Most web designers aren’t very familiar with SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which is the process of ranking specific web pages as high up in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Positions) as possible. It’s understandable, web design and SEO are only loosely connected. The only time when SEO enters the mind of a web designer is usually when they’re writing the HTML and considering the relevant tags to use. It’s also understandable because most web designers work with local clients, or have other ways of finding clients.
But it’s very possible to use SEO to find web design clients if you know what you’re doing. I know this because it’s how I’ve worked for over 1,500 design clients in the past 3 years. Unlike most designers, nearly 99.9% of my clients are located in different states and countries. Many freelance designers unnecessarily struggle month to month due to a lack of consistent income. If you’re one of those starving designers, keep on reading!
My Personal Story
Over 4 years ago when the popular social site Digg.com started getting popular, I wanted to see if I could produce a design tutorial which could gain enough “diggs” to hit the front page. Why? I don’t know, I think it was just to see how much traffic I could get if my tutorial actually did hit the front page. So I spent a few hours writing a detailed tutorial on how to design a logo. I submitted it and a couple hours later I checked on it and low and behold, my tutorial hit the front page. Visitor total came in at around 13,000 unique visitors. Pretty cool, but I wasn’t monetizing my site at all.
Now let’s fast forward 8 months later. I wasn’t making much consistent income and I was about to move out. My last resort was to work as a designer under some random company remotely, which I didn’t want to have to do (I was always of a freelancer mindset). I checked my website stats one day and I was receiving over 800 visitors daily. Mind you, I thought this site was dead. After looking into it, I was ranking very high for certain logo design related keywords in Google. People who wanted to design their own logos were ending up at my site, hundreds of them daily.
I was curious at the time, how exactly did ranking on digg translate into #1 / #2 / #3 rankings in google for a variety of related keywords? After looking into it, the exposure I gained from hitting the front page of digg.com made the tutorial visible for other websites and site owners to link to. I received hundreds of different backlinks (other websites linking to your page) from hundreds of other websites. And because my tutorial title had logo design related keywords in it, that was the anchor text those websites used when they linked to my site. One of the most important factors Google uses to determine which keywords to rank a given page for is the anchor text of the backlinks a page is receiving.
After this realization of receiving a decent amount of traffic, the rest was history. That month I built an ordering system in which people could order logos for a measily $75.00, and the next month I made nearly $3k. It turns out people who want to design their own logo soon realize it’s not for them and ended up ordering from me instead. What’s even better about this story is that was over three years ago and I’ve still maintained those rankings; that tutorial is still generating clients. It turns out that once you receive a high ranking in Google, it generally lasts for years.
So now that you know it’s fully possible to make a decent living (in fact you can make an awesome living) from search engine rankings, let’s cover some SEO basics. The task of performing SEO is split into two parts.
On-site SEO is something you should already be familiar with as a web designer. It’s the proper usage of all of the HTML elements on your site, along with keywords. Every entrance page on your site (usually your home page, articles, etc..) need to be focused towards specific keywords. The keywords you choose to target need to be placed in critical sections of the HTML. The meta tags (description and keywords), the title tag, head tags (H1, H2, H3 etc..), alt tags, etc.. are all the most important places in which keywords need to be placed. Don’t spam the keywords though, you want to use your keywords naturally, otherwise google will penalize you and make ranking difficult.
On-site optimization always involves the process of creating a solid interlinking structure within your site. Whenever possible and wherever relevant, you want to link your visitors to other pages on your site. And you want to link them with proper anchor text (the primary keyword that the article is associated with).
On-site optimization is the easiest half of SEO. They’re all variables which you can control. Back in the 1990’s, search engines were very ineffective at providing reliable results because they only relied on on-site variables to rank web sites. All you had to do was spam your keyword in your html and you would receive top rankings. Google’s success came from taking into consideration off-site optimization in order to provide better results.
Off-site SEO is all about other websites that link to you. There are a many factors that go into off-site optimization. Google wants you to receive those backlinks in natural “white-hat” ways. Google is always at a constant battle with SEO Black Hats (you know, the guys that keep spamming your wordpress blog). The method I described above in my own story is considered white hat because the tutorial spread naturally and other websites willingly linked to it.
