Microworking (also known as crowdsourcing) is working on very small discrete tasks. As advanced as the modern computer is, some functions are still beyond its capabilities. Simple tasks that we take for granted, such as understanding speech and recognising objects can still be very hit and miss for computers despite years of research. In the last few years, a movement has arisen whereby companies that have huge amounts of processing to do can farm it out to a huge network of online workers that will complete these tasks, usually for payment but sometimes even on a voluntary basis. This presents a potentially interesting option to those wishing to top up their income working from home, without having the commitment to set hours. I took a look at some of the companies offering this kind of work.
When I wrote the original version of this article, I had a few sites listed on a single page. Every now and then I take a look around to see if any more promising sites have appeared. This seems to be a rapidly growing segment and this article seems to be growing with it. I've therefore now split the article into two main sections: those sites that seem the most promising and those that seem less promising.
These are the sites that seem the most promising. On these I've done varying amounts of work myself, and can testify that I've received the pay for that work as expected.
Amazon's mechanical turk (mturk) was originally created by Amazon in 2005 to hire users to find duplicates on its web pages. Since then, other 3rd parties have also started using the platform to get their tasks completed. The jobs are described as Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) and are typically small tasks that cannot be accurately completed by a computer. These HITs can take the form of aiding image recognition, surveying web pages, transcribing audio into text, document translation, adding comments to blogs etc., and many more. The reward for these tasks ranges from $0.01 to $10 or so depending on the time involved, and results in a pretty low rate of pay by first world standards, often below minimum wage levels, resulting in accusations that it is nothing more than a virtual sweat shop. Turkers, as the workforce is referred to, should also be aware of predatory requesters that will accept the work and then reject it to avoid payment. There is no monitoring of this service by Amazon and all complaints are merely referred to the requester. You should therefore avoid doing large amounts of work for any unknown requesters. A user community at Turker Nation would be a good place to see who the regular requesters in good standing are. One of the most notable requesters using Mechanical Turk is CrowdFlower (appears on mturk under their old name, Delores Labs). CrowdFlower is one of the biggest crowdsourcing companies around at the moment and provides a lot of large scale projects on mturk. For all its faults there is a huge amount of work available, and if you can stomach the relatively low rewards, or get your efficiency to a good level, there is money to be earned.
Unfortunately, there are some major disadvantages with their payment system that will be a deal breaker for most of the world. Firstly, you can only transfer your earnings into a U.S. bank account, and the only alternative method is to transfer earnings to your amazon.com gift certificate balance to spend in their store. This in itself would not be so bad but you get a further kick in the teeth when you realise that you can only order from the U.S. amazon store, not the affiliate stores for other regions (amazon.co.uk, amazon.de etc.). This means higher shipping costs, much longer shipping times and possible customs issues. If you live in India at least there is good news for you, you can register to have a cheque in Indian Rupees posted to you.
Update: Since writing this article, CrowdFlower have opened up their tasks to various other partners, giving workers a lot more options on how they want to be paid. The pay can vary considerably. Check out my roundup of these sites for more information.
CloudCrowd's operations have now been acquired, so the below information is mainly of historical interest only.
After seeing mechanical turk in action I was intrigued by the idea and curious to see if anyone had refined the concept at all. After some searching I came across CloudCrowd, which is based on a similar idea but developed a little further. For instance, while amazon only provides the raw service to requesters, CloudCrowd seems to provide a much fuller service in terms of project management. The site is still in beta and clearly still has a few quirks but it is up, functioning and providing paid work. Surprisingly, their system is built as a facebook application, so you will need a facebook account to sign up.
From a worker point of view, the range and amount of work available is much smaller than on mturk. However, this in itself is hardly a bad thing as all the work is approved and provided by CloudCrowd. Therefore, it lacks many of the scams and junk requests that are present on the barely regulated mturk. They also try to calculate their pay rates to meet a certain level and give advice on how to optimise your work flow. Their payment system is also massively improved, with earnings being simply transferred to your PayPal account at no charge to yourself. Approved work is paid by end of the next business day, with no minimum amount required, making it probably the fastest payer around. I have been working on their tasks for a few weeks now and I have experienced quite a range of tasks. The simplest tasks pay $0.01 each and typically are just basic classification tasks that involve clicking one or two buttons and take 10 seconds or so. The higher paying tasks generally require some reasonable English skills, and are typically jobs like re-writing articles, recipes, etc or editing text documents if your English is particularly strong. Translation work (from French/German to English) is also available and pays particularly well.
Being still in beta the system is still being fine tuned, and incorrect rejections can occur (as work is reviewed in turn by other workers). The system functions by giving each worker a credibility rating, which in turn affects the range of work the worker has available, and if it gets too low, results in account suspension. When I first started I had a number of my submitted tasks rejected, some of these were obviously because of slip ups by me (for instance putting entries in the wrong field) but others seem to be down to rogue reviewers. This has declined a bit over time, partly because of improvements in their system and partly because I've grown a little more savvy working there. Fortunately, unlike mturk, there is at least an appeals process, albeit with some restrictions, such as not being able to appeal again for 3 days (or 30 days if your last appeal was denied). The company also inserts check tasks into the system to try and catch out fraudulent workers; you should be very wary of these, as they will instantly drop your credibility and result in your account being suspended. The company does patrol its discussion board and provide additional support there, and generally seems very committed to improving their site for betterment of both the workers and their customers.
