Learning Experiences as a Freelancer

I thought it might be useful to share some of my not-so-great experiences as a freelance web designer so that others can learn from my mistakes.

All Work and No Pay

What’s really frustrating is that I made the same mistake several times. That costly mistake was doing work and not getting paid for it. I’d get an enquiry for building a site by phone or email. I’d get straight back with some ideas and a quote and more often than not my quote would be accepted. I’d even have written confirmation that yes, they wanted to pay me for a website. On this basis I’d do the work and then when it came to sharing my design they’d say that they didn’t want to go ahead any more or that they’d found another designer.

It’s hard as a designer. You can get excited by a project. As soon as you finish speaking to the customer the ideas start flooding into your head and you want to capture that excitement and creativity there and then. Unfortunately, in my experience it often doesn’t actually materialise. They’re just not as serious about the project as you think they are.

My advice would be to assume that it’s just talk until you see some commitment, and by commitment I mean money. Ask for a deposit. It doesn’t have to be much, even £10 or $10 will do, but it’s just enough to prove that they’re serious. Don’t lift a finger until you’ve got a serious commitment. Trust me -you can’t afford to work for nothing.

The Price is Right

The other mistake I made was in my pricing. As I was fairly new to web design I thought I’d hit the low end of the market where I could compete on price and get lots of small cheap sites in my portfolio. It worked well for some customers but it’s surprising how many people expect you to travel to see them at your expense when you’re charging less than £100 for a website. The only way you can operate at the cheap end is by having very low outgoing costs.

Later, when I stopped being a full-time freelancer and moved into a permanent job I kept the web design going as a side line. At this point I could afford to be more picky about which projects I took on, and, without needing to be so competitive I raised my prices. In fact, I doubled my prices. Here’s the thing. I was expecting my number of enquiries to drop off. It didn’t. It pretty much doubled. I think that going too cheap was actually suggesting low quality or making people suspicious. Charging more can suggest higher quality and strangely provide some reassurance.

My advice would be to find the price that you think your service is worth and then double it. Serious customers want to buy quality services and with something like a website they’re looking for a long term relationship, not a quick handover.

Losing Focus

The third mistake I made was spending my time on the wrong things. I spent a lot of time trying to market myself rather than focusing on client work. I put a lot of hours into studying Google Analytics, SEO and building other sites to promote my main business. It would have been far more cost effective to just pay for advertising rather than commit this time. Trying to market myself by spending time and not money was a false economy. Focus on what you’re good at and pay others to do what they’re good at.

Hope that helps someone.

Pet Hate: Click Here

I hate seeing “click here”. Uuurgh! It’s such a 1995 way of thinking about web pages. There’s always a better way.

A typical example might be “To create your account please click here.” Why not simply “Create your account”? It’s obvious, it’s shorter and the link text actually means something which is better for accessibility and search engine optimisation.

The other part that annoys me is that a click isn’t really a click any more. It could be a tap on a touch screen, you might be tabbing through the interactive page elements with a keyboard, using a screen reader or any number of other devices which don’t use a click.

If you see it, please have a word. :)

Web traffic through quality links

I’ve recently started a new web development blog and have been pleasantly surprised at the high levels of traffic (relative to anything I’ve done before) it’s receiving after such a short space of time. I’ll share with you how I’ve achieved this.

My traffic building strategy was to target a few carefully chosen high quality links. My plan was to try to create a small number of links to my site, quality not quatity, coming from web pages highly ranked by Google and with a subject matching the page on my site. I also decided to use deep linking rather than just point everything at my home page.

The subject of my blog is web development resources and, in particular, ASP.NET web development. (Two links in that last sentence, sorry, can’t help myself.)

When I blogged about a particular solution I then went in search (Google) of people with technical issues looking for my solution. All I then did was create a forum account and post a reply linking out to my blog post. Highly relevant. I’d respond to forum posts that had been dead for 2 years. Doesn’t matter. I’m still getting a link to my site which is good for me and the solution is posted on that forum for anyone who searches in the future.

The key point is that in this scenario is that the inbound links I have created are actually useful to the linking site’s audience. Everybody wins. It’s in no way trying to cheat the system. This is the right way to generate your inbound links.

My website is 5 today!

Happy 5th Birthday!My website, www.chris-smith-web.com, is 5 years old today.

I registered the domain name and started building the site on 15th June 2004. This has made me all nostalgic so I thought I’d take a quick look back over the last 5 years and how the site and business has changed in that time.

I registered the domain with a company called 123-reg whom I still use to this day. They provide good value domain registration with a nice simple control panel. I also hosted my first site with them though now I have moved on, mainly due to the more advanced technologies I now use.

website in 20042004

My first design was fairly basic but, looking back on it now, I still like its simplicity and clarity.

Although it was a new site it managed to bring in some good enquiries and before long I was off and running.

I can still remember my first enquiry and the first website I built for a client very clearly.

website in 20062006

As the “cheap web design” market got more and more competitive I needed to redesign the site to try to improve its search engine rankings. I tried using an individual web page for each individual service I could offer.

With hindsight, I think what I gained in web traffic I lost in conversions as this design failed to impress web development seekers.

website in 20072007

Another year on the web was changing and Web 2.0 technologies were becoming more common. I decided I needed a different design with a fresher, more vibrant feel. This design change saw a marked improvement in my enquiry levels.

I also started using server side technology to create more interactivity.

Today

My site now uses a blogging model and has articles as its centre rather than just the static pages about my services. This model is strong on the search engine side and my visitor numbers are higher than ever. It also means I get to write about the things that I’m passionate about – web development and online marketing.

The Future

I’m just in the process of launching a new site focused on Online Marketing. Please take a look at Chris Smith Marketing, www.chrissmithmarketing.com.

Don’t put all your eggs in Google’s basket

GoogleWorking on your website’s search engine optimisation (SEO) is all well and good but it’s a dangerous strategy to use this one source of web traffic in isolation. I’ve found this out the hard way.

Yes, there’s no disputing that appearing at the top of the Google search results for the right phrases will bring in visitors but using this as your sole strategy could be very risky. You shouldn’t be too dependent on Google as things can change very quickly.

I’ve experienced it myself a number of times. I’ve had my site sitting pretty in the top 5 results only for it to suddenty plummet down to the fourth page or lower or vanish from the search results altogether.

Google ranks web pages and other documents by following an algorithm, a complex formula. As they continually try to improve their search technology they tweak this algorithm from time to time. Depending on the change this can have quite dramatic effects on ranking. Through no fault of your own you can suddenly lose your foothold on a particular phrase or market.

Google indexes websites by periodically visiting them with it’s search robot, Googlebot. The frequency of these visits depends on the frequency of your site updates. If you’re unlucky enough for your website to be down at the time when Googlebot visits you’ll drop out of the index and have to wait until it drops by again before reappearing.

The other big factor is competition. In competitive markets your competitors will be working tirelessly to try to grab the top spot. Changes they make to their sites or search engine marketing activity can easily leave you playing catch up.

I’m not suggesting for a second that you should stop pushing for a high ranking on Google but you should be doing other things too so that should anything change your site doesn’t grind to a halt.