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Stop reading. Now.
Go open Google Analytics. Click on Behavior, then sort by Top Content, and add a Secondary dimension for google / organic.
Now, what do you see?
If you’re like most websites, the top trafficked pages are also often at least 12 months old. That means three things:
- Traffic is a lagging indicator, a byproduct of previous output.
- Your results six months from now depend on what you did at the end of last year.
- That your results next year will depend entirely on your efforts this year.
And it means the people plowing ahead, business as usual – despite the world seemingly falling apart around them – will be the first ones to reap the benefits in the future.
While everyone else? Running around like headless chickens? Chopping and changing strategies or directions every three months?
Broke, unemployed, out of business, or gobbled up by their closest competitors.
How rankings work in the real world for 99% of websites
I’ve been fortunate to work on very big sites. It’s beautiful. Everything is always up and to the right.
You hit publish today, rank top 3 tomorrow, look like a genius, write fancy case studies, a pithy LinkedIn post or two, speak at some conferences, and cash fat checks.
It’s great fun. I highly recommend it.
Sadly, that’s not how it works for everyone else outside the web’s top 1%.
Unless you’re a big site, like 85-90 DR+, it will take months (if not years) to rank well for anything.
That means publishing new content today doesn’t go from “not indexed” to top 3 immediately. What’s more common is some variation of the following:
- Day 0 = Not indexed. Sad emoji.
- Day 14: Page 4
- Day 30: Page 3
- Day 45: Back to page 4
- Day 60: Page 3 again
- Day 90: Top of page 3
- Day 120: Bottom page 2
- Day 180: Top of page 3 redux
- Day 210: Back to the bottom of page 2
- Day 240: Hooray! Bottom of page 1
- Day 270: Boo! Top of page 2 again
- Day 300: Yes, cracking position 7!
- Day 330: Almost there! Flip-flopping between positions 4 and 6
- Day 360: Finally! Position 3!
Don’t believe me?
Open up your favorite SEO tool and look up the ranking timeline for any top page on your site.
For the vast majority, you’re looking at ~6-12+ months of obscurity before a piece of content ranks in the top three for anything meaningful.
Reasons typically include:
- Zero trust or authority.
- Lacking topical authority (a rising tide lifts all boats… or lack thereof).
- Lacking high-quality backlinks (yes, they still drive most results in competitive spaces).
- Lacking enough unbranded content (for new people to find or care about you).
- Increasing levels of direct and indirect competition (like publishers doing affiliate reviews and ranking above SaaS companies in their own vertical).
- And more.
The point of all this?
SEO is an investment with a defined payback period, typically 12 to 18 to 24+ months in the future.
It’s among the best, highest ROI with the lowest customer acquisition cost channels for most businesses on the planet.
But – it’s not an overnight thing.
It’s like investing in multifamily houses vs. a simple short-term rental (Airbnb):
- Want a couple thousand next month? Sure, an Airbnb might help.
- Want hundreds of millions (or more) over the next decade? Large apartment blocks are where it’s at… but it’s gonna take a decade!
So how do you value this? How do you prove it? And how do you justify it to bosses or clients or spouses that want to hoard cash elsewhere?
Let’s use a simple model to explain.
Step 1: Estimate volume ranges based on a group of keywords
Go look up a list of relevant keywords in your space. Assume easy-to-moderate difficulty to start. Don’t overthink it right now.
Then, drop volume and traffic potential in two separate columns, like so:
Next, let’s keep going until we hit a good round, easy-to-divide number.
I will select “30” because it means we can easily count this as “10” articles each month. So this group of 30 will be one quarter’s worth of new content.
Again, I also want to see some volume and traffic potential estimates.
And assuming they’re not overlapping too much, we can grab the sum totals for potential volume or traffic of all these keywords in time.
Yes, we’re drastically oversimplifying at this point.
Ideally, these are thematically related, so we can build out defined pillars, clusters, hubs, spokes, and whatever nerdy marketers call them these days.
And hopefully, you’re building internal links correctly to support these dense webs of content you will create and have a distribution plan in place to ensure social engagement and backlinks flow like the salmon of Capistrano.
But again, this is for illustrative purposes. So let’s keep moving.
Step 2: Define the ‘inputs’ of the model for how much content you’re going to publish
Not everyone should create tons of tons of content. That’s not what I’m recommending.
But most relatively new or small sites suffer from insufficient high-quality, unbranded content.
