What exactly is search engine optimization? Why why does it matter? And what do you need to know about SEO as a freelance writer?
When you’re applying for freelance writing gigs, you may come across job postings that require or “prefer” experience with SEO. But if you don’t have a background in writing content specifically for internet searches, you might be scratching your head.
As a freelance writer, you don’t necessarily need to be a search engine optimization pro, but it will definitely behoove you to have at least a basic understanding of what it is, what it does, and why it’s important.
And more importantly, if you are super interested in it, offering SEO blog writing and copywriting services is a great way to charge a higher freelance writing rate.
Here’s a primer on what you need to know about SEO as a freelance writer.
What is search engine optimization (SEO)?
Whether your clients have an existing blog or they’re wanting to start one, they’re probably asking themselves, “Okay, well how does a search engine determine what’s a good ‘match’ and what isn’t?”
This is where that buzz phrase “search engine optimization” or “SEO” comes into play.
SEO refers to how search engines like Google and Bing “index” or keep records of a business website along with every other piece of content on the internet. From blog posts to news articles to videos to images – it’s all categorized and logged by search engines.
Here are the basics:
Search engines “crawl” across the web and “read” the content on each individual webpage to determine its main topic. They also look for key phrases, common question-answer strings, and straight-up single keywords (depending on the breadth of the search query) in order to churn out a list of top results.
It may sound complicated, but at its core, it’s pretty simple.
Still confused? Imagine SEO as a librarian.
If you’re still confused, let’s think about it in real-world terms. Imagine a search engine is a librarian. Here’s how it works:
- Based on varying criteria, the librarian (or, tfor our example, the search engine) reviews all the books (websites and web pages) he or she can and chooses a place for them in the library.
- You go to the library and ask the librarian for a book (website results) based on a topic you’ve given them (your search query).
- The librarian (search engine) comes back with a ranked list of all the books (websites) he or she thinks will best answer your question or fulfill your requests. The best matches will be at the top of the list; the worst ones will be at the bottom.
This process of a librarian making book suggestions is the simplest way to understand how SEO works.
Okay, but can my clients have a successful SEO strategy without a business blog?
Yes, but let me start by saying this: I’m a firm believer that every business should have a blog – whether it be simple or robust.
If your clients are on the fence or unconvinced about why they really should have a blog, here are a few points you can make when speaking with them:
- A blog plays a major active role in how search engines (::hint hint:: GOOGLE) review and index a website.
- An active blog tells search engines and potential buyers that a business is alive and well.
- By having an informative blog, your clients give their fans a place to gain free value which ultimately builds trust.
- By building trust, they position themselves as an expert in their industry, niche, or locale.
These are just a few of my arguments for setting up a business blog… If I sat and thought about it all day, I could bombard you with more. Suffice it to say, the reasons for having a business blog far outweigh the counter-arguments and “inconveniences” business owners cite for going without one.
But all that said… Businesses asking for writers with SEO experience are probably looking for blog content, so you may not need to convince them of anything!
Now let’s dive into how SEO actually affects your clients’ websites directly and why you should care about it as a freelance writer.
How does SEO actually affect a website?
Ideally, every page on a website should be optimized for search engines – not just the blog. By that, I mean every single page on a website – even the pages that seem meaningless – should have specific keywords or phrases that help search engines direct web surfers to that site.
The better, intentional, and more complete the SEO strategy is across their entire website, the more likely your clients will be to rank in search results.
Remember: Google (the search engine, let’s be real) is going to look at everything – there are no “secret drawers” it won’t open. (Technically, there are ways to direct Google not to log your pages, but we won’t get into that here.)
Now let’s think of Google as a snoopy mother-in-law:
- Your mother-in-law is coming for a visit and she’s very critical. She’s going to look at everything in your house (website).
- Getting compliments from her (appearing on the front page of search results) is hard to come by. So, if you want to impress her or, at the very least, get closer to being complimented, everything you’ve got should, ideally, be super organized (optimized for search engines).
- The closer to perfect your entire home (website) is, the better your mother-in-law will compliment you (rank your website on the first page of search results) and rave about you to others (consistently put your website on the first page).
So what does that entail?
- Intentionally optimizing every page link, from the home page to the blog posts to the “about” page.
- Writing page descriptions and meta descriptions for all pages, blog categories, and blog posts.
