In 2019, we wrote an article to answer the question: How long does it take for content marketing to work? In it, we showed traffic and conversion data from three different clients. The goal was to answer that question by studying a few examples (since there are no hard and fast answers to a question like that).
That post has been really useful — we’ve shown it to many prospective clients over the past two years to give them a sense of what to expect.
Today, two and half years later, we want to better answer that question by presenting analysis we’ve done on 20 active and former clients to see:
- How long did it take to rank articles on Page 1 and in the top 3 spots on Google for their intended keyword?
- How many leads did we generate over the first several months of our engagement?
This post is a more comprehensive, data driven analysis in answering the question “how long does it take for content marketing to work?”. It uses real results from a variety of clients at different stages of their engagement with us.
The findings from this study surprised us.
Specifically, we found that a site’s domain authority was almost a non-factor when looking at the number of articles we got to rank on Page 1 of Google for that client.
Instead, the biggest factor was simply the length of their engagement with us — in other words, just time. Specifically, we see a very clear trend where almost no articles enter the first page of Google until month 5.
Below, we discuss why we think that is. Specifically, we’re not saying that domain authority or backlinks aren’t at all a factor in SEO — we’ve seen clear improvements in rankings from link building and are investing in it heavily for our clients — but rather, that the particular content strategy we use seems to work for sites of almost any domain authority, from 20 to 80 (in Ahrefs’ Domain Rating scale).
We think the SEO concept of “topical authority” is at play here, which we discuss below.
Time Is the #1 Factor to Ranking on the First Page of Google
First, we plotted the number of articles ranking on page 1 of Google as a function of length of the engagement with us (number of months we’ve worked together).
Each blue dot represents a single client.
Where they are on the horizontal axis (x-axis) shows how long they’ve been working with us. Where they are on the vertical axis (y-axis) shows how many of the posts we’ve written for them are ranking on the first page for their target keyword.
The most fundamental takeaway is that there is a clear overall trend: The longer they’ve been working with us, the more blog posts that are ranking on the first page.
That may seem obvious, but it’s not. Backlinks and domain authority are often hailed as the holy grails of SEO and you could easily make an argument that a site’s domain authority should be a bigger factor than time. Our data suggests otherwise.
Second, we have to control for the number of pieces we’ve published for the client.
(Because otherwise you could argue that someone working with us for two years obviously has more posts on page one of Google, since they have more posts published, period.)
So, below, we’ve controlled for that by dividing the number of posts on page 1 by how many posts we’ve produced for that client, to get a metric we can call Page 1 Rankings Per Post. Interestingly, you can still see the same trend:
(Aside: Yes, this number can be greater than 1 because some posts rank for multiple target keywords.)
The fact that this graph shows the same trend as the first one means that clients that have been with us for over a year aren’t ranking on Page 1 for more terms simply because they have more posts published, it’s that each post is more likely to be on page 1.
In other words, time matters. Let’s look at the specifics of how time matters.
The Bad News: It Takes 5 Months to Rank New Posts on Page 1
If we look at the first few data points in the graphs above, we see that in the first 5 months, regardless of how many posts we’ve published for a client, on average, zero of them are on page 1 for their target keywords. That’s the “bad” news.
The Good News: In About A Year, Almost Every Post Is Ranking on Page 1
The good news, though, is that around the one year mark, the client will be ranking for about the same number of keywords as posts we’ve published for them.
We publish 3 articles per month for clients, so that means in one year of working with us, they can expect to rank on the first page for 30+ high-converting keywords.
I really like how this is a tangible and specific value proposition for our agency.
We can tell a prospective client: Imagine 30 SEO keywords with high buying intent for your product — keywords that indicate that the searcher is in the market for your product or service. In a year, you’ll likely be ranking on the first page for all 30 of them.
Combined (bad news and good news), this data is fantastic for expectation setting: Client’s know what they can expect long term, but they can have realistic expectations in the short term.
We did this analysis a few months ago and we’ve already been referring to these plots routinely in client calls, showing them where we are for them relative to these agency wide stats.
Things That Don’t Seem to Matter: Industry and Domain Authority
It’s actually kind of remarkable that such different businesses follow this same trend of time-to-rank.
