How long does it take to rank in local search?

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How long does it take to rank in local search?

The questions posed in this survey attempt to answer 1 burning question. It’s the question that every client asks and that many consultants/agencies struggle to answer in a way that the client comprehends & believes.

So we thought it would be useful to pool the collective wisdom of our industry’s leading experts and make it available for others to learn from & reference when the following question arises:

“How long does it take to rank in local search?”

The answer to this depends on many factors & is specific to the client asking the question. So we devised 5 typical scenarios that cover most local businesses, and will attempt to provide a typical time period for each in achieving significant rankings &/or performance improvement.

Definition of ‘significant ranking &/or performance improvement’?

Defining success is tricky as it’s a subjective point and is different for various businesses & scenarios. For the purposes of this survey we devised a definition for our experts to consider when answering each question -

  • A clear improvement in either search ranking &/or clicks that leads to increased lead generation, which can be attributed to the optimization work being done.

To help us reach some conclusions, we enlisted the help of 18 highly respected & knowledgeable local search experts. As well as answering all our questions, many of them generously elaborated on their answers with some insightful comments – of which we’ve included many below.

We’d like to thank all 18 SEOs for taking part and generously sharing their time & knowhow with us – we greatly appreciate your input!

Participants
Participants
Dev Basu - poweredbysearch.comLaura Betterly - laurabetterly.com
Phil Britton - linkedin.comBill Connard - rioseo.com
Sarah Cyr - getg5.comSusan Hallam - hallaminternet.com
Joy Hawkins - imprezziomarketing.comScott Hendison - searchcommander.com
Matthew Hunt - poweredbysearch.comCasey Meraz - ethicalseoconsulting.com
Max Minzer - reengageconsulting.comDarryl Quinlan - google+
Phil Rozek - localvisibilitysystem.comDarren Shaw - whitespark.ca
Andrew Shotland - localseoguide.comChris Silver Smith - argentmedia.com
Arthur Yannoukos - localpositions.comNyagoslav Zhekov - whitespark.ca

5 scenarios – how long will it take to rank?

You can jump to each question / scenario using the hyperlinks below:


Scenario 1 – A brand new business

You land a new client. They are a brand new business and don’t have a website, nor local listings on Google, Bing or Yahoo.

How long would you advise the client that it will take before they see will significant ranking or performance improvement?

Note: this question has been divided into two scenarios; a) a client that works in a competitive sector & location, and b) a client that works in a non-competitive sector & location.

A) Client works in a competitive sector & location

Scenario 1a

Key Findings:

  • In a competitive scenario, 78% say that significant rankings can be achieved in 3-9 months
  • 50% say that 6-9 months is enough time to rank significantly
  • Only 11% believe significant rankings can be achieved in under 3 months
  • 11% say over a year

B) Client works in a non-competitive sector & location

Scenario 1b

Key Findings:

  • In a non competitive scenario, all experts agree that significant rankings can be achieved within 9 months
  • 94% say that it is possible to achieve significant local rankings within 6 months
  • 28% say significant local rankings can be achieved in under a month

Analysis:

In a competitive sector or location, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome, so trying to start from zero and achieve substantial local rankings is likely to take at least 3 months. However, in a non-competitive environment, significant local rankings can be achieved at a much quicker rate; and our experts suggest that even in the first month, some good progress can be made.

The strength of competition for a site starting from ‘nothing’ clearly plays a big part in how quickly a site can achieve local rankings. However, good news for start-up businesses is the suggestion that they can realistically compete in any scenario, within 6 months.

Expert quotes:

“It takes 6-10 weeks generally for Google to index and insert a brand new listing, let alone have it rank for anything.” - Joy Hawkins

“In the case of new sites, it’s pretty much a question of link building and getting the citation stuff spread out. Often time-to-rank issues are a function of the client’s ability to prioritize and schedule SEO tactics. If you have complete control of their site, citations & review strategy, the time-to-rank could be much faster, even in competitive niches (e.g. one great blog post can do it in a day), but in my experience that is rarely the case. - Andrew Shotland

“These are our favorite type of job for obvious reasons. Going from “no site and no listings” to “indexed and listed” is one of the few places we can guarantee fast results. We even charge less for new sites, because the job is so much easier.” - Scott Hendison