- Blog posts include at least one image, preferably a branded “featured image.”
- Giving images and videos uploaded to your clients’ websites or blog posts a file name containing the keywords they’re trying to rank for.
- Adding alt text to every image on your site.
The Open Secret to Writing SEO Content: Keywords
Writing SEO content for your clients is actually easier than you think. In fact, you’re probably already doing it without even realizing it much of the time.
The most important thing you can do (especially if you are the one suggesting content topics for your clients) is to do some keyword research. This is THE #1 key to a successful SEO strategy.
When we’re talking about search optimization keywords, there are two different camps: short-tail keywords and long-tail keywords.
“Short-tail keywords” are generally single words or phrases that encompass a topic. For example, “search engine optimization” or “chocolate cake” or even just “Miami.”
This is how SEO was fueled back in the day – before Google became so smart that engineers started thinking it had come alive. (Yes, that’s a real concern now!)
In the early days of the internet, SEO was in its infancy and not very “smart.” So these “short-tail keywords” were the only way to let search engines know what the content was about. As a result, content and copywriters used an early SEO practice now referred to as “keyword stuffing.”
“Keyword stuffing” means you use the keyword(s) as often as you can, even if it sounds or reads awkwardly. You needed to let the search engines know what the blog post or page was about, and the best way to do that was to make it blatantly obvious.
These days, this is not only unnecessary but a giant no-no. Google and Bing won’t “reward” sites that use keywords like this anymore; they’ll actually penalize them.
On the other hand, “long-tail keywords” are what are most used in today’s SEO efforts. This simply means looking for strings of keywords or phrases that are searched for most often.
Think about it: If you were looking for information on search engine optimization, you probably wouldn’t go to Google and type that in. You’d be more specific, right? You’d try something like “how to do search engine optimization” or “what is search optimization.”
Likewise, someone looking for something about chocolate cake might type in “gluten-free chocolate cake recipes” or “Hersheys cocoa chocolate cake.” Someone looking for things to do or places to go will specify what they’re searching for in their query.
Long-tail keywords are how we most often search the internet now. You do it all the time without noticing! Because when you type in a short-tail keyword, there’s no telling what kind of results will come back or how long it will take you to find what you’re looking for.
Long-tail keywords help internet users find exactly what they want with less effort.
How to Write SEO Content for Your Clients
If you’re offering SEO services or your clients are asking for SEO-friendly blogs, the main thing you need to know is what keywords they’re hoping to rank for.
It’s important to note (and remind your clients) that SEO is a long game – there’s no overnight success. It takes time, consistency, and dedication.
The internet is flooded with information now and it’s hard to rank for a lot of things these days. And it’s hard when you’re competing with bigger companies that may have had an internet presence for a long time. That said, it’s not impossible.
To write content for your clients, start by doing some keyword research and ask them what kinds of things their ideal customers or clients are searching the internet to find. I recommend using a tool like Ubersuggest if you’re new to SEO. It’s easy to understand and will give you a ton of information for free. Neil Patel, the creator of Ubersuggest, has some fantastic YouTube videos, too, on how to use and get the most out of it.
Once you know what keywords you’re going for, write content as you normally would. Use normal language and integrate your keywords in a way that feels and reads naturally – don’t keyword stuff!
When Writing Gigs Ask for “SEO Freelance Writers”
Can you apply for freelance writing jobs without SEO experience?
Yes, you absolutely can.
Obviously, not every gig is going to be asking for SEO experience. And those that do may not have a strong understanding of “all the things” any more than you do. If you have a basic understanding, you can probably apply for gigs that ask for SEO knowledge (and certainly for those that don’t mention it at all).
A word of caution, though: If the gig clearly states you need a strong understanding of SEO and it seems like they know what they’re talking about, apply but be forward about your level of understanding and experience. Having little SEO knowledge isn’t necessarily a non-negotiable for everyone. But you definitely don’t want to be dishonest about what you know (or don’t know, in this case).
And if you’re planning to offer SEO services, do your homework and make sure you feel like you've got a strong handle on how it works and how to do it well. These days, everyone wants search-optimized content, so this is a great way to market yourself and raise your rate.
Search engine optimization has a long name and instills fear in many new freelance writers, but it shouldn’t. Catching on to how it works and making it work for you and your clients is easier than you think.
