Using Upwork to Make Money: A Freelancer's Perspective

I’ve been very active on the link building side of SEO for more than a decade. From agency SEO to affiliate websites, I’ve seen just about everything. Along the way I had plenty of time to mess around with one of the more popular freelancer platforms while link building for clients, Upwork

If you are not familiar with Upwork, it’s basically a platform the acts as an intermediary between businesses and individuals looking to hire contractors and freelancers and those looking to acquire those jobs. It’s not the only game in town, but it’s a rather well-known one. 

You can use Upwork as either a client, a freelancer, or both. As the title suggests, I’m going to discuss my experiences using it from a freelancer’s point of view. 

desk and window

The Basics

As a freelancer, it’s not a very difficult platform to understand. You get to set up a profile, look through gig opportunities, and make pitches. 

But, of course it’s a bit more complicated than that. 

First things first, your profile is important. It includes:

  • your name
  • your picture
  • your location
  • a “Job Success Score” (more on this later)
  • a profile title
  • an overview (where you get to try and sell yourself)
  • a place to post an introduction video
  • Upwork earning statistics
  • Upwork work history and feedback
  • a portfolio section
  • a skills section
  • Upwork test scores
  • employment history
  • education
  • and an other experience section

If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Your profile is by far the most important factor in whether you will land clients or not. 

If you have a weak or shoddy profile it will be next to impossible to get started. 

But, as important as your profile as a whole is, there are three aspects within it that matter the most.

Optimizing Your Profile

Upwork is a tech platform, and as such, it’s kind of like a mini search engine. You have to game the system a little in order to get noticed, just like an SEO does with Google and Yahoo. 

Unfortunately, while there are some aspects you can optimize, there are some you can’t.

Your Location

Your location is very important. Upwork has an option that allows clients to filter out non-US freelancers. So, if you are a US freelancer, you’ll want to make sure your profile reflects that. 

I actually had a problem with this originally as when I first signed up I was in Taiwan. They saw I had a Taiwanese IP, and marked me as being from Taiwan. 

I had to get it all sorted with some paperwork and a long back and forth with their customer service when I got back to the US. But, to their credit, it was possible to fix. 

Your Profile Title

This is extremely important. For you SEO’s out there, you will want to treat this as an SEO title for a blog post. 

For example, if you want to offer content writing services, you want those exact works to be the very first part of your profile title. 

Even if your overview covers a whole array of services you offer, the title hold the most weight and that’s how you will be found more often than not. 

You can now actually set up multiple job-specific profiles, but as I haven’t been using the platform recently I have not bothered giving it a try. 

Your Job Success Score

Your Job Success Score, or JSS, is a bit of a catch-22. It’s a secret algorithm Upwork uses to grade you as a freelancer. 

I’m honestly not entirely sure how it works as I had completed all my gigs but saw my JSS drop from 100% to 94%. And, it’s darn near impossible to get any straight answers from an official Upwork representative about it. 

Upwork JSS

It does seem to favor the client over the freelancer though as research shows it heavily relies on the private feedback of clients about freelancers. That private feedback can be very subjective.

Needless to say, if you have a solid JSS you show up in potential client’s searches more often than if you have a low JSS.  What makes a good vs. a poor one though is anyone’s guess, though I would say aiming for at least an 80% or above is a good start. 

You of course start with a 0% JSS score as a new freelancer, I think. That means you really need to spend more time on cold pitches (you get about 30 or these a month for free) since you won’t get any offers from clients passively. 

Your JSS also has the potential to be much more erratic when you’re new. For instance, if you won two gigs, and botched one of them, in theory your JSS would at some point trickle down to 50%, which looks pretty bad. But, if you did four small and simple gigs and then took on something too big and didn’t do well, your JSS would in theory end up being 80% (4/5), which would be bearable.

A lot of this is a guess though as the JSS is a tricky item to really pin down.

UPDATE: In a move that’s probably well overdue and appears to be positive for freelancers, Upwork is making a change to JSS scores starting November 8, 2020. This is what they say will change: “We are updating the Job Success Score (JSS) calculation process to exclude contracts that end without feedback.”

Getting Your First Gig

After spending time on your profile, you will need to get out in the Wild West of Upwork and try and land a client. As mentioned above, since you don’t have a history on Upwork when you get started, no one is going to find you if you just sit back and wait. 

Don’t fret though as the system has a feature where freelancers can take a more active role. You can search for active job posts using filters to thin out those that you’re not suited for. Once you find a few, you can make your pitch. 

Be careful with your pitches though as they can get expensive.

In the past you were limited to how many you can make in any single month. Upwork gave free users 60 monthly “connects”. Each pitch usually ran two connects, so you got 30 pitches per month. 