“For highly competitive industries and market areas, it’s realistic to consider organic local search marketing to be a long-haul effort. Ask yourself: why should your business rank higher than the approx 7-10 others that currently occupy the top positions? The simplest answer is: you don’t! Essentially, this is the nature of the game. It’s not possible to develop this in one month, flat. You need to consider ongoing, monthly services to make this a possibility.” - Chris Silver Smith

“I have found that it’s always better to under promise and over deliver. There are a lot of variables and uncertainties that come with this, so preparing your clients is essential to the relationship.” - Casey Meraz

“The biggest issue that influences the amount of time required to rank competitively are as follows: a) Local Search Eco-System Trickledown Effect: It takes months for NAP data to propagate from 1st tier directories down to 3rd and 4th tier directories. b) Review Generation is typically a slow process because a brand new business does not have strong brand recognition or a wealth of customer data to reach out to for reviews.” - Dev Basu

“Starting from a blank slate is easier in many ways because you don’t have pre-existing inconsistencies holding you back.” - Phil Britton

“In most competitive markets it takes time to build up the domain authority to be able to compete, but every once in a while you’ll see a new business that seemingly comes out of nowhere to rank in the top spots with next to no links, citations, or reviews. This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems like a “quality deserves freshness” factor in local search where Google will give a new business the opportunity to compete and then measure user engagement metrics to assess whether they are worthy of keeping that rank.” – Darren Shaw

“Local rankings for a new business take months and months even when everything goes smoothly. If clients drag their feet on crucial steps like getting reviews…well, who knows how long it will take.” - Phil Rozek

“Rankings in local search could be divided into organic search local rankings and “Maps” local rankings. The first type of rankings are influenced predominantly by the “traditional” ranking factors – website SEO, content, links. The second type of rankings are influenced by a mix of “traditional” and “Maps-specific” factors (such as citations). Therefore, a division in the results achievement time frame could be made. In general, rankings in organic search could be achieved relatively faster, especially in less competitive niches, as compared to rankings in the Maps search (“7-pack”). The rankings in the 7-pack rely heavily on citations, and citations are being associated with the corresponding Google+ Local listings on a cyclic basis. Sometimes, a few cycles are needed for a citation to be associated with a listing. Thus, the time frame is rather long even in extremely low competition niches.” - Nyagoslav Zhekov


Scenario 2 – Website with some optimization

You land a new client. They have an ok website but they don’t rank well in search and have had little optimization work done yet.

How long would you advise the client that it will take before they see will significant ranking or performance improvement?

Note: this question has been divided into two scenarios; a) a client that works in a competitive sector & location, and b) a client that works in a non-competitive sector & location.

A) Client works in a competitive sector & location

Scenario 2a

Key Findings:

  • In a competitive scenario, at least 3 months can be expected before significant rankings are realised
  • 3-9 months is seen as the optimum time required on an existing site
  • None of our experts believed that significant local rankings could be achieved in under a month

B) Client works in a non-competitive sector & location

Scenario 2b

Key Findings:

  • In a non-competitive scenario, 94% believe that optimization is realistic in under 6 months
  • 50% say that good local rankings can be achieved in under 2 months

Analysis:

In a competitive sector for websites that have had little work done on them, 50% of local search experts agree that significant local rankings can be gained within 3-6 months. Interestingly, the results don’t differ too much from a scenario where a client has NO website.

However, 11% of experts believe that a brand new business can achieve significant rankings within 2 months. Once we flip the scenario to a client with an existing site, only 6% agree that the same can be achieved. It suggest that it may be easier to start with a clean slate, than fix other SEO issues / discrepancies that may already exist – however trivial.

