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Freelance Writing for the Web: A Change is Gonna Come. Are You Ready?
While many FWJ readers may write primarily for print, I know that many others (like me) have businesses built primarily on writing for online markets. This post targets those of us who make a living online, so to speak.
The Big Question
Why do people pay you to write?
Is it because…
- You’re so damn talented?
- They can’t do it themselves?
- You can make the content creation process more efficient?
- Clients love your website and/or pitches?
- You have a special skill or area of expertise?
Those may be reasons why clients choose you over other writers, but people come to the marketplace in the first place for another reason. They think they can use what you produce to turn a profit. They want to make money.
Sometimes I wonder if too many online writers spend way too much effort thinking about how to get work now and how to compete for gigs while spending far too little effort thinking about that bigger, core question. I wonder if many web-based freelancers may be setting themselves up for future struggles because of it, too.
A Change is Gonna Come
That’s not because I foresee a sudden drop in the demand for online content. On the contrary, I think that a variety of new and even lucrative opportunities is on the horizon. However, I do question the longer-term viability of many markets upon which writers are building businesses. I wonder how many writers will survive and/or react as the Internet and the way we use it changes.
In order to protect yourself and your business, it’s important to delve into the reason why demand for writing exists–the profit potential of the output. That means having both a solid understanding of the strategies clients are employing in pursuit of revenue and the greater trends that will undoubtedly force changes to those strategies and to the marketplace as a whole.
For instance, any writer who isn’t thinking about inevitable changes in the nature of search engines is making a mistake. The search engines don’t stand still. Google and its smaller competitors are constantly refining their approaches and there are a number of reasons to believe that they’ll be forced to make some major adjustments in the relatively near future.
Those changes could have a major impact on what are “bread and butter” for many writers. Traditional article marketing and the mass production “content mill” approach will have a difficult time thriving in an improved search environment.
Last week I posted an interview with SEO Kieran Flanagan here at FWJ. He made a point of discussing both the changing face of link acquisition for SEO and the growing role of social media in his business. The days of using 500-word articles at a pre-ordained keyword density level and fueling them with a series of easy-to-acquire, low-grade links is on its way out. At the very least, the writing is on the wall.
At my blog, I recently posted about the less-than-rosy long-term future of low-quality content mill work due to market forces within the search sector and the increasingly untenable hypocrisy of Google in terms of how they’ve “banned” paid links yet are allowing other intentional methods of subverting their search algorithm to have an impact on SERPs.
You don’t need to agree with my perspective to recognize that there’s a lot boiling under the surface in the way people find and use information online. No matter how you think it all might unfold, you can be certain that, in the words of Sam Cooke, “a change is gonna come.”
Preparing for Change
We often talk about the need to spread risk when developing an overall approach to building a freelance writing business. That need is usually expressed in terms of “not putting all of your eggs in one basket.” That’s rock-solid advice–in the short run. In the longer run, it’s just as important to have a sense of what future eggs may look like and if there may be new ways to store them. Hell, the eggs we gather today may be poisonous before too long and we might all be laughing at the antiquated notion of using baskets.
People pay writers because they want to make money. Writers who aren’t sufficiently prepared to transition their talents and to apply them to new contexts aren’t going to be in the best position to help clients make money. Writers who have over-invested in strategies that seem to have a limited lifespan could be setting themselves up for a more difficult future.
That doesn’t mean anyone should abandon any part of his or her business that’s currently producing a nice stream of revenue. Make hay while the sun is shining. However, one should probably do that with an awareness of the need to move on to new markets and new approaches once the limitations of those activities start to become increasingly visible. Otherwise, you might find yourself well behind the curve while other writers profit from being ahead of it.
The Moral to the Story
Continue to focus on being a badass writer who offers the world’s greatest customer service. Continue to work on distinguishing yourself in the marketplace and do everything you can to become the best choice among those who are looking for a writer.
At the same time, look ahead. Make a point of learning more about why potential clients are looking for a writer in the first place and study the hell out of the marketplace and the kind of changes in advertising, search, social media, and all of the other things that are going to force changes in the way people conduct business and information acquisition on the ‘Net.
If you’re going to focus on online markets, be smart, nimble, well-informed and an expert in larger trends.
SEO Experts and Freelance Writers: Interview with Kieran Flanagan
Just mention the term “SEO content” and you’ll rile up a large portion of the freelance writing community. The expression conjures up images of low-grade, barely comprehensible word-vomit designed to appease the Google god with no concern whatsoever for craft, readers or the dissemination of quality information.
