Summary: After doing SEO freelancing for a year, I learned important skills and gained invaluable experience in selecting clients, estimating work load, negotiating payment, measuring success, establishing processes, succeeding in the short-term and long-term, and perhaps most importantly, in learning to follow my heart.
Background Motivation to Do a Side Hustle
In 2018, we hit a financial rough spot in which my family had several thousand dollars of unexpected expenses within a one month period. My car broke down and that cost $2,500 to repair and the family van had a $1,000 repair for some weird electrical problem. The water heater in our house burst and it was over $1,000 to replace. The upstairs bathroom shower faucet broke and it started leaking into the kitchen—another $1,000 to repair. And there were several other items that I do not now recall.
My daughter was approaching her 16th birthday and we had been saving up money so she could have my old car to drive and then I was planning to buy myself a new (used) car. But all of a sudden, virtually all the money we had been saving to buy a new car was gone, and that’s when I thought I should look into doing some freelancing to make some extra money. By profession, I am a digital analytics manager who has a lot of experience managing websites and performing search engine optimization (SEO). I thought I could make some time for digital marketing consulting, maybe 10 or 15 hours a week, by working nights and weekends.
Selecting a Freelance Website
My first item of business was finding somewhere to get freelance work. Years ago, I had hired a freelancer through Upwork.com, so that was my first destination when I began looking to do freelance work. Honestly, I didn’t do as much research as I should have when it came to selecting which freelance website company to work through. I picked Upwork because they were the most prominent freelance website I was aware of. In retrospect, I would have researched the competition (like Fiverr.com and Freelancer.com) to compare fees and terms of service.
Signing up with Upwork, searching for and securing my first freelance gig cost me nothing. But once I began working, I was shocked that Upwork charged a 20% fee on every dollar I billed my client, though that fee did go down to 10% after the first $500 billed. Even more shocking, though, was Upwork’s user agreement which states that freelance/client relationships made through their website must use their system to complete payment transactions FOR 2 YEARS. That means, if you connect with someone through Upwork, you agreed that you will pay Upwork their service fees for two years for all work done. That seems like an outrageously long time to me, so be aware of that going in.
Lesson Learned #1: Do competitive research of fees and terms of service of freelance websites before signing up and making an agreement with a client so you know beforehand exactly what to expect.
Finding My First Freelancing Gig
As I browsed the digital marketing related freelance gigs that I was qualified for, SEO ones where the most prevalent. I submitted my application to several of them. I had no idea how hard or easy it would be to get hired for one of these gigs, and like any job application, the hard part was taking the time to write a thoughtful, persuasive application letter even when you don’t know the likelihood that they’ll select you. But it had to be done. And then there was they issue of what hourly rate to charge. I checked out the competition and there are a lot of SEOs on the platform with low fees, along with a smaller number of ones with high fees. I ended up picking an hourly rate that was lower than what I wanted, but I felt I needed to do that to be competitive as I was getting my feet wet in the world of freelance SEO work. I thought that once I was established, it would be easier to get work at a higher rate.
A month or so went by without getting selected for an interview, and I was beginning to think this was a waste of my time, when one day I got asked to have a phone interview for one of the jobs. The phone interview went well, and I was soon offered the job. I had some debate with the client about whether the gig would be paid by the job or by the hour. I was pretty firm on doing it by the hour, as I didn’t want to get stuck in a commitment to do work that could drag on for a long time and thus diminish my hourly rate. The client was okay with me tracking the hours and paying by the hour, so we moved forward with an official agreement through the Upwork website.
Lesson Learned #2: Be patient in finding the right gig for you and it could lead to a great long-term working relationship, as you will see was the case for me.
I should also mention that the client asked if we could do the payments outside the Upwork website, thus avoiding their fees, as well as avoiding Upwork’s incredibly poorly designed user interface. It was an tempting offer, but knowing the Upwork User Agreement terms, I had to insist on using Upwork’s prescribed time tracking and payment system. I don’t think the client was trying to break the rules, they were just unaware and when I said I felt it was best to honor the Upwork terms of service, the client was fine with that, and so we moved forward.
Lesson Learned #3: Be prepared in case your client asks to pay you outside the freelance website and know how you will respond. It’s against the terms of most of the sites. Honesty is the best policy.
Analysis, Plan of Action and Understand Client’s Business
The client who hired me was a small digital marketing agency, which for anonymity’s sake, was run by a woman I will call Molly. We had agreed that I would put in about 10 or 15 hours a week, and Molly asked me to split my time between two of her clients which I’ll call Website A and Website B. I dove right into analyzing the SEO performance of the two websites, as well as diving into the Google Analytics to understand how the sites were performing overall. By the end of the first month, I had presented my SEO and web analytics findings to Molly and the website owners, and offered my recommendations for improvement and suggested next steps.
Website A and B were both the online home for small technology companies, and both companies used their website as a major source of sales and lead generation. Website A got a couple thousand visits per week, while Website B, a smaller niche business, was getting a couple hundred visits per week. Both sites had good things going for them in terms of branding, content, and design, but both were also lacking some basic SEO best practices such are optimized titles tags, meta descriptions, H1 headlines, interlinking, and more. Both sites also had an information architecture (IA) and main menu lacking in high-value SEO keywords.
