderate but regular link building efforts to stay in the game, especially for your top ranking pages and the most competitive keywords. You can easily slide a few positions and lose a lot of traffic if you rest on your laurels.
If you're leveraging SEO techniques to generate organic traffic for an affiliate site, this means that you'll probably earn pizza money for 6 to 8 months before moving into the $100 per month territory and hope for an average salary replacement level in year 2.
The good news is that most people give up pretty early. So if you're hard working, patient and resilient, you'll have good chances to claim your spot on page one.