Before you attempt to rank a website on Google, it’s important to set the right goals and expectations. The right tools amplify an SEO professional’s efforts, and one of these tools, Ahrefs, surfaces a lot of really useful data to help you figure out how long it could take to show up on the first page of searches for a given keyword.
In this article, I’ll show you how to estimate how long it would take to rank your client for a keyword. I’m going to use examples and walk you through everything step by step.
Let me start with some context. As co-founder of SEO agency Logic Inbound, a very important part of our sales process is scoping projects correctly. My objective with SEO services is to move client’s websites from nowhere on Google, up to page 4, up to page 3, 2, and all the way to page 1 of Google searches. The further back they are in the searches, the more work it’ll take to get them up there.
I need a reliable system to scope out SEO projects because I want to price them correctly for our clients. If they’re in a competitive keyword, we need to set the right expectations up front. Ahrefs is one of the best tools in the industry for useful SEO data. We use it to determine the level of effort needed on our side and set the correct expectations for the client.
For this guide, I’m looking at it from a client SEO perspective. My objective is to rank businesses for keywords that will bring them customers. However, you can apply the same process to your own personal projects. For example, affiliates websites, e-commerce stores or lead generation sites.
I’m going to use a hypothetical client for this blog post to talk about everything with examples. I personally really enjoy reading reviews that walk through real world scenarios. It helps you clearly understand something from the writer’s perspective
Commonly we’ll work with a client who might be on the 3rd page of Google for their main keyword, or maybe even further back. If they’re a new company, they won’t be ranking at all.
Now, I’ll pick a local business who fits that description and use their real site to guide you through my review.
Let’s say we’re talking about a heating and cooling (HVAC) company. I’ll search “Seattle HVAC repair” just to pick someone out of the 3rd or 4th page.
Looks like a good example to work with. I verified that they are an authentic company in Seattle. This means that rankings for ‘seattle HVAC repair’ would be really valuable for them because that’s one of their main services.
SEO Competitor Analysis Guide for Ahrefs.com
After I know the client’s main keyword I want to get an idea of how their competitors are doing when it comes to SEO. Are competitors actively building links to their website? Does their on site / on page strategy seem professional or is it amateur? At the end of the day: “How long before I rank on the first page?”
To answer these questions, I start by typing their keyword into Ahrefs.com keyword explorer and scrolling down the page to the ‘SERP Overview’ section.
There’s a lot of information here, but I’m only focusing on a few important metrics.
How significant are ‘seed sites’ in the search results? Websites with ‘AR’ or “Ahrefs rank” under 100k are most likely large national websites or seed sites. Google really trusts these sites and often ranks their pages based only on on-page factors and domain authority.
In this real world example: Yelp, Home Advisor, or Porch are the only 3 seed sites on page 1. The other 7 are real direct competitors
I want to clear that up before I look at link metrics for the pages in the search results. You can see that the Yelp page ranks number 1 even though Ahrefs says it has zero links.
Analyze the competition’s link metrics to figure out which, if any, are deliberately “doing SEO”
I want to check the top 5 local competitors to look at their chart of ‘referring domains.’ This tells me how many new, unique websites are linking to their site every month.
I’m only going to check the true local competitors because sites like Yelp are ranking purely from internal links and domain authority.
Let’s start the analysis with GreenwoodHeating.com.
Ranking #2 for “Seattle HVAC Repair” — GreenwoodHeating.com
Greenwoodheating.com isn’t really increasing their links or losing them. This company seems like a well known local brand. Their website seems to naturally pick up links from up and coming directories and other local authorities. Ahrefs predicts their website traffic from organic search and predicts that they haven’t really increased their traffic year over year.
When you’re analyzing Ahrefs data, take the values (like 1176 per month) with a massive grain of salt, but consider the trends (like: flat for last 12 months) very seriously
Most of the time, if a company isn’t doing any deliberate SEO, their referring domains will simply decay over time, due to ‘link rot’. Wikipedia explains that about 5 to 10 percent of all links on the internet will ‘die’ for whatever reason (domain expires, server gets hacked, website crashes etc.).
Without any external information, and only looking at this graph, I’ll assume that Greenwood Heating is doing some ‘light’ SEO or otherwise amateur SEO. Maybe they’re writing blog posts, which will naturally attract links from aggregators or other blogs.
Note: When I’m scoping out a project price, I won’t usually spend time checking out their blog unless we’re also discussing a content marketing budget.
Now let’s look at another competitor, FischerHeating.com.
Ranking #4 for “Seattle HVAC Repair” — FischerHeating.com
Fischerheating.com is progressively increasing the number of referring domains every month. You can see that it really picked up around late 2016 and it’s been increasing ever since. This website wasn’t even “on the radar” as of July 2015, so someone must be working to really deliberately increase their rankings.
If I’m talking to Complete HVAC (my hypothetical prospective client) about this, I’ll emphasize that their competitor is working hard every month to maintain their top positions.
This means that Complete HVAC should plan to keep us on for a retainer after completing their initial SEO project to get to page 1 for their main keywords. If they stop service after hitting the first page, they will most likely suffer the same effects of link rot that you can see with Greenwood Heating, who will probably lose their top spot within the next year or two.
When you look at their ‘traffic’ estimates in Ahrefs the line is strangely flat. Most likely, Ahrefs is just inaccurate here, but if they really haven’t seen more traffic in the last 12 months, then there are two possible explanations that come to mind.