With both sites, I should mention that it took several conversations with the site owners to really understand their business, the products and services offered, as well as their target audience. It was particularly difficult to grasp the business model of Website B, the more niche business, but once I did, a course of action to make the content resonate better with their audience and with search engines became clear. And thus far, the freelancing was going very smoothly—I was enjoying the work and earning a little extra income, everything I had hoped for.
Lesson Learned #4: In scoping out SEO freelancing projects, be sure to bake into your estimates time to get to know the company, target audience, products and services. Having a well-rounded understanding of the business will make you a better SEO consultant.
Performance Measuring and SEO Results for Website A and Website B
Over the next couple of months, we implemented the course of action I had laid out to improve the SEO, usability, and conversion rates of the two websites. Both sites were built on WordPress, a website content management system (CMS) that I am very familiar with, so I was quite comfortable not only developing the strategy, but executing it as well. While the freelance contract had been for SEO services, it was clear that the website owners wanted help in many other aspects of their web presence and digital marketing. At the end of the day, I knew the website owners would only be happy if the increase in organic web traffic led to more leads and more website visitors turning into buying customers. Therefore, in addition to SEO tasks, many of my efforts were also around landing page optimization, reducing bounce rates, improving conversion rates, cleaning up web analytics tracking and reporting, and doing other digital marketing tasks.
Lesson Learned #5: Nobody wants to rank for rankings sake. SEO consulting isn’t just about improving the website’s placement in search results, it’s about improving the volume of target audience visits and quality leads.
As part of the performance measurement plan, I put together a Google Data Studio report with some of the high-level SEO and website stats which I reviewed weekly with the website owners. The report served to benchmark prior website performance as well as communicate how my SEO efforts were paying off. This was important as a freelance consultant as I wanted the clients to know where the key performance indicators (KPIs) had been and how my efforts had improved them.
Within a month of implementing our first changes on the websites, we began to see some small improvements in the amount of organic search traffic to the sites as well as improvements in the conversion rate of visitors. After three or four months, Website A had doubled in traffic and with conversion rates doubling as well, the owner saw a four-fold increase in leads. And they were good leads too, many of them turning into paying customers. With Website B, the results were positive, but less dramatic as Website A, with traffic increasing by about 50% and slightly better conversion rates.
Lesson Learned #6: I already knew this, but it was reinforced that freelancers should always benchmark the SEO and website performance prior to their engagement as well as establishing regular reporting to communicate improvements in KPIs.
Overall, the owners of Website A and B were very pleased with the results, as was Molly who was thrilled to have such happy clients herself. It was then that I began to more fully realized how valuable my skill set was. I began to think that I had sold myself short with the low hourly rate I set at first, and I began to wonder if I should raise my rate. I also began to wonder if I should consider expanding the time I spent freelancing to see if it could turn into a legitimate full-time business for me.
Asking for a Pay Raise
At about this point in my relationship with Molly, I thought it was a good time to ask for an increase in my hourly rate. I had been doing the freelance SEO work for around six months and I had been trying for months to find the right time to bring up the topic. For someone of my personality, this is a difficult thing to ask for, but I was glad I finally did it. I asked for a substantial increase because I knew I didn’t want to do this again. Molly clearly didn’t want to lose me, but the increased rate was difficult for her to take. She made a counter proposal and I accepted it and we moved on—it seemed like a win for both of us.
Lesson Learned #7: Do research so you can price yourself right from the get go, but don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of your hourly rate. And, of course, it is best to have some success under your belt before asking for a pay raise.
Taking on a Third and Fourth Website for My Client
With the success of Website A and B, my client, Molly, asked if I thought I could take on additional clients of hers. I had been averaging about 8 or 10 hours a week on the freelancing work, and due to my full-time job and family constraints, I told her there was no way I could put in more hours. She said she would be bringing on additional junior SEO freelancers, though, and wondered if I could step back and play a more strategic role. I would continue to complete analysis and set strategies, but the more junior SEOs would do the work of executing the tactics. I had been enjoying all the work I was doing for Molly and wanted to continue to expand my professional relationship with her and her agency so I decided to go for it.
Website C and D, did not turn out as well as A and B, for a variety of reasons. And though we didn’t see much SEO success with these two websites, I did learn many important lessons about freelance and agency work. Website C was owned and operated by some people who were very difficult to work with. Whereas the owners of Websites A and B were open to almost all of our ideas, the managers of Website C pushed back against a great many of our proposals. Ironically, they still demanded results even though they wouldn’t follow our recommendations. It was a difficult situation, and certainly above my freelancer pay grade. Thankfully Molly handled most of those end-client relationships, though this company didn’t remain a client for long.
Lesson Learned #8: Be selective about clients. From my perspective, no amount of money is worth it if the person you are working with is unreasonable and they make your life miserable.