If there's one thing I wish I had started doing sooner in my freelance writing journey, it would be to set goals for how much I wanted to earn each year.
When I was new to entrepreneurship, I ran my business like a hamster on a wheel – spinning, spinning, spinning, and nowhere to go.
I had set my rate (kind of…) but I didn't know how much I wanted to make. And because I didn't know how much I wanted to earn, I didn't have any idea of how much I needed to work to meet my nonexistent goal.
Basically, I took on the attitude of “Well, however much work I can find and complete will be great. No need to make plans for these things.”
I was late to the party… But since I started setting income goals (i.e. how much I wanted to make from my freelance work after taxes 😉), things have taken a turn for the better in my business.
Setting goals has been a game-changer and helped me determine:
- How much money I wanted to make and what I might use it for.
- How to set my rate and when I should consider raising it.
- How much work I needed to do each month to meet my goal based on my chosen rate.
Here are a few tips for setting your first freelance writing income goal.
1. Set your freelance writing rate.
Before you do anything, you'd be wise to actually set your rate as a freelancer.
Why do this first? Because you'll need this number to do the math and figure out how much you'll actually have to work to meet your eventual goal. (Moreover, you'll know whether or not you're willing to work that much.)
Let's break this into tangible numbers.
Side Note: I was in the Math Honor Society in high school and any time I get to do actual math stuff excites me. Because I'm a nerd like that. Sorry, not sorry.
Let's say you set your beginning rate at $0.07 per word – a fair rate for a new freelancer. If you write 500-word blog posts or articles (or whatever) at that rate, you'll make $35 per content piece.
Knowing how much you can expect to make per client assignment as you move forward will help you determine how much money you can realistically earn.
2. Pick a reasonable goal number.
Now that you know what your rate is, pick a big amount you want to make over the course of 12 months. Reach high here! Then do the math to see what it'll take to hit it.
Go back to our $35 per 500-word rate example. Let's say you want to earn $1,000 over the course of the year. How much work and/or how many clients are you going to need to find in 12 months to make that happen?
$1,000 ÷ $35 = 28.5 (so let's round up to 30)
You'll need to write about 30 content pieces of 500 words to make $1,000 in a year. That breaks down to:
30 writing gigs ÷ 12 months = 2.5 (let's round up to 3 here)
Three writing gigs a month to make $1,000. Not bad, right?! You could probably do that almost in your sleep.
3. Add at least a third of your goal to your original number.
That $1,000 you want to make? You want to keep all of that, right?
But you've still gotta pay the taxman.
As a self-employed person or contractor, assume you'll be required to pay at least 30% of your earnings back in annual taxes. This is definitely true if you're an American citizen; if you're from somewhere else, there's a high probability that your tax rate is even higher.
So, to be on the safe side, add at least 30% of your “big number” back to your original goal. If you want to be really safe, make it 50%. If you want to be really, really safe (and challenge yourself), double your original number entirely.
Here's our example again:
$1,000 x 30% = $300
$300 + $1,000 = $1,300
$1,300 ÷ $35 = 37.1 (let's round up to 38)
Now we know you have to write 38 content pieces of 500 words to meet your goal and earn enough to pay taxes on it.
4. Incrementally raise your rate to meet your goal faster.
Every time you land a new gig or client, raise your rate a little more. Just a cent or two per word starts to add up. As you gain confidence and credibility, no one will blink when you ask for 10 cents per word. Or 15 cents. Or 20.
Remember to know your worth and don't be afraid to walk away from opportunities that feel like they're not paying you enough. It's your business, so it's up to you whether or not you choose to negotiate your rate with clients. But if you want more money, stand your ground. If someone doesn't want to pay what you ask (not due to true budget issues, but because they just don't see the value in your work), they're likely not going to be a good client anyway.
You might be able to exceed your goal just because you work hard and find great clients. They can be hard to find, especially when you're just starting out – but they're out there.
Taking time to set goals for your freelance writing business is a must because it gives you a clear trajectory to follow and helps you learn how to thrive as an entrepreneur. I wish I'd started setting goals sooner because it would have helped me feel more secure in what I was doing and plan better.
Don't make the same mistake I made – set some goals, set aside money for taxes, and start making things happen.
