Search marketing’s two halves are so similar and yet so different. A new pay-per-click advertising campaign can be set up and pushed live, and data starts to roll in that same day. Within a week there may be enough data to analyze performance, tweak and iterate the optimization of the campaign. Why does search engine optimization take so long to mature and impact performance if paid search is so quick? And what does this mean for the back to school or fall and holiday seasons that seem so far away?
In my agency life I’m asked this question frequently — followed by a query as to what to do to speed up the process. Let’s start with why search engine optimization takes longer to mature. The reasons have partly to do with education, business process, creative and development time, and the time it takes for the search engines to do their thing. All told, the process from kicking off a major SEO project with a thorough site analysis and detailed recommendations to actual implementation and SEO performance can take 6 to 12 months. If a business starts the process today, it will be lucky to see results by December.
SEO Is a Lengthy Process
The first step in the SEO process is the analysis of the site and development of recommendations detailed enough that the marketing and technical people who will need to implement them understand the issue, why it’s an issue and how to resolve it. An agency will usually take a month to do this, while an experienced in-house person focused solely on the project could probably accomplish it in two weeks.
Next, the recommendations need to be sold into the organization and prioritized against all the other marketing and development priorities. Depending on how well oiled a company’s business processes are, this can take a week or several months. Primarily, the trouble at this step tends to revolve around the difficulty in assigning a return-on-investment analysis to individual aspects of an SEO project. Using keyword research and web analytics, it’s possible to project the value of the SEO project as a whole, as described in "SEO: Estimating Sales Potential from Keywords and Phrases," my previous article on that topic. But that estimate is for the whole project. What’s the value of 301 redirects? Or building 100 quality links? There’s no way to logically or even semi-accurately estimate the pieces of the project individually because they’re so tied together.
Assign SEO Priorities
The individual pieces of the SEO recommendations are often compared against other projects that have a more solidly predictable ROI attached to them. Frustrated SEO professionals can find their critical projects stuck in this loop for months, seeing little progress while feeling the pressure to produce results. The only way out of this conundrum I’ve found is to identify the top five or so absolutely critical aspects of the SEO recommendations, the pieces that all the rest build upon, and put those forward as the initial SEO project with the full ROI assigned to it. Yes, there will be additional work after those five critical elements get done, but they will be the recommendations that can be done more piecemeal for smaller incremental benefit with each implementation.
After the prioritization, the actual development work still needs to be done. This may be creative work, developing content for the site or link bait to encourage other sites to link and share interesting content. Or it may be platform-related development. Regardless, depending on the scope of the process, the creation and testing steps can take from a week to several months. At the end of this step, the SEO projects are ready to launch and the process is now out of the SEO professional’s hands.
Search Engine 'Bots
Enter the search engine crawlers. Once the content or platform changes are implemented, the crawlers need to discover the changes, figure out what they mean, and rank the pages algorithmically against the other trillions of pages in the index. If a site doesn’t get crawled often, waiting to get crawled could take a month or more.
To see when a site was last crawled, check Google’s cache date by Googling, for example, “cache:www. practicalecommerce.com.” The resulting page will be a snapshot of the page the last time that Google crawled Practical eCommerce, with a date at the top in the gray field. In this case we see, “This is Google's cache of http://www.practicalecommerce.com/. It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on May 25, 2012 13:33:07 GMT. The current page could have changed in the meantime. Learn more.” Consequently we know that Google crawled the site today, and by checking the cache date tomorrow and the next day until the date changes we can see how often it gets crawled. If the cache date is a month past or older, the new content likely won’t be discovered for a while.
How Can SEO Be Sped Up?
In this process of moving from analysis to recommendation to prioritization to creation to implementation to search engine algorithmic analysis to performance, the pieces a business can most affect are the first steps. The engines will take the time they need. If a business wants to perform faster for organic search, it needs to put more resources and more priority on SEO projects. Most businesses frustrated by lengthy SEO project timelines are standing in their own way. Those businesses should get out of the way by bending the ROI rules for SEO so that it can get prioritized for the resources it needs. I’m not saying that SEO should get a free pass, but give it the benefit of the doubt knowing that a hard or even soft ROI will be impossible for bits of the SEO project versus the whole project. Understanding this, give the SEO professional creative resources available to help with content creation and technical resources available to modify the server-level and platform-related issues.
SEO recommendations will have zero impact on the business’s traffic and sales until they escape the spreadsheet and are implemented on the site. All that wheel spinning just wastes internal resources debating and arguing while accomplishing no additional benefit to the bottom line.
Once the recommendations have been implemented, there are a couple of ways to speed up the search engines’ initial crawling. Submitting an updated XML sitemap to Google’s and Bing’s webmaster tools will prompt a fresh crawl of the site. Google also offers the ability to fetch a page as Googlebot, which can get individual URLs crawled immediately. These steps will speed up the time to crawl, but there is no way to speed up the time it takes the engines to re-evaluate and re-rank the content algorithmically. It will likely take several crawls of the new content while the engines determine if the change was temporary or a new tasty permanent addition to the site. Again, if a site is crawled frequently, this process will be faster. Sites that are frequently updated with fresh content or have more links are more likely to be crawled more frequently.
What About the Hot Selling Seasons?
It’s not too late to focus on the back-to-school and holiday selling seasons if you start now and are truly committed to organic search as a priority. Plan for three months for the search engines to do their part of the process and back out the timeline from there.
If the target performance date for organic search is September 1, the important SEO projects need to be live June 1. If the target performance date is November 1, the important SEO projects need to be live August 1. If the site gets crawled daily or several times a week, the three month search engine algorithmic analysis lead time could be shortened to one or two months. However, I recommend planning conservatively to avoid being caught too late watching the rankings, traffic and sales go to the competition.