The Simple Guide to Freelance SEO the Succesful Way
Patrick Altoft of Blogstorm recently wrote a piece about succeeding as an SEO freelancer. While I like Patrick very much, I even got my writing job at SEOptimise with his help, I partly do not agree with his advice. Patrick's way is often the hard way. Also he suggests that working for big corporate clients is the way to go. It's the most annoying way IMHO. Thus I'd like to present the simple guide to freelance SEO the successful way. This way works for me.
I've been doing freelance SEO and business blogging for 8 years now. Before that I was a freelancing web developer. So I'm not new to the in and outs of freelancing. I started out working in a web agency back then in the so called New economy so I also know about that.
OK, here is te actual advice in a somehow chronological order. I begin with the things you have to know and do when you start freelancing in SEO and beyond.
Rank first offer SEO services later
As an SEO you simply have to rank either for SEO related terms or at least for other keywords you've been optimizing before you offer SEO services. In the good old days you would try to rank for SEO or search engine optimization itself but nowadays it's way too hard for starters.
You could try to rank for your local SEO market, something like [seo london] as a keyphrase. You need to rank first before you talk with people about SEO services. You have to show them something you've done already.
Do not aproach potential clients, let them approach you
In case you already rank for some relevant keyphrases you might already get some people calling you up or emailing you. Then you're already on the way. Do not cold call. You only annoy people and get frustrated. Cold calling is simply rude. Also try not to reply to freelance job offers like "200 links for $19" needed. These people have no clue what quality SEO is and you can earn more money flipping burgers. You're better of optimizing your own site until you get enough people contacting you.
Get a name brand for yourself instead of being generic
I pity all those nameless drones from India and elsewhere who have to optimize for [seo india]. Only a few people or rather companies can rank on top and everybody else doesn't get any significant visibility. By now it's far easier to get attention if you have a name, a personal brand or any kind of brand. There are a few SEO bloggers from India who have already outrun millions of nameless Indians. Branding is the way to go. Become a keyphrase yourself people search for.
Never call yourself an expert or company (when you're not)
It's funny how most SEO noobs with no name attempt to optimize for [seo expert]. That's ridiculous. Either you already are an expert and people call you an expert and by then you don't need to optimize for that phrase or you are not an expert and try to rank for this generic phrase.
You have to understand that calling yourself an expert makes you actually a noob.
I also doubt that you ever get a good client this way. Those who mistake you for a real SEO expert do not have a clue what SEO is about. Also don't pretend that you're a company when you're a freelancer. I don't buy the "fake it til you make it" thing. You'll always encounter problems when you fake it. You even may have legal problems with this approach.
Focus on niches not everybody covers
SEO is a thousand things today. It may be local SEO, mobile SEO, multilingual SEO, AJAX SEO, ecommerce SEO. Plus usability, information architecture, content marketing and a plethora of other disciplines. You can't do everything and you can't compete against too many people. You have to specialize. In case you start out these days you have to focus on a niche to survive.
While you focus on a niche you still have to aim high. I aimed to become one of the most important SEO bloggers worldwide and I made it. I'll probably never match the likes of Rand Fishkin, Aaron Wall or Michael Gray but for being late and not even speaking perfect English it's huge. I would have never reached that goal without trying. Also I've seen people starting later, being younger but still getting even better results even in more competitive niches. So aim high, don't limit yourself.
Blog about yourself and what you do
A blog is the best SEO tool these days. Maybe video or something else will be soon but without a blog you're like a store without a store front. Some people claim that being a SEO superstar for the sake of it is no goal for itself. They may be right but in the attention economy only those few get attention we already trust. Or at least those who get trusted by others. Without a blog people don't know you. How can they trust a complete stranger?
Get acquainted with your peers
As a freelancer you can't compete against millions of others. It's impossible. Your peers, even those in the same business selling exactly the same services are your friends by design. Thus I was never afraid to link out to other SEOs.
In fact linking out to my peers in the SEO industry helped a lot more than everything else.
I even got clients through them. Get acquainted with your peers. Your peers are those who are almost the same as you. Industry leaders can't answer your emails or socialize with others all the time. Freelancers similar to you can.