First, they’re building a lot of links, so it’s possible those links are low-quality links or maybe ‘over optimized’. Another possibility is they’ve screwed up their ‘on site’ optimizations or they have other issues with their website. After taking a glance at their backlinks in Ahrefs database, it looks like most of their newest links are actually redirects from another local HVAC domain (maybe their older brand?). Some of the other links are either local directories. The only potentially problematic links would be some of the low-quality blogs that link to their site with exact match anchor text.
If we signed on Complete HVAC as a client I would take a deeper look at the backlink data for fisherheating.com. Both to identify link building opportunities (niche directories, seed sites) and if they had quality local links, we might do outreach to the same bloggers to include our own client.
Let’s make a point to remember FischerHeating.com when we look at the other metrics. They seem to be on the way up so they’re the “real” competition for these keywords.
Next, let’s examine EvergreenHomeHeatingAndEnergy.com.
Ranking #5 for “Seattle HVAC Repair” — EvergreenHomeHeatingAndEnergy.com
Evergreen Home Heating is another competitor who seems to really be ‘doing SEO’. Their referring domains are increasing over time, and their traffic recently came back up too.
Not much else to talk about here, they seem to be doing things generally correctly when it comes to links. They’re pretty similar to Fischer Heating, except their referring domains are steadily increasing over time, as opposed to just more recently.
Now I’d like to look at another site, seattle-furnace.com.
Ranking #6 for “Seattle HVAC Repair” — seattle-furnace.com
Seattle Furnace looks like they started an SEO project back in December and cut it off after 1 month when they didn’t get see results.
I checked their rankings for other keywords, and they’re on page 2 for a lot of keywords. It seems like they stopped working on it right before they were about to hit page 1.
In fact, their rankings fell off even more in mid-March, around the time of the recent batch of Google updates.
If I was pitching this company, I would talk about starting their first month simply doing penalty recovery. I would look at their backlinks to see if they have any low quality or over-optimized links that should be disavowed.
Since I’m pretty sure they had a bad experience with a previous SEO company, that tells me they already know what they want, so our biggest challenge for the sale would be the ‘trust’ factor — as opposed to explaining why they would want SEO.
Other than that, not much to talk about here. Next up is BobsHeating.com.
Ranking #8 for “Seattle HVAC Repair” — BobsHeating.com
Notice, this is a specific page that’s ranking instead of their homepage: https://www.bobsheating.com/seattle-wa-heater-and-air-conditioning-service-and-repair/. That tells me that they’re really thinking about on-site optimization, to make sure that there’s a relevant page for my exact search terms.
Looking at their referring domains curve and their organic traffic it looks like they’re doing some really deliberate SEO. Notice that they rank for 3.5k keywords — that’s more than the best ranking website (greenwoodheating.com). They also have the highest estimated organic traffic.
I checked their site and they have a footer ‘sitemap’ link which reveals they’ve built out location pages for all the major cities in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties. Their location pages follow the same format, with all the same headings, only changing their location (seattle wa vs bellevue wa). The rest of the inner content and images are totally original to each location page. They would probably pass Copyscape, but I have not tested them.
Normally I wouldn’t suggest to a client to build out these kinds of location pages, because they might think it’s sort of spammy. It’s easier to convince a client they need location pages when their competitor’s pages already rank.
Location pages can be beautiful. It’s not that much design effort to create one location page template using a the divi builder or any other wordpress page builder plugin.
BobsHeating.com is another competitor I would keep an eye on while I’m working on Complete HVAC.
So how long would it take to rank on Google for Seattle HVAC Repair?
At the end of the day, that’s as ‘deep’ as most people want to get into the analysis.
A good answer would be 9 to 15 months for this specific client.
We would build out their website with all the appropriate pages and finish their on-site project in the first month. From there it’s a matter of sticking to a reasonable link velocity (rule of thumb: 5 links per page per month) until we exceed their competition. In general, they would rank on the first page for their keywords after doing all of this.
Sometimes we can rank websites on the first page of Google in as little as 2 or 3 months. Maybe making those on site changes in the first month is all it would take to get them to page 1. For example, if the website already has lots of good links, and more than their competitors.
However, it’s much better to set long term expectations. There’s always variance when it comes to Google. For example, maybe we thought it would take 6 months but it really ends up taking 9 months or even a year for whatever reason.
It’s a good practice to UNDER promise and OVER deliver.
Most SEO agencies, especially the overseas variety are happy to ‘churn and burn’ customers.
We found that it’s much better to have successful clients who go on to refer more clients after they get awesome results ahead of schedule.
Happy customers love to work with us at Logic Inbound to produce case studies, record testimonial videos, and refer us to their professional network.
I hope this guide has been helpful for you. Whether you’re doing client SEO or working on your own projects, this practice has helped me quickly plan out how much effort it would take to rank for something.
This article is part of a series of guides for using Ahrefs in the real world. More guides for Ahrefs are currently being written. To get them as they are released please follow Seattle Search Network on social media:
If you’d like me to take a look at your website or SEO project and provide some feedback, please free to reach out. My email address is hayk (at) logicinbound.com and I’m always happy to answer questions.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this post to learn how to use your competitor’s backlinks to improve your own keyword rankings.