However, I’ve found that working with SEO people doesn’t necessarily involve banging out meaningless junk. Writers who flat out dismiss SEO content may be missing some great opportunities.
No, it isn’t for everyone. No, it won’t usually net you a buck per word. I know there are many freelance writers who will pass even on the sector’s higher-paying work. That’s a ll a matter of preference and I have zero interest in turning this into Round 1,394,201 of the fight over rates. I do think people should know that SEO writing is not the mindless, evil drag many imagine it to be. Well, not always…
But you don’t need to take my word for that.
Kieran Flanagan, who owns SearchBrat.com and who has extensive professional experience in the SEO sector, was kind enough to answer a few questions about SEO firms and freelance writers.
Kieran is based in Dublin, Ireland. SEO services are in high demand there and all around the world and I’ve had the opportunity to write for him and have served as something akin to a project manager, organizing and overseeing production of content for some of his projects.
Kieran is a great guy with whom to work and his perspective on writing and search engine optimization is indicative of what I tend to encounter when dealing with the “right” people. He’s the kind of person I’d recommend to anyone looking for someone to provide link building services
Don’t get any funny ideas about stealing my client, either. I’ve asked Kieran to tip me off if anyone tries to muscle in on my turf, lol!
Without further ado, here’s the Q&A:
1. You hire writers and you work in the SEO field, which has a reputation for being more interested in keyword use than in quality writing. Do you think it’s accurate to describe SEO experts, as a whole, as being focused more on the mechanics than they are on excellent writing?
Most SEO experts do understand the importance of the content they put out. The problem is, a large portion of the SEO industry is made up of people who are not experts and only see content as a means to generate some links.
This isn’t necessarily wrong, you can get a lot of links from low quality articles that have been spun to death. But the landscape of search is changing. Quality of content is just as important, if not more so, than the links you get as a result of that content.
Producing one quality guest blog post can be a lot more beneficial than getting 100 links from spun articles seeded across low level article directories. That guest blog post not only results in a single quality link from a themed site, but also highlights your knowledge on a particular subject and can product traffic in it’s own right.
When building links, you should always ask “Would a user click on this link”
2. What about you, personally? Do you find yourself in search of great writing or more interested in keeping prices low while simply hitting the “mechanical” benchmarks of density, original content, etc?
I used to try to keep costs low, but we’ve completely changed our view on content. I would prefer to get 10 quality articles that will leave a good impression on a reader, rather than 100 articles with questionable English.
In terms of keyword density and other SEO factors, I only look for a couple of keyword variations to be used in the first couple of paragraphs. Keyword density was never something I paid that much attention to.
3. Many freelance writers are really dismayed at the kind of money they’re offered for “SEO work” like keyword articles. Can you provide a little insight as to how and why SEO firms pay the way they do?
This is a great question and comes back to what we discussed in the first one. Most SEO firms purchase content in bulk and then plaster it across the web, with very little strategy behind it. They don’t expect the content to be read because it’s only used for links purposes. This results in the SEO firm looking for low level content, with no quality control on it (it doesn’t get proof read). In saying that, there are a huge amount of content houses that service this market by offering extremely low prices. It results in a race to the bottom, putting added pressure on those content services that do offer great articles for a far greater price.
In the end it comes down to knowledge and results. There is always going to be a demand for low quality content as plastering it over the web for links still delivers results. It is however important for freelancers to understand that SEO and links are vital to nearly any business with an online business these days so they need to be up to speed on how to write content with links in it. I would recommend they spend some time reading up about the importance of link building: https://notable.com.sg/link-building-singapore/
4. I find myself frequently preaching the virtues of providing clients with insights, recommendations and ideas instead of just “following orders.” Do you find that’s a valuable asset in a writer or would you prefer a simple “follow the specs and deliver on time” model?
The future of search is going to be massively effected by social media. Although I don’t feel social media has proven itself (in terms of delivering targeted traffic), it has certainly opened up a lot of opportunities when it comes to building links. Generating quality content for your market, that gets picked up by social channels, is a sure fire way of helping your site increase traffic.
This is where there are lots of opportunities for companies who deliver content to partner with SEO firms who understand it’s importance. An SEO expert can research any market and build a mind map consisting of popular keywords (topics) to target. They should be able to hand these of to a company who can deliver quality content around those topics, using familiar language and themes that will resonate with that market. For me there should always be some input by the content team.
