Getting Started as a Freelance SEO

One of the most important pieces I’ve read as an SEO was Judith Lewis’ piece “If Your SEO is Not Moonlighting, Fire Them” (which I might add is a great piece to share if your boss is a bit touchy about you doing any work on the side). The fact of the matter is that most of us (especially those of us who work for larger clients) cannot take liberties and often cannot be at the cutting edge on some of these projects, and we certainly cannot and should not take massive risks with other people’s brands.

For this very reason (and as you may have guessed from my website), I feel confidently that doing freelance and/or running affiliate sites is definitely a great way to keep my SEO game tight and strongly suggest anyone who takes SEO seriously should be working on websites outside of work.

Irrespective of whether you work for an agency or as an inhouse SEO there is no question that there will be some gaps in your knowledge base in terms of niches and areas of expertise. Perhaps you never get to work on mobile campaigns, have never done small business SEO or have never worked in one of the ultra-competitive niches (the three P’s come to mind). No matter what your situation is, freelance SEO is a great way to augment your learning and a great way to augment your salary as well.

After a chat with Kev Strong, all around nice guy and SEO, I thought that it would be a good idea to provide a consolidated resource to getting started as a Freelance SEO in the UK: how to get started (i.e. register with the tax man), how to set your rate, how to avoid nightmare clients, and how to build a brand around your name.

Major Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer nor an accountant and am in no way qualified to be offering professional advice about UK tax law or any other tax law for that matter. I will provide as many links to valid resources that will help you get set up but cannot and will not in any way be held liable for any of this information other than to tell my story and tell you where you can find the correct information to get registered.

The Tax Situation

So the first, and no doubt most important, step in all this is getting your tax situation sorted out and making sure that you are paying the government what is required in order to make money on the side. Before I give anything that might be construed as advice I would suggest strongly that everyone have a good read through the HMRC website if you are working in the UK. All the information is there but it can be a bit of a hassle to work your way through all of it so I will highlight my understanding of many of the really key points and provide links to the most relevant information.

1. Even if you are employed full time you still need to register as self-employed. This one may not make a ton of sense but it does indeed seem to be the law so make sure you do so.

2. You will need to pay National Insurance in addition to tax and do so on a monthly basis. If you make under a certain amount you will not be required to make this payment in addition to your income but double check and don’t assume that you’ve already paid for that.

3. You need to register within three months of starting work – even if you’ve not billed anyone for the work yet or face a penalty believed to be around £100. Yes, that’s right, even if you have not technically earned any money (i.e. not billed it) you need to register right away or you may face a penalty fine. It’s really not as difficult as it sounds to register so you should do it sooner rather than later.

4. Give very careful consideration to whether you want to be self-employed or start a company. The implications are very important and it is worth noting that if you do not form a limited company it is much more difficult to write anything off for tax purposes AND much more importantly your own assets are treated as business assets. I repeat, any asset you have can be taken from you should you find yourself in the wrong situation, be sued, or otherwise be heavily indebted. If you are going to be doing any big chunks of freelance work I would strongly suggest you look into setting up your own limited company to insulate your home and other assets from this – this is a good guide to start with.

5. Given the current economic situation HMRC are being much more stringent with their measures at the moment and seem to have very little patience for mistakes (in fact a mistake may well qualify as fraud rather than an accident) so be very careful!

Additional Resources:

Finding Work

I don’t want to steal too much thunder from my upcoming #BrightonSEO presentation on selling SEO but an important aspect when selling SEO projects either for freelance or for your agency is making sure that you want to do the work, that you trust the person employing you, and that the price is right. I know some people may find it harder than others finding work and may have a harder time turning work down when it comes but I strongly recommend only accepting the work you want – especially if you already have a full time job!

In my experience the easiest way to get freelance clients in is to make friends in the industry and to blog and speak when you have the chance (big hint: you will win more work speaking at niche events and free gigs than you will speaking at the biggest SEO events).

I would also strongly suggest asking around and making friends with other SEO’s in the industry. I’m always looking for more trusted people to pass work on to as I don’t usually have time to take on new clients and would rather send the work to a friend than to another agency.

If you still can’t find work from friends and familiar folks in the industry then I would check out some of the freelance forums, SEO forums, Github and more recently places like LinkedIn or Referral Key.

  • It’s important to note that the best work will come from your friends or other people in the industry looking specifically for you
  • Any work that comes through other sources such as forums or Github are unlikely to pay as well
  • As I said in the tax section: if you have not set up a limited company your earnings are fair game, be wary of new clients and definitely don’t take on clients with whom you have worked on an agency capacity – especially if they didn’t pay their bills on time (!!!)

Practical Tips

Finally, I will provide you with a few of the most important things I have learned from doing freelance work as I think it’s important especially when you are getting started, not to jump at every opportunity.