When you start out, deciding how to set your freelance writing rate is intimidating. I’m speaking from experience, here. When I first branched out on my own, I didn’t know what to charge clients.
I was afraid of making one of two rookie mistakes: Either
A) Setting my rate too low and being grossly underpaid for my work, or
B) Setting my rate too high and risk getting laughed out of the room.
But fear not, gentle Write Hustler. I’ve come a long way from my early days of freelance writing and I’m here to help.
If you’re not sure what to charge clients as a new freelance writer or if you’re looking to increase your fees, you’ve come to the “write” place. (See what I did there?) Here are my personal tips to help you set your rate as a freelance writer.
But first… Rule #1: We don’t work for “free.”
Let me say that again for the ladies in the back who can’t hear.
[[ Ahem ]] We don’t work for free.
When you’re just getting started as a freelancer and you’re working on building your portfolio (so that eventually you can feel like a badass and make the big bucks), you may decide to work for next to nothing. Or nothing at all.
To this, I say tread carefully and set a time limit.
There are a few instances where this might be okay, and here they are:
- Your name is being published to show it’s your work and a link or other instructions to get in touch with you included, OR
- You’re allowed to use that content as part of your portfolio and if asked, the client will give you credit for writing it.
That’s it. The only times you should agree to do any kind of work for free is when you will be recognized and “paid” for it in some direct or indirect way. And in some cases, even this might be a stretch. Unless you’re 100% sure your content will actually be published, you run the risk of writing something for literally nothing.
You’re worth more than that. So if you do decide to travel down the “free” freelance writing road, choose a stopping point. When you reach that point, don’t take on non-paying gigs anymore. They only serve you for so long.
Even as a new freelance writer, you still deserve to get something in return for your effort. So let’s dig into how to actually set that rate.
Tip #1: Think about what you want your rate to be.
Take a moment and dream. What, to you, would feel like “making it” as a freelance writer? You need to know your goal rate before you can even think about what to set as your starting rate.
Do you dream of making some extra shopping money from your side hustle?
Paying off your student loans or other debt?
Perhaps you want to make a career of writing and pay all your bills. It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
Now, we can’t all be J.K. Rowling or James Patterson (and we’re not all writing novels, for that matter). But we can all work to make a living from writing. You may not make millions, but you can work toward making 6 figures.
Determine where you ultimately want to be so you have something to reach for. This will help you along the way as you gain more experience. Remember, your starting rate is just that – a starting rate. At some point, you’ll be able to raise your rate because your work will be worth more. And that’s how you’ll reach your “dream rate” – whether you’re getting clients through a freelance writing agency or running your own show.
Once you know what you want to strive toward, it’s time to choose your bottom dollar (or cents, in this case).
Tip #2: Choose a reasonable (but not lowball) starting rate.
Please hear me when I say that you are worth this rate and much more.
There will be some people out there asking for writers to cobble something together for less than what you’re asking… But you’re better than that. People who ask for lowball rates get what they pay for and they’re not looking for a professional. That’s just a fact.
I generally recommend new writers start charging no less than $0.05 USD per word. If you’re a native English speaker, you’re worth at least 5 cents per word. If you’re confident in your writing skills, use proper grammar, and understand the ins and outs of tricky punctuation, you’re probably worth more than 5 cents.
This initial rate should be your “bottom dollar” rate – the least amount of money you’re willing to accept for your work.
Whatever your “bottom dollar” rate is, be it 5 cents or 10 cents or even 15 cents, stick to your guns. Resist the urge to drop below your starting rate. If you’re asked to write for less than that, walk away. Someone who doesn’t respect your chosen freelance writing rate won’t be a good client, period.
The one and only exception to this rule is if you’re looking for early freelancing gigs that will help you build your portfolio. If you’re offered a bit less than your “bottom dollar” and you’re comfortable with that, you do you, girl.
Do the math. It'll help you find a rate you're comfortable with.
Think about it this way: You’d never ask a roofing expert for a quote to replace the shingles on your house and then, upon hearing their estimate, bargain with them to lower the cost, would you? You might “shop around” and get a few quotes, look at said experts’ previous work and talk to their past clients, and then make your decision. But you certainly wouldn’t ask them to charge you less because you don’t think what they quoted was fair. (At least I hope not!)