Ever since their IPO, they have been toying with the way connects work and if you aren’t constantly on the platform it’s very hard to keep up with whatever new system they are experimenting with. 

Upwork connects

There is a paid feature that gives you 10 extra connects a month and unused connects from the previous month will roll over to the following month (up to 140). That runs $10/month. 

But, no need to get ahead of yourself. The first 60 connects is plenty for you to get started. 

Just remember, when you make your pitch, be clear and concise. If you’re too vague, you’ll get ignored, and if you’re proposal is a novel, you’ll be ignored. 

*Upwork is changing their “connects” plan in May of 2019 taking away the free ones. Now you will either need to pay $14.99 month for their Freelancer Plus plan that gives you 70 each month, or you will need to pay as you go at $0.15 cents each. This is sure to change many more times as well.

Vetting Clients

Aside from actually getting offers, vetting potential clients is by far the most important thing to worry about. You absolutely want to make sure both you and the client are 100% in agreement to what a successful gig completion would look like.

I’m not going to go as far and say there are good clients and there are bad clients. That’s not fair. But, there are good matches and bad matches. For me, a great match would be a client that is as hands-off as possible. A bad match would be a client that needs updates twice a day. 

Again, that’s just how I work, so it may be different for you. But, you want to make sure you are a good fit before starting a job together. 

You’ll also want to make your agreements with potential clients as objective as possible. Upwork tends to always favor the client over the freelancer, so subjective goals are something that can lead to problems, and thus poor JSS scores. 

For example, if you are website developer, you might want to avoid entering an agreement with someone who wants a “quality” website for their small business, and instead agree to make a “5-page responsive website” that details the specifics of what each page will be. Make your deliverable as objective as possible to avoid potential disagreements. 

Getting Paid

Upwork does make getting paid pretty easy. You can set up ACH payments that go right into your bank account weekly. They have a very clear timelog you can always check for any hourly work you do. And, they use an escrow system for any fixed-rate gigs you take on. 

As long as you are clear with what your deliverables will be (avoid subjective agreements), you should not have any problems with getting paid. 

It’s not all ice cream and puppy dogs though. There are a few hiccups.

For instance, while I do link building as a fixed-rate for some clients, I have lost out on reimbursement for content I subcontracted. Although it was clearly discussed that I would front the cost of this and would be reimbursed, and that cost was pinned down to an exact amount, since it wasn’t in the contract but instead discussed in the messages, the client reneged. 

There’s a small chance I could have put up a fuss and received that money, but it would have probably costed me more in the long run with negative reviews than just eating the loss and cutting ties with that individual. 

That being said, when doing fixed-rate work, there’s always a bit of a gamble if you have to front any money to get your work completed. 

They do have a milestone feature where you can break up a gig into smaller pieces. I strongly suggest using that to avoid possibly getting into a messy situation over a job you completed in full only to have a client get fussy when it’s time to pay.

The Math

Aside from getting your fist gig, getting control of the math is the hardest part of Upwork freelancing. As a platform, they take a nice big cut of your earnings. The fee structure is: 

  • 20% of your first $500 with a client
  • 10% of your earnings with a client after your first $500 and up to $10,000
  • 5% of your earnings with a client after the first $10,000

*This is something that tends to get changes every 6-12 months, so double check this before you do any work

There are no two ways about it. That initial 20% hurts. And, as you basically have to pass that along to the client unless they are a big spender, it does make some offers next to impossible to take. 

For example, if you have a client that wants you to provide them with 10 blog posts for a car dealership website each month for $500, you can eat the 20%. The first month you’ll only get $400 of that $500, which might be less than you want for your writing, but after that it jumps to $450 which might be more in line with your expectations. 

However, if you have a client that wants three guest posts (prospecting, outreach, and writing the posts) and is offering $50 a post, if you were to get the whole $150, you might be able to swing it. But, since you would only see $120 of that $150, it might be better for you to just find a writing gig for a few dollars less as it will take much less time to complete. 

You also need to factor the pitch time into the equation. Do you really want to spend an hour pitching your writing abilities to a one-off $40 gig where you’ll only see $32? And, this doesn’t even include any connects you had to pay for. 

When you’re looking for gigs, you always need to take the math into consideration because what might seem OK on the surface might actually be more trouble than it’s worth, literally. 

Final Word

Overall, it’s been an interesting experience. It’s never a bad thing to have options while trying to make some money, especially in these trying times. And, the platform as a whole is fairly simple to get started with. 

If you are a service provider, it’s definitely something you might want to make part of your arsenal for finding new clients.