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The Freelance SEO Professional’s Journey, How To Get Started In SEO [Survey Results]

SEO is a field that’s ripe with opportunities to build fulfilling careers, though there’s no clearly defined path to getting started.

There aren’t necessarily any degrees required to work in SEO. This leaves many aspiring practitioners left to wonder how they can prove they’re qualified for the job.

You’ll probably get ten different answers if you ask ten SEO pros how they got their first job. One or more of those answers is likely to revolve around freelancing.

Working as an independent contractor is how a meaningful percentage of people get their start in SEO. Some use freelancing as a stepping stone to an in-house or agency position, while others build their whole career around it.

According to data in our State of SEO in 2022, practitioners can find significant success doing freelance work. Close to 45% of freelance and contract respondents reported earning $75,000 to $149,000.

In this article, we’ll look deeper at the data surrounding this curious group of SEO professionals.

How do you become an SEO freelancer? What does an SEO freelancer do? Most importantly, how does an SEO freelancer get clients?

This article expands on the data found in our annual State Of SEO Report. Download the full report to see the first-party data.

Many SEO Professionals Get Their Start As Freelancers

Freelancing is a popular choice for SEO professionals early in their careers.

When we asked how long SEO pros have been working in the field, over 45% of freelancer respondents said they have less than five years of experience.

That number isn’t surprising when you understand why many take the freelancing path in the first place.

If you’re not an industry veteran with an established portfolio, finding full-time work in an in-house role or agency position can be challenging.

In a field without formalized education, freelancing is a path toward building the experience employers are looking for.

With that said, freelancing isn’t exclusively an early-stage career type of gig. As our data in the next section shows, freelancers tend to earn a higher-than-average salary, which makes it a viable option to pursue long-term.

Freelancers Are A Smaller Group, But With Higher Average Income

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, 44.5% of freelance and contract respondents report earning salaries above $75,000 per year.

That number is especially notable when you look at how many years of experience freelancers have.

  • Out of the total number of respondents with less than two years of experience, 9.4% were freelancers or founders.
  • Out of the total number of respondents with two to four years of experience, 10.1% were freelancers or founders.
  • Almost half of all freelancers and founders (45.6%) had four or fewer years of experience.

Although freelancers and founders are a relatively small group compared to others, they can often command higher rates than their peers. Only 6.7% of freelancers and founders took salaries of $34,000 or less.

However, it’s important to note that “founders” may account for the higher salary brackets found in this group, meaning that freelancers may need to build a book of business before commanding the highest rates.

How SEO Freelancers Work And Find Business

When we asked SEO freelancers which channels drive the most business, they responded:

  1. Network referrals (9.5%).
  2. Search (8.9%).
  3. Personal networks (8.7%).
  4. Organic social (7.7%).
  5. Upwork (7.7%).

As the data suggests, freelancers primarily rely on reputation and word-of-mouth to generate work.

This puts newer SEO practitioners at a disadvantage as they’re less likely to have the experience, portfolios, or client lists necessary to find work.

That’s where organic search and social come in. Newer freelancers can prove themselves by marketing their services using a website and social media profiles.

Freelance job boards like Upwork offer another route for freelancers to take when they don’t have the benefit of word of mouth to carry them to their next gig.

Smaller percentages of freelancers also report using paid channels such as Google Ads (7.5%) and social media advertising (6.1%) to find work.

Being An SEO Freelancer Is Difficult, But Comes With Opportunity

Freelancing isn’t for the faint of heart. In addition to being responsible for finding their own clients, freelancers are expected to provide a broader range of services than other SEO professionals.

For example, an SEO pro working with an in-house team may be solely responsible for auditing new clients’ websites. On the other hand, a freelancer may be expected to audit the site, figure out how to optimize the site to deliver better results, and then execute the plan.

Being a freelancer comes with a substantial amount of responsibility. However, there are unique opportunities in freelancing that make up for the drawbacks.

We’ve mentioned the higher-than-average salaries, and we’d be remiss not to mention the freedom afforded by freelancing.

Working in SEO as an independent contractor allows people to work from home and set their own hours. This level of flexibility can create a healthier work/life balance compared to working in an office, as freelancers can easily make time for other priorities in life.

On the other hand, you may decide to pursue freelance work only to find the benefits aren’t worth the drawbacks.

That’s perfectly fine because the experience you gain makes you more valuable to employers. After a few years of freelancing, you’re better positioned to transition into an in-house or agency role.

SEO Freelancers Can Transition Into Full-Time Employment

Being an SEO freelancer isn’t a lifetime commitment. While some flourish in it, contractor life isn’t for everyone.

The idea of finding your own clients, generating your own salary, and doing the work of multiple people is understandably intimidating. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth putting in the effort.

SEO freelancers with even a year or two of experience are uniquely qualified to transition into full-time employment.

Here’s a list of reasons why:

  • Performing a wide range of services gives you experience working in many different roles.
  • Building up a base of clients means you have many employment references available when applying for jobs.
  • Your connections through freelancing can lead to permanent employment in other companies.

In summary, taking the road less traveled can lead to opportunities that weren’t previously available to you.

You can find all of our first-party data about the careers of freelancers, as well as SEO professionals in in-house and agency positions, in our annual State Of SEO Report.

Featured image: Paulo Bobita/Stips.io

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