Writers, sadly, are often under-appreciated and it can be tempting to take this bait. I’m telling you right now to stay strong. Respect yourself and others will respect you in return by sticking with your “bottom dollar” rate.
Let’s do some quick math here.
If you’re writing a typical 500-word blog piece or email or whatever, charging $0.05 USD per word will land you $25.
At 10 cents per word, you’ll earn $50.
If you don’t have a professional portfolio of published work or a reference you can share, there’s no shame in starting here. These rates are low, yes, but they’re not so low you won’t be taken seriously or ignored completely.
Starting at 5 or 10 cents per word keeps you in the running for first-time jobs that are already highly competitive. Be sure to ask for permission to share the content with other potential clients as you finalize your agreement. That way, you’ll have something concrete to show next time you apply for a writing gig.
Yes, it will take a while to earn much at this rate. But the point is that you’re just getting started. We’re only greasing the wheels of your hustle here, not trying to pay the mortgage yet.
Tip #3: Increase your freelance writing rate with every new gig or client (or every few).
Unlike other jobs where you start at a certain rate and every few months or years you get a raise, freelancing allows for more flexibility. You set the rate and you ultimately decide what you’re going to accept.
As you land more writing jobs, you can begin increasing your rate by a few cents per word. If you’re feeling nervous about this whole “charge what your worth” mantra, mini rate increases may give you the boost of confidence you need.
Remember to stick to your “bottom dollar” – don’t accept work that dips below that rate. As you gain experience writing for more clients, add a cent or two (or three!) to your rate per word. Every new gig, your rate gets a little higher and you get closer to hitting your “dream rate.”
This is a well-known practice among freelancers everywhere and for good reason. Incrementally increasing your rate helps you build confidence in your own craft and worth.
Tip #4: Find a comfortable position and hold it for a while.
Depending on how you choose to set up your business, you may not always have the ability to simply raise your rate with every new assignment.
When you accept one-off jobs, you can easily increase your freelance writing rate from new client to new client.
However, if you’re like me, you enjoy taking multiple assignments from the same clients. This means you’ll have to choose a rate at the beginning and stick with it for a while. After all, your clients assume when they hire you your rate will remain consistent for at least a little while. This should be stipulated in your contractual agreement.
PRO TIP: It’s smart to include some kind of wording in your contracts that your rate is subject to go up. This covers your butt for when you’re ready to increase your rate with long-term clients.
All of that to say… there is a ceiling. Even if you’re more into single-serve jobs, finding a comfortable rate and sticking to it for a while is a good practice. It keeps you aligned with other writers who have a similar amount of experience and helps you build a name for yourself.
Having a constantly fluctuating rate can come back to bite you. If you’re fortunate enough to have clients recommend you to other business owners, you don't want to quote wildly different rates. While you’re still a “newbie” writer, you also don’t want rates so high that you can’t compete for decent jobs. Those are the gigs that will help you build your portfolio.
Beginner vs. Intermediate vs. Expert Freelance Writer
It’s good to know where your rate ought to be in terms of your experience level. This helps you know how best to market your skills.
If you have a good feeling about how you measure up in terms of experience, you can continue to inch your way toward the next experience-level bracket. Little by little, you’ll get closer to your “dream rate” and achieving your goals.
As a beginner freelance writer – meaning you have little or no freelancing experience or published work – I recommend maxing out somewhere around 15 cents per word. Once you have a solid portfolio of at least 3-5 content pieces you can show as proof of your skills, you can probably level up and consider yourself an “intermediate” freelance writer.
If you're an intermediate freelancer, it’s safe to charge upwards of 25 cents per word. You should have a rather substantial portfolio and/or several past clients who have given you testimonials you can use as social proof.
Once you hit the “expert” level, you can charge north of 50 cents per word. This likely means you’re super, SUPER niched down and write for a few specific industries or have specific content types you specialize in and do well. You need to have concrete examples to show your clients before anyone takes you seriously at this rate.
Believe it or not, it’s possible to charge $1 or more per word. It takes time, but people do it!
Tip #5: Consider negotiating a rate on certain opportunities.
As a beginner, I recommend being open to negotiating. However, as an intermediate or expert writer, I say take it or leave it. There are a couple of big reasons for this.