Simply increasing your content output over the next year will do wonders for your brand visibility, recognition, and ability to build an audience or drive leads into a sales funnel later.
It won’t solve all your problems. But it’ll solve some pretty big ones. (See, obscurity.)
So let’s assume you will create a 2,000-word article for each keyword you just identified. That’s roughly 10 per month or 120 over the next year.
Not insignificant, but not too difficult, either.
(One good writer should be able to produce ~2-4 articles/week comfortably, whether part-time or full-time. And if they can’t? They’re not a good writer.)
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Step 3: Forecast the potential traffic output from the first three month’s worth of work
Ha! Just kidding. There won’t be any traffic in the first six months.
- You’re already a big site.
- You’re optimizing and republishing existing content first.
- You’re driving tons of ad traffic or link building on top of content publishing.
- You’re doing something semi-shady (PBNs, building on top of an expired domain, etc.).
- You’re targeting super low-difficulty topics that won’t ever convert anyway.
So let’s say within the first three months, we publish 30 articles. If you’re starting from scratch, watch out for inevitable delays, snags, and snafus.
You should be working out the operational kinks at this point, building a solid long-term foundation, vs. worrying too much about just publishing publishing publishing.
Now, for the fun part.
We will extrapolate out over the next 12+ months to show you – directionally, if not numerically – how the compounding benefits of SEO kick in only after 12+ months.
Step 4: Forecast the next 12 months by continuing to double down without changing strategy or stopping progress
Refer back to the bulleted ranking timeline above. Nothing usually happens in the first 3-6 months for a brand-new piece of content.
Some might be on Page 2 or a few on Page 1. But probably nothing in the top five positions, where ~80%+ of the traffic comes from for each keyword.
However, as you continue publishing 6-12+ months into the future, two things begin to happen:
- The total potential volume and traffic potential grows proportionally based on a significant increase in the number of new topics you’re reaching for.
- Over the long term (i.e., 12+, not <6), the average position of your content should also rise – assuming you’re actually publishing good content and doing the basics correctly (i.e., brand building, site hierarchy, internal links, topical authority, social distribution, high-quality links, etc.).
Let’s visualize this now, showing how (a) the potential monthly volume and traffic essentially double each quarter while, at the same time, (b) the average position of your content goes from higher than 5 to within the 4th or possibly even 3rd positions:
Why is this second point significant?
Because your traffic doesn’t just grow 10% if you go from >5 to <5, each small position increase at that point increases the SERP CTR exponentially – and traffic as a result.
(For the SEO nerds, we’re using position CTR estimates from Advanced Web Ranking.)
Once again, we’re vastly oversimplifying lots of things at this point.
But the underlying principles are legit.
- Publishing more good, relevant content will significantly increase the total potential volume or traffic you’ll get in the future, and
- Publishing more good, relevant content will lift the average SERP CTR you see across all rankings (as topical authority grows, domain rating grows, and more).
What does all this mean?
It means all those lagging indicators, like traffic, leads, and sales, only show up after at least a year of solid work in the first place.
And I know this because I’ve done it and seen it time and time and time again:
Step 5: Determine the ROI by comparing it against the cost of investment and other alternatives
Lastly, how do we justify more budget for SEO and content, even when we have nothing to show today?
A few ways:
- Build a one-year-and-beyond model and use that as the comparison factor – not the first six months when you’re bound to see very little (if any) traffic.
- Compare the traffic you could get in the future against existing alternatives, like the same traffic or lead gen that Google Ads would cost, less the cost of organic services (largely people or soft costs).
- Compare the potential revenue generation from the traffic or leads you could generate at current close rates multiplied by ARPU / LTV (or similar, depending on your business model).
Is this rocket science? Not really.
Is it 100% accurate down to the individual numbers? Not a chance.
But is it logical and practical and directionally accurate? You bet.
People often view “marketing” as an investment or an expense.
The latter group, we can’t help. They’ll never learn – until it’s too late.
(Like next year, when they’ve cut their marketing budgets today to “save money” and then don’t have any new leads, customers, or clients to pay them in the future.)
The former? There’s still a chance. You can and should cut back on certain areas during a recession or tough economy.
But growth should never, ever, ever be one of them. Especially SEO.
Because the results you’re seeing today are from the SEO snowball from the last few years.
While the results in 2024 and 2025 and 2026 are from your efforts today.
Let output die over the next few months, and all you’re doing is making it more likely that those depressing lists of layoffs will continue to grow next year as the body count rises.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.