Support your supporters
On the Web it's all give an take like in real life. I never think about how often a person linked to me before I link to her or him. I just know this person and perceive her as a supporter. I know s/he will give attention, votes on social sites or links. So I may link this person 10 times and it's OK. Other people act like that as well. Once you are virtual supporters of each other this goes for years and both of us succeed. I always wonder why so few people try this way. I's so obvious and natural. Support your supporters and they will support you and so on.
Follow your role models
I admire people in the SEO industry and beyond who are often younger than myself. I even admire some of my peers who made it faster and better than me. I admire people for their traits. I may disagree with them but still I look up to those role models. I follow them not just on Twitter.
When you have no idea how you want to be like you're blindly following an insecure path. Follow your role models. The ways they have paved for you are better than those no one has gone before. I have many role modes in the international SEO community and I don't simply copy somebody. Make sure you stay yourself and not parrot somebody else.
Find your own way of doing business
You can follow your role models only to a certain degree. What worked for them won't necessarily for you. It was another time, another person with another skill-set. You have to identify your own strengths and weaknesses to determine what's best for you. For instance I noticed early that I'm not a perfect web developer. I taught everything myself when I was already 20 and older.
My brain just couldn't get used to very complex programming. I tried object oriented programming again and again but I never fully grasped it. Also I knew very early that I love to write so I tried to go the content way as an SEO. Back in the days it was rather the exception. To this day many people in SEO are more technically savvy than able to write.
Do not work for everybody
Freelancing means also to say "no". At the beginning I tried to get every client but it simply doesn't work that way. You have to choose your clients wisely. Also you have to shun huge and tiny clients. In German we don't say small business, we say middle-sized business. Also there is an even smaller business below that. As a freelancer you should work for middle-sized business, not big business and not other other tiny businesses or freelancers.
You can cooperate with other freelancers but working for them won't pay the bills.
Unless you work for their clients or something. Big business is awful to work for. You have to sign 10 NDAs before you even start to talk and then you have to compromise everything you do. You simply can't work the way you do usually because corporations limit everything to fit dozens of their departments. Also you're just a pawn in the game. Nobody cares for who you are and you won't even know who you work for.
At the end of the day they may not even pay you and you can't do anything about it because their lawyers will crush you. Always try to keep your integrity. For instance I never work for gambling companies and porn providers. That was particularly difficult sometimes when the cash flow was slow. It helped to get best clients I could imagine though. Right now I work my few clients for years already and they're perfect business partners.
Charge more than others instead of less
When I was new to freelancing, I did web design back then I did some websites for free for friends to have a portfolio. Later I was charging student rates for my first SEO clients. In each and every case I did this I was appalled by the way these people would treat me. They expected not only higher quality (because I was a friend) they didn't even say "thank you". Instead they would complain more often then clients who paid more.
I learned the hard way that money is a measure of respect.
When you charge only a few bucks people will always disrespect you and treat you like some servant. Charge more from the start or do your own projects. Also don't compete with SEO India providers. Compete by quality not quantity.
Venture beyond freelancing
Inherently freelancing is a bad business model. Sometimes you have work overload, sometimes you starve. You sell only your time so you can't scale. Don't get me wrong. Freelancing is far better than having a job. Wage slavery is what it is, slavery. Still as a freelancer you can get sick, you need to have time for your family or social life and you can't work 70 - 80h like in a Chinese sweatshop without burning out.
So you need to venture beyond freelancing and offering services as early as you can.
Selling a product, a book for example is a great way to do that. Affiliate marketing may work you. Any kind of your own project that earns money and works for itself even when you don't attend it for a few days is key to overcome the otherwise never ending work cycle.
Of course in many cases Patrick is right. After all you need to find our own way of being a freelancer. Pick what works for you but keep in mind that you can fare better by avoiding the issues many others faced before you. SEO freelancing is similar to other subjects for that matter.
This is a really simple guide for SEO freelancers but I have written about freelancing before and I most probably will again in the future so stay tuned.
* Creative Commons image Guiding Light by jurvetson
Last updated: May 16th, 2012.