5. List the three things you look for when hiring a writer. What’s important to you?
a. Online Marketing Background – For me it’s critical the writer has a background in online marketing and understands the purpose of each piece of content being produced.
b. Flexibility – This is an fast paced environment and things change a lot. I look for someone who is flexible enough to work around my hectic work load.
c. Quality Content – It goes without saying, I look for someone who can produce quality content.
6. What do you think is the most exciting new development in content creation and SEO? Is there anything new writers should be learning more about, etc?
For me social media is the biggest shift content writers should be paying attention to. It’s now possible to tap into the very language your market is using, by listening to twitter, facebook etc and create content that will connect with your market. Creating “social content” is something all content writers should be looking at.
Freelance Writing Opportunities in SEO Content
Many freelance writers are reluctant to explore the world of writing SEO content and many others dismiss the idea completely, believing that it’s a nickel-and-dime pursuit best left to low-pay grinders and other hacks. For whatever reason, the term “SEO content” conjures up a lot of negative imagery with some writers.
They’re missing out on great opportunities.
There is a part of the SEO content world that is gruesome. You will find the clients looking for keyword-rich articles at a buck a pop on the bid boards. They aren’t particularly concerned about quality, accuracy, style or anything else other than having the right keywords laced into something that approximates complete sentences and that will clear the Copyscape hurdle.
One rung up, you’ll find the budget buyers who do have at least some interest in utilizing something of value, but who willingly compromise on multiple fronts in an effort to save money. There’s space for the right people to generate a solid income on these projects, but it’s not for everyone and it generally isn’t even the best option for the person seeking the content.
If you look a little closer, you’ll find that there are more lucrative opportunities in the SEO content arena. These jobs generally come from experienced, already-earning marketers or, more often, good SEO firms. These clients are interested in more than keyword density and have a higher set of expectations.
Claudiu Murariu of PadiCode recently opened a post at Search Engine Land with this overview:
I rate search engine optimization on content accessibility, popularity, and usability. We can say that content is well optimized for search engines when it is accessed as soon as it published, generates links from trusted sources, and drives user engagement.
The safest road to sky rocket the performance of any SEO campaign is to create or generate quality content that generates user engagement. Why? The more engaged the users, the bigger the chance they will speak about you, link to you, follow you on social networks, and recommend you to others.
While Murariu isn’t strictly an “SEO guy,” his perspective is held among many people who advise businesses on their search engine optimization strategies. These folks “get it”. The realize that it’s less labor-intensive and infinitely more productive to combine keyword usage with the kind of content that naturally attracts quality inbound links–the kind of thing Google, et al., really want to discover.
The alternative–appeasing the search engines a little bit by dropping the right words in the right place and then following up with from-scratch link creation efforts isn’t necessarily a dead-end in all cases, but it’s hard to beat a great piece of link bait that simultaneously attracts a great deal of social media attention. Good content can resolve much of the link acquisition problem while simultaneously driving productive content by non-search means.
Does this recommendation spell the end of the ridiculous oDesk job “opportunity” to write $1 articles? Will it decimate the market for the slightly better-paying, yet still “less than most writers want” gigs?
No. For the foreseeable future, there will be ways for people to make a return on their investment using strategies that hinge on cheap content. Writers can hate that as much as they want, but the hating ain’t gonna change the fact that there are people out there making a profit with approaches that utilize low-quality word-spew.
However, that’s just one facet of SEO content. It’s a mistake to paint all search engine optimized text with the same brush and it’s a mistake to believe a great deal of the mythology surrounding SEO content. This is a ladder with multiple rungs.
It’s a good idea to reach out to the right people in the SEO community. You might be surprised with the projects and the rates.
Does that mean you should start emailing every SEO firm in the world with your pitch to handle content production needs? Well, that depends…
As the rates inch up, so does the quality bar. In order to crack the better-paying parts of the SEO market, writers need to have more than a basic understanding of how to write an article that meets a client-dictated keyword density benchmark.
Writers need to be ready to learn the language of SEO and the language of the niches involved in any particular project. They need to understand what kinds of content are likely to produce natural backlinks, Diggs, Sphinns and Tweets. They need to be capable of writing something engaging and interesting. Great SEO content isn’t just a word dump–it’s good copy, too.
The morals to the story: There’s gold out there for those willing and able to mine it. It’s a mistake to dismiss SEO content as nothing more than half-assed articles that happen to use the right words. If you bring your A-game to SEO content and hook up with the A-level masters of the craft, you can have a chance to do good work at a good rate.
And, if you understand why exceptionally good content can be a fantastic SEO tool, that should be a part of your pitch to many clients.