10 SEO Freelancing Lessons I’ve Learned After 1250 Hours Tracked On UpWork

Elvis Malkic

"Jack of all trades"would describe him the best. He is
Growth Hacker at Kontist.com, Content Marketer at ahrefs.com Sales and SEO Geek, Multilingual Content Creator, and Freelancer in all things Marketing. He writes with passion and brutal honesty about Freelancing, Startups, Marketing, SEO, and Sales. If you like his writing, feel free to connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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    Getting started as a Freelancer is bound to be a “try and fail” experience.

    It is hard to get the first clients, even harder to keep them long term happy.

    In a recent survey (feel free to contribute), which I created for freelancers, the one thing that freelancers hated the most was the uncertainty.

    You can have a month in which you make $10,000 income and afterwards 3 months without work.

    Or, you can feel too stressed with clients reluctant to pay or expecting wonders where no wonders are possible.

    This is the freelance life. So adapt with it and learn to control it.

    3 Years Freelancing. 0 Days Without A Contract.

    In my time freelancing on Odesk / UpWork, I successfully billed 1250 hours on tracker, and multiple fixed price projects.

    workours upwork

    I handled almost every SEO related job on the planet:

    The tips I will share with you are something, I wish someone had shared with me before I started freelancing.

    It would have saved me a lot of time, nerves and struggle during the past 3 years.

    So here are…

    10 Simple Steps To Make Your Freelance Life Easier:

    1. Don’t be afraid to fire clients

    There will always be clients that are impossible to work with. They have unrealistic expectations, don’t want to pay enough, are requesting your phone number and then call you, or send you sms at any time of the day.

    It goes so far that they even try to emotionally blackmail you so you do more work for no pay.

    If you run in such employers, the sooner you quit the contract the better.

    Whatever such employer pays is not enough to justify the stress they create.

    2. Don’t accept working without a contract, or payment outside UpWork

    While the 10% service fee might sound as a lot, a client running away with 100% of the agreed sum is way worse.

    And I know people who got scammed this way for 2,000 USD and more.

    The worst case scenario if you accept work outside of UpWork is that UpWork figures it out and locks your account.

    In this case, your profile and portfolio are worth nothing since you can not apply for work on their platform anymore.

    3. Inform yourself about taxation laws in your country

    The government wants money, and generating income online is no excuse not to pay taxes.

    Contact the tax office and get all the necessary documentation when you start working as a freelancer.

    For US citizens UpWork is providing the necessary tax documentation, including a 1099-K form for freelancers who earn more than $20,000 per year, payment per client confirmation and W-2 forms for employee classified freelancers.

    If you are an US based freelancer, please visit the IRS website for more information about the necessary documentation.

    Non-US freelancers are asked to fill out the W8-BEN form, which confirms that they are not US taxpayers.

    4. Prevent being sued by clients

    Errare Humanum Est” — To err is human.

    It can easily happen that you give a client a bad advice when working with so many unknowns as in SEO.

    This will for sure result in a traffic loss, which means also a financial loss for the client.

    Patrick Coombe created an awesome list of “should have insurances” for  SEO consultants in the US.

    Some of those should be applicable in your country as well.

    You can find the list here:  Types of Insurances for SEO consultants

    5. Write a unique cover letter for each job application

    Read every job post attentively, as there may be some tricky requirements preventing spam applications:

    cover letter anti spam

    If you fail to meet these requirements, your application will most probably not be read.

    Additionally, addressing the employer by name, giving a proper introduction about yourself and your work, giving feedback or free tips for the website in your application gives you extra bonus points and increases the chance for an interview invitation massively.

    A a great resource with tips on “How to correctly apply for a job” can be found here.

    6. Deadlines and Deliverables

    Big problems many employers have with freelancers are deadlines.

    Some are too eager to get the job, so they promise unrealistic deadlines.

    Others don’t care for the job at some point, and work just when they feel like working.

    This is your opportunity to stand out with punctuality!

    But life is unpredictable at times.

    People get sick, have family obligations, or something else happens which makes us unable to complete our projects in time.

    Make sure to inform your employer on time about it, when you expect to bust a deadline.  There is nothing worse than waiting for a job to be done, only to be informed that it will not be done at the expected time.