When you're starting out, you’re still building your portfolio. Arguably, you need the experience more than you need the money. If you’re extended a great opportunity or are in talks with a great client, it’s probably worth agreeing to a lower rate in the long run. This is particularly true when they're willing to let you link to the content as part of your portfolio.
But once again, knowing your “bottom dollar” is going to play a part here. No matter how great the opportunity, stand firm in your starting rate and don’t dip below it. Remember your worth.
As an intermediate or expert freelance writer, you may want to be open to negotiations for the same reason: Certain opportunities could really enhance and strengthen your portfolio. However, don’t be tempted to always “drop your pants” and give a lower rate just to get more work.
Even when you consider yourself a seasoned freelancer, you should still have a “bottom dollar” that aligns with your experience level. If you decide to negotiate and write for a lower rate, it still needs to be worth your while.
Tip #6: Learn to know when you’re too high or too low.
There may come a time when, as you’re increasing your rate, you get carried away. Or maybe you don’t have the portfolio to back up the rate you’re asking.
Alternatively, you may be selling yourself short if you’ve been handing over excellent work and not raising your rate often enough.
Take the rate hints subtly (or unsubtly) offered by your clients into consideration.
If you’re losing clients or getting turned down for new gigs, your rate may be too high.
Remember that you need to honor your contractual agreement with your long-term clients. Raising your rate with these folks may come as a bit of a shock depending on how much more you’re charging. While it’s important to take this into consideration, don’t let that stop you from charging more when an appropriate amount of time has passed, like 6-12 months.
To get a feel for what your client can and can’t afford, do some sleuthing online. Check out their social channels, personal social accounts, and their website, if applicable. If they look like they’re raking in enough money, confidently raise your rate. If they look like they might be struggling, consider negotiating a temporary deal until they can meet your new rate. If you like your clients, flexibility goes a long way.
(To be clear, this is all pretty subjective. You can’t really know what’s going on in your clients’ bank accounts purely based on what they do on social media. However, it can give you a great insight into whether a “sob story” is true or just an attempt to save money. We all try to save where we can, right? Your clients are no different, and that’s okay!)
The competition may be playing a part, too.
If you’re getting turned down for new one-off jobs, it may be because your rate is too high compared to other people pitching for the same gig. You might still be marketing yourself as a beginner, for example, when you should be marketing yourself as an intermediate writer instead.
Alternatively, you just might not have enough experience to show for the price you’re asking. That’s okay, and you can always adjust your rate based on the opportunities you get and don’t get. Build up your portfolio a bit more and come back to that rate later.
PRO TIP: Also remember that everyone can’t be your client. Just because one client doesn’t want to pay your rate doesn’t mean someone else won’t, either. We can’t please everyone. Before you drop your rate, grow some thick skin and tolerate several “nos.” You might just be catering to the wrong clientele and need to market to a different, more cash-rich audience.
If your clients rave about you to others (or to you personally!) or you can’t keep up with the amount of work you have, it might be time for a rate increase.
When clients talk about your rates being “affordable” or – and this has happened – lower than other writers they’ve used in the past, it’s probably pretty safe to raise your rate at the next opportunity.
People who willingly sing your praises and enjoy working with you enough to recommend you to others are more likely to accept a rate increase. In fact, they may think (or realize) they’re getting a smokin’ hot deal and feel your rate is actually low for the work you provide.
Likewise, if you’ve got so much work that you can’t really afford to take anyone else on, you’re literally leaving money on the table. Raising your rate gives you the ability to make more money for the good work you do.
All of this to say… listen to your clients! If they’re very happy, you can confidently assume your work will make other clients happy and that you can likely charge more. So charge more. At your next opportunity, increase your long-term rate with your clients or quote a higher rate to a new client and step into that abundance, baby. You earned it.
If clients don’t want to pay your higher rate, don’t be scared. That simply means it’s just not a good fit anymore. “Losing” them is actually a blessing in disguise because it opens an opportunity for you to find a higher-paying client. And just like that, you’re making more money!
Setting your freelance writing rate isn’t an exact science.
It’s different for everyone – some come to the table with a concrete idea of their work’s worth and others have to feel it out. I was certainly the latter for a long time.
Try a few rates on for size until you find an amount you feel fits and reflects your work’s worth. Don’t let money cloud your enthusiasm for getting started as a freelance writer.