The most important factors of effective off-site optimization are:
When Google indexes a website and all of its pages, it automatically categorizes that website and each individual page into a specific niche based on the content it finds. If a website about shoes links to your website about web design, less weight (ranking influence) will be given to that link.
Several factors of a website determine the authority it has. Age, content, and the amount+quality of backlinks it receives make up authority. If you receive a backlink from Google.com, it will play a much more significant role in your ability to rank for a keyword than if you were to receive one from your mother’s blog.
3. Anchor text
We all know this is anchor text. Even more important than the surrounding content on the page you’re receiving a backlink from is the anchor text. It’s why it’s very important to place your target keyword in the title tags of your page. There are many automated systems like vBulletin for instance, that will replace the URL of a page with the title tag for the anchor text.
You must also choose your keywords correctly. If you think you’re going to rank for a keyword like “web design”, think again. While it’s possible, you’re going to be up against some very experienced SEO experts who are constantly trying to improve rankings. If you’re just starting out, go after more targeted niche keywords. There are a whole slew of applications and web based services that are based entirely around finding good keywords which I’ve linked at the bottom of this article.
Onto the good stuff…
Now that you have a basic understanding of what SEO is and how search engines rank websites, I’ll give you some great ideas that you can begin implementing in order to find design clients through SEO.
• City, State + “Web Design”, “Web Designer”, “Print Design”, etc..
This is the most obvious option. Let’s say you’re from Phoenix, AZ. People in Phoenix who want a website designed are searching google right now trying to find “phoenix web designers”, or “arizona web designers”, or “phoenix az website design”. Make sure either your home page, or a page on your site is geared towards these city+state+topic keywords. And then make sure you get backlinks from other sites with those keywords as anchor text. It’s that simple.
• Contribute content to other websites
You write an article, a tutorial, a guide or whatever exclusively for another website, that website will usually allow you to link to your website from within that article. 1-way backlinks (a link you receive that you do not reciprocate) hold a lot of weight.
• Write your own awesome content
It’s the formula I used in my story above and it works great as long as the content is good and it can receive exposure. Submitting it to the popular social bookmarking sites is a must if you don’t already have a lot of traffic. Digg, reddit, del.icio.us, stumbleupon are all great for this method. You can also submit it as a tip to sites like this and they may feature you in a roundup article. You just have to remember that you have a target keyword, and that it’s mentioned enough throughout your content, especially in the most critical areas like the title and h1 tag.
• Contribute Freebies
As a designer, you’re capable of designing stuff that everyone wants. Icon sets, wordpress themes, website templates, button designs, background patterns. These are all things you can design and then contribute and spread on other websites. Iconfinder is a huge site where others can find tons of free icons. You can contribute your own icon set and require people who use any icon link back to your website. If you design an awesome wordpress template, you can submit it to free wordpress template directories or even get it mentioned on huge sites like this one. How do you get a backlink from that? Simple, place a link to your site in the footer of the template!
• Get Niche
Let’s say you have a particular talent in designing something very specific, let’s say you’re great at 3D logo design. If your site is all about 3d logo design (the keyword even in the domain name, articles about 3d logo design, etc. etc.) it’s going to be a lot easier for you to rank and start receiving traffic than it is if your site is just about “logo design” in general. Remember what I said earlier, the more niche a keyword is, the easier it will be to rank because chances are, there’s less competition.
• Help Others
Every backlink counts. Backlinks are the single most important ranking factor after you have your page up and running. If you hang out on design forums, or you like helping answer question on Yahoo Answers, you can find opportunities to mention your link where it can help others. Search engines crawl pages regularly, and when they find your link on a new page, it’s only going to help.
Using just one or two of these methods can push you to the top of the search engines for a keyword, which can result in loads of new clients every month.
SEO is an entire industry in and of itself, so it may take time to get a firm grasp. The list above should help you get your feet wet. My advice is to start small. Try getting your site to rank for the city you live in + whatever area of design you’re in, like “city website design”, “city state web designer”. Once you start receiving traffic and clients, you’ll understand SEO can be a great way to find clients as a freelance designer.