Lesson Learned #9: Know yourself, your strengths, and your preferences. For me, if I ever go into business for myself doing digital marketing consulting or start my own agency, I want a business partner who will handle client relationships. It’s not my forte.
The managers of Website D, contrary to Website C, were very nice to work with. Like Websites A and B, Website D had a lot of log hanging fruit with regard to optimizing page titles, meta data, headlines, call-to-action buttons, and other content. Also like the others, an information architecture overhaul was implemented to put the topics that matter most to users higher up in the menu structure. But despite our efforts, and to my surprise, after a month or two, the organic search volume didn’t budge.
On top of the lack of SEO results, it seemed like each week we were uncovering unusual and unexpected issues with the website. Their WordPress implementation was outdated, with problematic plugins, and content was in disarray. On top of that, the site managers had been making changes to their homepage and other page without communicating it to us and in some cases messing up the SEO. The company had Google display ads running, and running very inefficiently, sending thousands of unqualified visitors to their site weekly. And they had three instances of Google Analytics on their site, so we wondered about the validity of any of the data we were looking at. The more we worked with the website, the more oddities and technical debt we seemed to uncovered.
Lesson Learned #10: Evaluate the state of the website backend before beginning optimization work and build into the scope of work plenty of time to do clean up. If the back end is in disarray, it can put a major hamper on optimization efforts.
Problems in Working with an Expanding Team of Freelancers
In addition to the problems with clients and client websites, as I had expanded my case load to handle four websites, the working model of me being the senior SEO strategist with the assistance of junior SEO freelancers was having bumps of its own. I began each website engagement with my normal thorough analysis, and then made a to-do list of things for the junior SEO to do. Unfortunately, the other freelancer was not accustomed to my way of communication and didn’t understand many of the tasks I gave her. Many of the important tasks went undone or were done the wrong way or simply in a way I was not accustomed to.
This particular junior SEO was used to going through a checklist as she gave a website an SEO tune up, while I, on the other hand, wasn’t accustomed to working in such a rigid process. I quickly began to see the benefits of the checklist, however. Though a list like that cannot cover every aspect of SEO, what it did cover was good SEO practices. And I realized the checklist allowed her to get much of the low hanging fruit, freeing me up to do deeper analysis and uncover issue less likely to turn up in a standardized checklist. In fact, I decided that a checklist could be a great tool in doing the initial analysis of a client and their website. Eventually, we worked out many of the kinks in our internal process and we began working together better.
Lesson Learned #11: It takes times to learn to work well with someone, so make time for it and don’t take teamwork for granted.
Lesson Learned #12: While checklists can be mechanical, rote, and less-than-comprehensive for qualitative evaluations, they can still be a helpful, time-saving tool, and a good way to delegate and a make sure you don’t forget anything.
Realizing the Freelance Work is Stretching Me Too Thin
After several months of working on Websites C and D, neither was showing much SEO progress, and the great progress we has seen in Website A and B was slowing down. Furthermore, I was personally being stretched incredibly thin trying to keep up on all the freelancing work while at the same time trying not to fall behind in my full-time day job and balancing the demands of a large family. While I had thoroughly enjoyed the freelance work for the first six or eight months of doing it, in the most recent months, I began to dread the work more and more. I have almost no free time as it is, and what little spare time I had was filled with the freelance work. I felt like I was not dedicating the time I should have to my wife and kids, yet we were all enjoying the extra income. The extra income allowed us to buy that third car for my daughter to drive, which was a huge benefit to my wife who no longer had to take her to and from school and other activities.
Molly must have noticed that I was being stretched thin, and she suggested I hand off Website C and D to another freelancer, and return to dedicating myself wholly to Websites A and B. We made that transition, but I continued to be weary of the workload. I was taking on more responsibilities at my full-time job, and it became increasing apparent that I needed to spend more time with my family. I didn’t want to lose the extra income, but my health and my family were more important.
After nearly a year of doing the freelance gig, I happened to be on a family vacation. It’s always nice to have time off, but I particularly enjoyed the freedom from the demands of the freelance work. I dreaded getting back to real life and starting up with the SEO freelance work again. It was then that I realized that it was time to be done with the freelancing. When I made the mental decision to stop doing the freelance work, a feeling of peace and comfort (a feeling that I have learned comes from the Spirit of God) came over me letting me know that it was right. When I got home, I gave Molly notice that I could no longer do freelance work for her. She respected my decision, I wrapped up and handed off my projects, and we parted ways.
Lesson Learned #13: Trust in the feelings God puts into your heart and do as He prompts you. Decisions may be difficult, but the Lord is watching out for you, and will give you confidence to move forward.
It was a great experience to do freelancing for a year. I had many successes and also several failures, and in the process I learned much, as I have pointed out in the lessons learned above. I was able to accomplish my goal of earning some extra money to get a third car for our growing family. And in the process of freelancing, I learned skills and gained experience that will help me throughout my ongoing career, whether that continues in the in-house corporate SEO world or if it evolves into future consulting, agency work, or even freelancing again. While the time is not right to keep doing SEO freelancing right now, the time could be right again in the future. And if that time comes, I’ll be much more prepared.