Is SEO The Ideal Marketing Discipline (for Freelancers)?

Marketing will always be in demand. It is executed in various forms and is applied in different ways for a wide variety of categories, but the end goal is almost always the same: acquire more customers through distinct channels, providing a positive ROI over the lifetime value of the customer.

With so many options at hand, what would a prospective marketer pick as a discipline? Should they tackle SEO first, or look at another channel instead? Is there an ideal option in the beginning?

To make it easy for us, let’s explore what future clients would look for in each discipline, and what makes each of them unique from each other.

1. The Business of Tangibles

Clients always want to know: What are we getting for our money? Understandably, each discipline is billed differently, and clients are prone to accept some forms of deliverables easier than others:

SEO can’t really be delivered in a neat package. Did the client just pay for hours worked, with no guarantee of results? In one word, yes. Rankings hopefully come later. The work itself? It comes down to a hodge podge of research, links built, outreach to webmasters, etc. None of these really move the needle in the short-term (if at all), which may be a problem for certain calibers of clientele. You can get paid for such effort, but if it doesn’t lead anywhere solid, clients generally don’t have the patience to hold out for very long – SEO is a constant point of friction for those who want tangible results from their investment.

UX Design is an honest transaction. A page layout is $X, delivered by a certain date with a guarantee of X revisions. Development can deal with the details later. Once the job is done, both parties walk away satisfied.

PPC is a nuanced conversation. Are clients paying for the setup, creatives and management? Or are they paying for the ongoing maintenance? Is the ROI even a discussion? Or will the deal be based on a per-lead basis? Every agency an freelancer will have their own structure, but the overall strategy is simple: pay for traffic upfront.

Copywriting is also a vague one. Some charge per word; others charge per page. There are also those who land somewhere in between. Similar to design, however, it’s typically a one-and-done kind of transaction. Is it easy for other professionals or website owners to copy your work? Absolutely. But such individuals never last in the long-term. Creativity and inspiration always win out in the end.

Marketing is one product where you NEVER get what you pay for. Either you overpay, or underpay. There is no in between.

2. The Requisite of Skill

Are any marketing skills, actually skills? Certainly some are, but not all:

As mentioned in another post, SEO isn’t a real skill. It seems to be a conglomerate of mini skills. Whether or not that is entirely accurate, it does not negate the fact that there isn’t a real way to learn SEO in the form of an advanced course or internship. The best way to understand how search engines work and what can be done to make a website easier to crawl, navigate & rank for keywords, is through building many websites of your own and experimenting with them. That’s the way to SEO expertise, and even then, it’s difficult to gauge someone else’s SEO skill right off the bat. The difference between a 4-year SEO and a 14-year SEO isn’t a whole lot, to be completely honest. The more experienced SEO would have more case studies and a knowledge of a few extra verticals, but otherwise would be on par with a younger SEO in terms of best practices, terminology and overall methodology.

Design is a real skill. Not everyone can do it, and most people don’t enjoy the process. There are few who would deny that. Design does get better with experience due to wider arrays of work being executed and learned, along with new tools, tricks and collaborations being available to a seasoned designer over a relatively new designer. As skills increase, work becomes defined and refined, with more recognition and familiarity impressed upon such work over an extended period of time. In other words, as skills increase, more work becomes available, which leads to greater opportunities to improve design skill yet again.

PPC is a tricky one. Is it in itself a skill? Or is it merely the act of manually creating and monitoring ads for others? Design and copywriting also bleed into this one, seeing as how they would need to have some alluring creatives to have prospective customers clicking on such ads. There is also the issue of split testing, conversion optimization and analytics, which are an entirely different endeavors on their own. While PPC seems like an initially easy skill to master, in light of these revelations, it becomes much more complicated.

Copywriting is a skill the same way creativity is. It can be nurtured, but some it is simply innate. It cannot be taught the same way a skill like woodworking can. Similar to SEO, there comes a point of diminishing returns, where the only difference between a good copywriter and a great copywriter is the case studies that come with them. The principles of copy don’t really change over time, the same way human emotions don’t.

The ambiguity of skill may be one reason why there is an abundance of marketers out there, with potential clients who are constantly vetting them.

3. The Portfolio of Work

Perhaps the deciding factor between a broke marketer and a rich marketer, is the advertising they create with their own body of work:

It is rather difficult to display examples of SEO work done by you (or anyone else for that matter). Why? Here’s just a few reasons:

  • The client neglected to implement the actual recommendations provided by the freelancer
  • The client moved onto another agency, who could’ve made things either better or worse
  • The work-in-question was conducted a number of years ago, and the client has not continued to utilize their services, thus fallen behind to the competition
  • The freelancer was hired to only operate on one area of SEO e.g. link building, on page optimization etc. and cannot take credit for the gain/loss in rankings

Essentially, the prospective client would have to look at hard numbers such as rankings generated within a specific time period, number of links built (which is still rather arbitrary) or number of organic conversions generated from traffic (which overlaps other disciplines). As we can see, it’s a slippery slope whichever way we look at it.

Design has perhaps the easiest job of all in this regard. Resources such as Behance, Graphicriver, Deviantart and Dribble make it easy for designers to upload their portfolio for all to see. There is not much beyond that. If people like what they see, they will get in touch with you. In a way, they are already sold on you before they click the contact button, which is hardly the case for marketers from other disciplines.

PPC is in a similar boat to SEO. There is little to go off, other than screenshots of campaign ROI numbers and testimonials. Since such data is typically confidential, clients don’t want this information published for the world to know about, and marketers have a hard time convincing clients to give them a large chunk of money which they can not promise will bring a positive ROI the same way it did for their other clients. Replicating results is difficult, even in similar industries and niches, which means a portfolio of work is near useless for PPC marketers.

Copywriting is another tough one. Screenshots of homepages and product descriptions may be an option, but what is the potential client looking for? Typography and layout isn’t an issue as much as the words themselves and how they come together to relay a message; but would the client know a good piece of copy when they saw it? What do they think is good copy, versus what actually is?

The case study or portfolio problem seems to be an issue for marketing in general.

Final Thought

There is no right or wrong answer. Apart from the aforementioned disciplines, there are many more marketing avenues to navigate, which will likely have similar challenges. It seems to only be a matter of which one you would enjoy the most. And the only way to know that is to experiment with all of them.

So, why not start today?

About the author


Sebastian is a veteran digital marketing expert with 23+ years of experience across hundreds of brands, and curates a weekly marketing newsletter.