    Instead of working with deadlines for full projects, you can also define a set of deliverables.

    Segmenting the work allows your employer to plan other staff activities around the delivered segments and provides a better dynamic in the work relationship.

    An additional benefit of such segmented result based task definition presents itself when you face problems with the task.  In most cases problems only affect one segment, and don’t compromise the project deadline.

    7. Don’t stop learning

    To be honest, I had no clue about SEO when I just started freelancing.

    My first contact with SEO was a contract for a Swiss company which needed German speaking linkbuilders.

    I took the job, but parallel to working for the company, I had also spent a lot of time learning about SEO.

    much to learn yoda

    I read everything about Google Updates, backlink quality, anchor text diversification, ranking factors and everything I could put my hands on. I really learned a lot.

    I still have a hard time calling myself an expert.

    But I know a lot more about SEO than the average Joe. My knowledge is based on post penguin / panda “white hat” SEO, which allows me to deliver “Google safe” results for clients.

    8. Stay in touch with your coworkers

    Many freelance jobs put you in a team — a team of writers, a team of designers, and a virtual startup.

    You will meet a lot of new people.

    So keep in touch with these people!

    At some point, there will probably be a situation in which you can work with them again.

    In my case, it happened when I started getting orders for WordPress websites. I know a few good backend developers, a few good frontend ones, and great content writers.

    Connecting the dots, I managed to pull a nice extra income this year by utilizing my network and sales skills, which is pretty sweet.

    9. Focus on Work while on Timetracker

    Keep in mind that working on hourly contracts requires you to be fully focused on what you do.

    Every 10 minutes of work are billed, a screenshot is taken, and your activity level in those 10 minutes is recorded. You surely don’t want to have a screenshot of looking trough Facebook while being on tracked time.

    work diary

    This is why I say that 5 hours of freelancing are harder than 12 hours in the office.

    10. You must not promise exact traffic or ranking results

    In SEO we are subjected to the fluctuations of the Google Search Algorithm, so results of our work are unpredictable.

    If we follow the SEO best practices, we will deliver growth and avoid Google Penalties. But how strong the growth will be, or what rankings in what time period we will achieve is uncertain.

    There is a reason why I use “Must not” instead of “should not” as the title for this tip: Your clients’ happiness and satisfaction is your bread and butter.

    If you promise exact results and overachieve the client will expect you always to deliver to your promise.

    If you promise those same results and underachieve, or miss the mark by miles, due to a algorithm change, or your competition stepping up their game, you will have to explain yourself to your client, and he will certainly not be happy with the results.

    Which in the end results in a probable end of contract and a poor rating, maybe even a refund request.

    And you don’t want to have any of those.

    In short: Promise only results in which you are 100% certain.

    Bonus Tip: Making sure to always have work as a freelancer

    Since I got my son 11 months ago, being the sole provider for my family, without a financial fallback option, I started to stress myself more often about:

    What if I lose my contracts and can’t find work for months?”

    Luckily, or as a result of the fear, I managed to develop a system which allowed me to always have an open contract.

    1. I never work full time for anyone
    2. I always have at least 3 active contracts
    3. As soon as I close one contract, I start actively looking for another one.
    4. I avoid fixed price contracts as a base of my income and accept them only as bonus income.
    5. I actively build long term relationships with my employees.
    6. I always try to expand or extend the work relationship with my clients to other work, me, or my network can do.

    And this is the result of my system:


    Final advice

    In a recent talk with one of my acquaintances from inbound.org, Tom Mangan, he managed to draw the essence of “What is required to be a successful freelancer” in a few sentences.

    I can not think of anything better to share with you as a final advice for your freelance career than the following quote:

    Freelancing must be treated as a business first.

    It’s not a place to “chase your dreams,” it’s a place to provide a service in exchange for a fair pay rate.

    You must monitor your cash flow extremely closely and work extremely hard to keep your clients happy.

    You must always be marketing and always be selling, but keep this in mind: doing great work is the best sales technique, because it prevents clients from looking for somebody else to do your work, even if cheaper competitors are readily available.

    Finally, freelancing is about providing value to your clients. Once you know your value, you can negotiate the most favorable terms.