1. Never take on work unless you believe you can deliver.
I very nearly started a project much bigger than I possibly could have managed and would have been in a very bad place had I gone through with it. Your reputation is everything when it comes to attracting work and much like a listing in Ripoff Report can really harm a company, failing to deliver on an SEO project can really impact your reputation in the industry, harm whomever referred the work to you, and limit your chances to get more work.

Realistically, you need to know how much of your own time you’re willing to give up and figure out how you are going to attend meetings/service a client with a full time job. As a general rule the fewer clients you have the easier and more profitable this can be.

2. Only take on work that will provide you a new opportunity.
Some people may not have a choice about which work they take and they may rely heavily on income from freelance SEO. Thankfully I have now put myself in a position where the freelance I do is because I want to do it not because I need to – but this hasn’t always been the case. You do need to think carefully about how much free time you really have and are willing to give up but for me I tend not to take on any freelance work unless it affords me the opportunity to work in a new vertical, test something new or make a silly amount of money.

3. Know how much you are worth.
I think a lot of people in our industry really undervalue themselves but with confidence a good SEO will know what they can fetch in the marketplace. As a starting point my rate was £35/hour and I was nervous I was charging too much. However, in hindsight it’s quite clear that I was charging nowhere near enough. If you are working freelance with an agency you can expect they will make a margin so you probably won’t make as much as you would if you can find the work yourself.

However, you should be aware of what your time is worth to your employer (e.g. what the agency bills you out at) and in my view you can reasonably charge ~80% of that rate on your own – but again, make sure you’re confident you can deliver!

4. Vary your rates.
I don’t have a day rate and I set my hourly rate according to the work I am taking on- I knew my economics degree would come in handy!

If the project is really exciting to me I charge one rate, if the work sounds miserable I charge quite differently, if time is a premium I charge a premium. Knowing what you’re worth is often extremely different to how you value your time and you need to adapt accordingly.

If I’m really busy and don’t want new work I’ll often try to price myself out of something. In this case I decide what the minimum amount I would do the work for (i.e. this project won’t be fun and I’ll have to forego this opportunity) and I set that as my price. For some projects this number is outrageous, but that’s the value of doing the work to me and thankfully I’m in a position to turn it down if my rates won’t be met. And, better still, if the client decides it’s worth that much to work with me I can get excited about the project anyhow because the money is good.

On the opposite side of the coin, for friends and family – or work that is new to me – I’ll charge a much lower rate because I look at this as personal development time as well. Each piece of business is totally different for me and I find this works well.

5. Know your weaknesses and be open.
This really takes us back to point one but I think it’s massively important – if you can’t deliver don’t sell the work. I know what I do best and where I can provide the most value but I also know when to get someone else in to do the work. If, for example, I’m working on an international client and I tell them the importance of doing local market content creation and linkbuilding I am not going to sell in time for me to do linkbuilding in China. I’m happy to write out the strategy and best practices but I’m not going to be a hypocrite.

Equally, there are parts of SEO that I don’t really enjoy and I feel it’s important in these instances to make this known to the client and let them know that I have someone who can do the job better than I can and at a better rate – another reason why having contacts in the industry is a great way to get work!

Oh, and on the “being open” point – never work for a competitor of one of your clients, this is slimy and probably illegal depending on your contracts.

6. Twitter is your friend.
I know this sounds a bit strange but Twitter is the place to make relationships and a great place to find work. To date, my current fulltime job, my current freelance project, and a great number of the friends to whom I refer work all came through Twitter at one stage or another. Get involved!

7. Have trusted partners
I don’t have partners for my work to the degree that I always send them work and they always send me work, but it’s important that you help people out where you can and the work will usually come back to you. As with any agency it’s important that you have developers that you know you can work with, designers whom you trust, foreign languages specialists, linkbuilders who will work to your specifications and understand the niche and SEO’s that you know will deliver if you can’t take on the work.

Just like your with an agency- every referral you give to a client will eventually reflect on you so try to only refer other people you trust that you know will deliver on the project. At the end of the day it’s your brand that will be negatively impacted if you suggest someone that is flaky or cannot deliver good work.

8. Check with your employer and show them the moonlighting post if they don’t want you working freelance.
For me the ability to maintain freelance clients is something I always discuss in the interview process. You, of course, need to value and honour your contract (not work with clients on the side, don’t do freelance if it says you can’t, etc.) but you also need to be very clear about the value that your working freelance brings to the agency – it’s time you get practical experience and are learning for which someone else is compensating you!

Hopefully this will be of some help for those of you looking to get started doing some freelance SEO.

If you ever need any help you can try contacting me through my website or ping me a message on Twitter. I’m happy to provide less public advice specific to your situation (with the same caveats) so please don’t hesitate to get in touch. In general I’m not taking on any new clients at the moment but I’m always willing to hear a potential client out and I’m more than happy to point you in the right direction of someone else I trust who can deliver on the job!

About Sam Crocker

Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director at OMD UK. Sam focuses on increasing traffic and conversions for websites whilst always keeping his eye on a company’s bottom line.