“How long will it take?” is the second most popular question asked of SEOs, coming right after “How much does it cost?” The answer is often not what potential clients are hoping for, especially if they haven’t had previous experience of SEO.

That answer is usually, “It depends,” followed by a potentially baffling list of factors that can influence search rankings. Or rather, that will be the answer if the SEO is any good. If he or she claims to be able to guarantee a top position in a short amount of time for a set of keywords, be careful. The reality is that search engines and the sites they index are complex systems with a complex relationship. It’s like the weather, you can fairly accurately predict long-term trends, but absolutely guaranteeing that it won’t rain on the third Tuesday in March next year is irresponsible.

In some cases, it’s very easy to get a particular keyword phrase to rank well in a short space of time. For example, an SEO could probably cause a site to rank well for the keyword phrase “blue oranges like humpback whales” (Google it – QED). But that’s because it’s trivial to rank for a very rare combination of words. They appear nowhere else on the Internet and no one is searching for them. That makes them worthless from an SEO perspective.

Keyword phrases with high value are those that lots of people are searching for, particularly if they tend to be used when the searcher is looking to spend some money. Those keyword phrases can be extremely difficult to rank well for, requiring a considerable investment of time and money. There is very strong competition for them, and that’s why “It depends.”

The competitive landscape for each business varies considerably, and with that so varies the effort involved in ranking for relevant search queries. The harder it is, the more time it will take, and since one can expect all competitors to be engaged in similar SEO efforts, the competition is constantly shifting.

Because of the unpredictable nature of the system as a whole, honest SEOs won’t make firm promises about short-term gains. However, as with the weather, it is possible to predict long-term trends and the factors that are likely to influence them. That’s why SEOs can be confident that if they make technical and content related improvements to a site, then that site will see an upward trend in search traffic.

Speaking generally, SEO clients should expect to see some improvements within 3 months of the start of an SEO campaign. Sometimes it will happen more quickly, and sometimes more slowly, but if there is no improvement within 6 months, then it may be time to reconsider the strategy.

About Daniel Page — Daniel is the Director of Business Developement for ASEOhosting, a leading provider in SEO hosting and multiple IP hosting. Follow ASEOhosting on Twitter at @aseohosting, Like them on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/aseohosting, and check out all the services they offer on http://www.aseohosting.com/