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If you want to be found online these days, you have to invest at least a little time into search engine optimization — effectively telling search engines what search terms your site should show up for.
Trying to show up just for the word ‘freelancer’ isn’t going to cut it. Companies like Freelancer.com have that particular word sewn up in just about every search engine. If you search for the word ‘freelancer,’ it’s rare to get the name of an actual freelancer, including in personalized search results in search engines like Google.
Making Yourself Findable
Even if SEO isn’t a major component of your marketing strategy, you need to be thinking about what keywords are useful to you. The bottom line with any search term you’re considering targeting is whether it will help a client find you and give you money. There’s no other reason (at least as a freelancer) to spend time and money on ranking for a given keyword.
You need to know how your clients typically use search engines and what they search for when they’re considering hiring freelancers.
You need to know how your clients typically use search engines and what they search for when they’re considering hiring freelancers. Depending on the type of clients you work with, you may find that they never use the word ‘freelancer’ when searching for help. They may search for the type of project they need completed (like ‘brochure design’) or they may search for someone local to their area (like ‘Atlanta writer’).
Conducting a survey among your existing clients may be the best strategy you can use to find out what they may have searched for before they found you, or perhaps what they would search for now to find you. You’ll have to dig deep: the further back in the process you can go, the better.
Long before a client searched for an individual copywriter, she may have searched for whether direct mail would be useful for reaching her customers. If you can build resources that are found during those early points of investigation, you may not need to compete for the more obvious keywords — your clients will already know you by the time they’re ready to search for a freelancer.
The Big Keywords
There are certain combinations of keywords that are likely to be worth competing for, in terms of promoting a freelance business. They’re not exactly identical — a freelancer who mostly finds her clients in another country probably won’t find it beneficial to rank for the name of her home town. But you can test different keywords to see what does the best for you in the long term.
- Profession: It’s going to be tough to rank for professional terms, like ‘developer’ or ‘designer.’ But if you can go more narrow, you’ve got a chance at moving up in the results — it’s easier to rank for ‘iPhone game developer’ than just ‘developer.’ You can also combine multiple keywords in your goals.
- Location: Provided that you’re interested in working with local clients, consider working towards ranking for local place names, especially in combination with terms like ‘designer’ or ‘writer.’ Think about how locals refer to the area. It may be as worth your while to rank for the state name as for the city.
- Service: Many clients don’t think so much about paying a professional to do a particular job as they consider what it will take to get something specific done. Consider targeting keywords that focus on the services you offer, rather than what you are.
Long Tail Keywords
If you’ve got something even more narrow that is relevant to your freelance business, don’t be afraid to use that as a keyword. There isn’t a lot of competition for more obscure keywords, also known as long tail keywords. You may not get a lot of traffic from a long tail search, but if you’re the only good result for such a search, you won’t have to split that traffic with anyone else, either.
You may not get a lot of traffic from a long tail search, but if you’re the only good result for such a search, you won’t have to split that traffic with anyone else, either.
Finding good keywords comes back to finding what you're clients are searching for. If you aren’t working with a particularly savvy clientele, picking up some of the longer phrases such as ‘how do I get a brochure designed’ may be worth your while. It’s not out of the ordinary in some niches to find that prospective clients type entire questions into their search boxes. With more technically adept clients, you may need to focus on much more specific terms, because they understand how to get exactly what they want out of a search engine.
Keep an eye on your analytics: you may find that some longer tail keywords are already bringing you traffic without any need to optimize for them.
The Mechanics of Keywords
Just picking out keywords relevant to your freelance business isn’t enough to get new clients coming in. Actually making use of those keywords is a different matter. There are several strategies that will allow you to improve your chances of showing up in the search rankings for a given search term.
- Writing relevant content: This is the strategy that the search engines prefer you to pursue. Blogs and other written content can bump up your search engine rankings because they can include a wide variety of terms that users are searching for. The more you can write (that is relevant to your freelancing business) the better.
- Getting inbound links: When other websites link to yours, search engines read that as a vote for the value of your site. It’s bad form to buy links, but there are all sorts of legitimate ways to get them. Writing guest posts, being interviewed and otherwise giving website owners good reasons to link to you top the list.
- Optimizing your own content: It’s crucial not ot go overboard in optimizing your website — it has to be easy for humans to read. But if you focus on writing with clarity, even if you have to border on writing the obvious, you can make it easier for search engines to understand what’s on your site. Focus on headlines that explicitly state what the page contains. Don’t use euphemisms or cutesy headlines.
There are plenty of other SEO strategies out there, but many of them can actually be detrimental to your website. Do your research before employing any techniques that don’t obviously make sense for helping a visitor find your website. Writing relevant content, with clear headlines, is a no brainer.
Getting other websites to link to you is equally sensible. But something like keyword stuffing, which involves repeating the same keywords over and over again in an article until it’s terribly frustrating to read, doesn’t make your site any easier for visitors to interact with. As it happens, it’s also an outdated technique which search engines typically ignore.
You do have the option of investing money in SEO, rather than time. Most search engines offer the ability to buy advertising based on keywords (such as Google AdWords). It’s not quite the same as showing up in organic search results. Some people choose to avoid ads and, for popular keywords, the process can be expensive without any guarantee of results. But such ads can also get you a much higher spot on the page for popular keywords than you could ever hope to land on with pure SEO work.
You can’t determine the value of advertising based on selected keywords until you’ve been able to throw some money at it. Freelancers aren’t known, as a whole, for big marketing budgets, so a technique that requires cash upfront may not be the best option for all of us. But if you do have some cash to experiment with, consider testing the waters.
SEO Isn’t Everything
While SEO is obviously important — so many people use search engines to navigate the online world today — it isn’t everything. There are a lot of SEO strategies out there that are considered ‘black hat,’ or otherwise bad. Anyone who relies on such strategies may quickly find their sites blocked in many of the search engines. Don’t try to game the system. Stick to optimization techniques that are supported by the search engines.
Good, relevant content is always the best option, at least from the point of view of companies like Google. Their goal is to make sure that users are finding what they’re searching for, so as long as you are providing great answers, you’ll do well in the search rankings.
But spammy content, or content written primarily for the robots that index sites for search engines, just won’t help you in the long run. Every so often, Google and its competitors roll out updates to their tools that help them eliminate content written for machines, rather than humans.
It’s important to maintain a careful mix of marketing so that, even if you were to get hit with a penalty from a search engine, you would still have a steady stream of new clients coming in.