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.

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