Expert quotes:

“Local Search is dependent on their website, if that is not optimized and cared for well, local is out of the game.” - Darryl Quinlan

“Competitive space or not, we’ve seen it take months for internal site changes to affect organic rankings. I’m convinced there’s a sort of “waiting period” imposed by Google after they notice a lot of changes being made to a site, almost as if they don’t want the site owner (or site editor) to believe that their changes can affect rankings.” – Scott Hendison

“I don’t see a big difference between the case of a business with an established website but nothing else, and a business that is just starting fresh. The website on its own doesn’t provide much. It needs to be tied to all the other factors to move the needle.” – Darren Shaw

“Ranking has many different factors and each factor can take different time spans. The two main factors that define the speed of ranking. 1) Where are you trying to rank? Organic or Map? What engine? 2) What are you trying to rank for? Branded terms? Branded terms with local modifier? Generic terms? Generic terms with local modifier? There are too many variables to answer how long it takes to rank.” - Bill Connard


Scenario 3 – Poorly optimized website

You land a new client. They have an ok website but they don’t rank well in search. They have had quite of lot of optimization work done but the quality of the work is low and they have some NAP consistency & low quality link issues.

How long would you advise the client that it will take before they see significant ranking or performance improvement?

Note: this question has been divided into two scenarios; a) a client that works in a competitive sector & location, and b) a client that works in a non-competitive sector & location.

A) Client works in a competitive sector & location

Scenario 3a

Key Findings:

  • For a poorly optimized site, 89% believe it will take longer than 3 months to rank well
  • 61% say between it takes 3-9 months for significant local rankings
  • 28% say it will take longer than 9 months

B) Client works in a non-competitive sector & location

Scenario 3b

Key Findings:

  • 61% say that a website can achieve significant local rankings in 3-6 months
  • 22% believe this can be achieved in under 2 months

Analysis:

In a competitive scenario, if a site has been damaged by poor optimization then there is a far bigger chance that significant rankings will take longer than 9 months. If we look at all 3 competitive scenarios so far, and compare how many experts answered ‘more than 9 months’, then it reads like this:

  1. No website – 11%
  2. Existing website with little optimisation – 6%
  3. Existing website with poor optimization - 28%

However, in a non-competitive scenario these issues are far easier to fix; 61% believe that significant rankings can be achieved in just 3-6 months and only 12% believe that it will take longer than 9 months. This reinforces the difficulties that SEOs can face when taking on a new client with an existing website – particularly in a competitive sector / location.

Expert Quotes:

“NAP issues take longer because even if you update all the directories, it takes additional time for Google to recognize this.” - Joy Hawkins

“My choices here are on the safe side for what I feel I would say to a client. There was a time when organic changes could affect a site in days, but times have changed, and it’s not uncommon for us to see very little movement after 90 days of hard work. We always try to under promise in the beginning, to better manage client expectations.” - Scott Hendison

“A cleanup and optimization strategy is more difficult to fully scope and much more time consuming to execute. The distrust that has accumulated because of NAP inconsistencies needs to be overcome. Most times, time, with consistent NAP info, is the only thing that can rebuild that trust.” - Phil Britton

“This is the worst case scenario for any business. You can’t rank until you clean up, and while a citation cleanup job can be done in a month, recovery from low quality link issues seems to take a year or more. I sometimes wonder if a business entity gets permanently “tarnished” and will always have ranking issues after they have eroded Google’s trust with spam tactics.” - Darren Shaw

“Just depends how bad the damage is. You’ll probably need to work on the citations in at least a couple of “waves,” spaced about 2 months apart. The links would have to be pretty egregious for the business not to rank anywhere or for any terms in Google Places. But if they are that bad, expect a year-plus before much happens.” - Phil Rozek

“Depends how long is spent on the account each month! If it’s a prolonged effort each week then the improvement could be seen much quicker, obviously.” - Susan Hallam


Scenario 4 – Manual penalty

You land a new client. They have an optimized website but recently been hit with a Manual Penalty by Google because they have a ‘suspicious’ link profile. They are not appearing in search for any terms, even brand terms.

How long would you advise them that it will take before they appear in search results again?

Scenario 4a

Key Findings:

  •  76% say that it will take at least 3 months for a website to reappear after a manual penalty
  • 24% say that a website can return within 2 months

Analysis:

The general consensus is that a website will have to wait at least 3 months before it can re-appear in the search engines. Most of our expert panel agree on over 6 months. This highlights the amount of work that is often required to clean up a link profile & submit a reconsideration request.

However, 1 in 4 believes that this can be achieved in less than 2 months, presumably if the penalty is met with a thorough & effective reaction, and depending on the size of the ‘clean-up’ job.

