Amazon's Mechanical Turk

Have a lot on your plate? Amazon's Mechanical Turk gives small business owners an inexpensive alternative for outsourcing inconvenient tasks. But if you aren't careful, you could get more than you bargained for.

Over the past few years, crowdsourcing has made steady gains in the small business community, and Amazon's Mechanical Turk is just one of the reasons why this form of online outsourcing is gaining traction with entrepreneurs.

Just like its namesake – an 18th century fake "automated" chess playing machine – Mechanical Turk relies on real people who work behind the scenes to perform requested tasks. Completed tasks are either accepted or rejected based on how closely they adhere to job requirements. Not surprisingly, the low fee/low skillset nature of Mechanical Turk and other crowdsourcing platforms means that you won't always receive quality deliverables from every online worker.

The key to successfully navigating Mechanical Turk is to know its limitations. Mechanical Turk is a brokered transaction in which there are potential winners and losers. It's possible to make it work in a small business context as long as you know what you're getting into.

The Winners

  • Savvy Small Business Owners. The small business owners who benefit from this form of outsourcing are the ones who understand the kinds of tasks that can (and can't) be crowdsourced. If you're looking for someone to slap a few keywords on a list of web pages, you can get it done cheaply and effectively at Mechanical Turk. But if you're looking for someone to create a new website from scratch, you won't find the expertise you need for the price these jobs pay.
  • Part-Time Workers. Retired seniors, students, and stay-at-home parents seem to be the kinds of workers that are attracted to Mechanical Turk. Most tasks earn just a few cents, making it difficult for the majority of workers to earn even an hourly minimum wage. Credits can be transferred to a bank account or to the worker's Amazon account, and can be enough to provide a few extra bucks for textbooks or Christmas gifts – but not a full time income. As a result, business owners are smart to only request the most basic tasks.

The Losers

  • Exploitative Employers. If you enter Mechanical Turk thinking that you're going to get top shelf output for pennies on the dollar you're going to be disappointed. Although Amazon lets you apply simple proficiency testing for workers, Mechanical Turk is not intended to be a tool that enables employers to engage in exploitative outsourcing. Before you post your first task, survey job listings to get a feel for the kinds of jobs that should be posted.
  • Independent Professionals. If you are a B2B service professional looking for a job board, you won't find it at Mechanical Turk simply because these jobs aren't capable of producing a substantial revenue source for your business.

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