Over the last month, tons of readers have written to me asking me about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. Can you actually earn reasonable money with it, or is it a scam?
What is it? For those unaware, Mechanical Turk is a service from Amazon where you can complete simple tasks in exchange for a tiny payment. For example, you might look at an image and describe it in ten words for $0.08. You might fill out a multiple-choice survey for $0.10. You might be asked to write a product review for $2.50. For the most part, the tasks available through Mechanical Turk are quick and very simple. The problem is that, individually, they’re not big earners. You have to do quite a few in an hour in order to earn anything of significance.
Well, can you? I decided to try it out for myself. I browsed around the Mechanical Turk website, signed up, and set aside an hour to try to earn some money there. Here’s a detailed log of my experience.
8:46 AM – Signed up for Mechanical Turk. It took roughly a minute to open an account there – no problem.
8:47 AM – Chose my first task – write a 350-500 word article on “email autoresponder marketing” for $4. I’m just going to churn it out off the top of my head.
9:02 AM – Done – if that type of “off the cuff” writing is accepted, maybe Mechanical Turk is a decent way to earn money. I basically just wrote in a nearly train-of-thought style, something I would consider a weak first draft for The Simple Dollar, but still readable. I’m going to try categorizing some images at a penny a pop for a bit.
9:08 AM – I managed to do six images in six minutes for a whopping six cents. Not a good use of time. Note to future self: stay away from the single-penny tasks.
9:09 AM – After browsing some tasks, I decided to try a series of really short questionnaires from MasterCard for $0.10 a pop.
9:18 AM – I was able to do five of the dime surveys in eight minutes – totaling out to just under $4 an hour. Not good, but it could definitely be worse.
9:19 AM – I decided to try some simple product categorization for a nickel a pop. It seems easy – just look at a picture of an item and come up with some short tags to describe it.
9:25 AM – I managed to complete two of them in six minutes. I actually completed three, but one was lost to the Turk’s horrible page design, which eliminated everything I had filled in because I hadn’t clicked on the “Accept HIT” button. Ten cents in six minutes is not a win.
9:26 AM – I take on a task that involves looking up addresses for wineries at $0.40 a pop.
9:32 AM – Should have read more carefully, as it requires entering a bunch of wines from each winery as well. Six minutes work for $0.40 is NOT a good deal.
9:36 AM – I notice that if I sort by dollar value, some higher-dollar entries will pop up and then disappear before I can accept them – $6 to $10 a pop. Chasing them might pay off, but it seems to be a time waster.
9:37 AM – I take a short test to “qualify” me to do some higher-value HITs. Apparently, they don’t want just anyone writing service reviews. You have to at least be aware of the company.
9:41 AM – I finish the test – but the ones I would be “qualified” to do are now gone.
9:45 AM – I spent five minutes looking at really awful HITs. If they pay a penny a piece, if you can’t do them FAST, they’re not worth it.
9:46 AM – A moment later, I found a service review, enabling me to describe a service I received for $2.55.
9:50 AM – I finished the review, earning $2.55 for four minutes’ work. That task was actually the one I was “qualified” for because of the earlier test, meaning I invested eight minutes to earn $2.55 – or $19.13 an hour. Not bad at all!
And here’s the outcome of that adventure. I spent a total of one hour and four minutes there and earned a total of $7.61 (assuming everything I did was accepted), giving an hourly wage of $7.11 for my effort. I probably could have done better than that if I weren’t logging what I was doing as I went along.
Some tips Here are several things I learned that can help someone interested in Mechanical Turk earn more for their time.
First, it pays to be able to write comprehensible stuff quickly. If you can be given a topic and immediately begin to write something readable on that topic, you can probably do pretty well at Mechanical Turk. The two biggest earners during that hour – the service review and the piece about email marketing – mostly involved me writing off the top of my head. Of course, if you were to focus that ability towards a passion, you could build a great blog on your own that would provide your own steady revenue stream.
Second, the extremely low-cost Turk tasks aren’t worth it. If it pays less than fifty cents and takes more than a couple mouse clicks to complete, it’s not worth it. If you can’t finish a fifty cent task in less than four minutes and move on to the next one, you’re earning less than minimum wage at this.
Third, most of the tasks fit well into short breaks. I can see someone who mans a customer support line or something similar actually using Mechanical Turk to earn a bit of cash during the delays between calls. If you work at a job that has lots of short periods of downtime throughout the day, Mechanical Turk might fit well into those gaps, since the tasks mostly just take a moment or two.
Fourth, tasks that require “tests” seem to pay off. Go ahead and take that test – it seemed to unlock quite a few tasks that paid well. Obviously, they were just trying to filter out people who just wanted to throw themselves at the next available task, enter junk, and move on as fast as possible.
Another big tip: if you do take on a task in the lower price range, look at it first. Are you really going to be able to do this in a time frame short enough that you’ll actually make a reasonable wage for your time? Take my experience with the winery – it seemed, at first glance, that I would just be looking up contact information for wineries – easy enough. What they wanted, though, was a ton of data entry about wines sold at that winery – not worth the forty cents they were paying.
Finally, be patient. If you don’t see anything worthwhile available – meaning nothing that earns more than $0.50 – just hit refresh a few times. Good opportunities seem to pop up all the time, but are devoured quickly. Hitting refresh helps you get your foot in the door with better Turk tasks.
Is it worthwhile? I was genuinely surprised by the experience. If you have the ability to throw down readable writing very quickly, you can earn minimum wage with the Turk – more than I ever expected. Given the short timeframe and the wide variety of tasks available, it’s something that you can sit down and do in short little bits when it’s convenient for you.
Having said that, you can do better than minimum wage with your time. Turk earns well enough that you might be able to fill in spare moments with it – or use it as a stopgap when you’re job hunting – but approximating minimum wage isn’t a good reason to just sit at your computer and click all day. If you have the abilities to earn minimum wage at Turk over an eight hour period, you’d be much better served using that mental energy building something for yourself – a blog on a topic you’re passionate about, a healthy network of people in your field, or something similar.
For me, at least, I don’t think I’ll be returning in the future, but I could see myself using it in the right situation – for example, if I did wind up doing customer service-type work or if I was really in a serious financial pinch. I also might use it if I was bored while watching a television program with my wife – but even then, I’d much more likely spend my time on Twitter or something like that. I value my mental energy at a rate higher than minimum wage.