    Freelancing offers a great life, full of freedom,  if your main priority is high quality work and punctuality.

    Expect rough time and be prepared for them, especially in the beginning.

    And if you ever feel that you are struggling too much, feel free to reach out to me and I will gladly be there to help if anyhow possible.

    Feel free to share and comment, I would love to have your feedback.

    Elvis Malkic

    "Jack of all trades"would describe him the best. He is
    Growth Hacker at Kontist.com, Content Marketer at ahrefs.com Sales and SEO Geek, Multilingual Content Creator, and Freelancer in all things Marketing. He writes with passion and brutal honesty about Freelancing, Startups, Marketing, SEO, and Sales. If you like his writing, feel free to connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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    • Toni Simpsons

      I really like your post and i can identify with all you have mentioned above.
      I recently fired a client, that was my first time of doing so and i felt so relieved!!
      An example of mistake I made in my freelance work was i always want to educate my client about what am doing so that they have an idea of what to expect but in the case of the client that i fired the client wasn’t interested and doesn’t want to even take responsibility for some of his own decision that affected the project.

      Now I approach client differently, i clearly state what they can expect and i agree with you on you statement not to promise a ranking position because we all are at googles mercy.
      Great post !!

      • Elvis Malkic

        Thank you very much for this great reply. Some clients just dont deserve the time and work we invest. In many cases they go behind our back and do some stupidity like buying links from fiverr, “To boost it up a bit” (had it once or twice)… But there are also others, who understand that it is not their specialty to do SEO work, and they, in most cases just expect results, which is all you need to deliver.

        • Toni Simpsons

          Thanks Elvis for your response. We are all learning every day when it comes to dealing with clients, now i am in that place where if i sense a client is going to be a problem i pull the plug on the project, alternatively i empower them to a certain level, get paid by offering consultation.

        • Vivek Kathiriya

          Hi Elvis,

          I just find your article form Ahref newsletter. With starting its hard to find right client based on expertise, but as long as provide right quality work and be honest..then its helps to maintain long term contract as well recommend ratio goes up.

          • I love your ratio! 🙂 It is a lot of hard work to have so many satisfied clients. Great Job!

    • Pradeep Kumar

      valuable information .….…… thanks for posting

    • Babz Ward

      Thank you for this! I recently tried to fire a client I had come in contact with through another freelancing site (who insisted I did all work outside of their website, which was fine until I practically had to beg for a payment to be released). A few unfair job expectations later and I was fed up — I e-mailed the client that they would have to find a different writer to complete their projects, as I had already completed my “contracted” work (although no formal contract was made as our exchanges were through e-mail and PayPal only), and they offered me double the price for that particular task. It’s still a pretty low amount, as it was one of the first assignments I had taken on and I didn’t know how to properly value myself. (I have since begun transitioning away from that website as the tools on Upwork have taught me that, basically, I was being taken advantage of for my lack of direct freelancing experience and knowledge. I know I’m a good writer; just because I don’t have the credentials to prove it doesn’t mean I should undervalue myself and sell my work in the $2-an-hour range.)

      • It is a common issue that you have to offer work under value, if you want to build up you profile on freelancing websites in the beginning… I had no knowledge or whatsoever when I started about attracting clients outside of these platforms. So, I worked in positions which required a strong marketing knowledge and multiple languages for 8–10 USD / hour for over 15 months. Before I was fed up with it and started to learn more about personal branding and attracting clients.
        My advice for you is to create your own blog, and attract people with your writing. Find a niche and cover it, interact on business related platforms and show your knowledge. Clients come sooner than you think.

    • Oleg

      Hi Elvis. Great post. I am a freelancer from Croatia so for me it is really nice to see someone succeed from my neighbourhood. I am as well one of the top freelancers, both on Upwork (2700 hours worked, 100% success rate, score: 4.97, 35 jobs completed) and Elance (positioned at 25th place in the entire ‘Sales and Marketing’ category). Pretty good, considering that all the work I’ve done so far, I did it by myself with no other help on the site, managing the clients’ entire web presence from SEO, link building, CRO, etc. I have a few things to share myself.

