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Spot Your Secret Freelance Competitors

Photography: hartman045

Freelancers might work by themselves, but they’re not alone. They have clients who are waiting for their projects, of course, but they also have competitors keen to steal their current clients and snapping up new ones. Usually those competitors remain unseen; only buyers go regularly from portfolio site to portfolio site assessing work. But freelancers who want to stay on top of their profession and keep their account book full need to make sure that they know what the competition is doing – and who they are.

Finding those competitors isn’t as easy as it sounds. When clients are coming in by word of mouth, there’s no sign of any direct competition and no platform on which alternative providers pitch for the same job. But those platforms do exist and they’re worth looking at to see who else is operating in your field.

Hit the Freelance Sites

Elance, probably the most popular freelance job site, doesn’t allow users to read whole bids placed by other freelancers but it does allow them to click through to see their profiles and portfolios. You might not be able read exactly what that service provider thinks makes them suitable for a specific job but you can see what they’re bringing to the market in general.

Because the profiles look more like resumes than traditional websites, it’s possible to compare your background with the training of other people in your field. You can see how common a particular technical accomplishment, such as familiarity with Joomla, is on Elance. You can see how much experience those competitors have and you can see the number of jobs they’ve won in the last twelve months.

Not all of the information the site provides is useful. The number of repeat customers says more about the number of clients with repeat jobs than the willingness of clients to return to the provider. Skills lists are meaningless when they’re self-rated. And most importantly, Elance doesn’t allow freelancers to display their websites, so it’s impossible to see whether those providers are also competing off the site.

Elance then, provides a useful and personal picture of other freelancers in your field. But those freelancers are only competitors when pitching for jobs on the site itself.

Hunt the Search Engines

For a more general picture of the competition, you need to get off Elance and head for the search engines, the place that leads are most likely to turn when they’re looking for a provider. It’s here that the competition tends to get really intense.

On search engines, competitors show themselves in two places. The most important is the search results themselves – but these are also the least relevant. Winning a top spot in a search for “graphic designers” or “freelance programmers” requires not outstanding design or coding skills but exceptional SEO knowledge. The most powerful competitor – the freelancer with the best skills, the greatest experience and the largest amount of talent – may be buried on page seventeen, too busy servicing his clients to bother keywording his pages or hustling for backlinks. The competition you can see in search results aren’t competing for jobs, they’re competing for placement in the search engines – a battle you can only win with some huge dedication and often with an SEO budget.

A more representative sample of the competition can be found in the ads around the page. The most prominent will often be taken not by direct competitors themselves but by agencies representing them, such as oDesk and Guru. Those sites represent a different kind of competitor and appeal to a different kind of lead: someone who wants freelancers to come to him rather than hunting down and choosing a freelancer himself. But the ads placed by small companies and individual freelancers are more helpful. These are businesses which, like most freelancers, want more work but which trust their talent more than their SEO abilities to win it for them. To compete directly with those service providers, you only need to be willing to risk a monthly advertising budget on AdWords’ keywords tool.

So you can see the whites of your competitors’ eyes on freelance sites like Elance, and you can find them pitching for jobs around the search results on search engines. But what can you learn when you review what those competitors are offering? You should be looking at a number of factors:

1. Pricing

The only way to know for sure what your skills are worth to buyers is to see what other freelancers are charging for the same service. While a good strategy is to pitch your own rates around the average demanded by other freelancers not all sites display prices and not all prices are what freelancers actually receive. Competitors’ pricing information is valuable but treat it as a guideline not a golden rule.

2. Background and Experience

One of the factors that goes into pricing is the experience of the freelancer. Service providers         who have worked for large corporations – copywriters who used to work at Madison Avenue firms, for example – can charge more by offering big firm expertise to buyers with small firm             budgets. As you browse competitors’ sites, pay attention to where they’ve worked and compare the prices of those with big firms in their resumes to those without.

3. Skills

Experience will tell you what your competitors have done but their list of skills – programming languages, design programs, and product range – will tell you what they can do now. If you find that your competitors are pitching jobs that you can’t complete, it might be time to pull out the textbooks and start learning.

4. Marketing

How your competitors pitch their services on their websites is important too. Pay attention to the quality of the copywriting on their site, the site’s design and its ease of use. When leads have to struggle to find a contact page or a portfolio they’re likely to click away. Make sure you’re not losing jobs to competitors with better designed sites.

For freelancers, competition is a strange thing. Many jobs come in through word of mouth, bypassing competition altogether, and when regular clients stick around there’s less need to battle for new buyers. But you should always keep an eye on who your competitors are, what they know and what they’re offering.

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