New freelance journalists often tell me they don’t need a website. I gently tell them otherwise. For your freelance business to succeed, you do need a website. You need one so prospective clients will find you. You need one to serve as your brochure and portfolio. You need one because your competitors have one.
Sometimes freelancers tell me they don’t need more work or more clients. I remind them that seemingly reliable clients can go out of business, or their expenses can increase, or other circumstances change. People also tell me they don’t have the ability to build a site themselves, or they’re afraid of the process. I tell them to hire someone, or barter with a colleague who has technical skills. That’s also the answer for the “I don’t have the time” crowd. Either make the time or contract out the job. Websites are like phones — without one, you aren’t going to have much of a freelance career.
WHERE TO START?
Before you can create a website, you need a domain name, a URL like writerruth.com. Your site name should reflect what you do, not who you are. Domain names are online real estate, complete with speculators, so you might find your preferred name taken, especially if you try to get, for example, YourName.com. I recommend people not use their own names for their site names but, if you do, come up with a function-based name as well; they can both go to the same site. You can purchase the domain name from, and register it with, any number of companies. Domain names are only about $4.95 a year — a worthwhile investment in a freelance effort. Just be absolutely sure that you own the name; don’t let anyone else register the name for you.
When you’re ready for an actual website, you’ll need a hosting service. Ask colleagues for recommendations. Expect to pay $10 to $15 a month for hosting.
You can base your site design on pre-formed templates; many hosts provide these. But if you change hosts, you’ll lose the design, and you risk having a me-too site. You’re better off finding a website designer to create a unique site for you and show you how to manage your own updates. Find journalist sites you like and ask their owners about their designers.
A skilled Web designer will optimize your site for search engines to help you get noticed. But you can and should be able to do things like post your latest work or make simple changes yourself — it’s faster, cheaper and more efficient than relying on someone else (and empowering, too!).
“Content” is, of course, what you put on the site. Create a portfolio page with samples that tout your experience and clips in PDF versions. Remember to get permission from employers or clients before posting or linking to work you have done for them, especially if you offer editing or proofreading services. Remember that online content also includes keywords, identifiers about what you do and who you are, and links, or connections to and from other sites. Both are vital aids in bringing people to your site from search engines.
Make your website your personal hall of fame; anytime you receive a compliment or thank you, an award, or anything else that demonstrates your talents, ask if you can post it at your site.
Don’t forget your contact page, which should include a phone number. Automated e-mail links can be harvested by “bots” and clog your e-mail with spam, but forms may deter people from contacting you. Putting in your e-mail address but spelling out the @ symbol as “AT” can head off the bots.
A photo of yourself isn’t essential, but, if you use one, make it good. I’ve seen photos of someone wearing a hat that obscures their face, sitting at a messy desk or off at such a distance that viewers can’t tell who they are. Don’t use a casual or informal photo, or one that has other people in it, or one of your dog. Remember, too, that large images make your site slower. Be careful about using Web animation; it can make your site hard to read.
KEEP IT FRESH
Regular updates to your site will increase your visibility in search engines, as well as keep the site interesting to return visitors. If you don’t have new projects to feature, you might comment about news in your areas of interest, journalism trends or your activities. Post only what is relevant to what you do as a freelancer — clients rarely care about your hobbies, family, religious affiliation or political opinions.
See you on the Web!
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, writerruth.com, has spoken on websites for writers for SPJ’s Region 1 and other associations.