In this list of companies is everything from help desk software to marketing agencies to a cancer hospital. We’re talking wildly different search volumes, competitiveness of keywords, different domain authorities, different domain ages, and more.
Yes, there is variance in the data. You can see above that there’s a client 15 months in with only 0.5 first page rankings per post (21 total), versus a client 8 months in with nearly 1.5 first page rankings per post (31 total). But by and large, the trend in those graphs is undeniable.
Domain Authority Doesn’t Dictate Time to Rank
In fact, I’m actually surprised that there aren’t more outliers (like the client with 31 page 1 rankings by month 8):
Because in the SEO world, domain authority (also called “domain rating”) is often viewed as the be-all and end-all of what it takes to rank. If that were true, time (length of engagement with us) would matter less than domain authority.
But our data doesn’t support that.
To illustrate, here is the same data — the number of blog posts on Page 1 for each client — plotted as a function of Ahrefs domain rating (DR or DA, I use these terms interchangeably here) of that client, instead of length of engagement with us:
What trend do you see? I see no trend.
If you had to draw a trend line here, where would you draw it? It’s not obvious like the graphs above (that are based on length of engagement).
Yes, maybe you could argue that the data points highest up on the graph (most first page rankings) are towards the right side of the graph (highest DA), but by and large this is a scattered mess.
Let me be clear: This doesn’t mean domain authority doesn’t matter at all.
All things equal, our experience definitely tells us that a stronger backlink profile — aka a higher Ahrefs DR — helps rank faster.
Specifically, we’ve seen link building make an impact. In fact, we’ve built a ton of links to that client with a DR of 23 (left most data point on the graph above) to get it to this position (they started with a DR of only 11 when we first started working with them).
But when you compare this plot of first page articles versus DR with the previous plot (page 1 rankings as a function of time working with G&C) it’s absolutely clear that time is a bigger factor than domain authority for our client results.
So, like I said above, the “bad” news is that SEO, including our process of Pain Point SEO, takes time. Even if you have an Ahrefs DR of 70+, you’re going to need to wait roughly 6 months to get articles on the first page.
But that’s good news to the majority of sites with low domain ratings. You can rank, too! We have many clients, as per the plot above, that prove it.
Next, let’s explore why we think that is.
Key Learning: Topical Relevance Matters (A Lot)
If you’re still having trouble believing this is true (“how could domain authority not matter?!”), it’s worth emphasizing what Point Point SEO is. We aren’t going after the highest volume, most competitive keywords possible. We’re going after the keywords that have the highest buying intent for our clients.
What that means is, the keywords we go after are intimately related to the client’s product. As a result, our target keywords are extremely topically relevant for our client’s domain.
Topical relevance is the idea that Google’s algorithm doesn’t just want to rank the sites with the highest backlinks possible for every keyword, it wants to rank sites that it feels are authoritative on that topic.
This has been written about by many people in SEO — including a nice example in the Ahrefs blog looking at how a couple niche cast iron cookware sites outranked a site with way more backlinks.
We see this all the time in our work (our posts for clients outranking higher DA competitors) and I think is a key reason why our client results are more a function of time than of domain authority.
Take for example our client Cognitive FX, who we wrote about in detail in this case study.
They’re an awesome, cutting edge concussion treatment center in Utah that heals people who have been suffering from concussion symptoms for decades, but they’re not a “huge” site. Their Ahrefs domain rating is only 42.
We rank #1 for a lot of concussion keywords for them, and for most of those keywords, we are outranking many medical sites with higher DA.
For example, look at the page 1 results for the keyword “concussion rehabilitation”:
We are ranking #1, but we have the lowest domain rating on this list. We are ouranking sites like nih.gov with a domain rating of 93 and a page title that starts with “Rehabilitation of Concussion”, in other words almost exactly the search term.
In terms of backlinks to our specific page, we also aren’t a leader. We have 4 backlinks to that page where as the #2, #3, and #4 results have 18, 90, and 182 backlinks, respectively.
So how are we ranking #1 ahead of these sites? Topical relevance.
(Disclaimer: Of course we don’t know this for a fact. No one knows the exact “why” behind the results of Google’s search algorithm, but we can make educated guesses and we strongly believe this is true for our client results based on everything you’re reading in this post.)