      I truly believe that the first rule among all should be: ‘Never underestimate your work’, nevr lower your price. You must know how much you’re worth and start from there. When I started working as a freelancer I undertook some translating jobs (Croatian/Italian/English) and was working for a rate between $5 — $8 per hour. I was waiting for a $10-$12/hr job for months. then I started learning SEO and taking SEO jobs and same thing happened again. I was really good but, great profile but I just couldn’t get that contract. Then, one day, I talked to a friend of mine who made a great career freelancing. He gave me an advice, and this is maybe the best advice I received in my entire life. He told me to raise my hourly rate to $30 — $40 per hours (but that assumes that you are really good and can deliver to that promise). He explained this further. He told me that people in the <$15/hr range do not have the money and thus they are cheap, and always trying to negotiate a lower price. They are constantly looking over your shoulders, trying to analyze your work, pointing out your mistakes, hoping to lower the price. On the other hand, clients in the $30-$40/hr range, they have the necessary resources. They know exactly how much quality work costs. They do not try to negotiate a lower price. They just give you the assignment and expect you to deliver it as promised. Once done, they review your work and pay you. Much more pleasant people than the former ones.

      It was a life-changer. I know I was good, and that was the opportunity to prove myself. I signed up a few contracts (long term), I still do work for few such clients ()almost two years every week) and was never happier. The only downside is that it takes a month or two to find the right job. I am very picky and only take clients that can pay and that great people. But it allows me to earn great figures.

      That’s all. I really hope that this will help someone as it helped me.

      Happy freelancing!

      • Hvala! 🙂 Great advice, for me, changing my hourly rate was a game changer as well. People started to reach out, instead me chasing for them. I knew I was good, but in our economical situation, asking for hourly rates above 30 USD is still a tough step to make, we think we overprice ourselves, but instead we just get on the same level as other professionals and sell our skills for the right price.

        Thank you for this great reply

      • Hi… My Name is Ali Hossain . I’m from bangladesh . Email : fsalihossain@gmail.com Nice … Speech .… Oleg .… I’m also want to be a freelancer but still struggling both Virtual Assistant and SEO sector . I really don’t understand how I overcome from there.

      • I can only confirm everything you said and add that same “client quality jump” happens when you switch from 35 to 60/hour and so forth. I worked /w several people who charge >120/hr and each time was wondering how do they do it 🙂 They taught me that there is no “ceiling” as I imagined it before.
        So keep up the great job guys!

    • Great post, Elvis. With over 4000 hours of work and after spending 6 years of hard working as a freelancer, I don’t think there is anything that make your life easier. One thing I surely recommend everyone to never take freelancing as your ultimate source of income. Better, to join any well-established organization fo full-time job and work as a freelancer in your spare time or on the weekend.

    • Brainvisions India

      Very informative, thanks !

    • Great post and very informative too. Thanks for sharing

    • AndrewCarpe

      Freelancing (like freelancing on Upwork) is good for start, that’s all. After some time you have to move to CONSULTING and force higher rates (and work with better clients). So my best advice would be this, get some clients via Upwork, get some positive reviews and then as fast as possible move to real consulting. Get your own website, share content and position yourself as an authority. Create sales funnel, pay for ads and start your own business that has nothing to do with Upwork and similar websites. Do this and you will be much happier and independent.

    • Elite Bookkeepers Group

      This is inspiring and I would love to read more of your blogs. Happy to know that what I am experiencing now as a first time freelancer is temporary.

    • Billy Yadav

      Hey will you please contact me at: onlinehelpdesk1377@gmail.com, Or on skype helpdesk1377.
      I have some greate work for you.

    • Hey Elvis, great article. I totally agree with the first piece of advice. Some clients are simply impossible to handle.

      On a side note, how do you feel about UpWork’s “job success” system? You seem to have great reviews but only 78% job success.

      I dropped from 100% job success to 98%, 95%, and then 90%. It’s a bit scary. I contacted support several times and every-time I tried to talk to them and improve my score, they came up with a new reason for the job success rate for dropping, and their perpetual “the job success algorithm can’t be made public to avoid manipulation” excuse.

      Have a great week,

    • KaciTidwell1

      Useful commentary ! Coincidentally , if your company is searching for a a form , my husband encountered a blank form here http://goo.gl/L96Wa3