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Back in 2016, a study by Borrell Associates estimated that a total of $65 billion was going to be spent by companies on SEO, and by 2020 this figure will have risen to $75 billion.
Regardless of the exact size of the industry today, it’s fair to say that there’s never been a better time to get started as a freelance SEO consultant, especially considering the way in which the search industry (and Google, specifically) changes on a near-daily basis!
Becoming a freelance SEO consultant
I started out on my journey as an SEO specialist back in 2005 (approximately), although back then I was unaware that I would eventually become an SEO consultant. As is the case with many other SEO freelancers, I began my fledgling career by building and optimizing my own websites–most of them were just hobby sites, where I learned to build extremely basic (ugly!) websites using HTML from Notepad.
One website I built ended up ranking really well for some high-volume queries (probably more by luck than anything at that stage!) which were around the “make money online” niche.
Eventually, I sold the website, but I didn’t realize at the time that this was actually the best way I could have educated myself about the world of SEO and digital marketing.
I still stand by this advice: If you want to become an SEO freelancer, the best method is by getting your hands dirty. You could pay out hundreds of dollars to take online courses or to find a college course, or you could just buy a $10 domain and a $20 per year hosting plan and learn by doing. You’ll find out about domain name management, hosting setup and configuration, before being able to progress from there. Maybe you’ll jump onto Wordpress because it’s so user-friendly and popular, or you’ll learn some basic HTML and make your own site.
Installing some kind of analytics software (such as Google Analytics) will give you a new platform to master; you can then get Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, and other free webmaster tool sites setup for your domains. These tools have so many features within them that you’ll have a huge amount of practical learning to complete on your way to becoming an SEO freelancer.
Learning by doing
I learned a lot about SEO and online marketing through building and running my own websites. At the beginning I was writing lots of content for my own websites (learning about copywriting, too) and back then about the importance of regularly posting unique content to your website. After playing around with a few other projects I’d started, I decided I’d built up enough knowledge to start offering this as a paid service to other businesses. Up until then I’d relied heavily on monetizing my sites through ad networks like Google AdSense and affiliate networks, but I didn’t think this was a very sustainable, long-term model.
I’d already set myself up as a self-employed online marketing specialist due to my own websites generating revenue, so there wasn’t much legal work to be completed. I just needed to set up my own website and start the search for my first SEO client.
Finding your first SEO clients
Arguably back then (around 2008) there wasn’t a huge demand or interest in search engine optimization, at least nothing like it is today. The web wasn’t used as such a constant, always-available resource (the mobile internet revolution hadn’t taken off just yet!) so it was harder finding those first clients. Inevitably I got my first SEO gigs by helping businesses out with a basic website design first–another benefit of being comfortable with Wordpress.
I was able to help out a business that had no kind of online web-presence and later offer them my services as an SEO specialist. It’s much easier to up-sell something (a service in this case) to someone who you’ve worked with, and built up trust with, than pitching to a complete stranger. So the basic web design job landed additional, ongoing SEO services, which was a good start.
I obviously couldn’t survive from just the one gig, though, so I wanted to focus more on building my exposure online. I began offering my SEO services to charities that I’d found on the web, which were of personal interest to me, and which I thought might be a good stepping stone: They’d likely have some good connections, which I thought might come in handy if I did a decent enough job. I’ve since provided voluntary SEO and digital marketing services to a number of charities and non-government organizations, but I’d treat it with some caution if you were doing it solely for exposure.
Sometimes even the website footer credit link, or the social media mention, or whatever other form the credit is in, doesn’t lead to paid work–again proving the point that as a freelancer, working for free rarely works out well in the long run.
Specializing as an SEO consultant
Once you’ve gained SEO experience working with a number of clients in a number of different verticals, and you’re proficient in the area of digital marketing as a whole, this is when I’d say you’d benefit by changing tactics and looking to pinpoint the one particular element of SEO that you’d like to focus on.
There’s a huge area to focus on when it comes to specializing as an SEO freelancer, especially when SEO is often considered as being twofold: either on-site SEO (technical elements relating to the website, or anything that’s “on the website” itself) or off-site SEO (the links on the web pointing to your website, references to your business, etc).
Here are a few particular fields in which you may decide to focus on as a freelance SEO:
- Content marketing specialist
- Technical SEO specialist
- International SEO specialist
- Wordpress SEO specialist
- Enterprise SEO specialist
- Link-building specialist
Although there will be larger demands for some roles than others, and probably bigger financial rewards too, ultimately I’d recommend you to go for the area in which you enjoy working the most. Love building content that gains links to your client’s websites but hate writing meta tags on your site? You’d probably love to become a content marketing specialist or a freelance link builder.
Up your game
Whatever you choose to focus on, you really need to up your game to obsessively learn everything and anything there is to know about this particular area of SEO. Constantly read from others, reach out to other fellow experts in the field, and continuously test and monitor everything! Despite someone announcing that “a + b = c”, don’t take this as a given. See if you can replicate the same experiment yourself, and don’t be afraid to share your findings–good or bad.
Hopefully by taking on board the above advice you’ll be well on your way towards beginning your career as a freelance SEO specialist. I’d be more than happy to assist with any other questions you may have. The above is just a brief introduction, but hopefully you’ve been tempted to get started!
Matt Tutt is a technical SEO consultant from the UK who loves nothing more than diagnosing indexing issues and helping businesses (and freelancers!) improve their organic traffic. He's worked within the online marketing industry for over 10 years, within digital agencies and as a freelancer.