Google knows that Cognitive FX’s domain is exclusively about concussions.
- The second result, Novacare, is a company that provides all kinds of medical rehabilitation services, not just concussion rehabilitation.
- The third result, the National Institute of Health’s Pubmed site, is a site with medical papers on a million different topics, not just concussions.
- The fourth result, choosept.com, is about all kinds of physical therapy, not just concussions.
Cognitive FX has way more topical relevance on concussion keywords than these sites. We’ve seen this trend over and over again, not just for Cognitive FX, but for dozens of clients.
To summarize, this doesn’t mean domain authority doesn’t matter, but it means that if you go after bottom of the funnel keywords — the keywords intimately related to your product and your space — you don’t have to worry too much about higher DA sites because you have topical relevance on your side.
If you’d like to learn more about topical relevance, check out our interview with Bernard Huang, the founder of Clearscope:
Here is a summary of relevant articles on our site about our core content strategy of going after topically relevant, bottom of the funnel keywords first:
- Pain Point SEO
- Content Ideation
- Bottom of Funnel Strategy (This is written for SaaS companies but is relevant to all.)
How Many Leads Does This Generate?
Since everything we do at G&C is about leads, this analysis wouldn’t be complete without looking at how many leads we generate for our clients.
Now, a huge caveat on leads before we look at the graphs: Unlike “ranking on the 1st page of Google” which is (1) clearly defined and (2) means the same thing for every company, leads are not the same thing for every company.
- For some companies, a “lead” means a free trial signup.
- For others, it’s a demo request.
- For others, it’s a sales form fill.
These all have dramatically different price points, conversion rates, and values to the business. (Note: We almost never define leads as content downloads, as explained more in this old but largely still relevant post.)
Me laying out all of these disclaimers means it’s a bit dubious to compare “leads generated” across 20 companies when the lead goal is different for the 20 companies. Nonetheless, we can learn something by looking at the data.
Here is a graph of leads generated as a function of length of engagement with us:
First, we see a loose trend that we expect: the longer you work with us, the more leads we generate. But more importantly, if we zoom in on just the early stage companies:
We can see that G&C content is generating multiple leads a month for our clients in the first 6 months, even when there are nearly 0 pages ranking on page 1 (as per the graphs at the beginning of this post).
How is that possible?
The #1 reason is that we don’t just rely on SEO, we also use paid promotion to drive targeted traffic to our client’s blog posts. We discussed this shift back in 2020 here.
Since then, we’ve refined that process, which used to be based primarily on Facebook Ads to also include Twitter Ads and Google Ads. These channels routinely generate leads for clients from blog posts in the first 6 months of the engagement.
For example, for a video-related SaaS company, we published a piece explaining their founding story and promoted it on Twitter. In the first 3 months of the engagement, our Twitter ads promotion of that one founding story generated 17 leads.
(If you’re curious: It took almost 1,000 pageviews from Twitter ads at an average CPC of $1.09 to generate those 17 leads. That’s an average cost per lead of $64.)
As another example, for a sister company of Cognitive FX in Utah (still in the concussion space), we promoted a post on Google Ads, spent $307, got 52 pageviews, and generated 12 leads in its first three months — a cost per lead of $26.
This is a great way to validate that your content can and will generate leads before you wait for it to rank in Google.
Our hope is that this post helps you better set expectations for your own content marketing. In short:
- Rankings take time. If you want massive traffic, rankings, and leads in 3 months, this is not the right channel.
- Long term potential is awesome. Imagine ranking on the first page for 30 of your highest buying intent keywords in a year from now.
- Don’t stress about your domain authority. Go after keywords that are in your topic area and closely related to your product and service.
- Paid promotion can supplement SEO, especially in the early months before you’re ranking for much.
If you want to learn how to execute content marketing like this yourself, you can check out our content marketing course and community, where we teach our exact process extensively, including lots of detail and examples not found on this blog. We also interact and discuss content marketing with community members, including monthly Zoom calls where we answer questions and give feedback on the specific scenarios, keyword strategies, and even blog posts of community members.
If you want us to execute our process on your business, as a client, you can learn more about our service here.
Questions or comments? Ask away below!