Expert Quotes:

“Clients can rank in Places with a manual penalty within 6 months but their organic ranking doesn’t restore for a LONG time”. - Joy Hawkins

“We have seen penalty rebounds within a day of removing the penalty, but we have also seen situations where it appears that Google the penalty doesn’t get lifted until Google reruns the algo which can take months. There’s also the case that many of these sites hit by penalties have weak link profiles, so they may “recover” from the penalty (i.e. get reindexed), but it doesn’t mean they will rank for anything”. - Andrew Shotland

“Penalization can involve some thorny issues. The longer your site may have been involved in something against search engine policies, the longer you may be suppressed in rankings — search engine personnel have stated that even when you’ve cleaned up the issues, they may choose to keep you down for a period of time, because “it wasn’t fair that you had better performance at the expense of others who played by the rules.” So, results may vary according to the issue involved.” - Chris Silver Smith

“The penalty is dependent on so many factors. With unnatural links you can take the short road and 410 pages and conduct link removal for a few weeks. If they have just a handful of bad links you’re looking at 5 weeks. However I have worked with clients that have had 100,000+ and that took about 7 months.” - Casey Meraz

“Again, this depends how long we spend on the account in total. If we focus purely on link removal each day for a couple of weeks then the results can be visible within a month – I have seen clients return to their previous rankings within a week after a reconsideration request is accepted, and in other cases it has taken upwards of 12 months.” - Susan Hallam


How long after the penalty is removed will it take before their rankings are back to pre-penalty levels?

Scenario 4b

Key Findings:

  • None of our experts believe that pre-penalty rankings can be retrieved in under a month
  • 53% say between 1-6 months
  • 48% say more than 6 months
  • 24% say at least 1 year

Analysis:

According to the experts, 1-2 months is the absolute minimum for a site to regain its pre-penalty local rankings. After this, there is much debate on whether it will take anything from 1-2 months to over a year. Presumably this varied response is based on the specific scenario of each site and times may vary widely.

Expert quotes:

“They may never return to pre-penalty levels, because their pre-penalty ranking was likely never deserved in the first place. Not only will they have to wait for a Penguin recrawl that may take months (it’s been 9+ now) but also, the “suspicious links” that formerly helped them will be gone or disavowed, and in some cases may not be replaceable.” - Scott Hendison

“‘Appearing in search results again’ is very different from “ranking well again”. We have been able to get manual penalties lifted within a couple of months, and that will get the business “appearing” again, but they won’t recover to where they ranked before getting hit with the penalty. Climbing back to the top is going to take a tonne of quality content development and naturally earned links and mentions. It’s the long game. Once they get back into the pack based on quality, they’ll be able to stay there.” - Darren Shaw

The return to previous rankings varies depends on the client in question and the industry they operate in – I also think this partly relies on other ranking factors, as the website may be suffering due to other factors alongside the penalty.” - Susan Hallam


Scenario 5 – Client stops investing in SEO

You have been optimizing a client for 6 months. The client decides to stop investing in SEO.

What drop off in ranking or performance would you expect to see in the following time periods after you stop optimizing?

In the following chart we have collated all results from our panel of local experts:

Scenario 5

Key Findings:

  • Within 1-2 months there is very little change once local optimization work has ceased
  • After 3-6 months without any local optimization, the first significant drop in rankings will occur (20%)

Analysis:

Within 1-2 months of no optimization there is seemingly little change, but as the months go on there is a steady decline in local rankings. After 6 months there is significant decline (34%) and after 2 years a site is likely to lose up to 50% of its rankings. Obviously this shows the importance of continued local optimization and how important it is to see local search as an ongoing project rather than a one time deal.


Other Questions

We asked 2 further questions to finish off the survey.

1. In your experience, is it easier/faster to generate a boost in organic ranking or local/map rankings?

Other a

Key Findings:

  • 61% say it is easier to boost a site in local / maps results
  • Organic results are perceived to be much harder to achieve

Analysis:

We’ve seen that given the right conditions, significant rankings in local search can be achieved relatively quickly. However organic rankings are affected by more factors than local / map results, and this is reflected above. 61% of experts agree that local / maps results are easier / faster to achieve than organic results.