Time will tell how this works out but it already has some big advantages over mechanical turk and the company are clearly aiming to constantly refine the process. If you do some good cautious work you can accumulate quite a bit of change.
Should you want to try CloudCrowd, here are a few tips to survive there:
- Carefully read the instructions given to you regarding the task. Understanding the task fully will avoid problems later and mean less rejected work for you, resulting in more pay.
- Occasionally check the support forum. This may give you an insight into any current problems with tasks and provide an additional source of information on how to correctly fulfill tasks.
- The "Skip" button is your friend. Do not feel like you have to complete every task you are given. If you feel you cannot confidently complete a certain task accurately then skip it and get a fresh task. For instance, this may be appropriate when the correct answer is ambiguous or unclear.
- Beware the dreaded check-tasks. These will drop your credibility to 25 instantly and place your account in probation. Under normal circumstances these should not affect you if you do careful work, but everyone makes mistakes occasionally. Should you be placed on probation, I suggest going into an ultra-cautious mode of working. A string of accepted tasks will soon get you out of probation and able to work again. Note that failing a test will cause you to be locked out of that project temporarily, with a second failure causing a permanent lockout. These lockouts do not however stop you doing tasks on other projects on the system.
- Keep an eye on your work history for any rejections and correct your work style if needed. If you feel you are getting unfair rejections of good quality work it may be best to stop temporarily, as it could be caused by fraudulent workers attacking the system.
- The volume and type of work can fluctuate. If you see there's nothing currently available then check back regularly, or subscribe for alerts to inform you when new projects are posted.
CloudCrowd has recently specialized in content generation, so there are lots of opportunities for skilled writers and editors.
Update: CloudCrowd and Clickworker have evolved considerably since writing this article. You can read about the changes in my Three Years On article.
Clickworker is another site I came across with a similar theme. The twist this time is that it is more Euro-centric, pays in euros, and seems to be based in Germany. I won't go into details on their processes for confidentiality reasons, but I can highly recommend checking it out yourself.
Adding ClixSense to the list might seem a bit strange, because it started life as a PPC site. The reason for this is that you can complete CrowdFlower tasks in addition to the PPC ads and other offers. These tasks are pretty much the same ones you see on Mechanical Turk, but the selection is limited to CrowdFlower and the pay is slightly lower. Still, it might be an option if you want to do the tasks but cannot cashout your earnings from mTurk. They support PayPal, Payza and Liberty Reserve and pay on request every Monday ($8 or more required).
NeoBux is on the list for the same reason as ClixSense. In its favor it pays slightly more then ClixSense for the same tasks, but fewer tasks are offered on here for some weird reason. They also support instant payout to a variety of sources, with the minimum cashout starting at a dollar and raising by a dollar reach time until you reach the $10 maximum.
The rest of NeoBux is somewhat different to ClixSense. There's the usual PPC stuff to earn a few cents, but the offers pay in NeoPoins (which can be used for various stuff inside neobux) and NeoCoins (which can be converted to cash after 30 days). While you can work away on CrowdFlower tasks without worrying about this or dabbling in rented referrals, this seems to be a major aspect of the site.At the moment, I'm playing with reinvesting earnings into rentals, and you can read about my ongoing experiences in another article.
These are the other sites that I've come across in my searches. I haven't worked for any of these (unless otherwise specified) so my assessments are rather brief and superficial. If anyone would like to add any experiences with any of these companies please make a comment.
ShortTask. Another click-to-work site but unfortunately not one of the better ones. The problem lies in the work available, which is mostly from SEO operators asking you to submit links or other similar activity. These tasks are actually banned under mechanical turk for example. The trouble with these tasks is that, apart from having to engage in dubious activity (for example making multiple posts to craigslist), they are simply not suitable for repetition and hence not suitable for accruing any substantial reward. Until they get a wider range of and tidy up the work they offer I will not be using this site myself. Payment is made to PayPal accounts, and can be requested whenever your balance exceeds $10.
Microworkers, our final site suffers from the same problem as ShortTask, specifically the type of work on offer. Again it mostly consists of tasks like "sign up to my forum", or "post a comment" etc., which unfortunately take too much time for the pennies that are on offer. Payments can be made in amounts of $9 or greater in a number of methods including PayPal, but can take up to a month to be processed. On the positive side, they do credit you a dollar when you sign up.
Another site that seems to deal in small SEO type tasks. This seems very similar to the Microworkers in the sort of work they process. They even also have a one dollar sign up bonus as well.
For me personally the best current solution that works is ClowdCrowd; they have repeatable tasks that pay a reasonable amount and they pay promptly, automatically, and without any minimum limit. Clickworker also seems to be gaining ground; like CloudCrowd they offer real, useful work projects but lose a few points with the monthly payment schedule and lower volumes of available work. These appear to be the only companies driving in the right direction: getting practical work and implementing large-scale projects that truly fit in with the concept of crowdsourcing, rather than one-off SEO type tasks. An honorable mention I will also give to Mechanical Turk, being the original means it still has some quality work available, but it is sadly let down by its limited payment options and a lack of will on Amazon's part to take it to the next level.