How Much Should an SEO Freelancer Expect To Make?
Nick LeRoy shares 10 years of SEO agency salary which you may use as a proxy for establishing freelancing income goals.
When people talk about freelancing they immediately think of two things:
The freedom of not having a boss.
The Scrooge McDuck vault of cash that all freelancers have.
The first point re: the boss is mostly true although when it comes down to it, all you’re really doing is switching from having 1-2 bosses to however many clients you have. I’ll cover the benefits/drawbacks of that in a future post.
The second point, re: money is also a slippery slope. Freelancing can be very lucrative but very rarely starts out that way. Like any other job the more experience and or skills you have the more earning potential you have.
In today’s post, I walk you through my own 10+ year SEO agency salary journey. How is this relevant to freelancing? When you go full-time, you give up the “guarantee” of a paycheck. The timeline below walks you through my earnings from a junior SEO to Director of SEO. These numbers, to me, are a proxy for what I need to hit to make the decision to freelance (full-time) worth it.
10 Years of SEO Agency Salary As A Proxy
In my AHREFS post back in March, I published my salary earnings through the graph below. It’s now time to share the exact data breaking out both my salary and freelancing earnings. For those who freelance part-time (or want to) I also included estimates on my freelance income during my 9-5 days. Take the PT freelance income as a data point. Naturally, the more you want to work outside of your 9-5 the more you can earn. Today’s post will focus mostly on full-time earnings.
Note. My salaries are based on jobs/companies based in Minnesota. Depending on where you’re located, your market may demand a higher/lower rate.
2009-2010 “Web Marketing Specialist”
Start: $18/hour (contract) w/ no benefits.
End: $34,000 + benefits
Freelance income: None
Years experience: 0-1.5 years
My first job out of college was a position I’ll always be appreciative of. In 2009 very few companies were hiring. I lucked into an interview through someone I knew who in turn knew the owner of this web design agency.
This company realized an opportunity to capture revenue by offering SEO themselves vs continuing to only implement changes through the client’s SEO partner.
I was tasked with teaching myself SEO from scratch. I must have done an OK job as my 6-month contract turned into a full-time position with an increased salary and benefits. You can also assume benefits are now included in all future positions.
2011-2014 “Web SEO Consultant”
Start: $53,000 + ~1K bonus
End: $56,500 + ~1K bonus
Freelance Income: $12-17K per year
Years experience: 1.5-5 years
After 2 years in my first SEO position, I started to doubt if I really knew SEO or if I was just the smartest guy in a room of one. I went from being the lone SEO to a team of 50+ SEOs.
This job was focused exclusively in the legal niche. This company had a process for how SEO was to be executed and most SEOs worked out of a JIRA queue.
With this position being very process-oriented I was able to easily hit my required numbers. Although with clients exclusive to the legal niche I craved more. This is when I started dabbling in freelance and affiliate SEO work in addition to the full-time work.
2014-2018 “Sr SEO Analyst/Manager”
Start: $70,000 + ~7K bonus
End: $98,000 + ~15K bonus
Freelance Income: ~$10K per year
Years experience: 5-9 years
At this point in my career, my wife and I started our family. With a family of 5, I needed to increase my earnings. I left a very easy and comfortable job to join an SEO team of 2 (including me) at a high-growth agency in downtown Minneapolis.
Gone were the 35-hour work weeks and they were replaced with 45+ hour weeks. This had a big impact on my ability to do freelance work. I had in essence traded my freelance income for a higher “guaranteed” salary, though I still kept most of my affiliate sites.
With any booming agency comes politics and burnout. This is when I started the#SEOForLunch newsletter. It was always my insurance policy for when I wanted out of the high-stress agency world. In fact, this newsletter and the thousands of people who became subscribers helped make my transition to full-time freelancing even easier.
2019-2020 “SEO Supervisor / Director”
Start: $105,000 + 5K signing bonus
Freelance Income: ~$15-20K per year
Years experience: 9-10.5 years
Circumstances at the last agency resulted in change. Not only in my role but also in how I wanted to prioritize my life. I had spent 45-hour week minimums (+2 hours of driving each day) for nearly 5 years. I was ready to take a step back and spend more time with my family.
My last agency role allowed me to return to “normal” work hours and focus on the quality of my SEO work. This also allowed me to double down on my personal projects which at that point consisted of the #SEOForLunch, affiliate sites, and limited client work.
In this role, I had won a company-wide award and was promoted to Director taking over the SEO practice in just 9 months. While my team was awesome, I wanted more. I started thinking more and more about freelancing full-time.
$10-20K+ in PT Freelance Income But At What Cost?
How much can you earn as a freelance SEO? My answer, prior to going out full-time was a maximum of ~$20,000.00 per year.
Part-time freelancers will quickly realize that the added revenue is always a trade for your free time. In my earlier years, my freelance time was VERY inefficient. I was still learning the finer art of SEO and executing work at ridiculously low hourly rates. In many instances, I was working on affiliate sites generating low/no income.
Part-time freelancers will likely always wrestle with this time/money tradeoff. Only you can decide what the perfect balance is. Below, again from my AHREFs post, outlines hours invested on a weekly basis throughout the same 10 years we discussed.
Time/Experience/Skills Plays A HUGE Role In Your Earning Potential
If you’ve been paying attention and doing the math, you’ll notice that I was spending 70+ hours between my 9-5 and side SEO projects. Most of this “side hustle” time wasn’t profitable. However, it helped me gain extra knowledge and experience outside of projects I had at work.
As I built up more experience and confidence I was able to become much more efficient in my freelance efforts. It’s this time of hustling that I attribute my success in ramping up over $165K in revenue in 8 short months after going freelance full-time.
As a freelancer, full-time or part-time, your earning potential will always be tied to these things:
The amount of value (profit) you can provide your customers.
The amount of time you are willing to engage.
Using SEO Salary As A Freelance Earning Proxy
Similar to a 9-5 SEO position, your earnings will be limited by your experience and success achieved. If you have little experience it is very likely that making six figures as a freelancer will be very difficult.
However, this doesn’t mean you should give up on your freelancing dreams. Money is only one KPI for “success”. Not dealing with company politics, flexible hours, ability to work from anywhere, and control over your work can easily make up for some (potential) gap in salary.
My official recommendation for those interested in freelancing is to try it out in addition to your 9-5 job. This gives you the safety of your paycheck and you only risk your time outside of the 9-5 chasing your dream. You may find that freelancing comes naturally and you can quickly earn your current paycheck in half the time you currently spend at your 9-5. At that point, we can talk more about the transition from part-time to full-time.