2. In your experience, after optimizing a client which search engine do you see performance improvements in fastest?

Other b

Key Findings:

  • 61% say Google shows local ranking improvements fastest
  • Yahoo is perceived to be the slowest responding search engine to local optimization (6%)

Analysis:

This shows that Google is the quickest site to respond to local optimization. However this may have something to do with the fact that most local SEO knowledge, focus & discussion is based around Google, due to its dominance in the search market. No doubt that if Bing or Yahoo were to gain more market share then this would be reflected by a change in practices from local SEOs.

Ross Marchant Ross Marchant

About the Author

Ross is the Marketing Manager for BrightLocal. With 8 years SEO & content experience, Ross spearheads our marketing & CRM initiatives which focus heavily on creating useful & informative content. Ross coordinates the research program at BrightLocal which delivers unique insights into both the SEO industry & local consumer behaviours. When he's not analyzing data or creating great content, Ross is a passionate fan of Chelsea FC (who isn't?!). Follow him on Google+.

15 Responses to “How long does it take to rank in local search?”

  1. Lark

    Amazing and helpful stats! Thanks a bunch. I will refer to this when a client asks me the dreaded question ‘ how long will it take for my site to get on google?’

    :)

  2. Bradley Benner

    Another great post, Ross. I especially agree with your survey results about being able to produce faster results in maps rankings over organic, especially if you use semantic markup (structured data) and submit the business to Freebase. It seems that with 3 to 6 months, a jump into the top of maps is inevitable, whereas organic ranking takes a lot more [careful] work.

  3. Justin

    This is really interesting, and pulling in the different players makes it a tool I can use to give clients a solid perspective on things from the market experts in general. VERY nice job! This deserves to become a staple in the industry over time.

  4. Linda Davis

    Excellent article, always like comparing my thinking to what everyone else (in the industry) thinks! It keeps it real!

  5. Smart Web Solutions

    Great research guys, very relevant and to the point… it’s clear you understand your target audience, that allows us to help our target audience..

  6. Shawn Manaher

    Ross,

    Great article and very helpful!

    I was just asking myself… Wow, this client is taking forever to rank… and wow, this just isn’t working as quick as I expected, so it is good to know that.

    1. Results will vary
    2. Time is a factor
    3. Action is vital to see results.

    Thanks again!

  7. James Louis

    Thank you for the information on rankings lost after ceasing SEO. Many clients don’t understand that it’s not set it and forget it.

  8. Mike Williams

    Comparing my own answers to these scenarios with other industry leaders was very helpful. This is also useful in helping to explain this to clients, which is always a challenge since they often don’t understand why we can’t just give Google a call and tell them to put their site on the first page.

  9. Brian Jackson

    This is a great article! Some clients still think this is an overnight process. Next time they ask, I’ll email this post :)

  10. Mike Hamilton

    Awesome article. This will be a great piece of information to share with our clients when they have the inevitable question for us. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Hans Storrie

    Great informative insights. A very useful article to send those inpatient clients to, especially the ones that want instant results but only want to pay the price of coffee!! Well put together and much appreciated.

  12. Ross Marchant Ross Marchant

    Thanks for everyone’s comments. Glad you all find it as interesting as we did :)

  13. Ted

    Ross,

    Nice article! I like how you broke out the different scenarios, and i think it would have been interesting to continue the “competitive / non-competitive” segmentation. With Scenario 5, our experience has been that in non-competitive markets a client’s local rankings can stay relatively high for a long time (1+ years, depending on level of local competition). However, in highly competitive markets, a significant drop is likely to be seen much more quickly – generally within 30 – 60 days, regardless of how good the on-page work was done…if businesses stop adding new content and maintaining a valid and authoritative link building program, their rankings will drop and their asset (their website) will be de-valued; that’s pretty much guaranteed.

    Good, organic SEO work is an on-going business expense…kind of like paying your electric bill to keep your lights, computers and cash registers running…

  14. Ross Marchant Ross Marchant

    Thanks for your input Ted. Yes it would be good to explore that scenario a bit further (in terms of highly competitive markets). A 30-60 day drop-off sounds like a scary prospect – certainly a lot of pressure to get the strategy right!

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