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Amazon Mechanical Turk is an outsourcing platform perfect for small, repetitive tasks that can’t otherwise be automated. The service launched in 2005, primarily as a way for Amazon to cheaply outsource some labor-intensive projects.

mechanical turk reviewAfter the initial launch, interest in Mechanical Turk waned until it discovered by the corporate and entrepreneurial set as a way to improve their business processes.

The platform can be a little tricky, and support is minimal, but no other service gives you access to such a large army of virtual workers. There are over 100,000 workers from every corner of the world ready to tackle your project.

My Experience with Amazon Mechanical Turk

I was working on a project that I was NOT looking forward to. You know the kind: hours of tedious mind-numbing work with no foreseeable shortcuts or efficiencies or automation.

About Mechanical Turk

mturk review

Just when I was about to start I remembered hearing about a service from Amazon I’d been wanting to try. Amazon Mechanical Turk is a marketplace for a “cloud-based” outsourced labor force that will handle your most simple and boring tasks for pennies.

Alternatively, you can sign up as a Mechanical Turk worker and make money doing these jobs for others.

Each job is called a HIT, or Human Intelligence Task, and at the time of this writing there were more than 400,000 HITs available. Mechanical Turk has become a thriving crowdsourcing marketplace. It’s not exactly a virtual assistant service, but you can access an army of low-cost workers willing to do your most mundane tasks for just pennies.

In total, I had over 1100 of these HITs I needed done. Specifically, workers would have to take input from a spreadsheet, perform a search, and then enter the result into the next cell.

Simple and easy, but time-consuming and boring, especially to do 1100 times. I priced these 1100 mini-jobs at $0.01 each — not knowing what was fair, I figured I’d start low.

Mechanical Pricing and Fees

The cost varies by the task, but you get to set your own price. I’ve seen HITs ranging from $0.01 for really quick and easy tasks to $5 for more time-intensive requests.

If you submit a batch of work and no workers are jumping on it, that’s probably a sign it’s either priced too low or your instructions aren’t clear.

Some of the common tasks people outsource on Mechanical Turk are filling in spreadsheet data, tagging images, transcribing podcasts, and rewriting sentences. You might even find people offering a few cents to like their page on Facebook.

Amazon takes a 20% fee from every HIT, with a $0.01 minimum. It adds a little bit to your cost, but is still a small price to pay for access to the cheap labor.

The billing is conveniently linked to your Amazon account, but you have to fund your Mechanical Turk account before any work can get done.

Since the tasks are generally very basic, the quality of work is usually not a problem. Workers are anonymous, but subject to feedback ratings from their “employers.”


I had some trouble figuring out how to set up my “HIT Template”, and after probably a half hour I was wondering if I should just bag it and do it myself. Shortly after that though, I found the source of my problem and I was off to the races.

Hint: if you’re getting a weird error that says, “Dhtml template Must contain a question”, it means you’re not providing any place for your workers to put their “answer” to your task. For my spreadsheet task, I used code like this:

${Column_Name}  <input type=”text” size=”35″ id=”Answer” name=”Item_Name”/>

This created a unique HIT for each row in the spreadsheet, where the value to be searched by workers is in the {Column_Name} column, and the result will go in the text box next to it.

My Mechanical Turk Results

After I got this figured out, the results were amazing. Almost immediately after posting my job, an army of workers started filling in the data.

The page was updated in real-time so I could monitor progress as it happened:

I uploaded 3 batches of work, and all were completed in a little over 2 hours.

  • Batch 1 took 15 seconds per job (367 jobs)
  • Batch 2 took 24 seconds per job (332 jobs)
  • Batch 3 took 21 seconds per job (408 jobs)

A total of 25 workers helped out on this project, on a Sunday afternoon, completing an average of 44 rows each.

The accuracy was very good. I spot-checked a few of the results and found no errors, and only had to reject 2 out of 1100+ for being returned blank — a 99.8% approval rate.

If I didn’t use the Mechanical Turk workforce, and instead did the work myself, it would have taken over 6 hours!

How Much Does it Cost?

Each completed row was worth $0.01, so the hourly rate for the workers ranged from $2.40/hr on Batch 1 to $1.50/hr on Batch 2.

My total outlay for the labor was $11.05, but Amazon has to make some money too so they add their fee on top of that. The fee is 10% of the job, with a minimum of $0.005 (half a penny) per task.

Since my tasks were so cheap, I was subject to the minimum fee, which amounted to a 50% surcharge on each HIT. It seemed like a steep increase but it’s all relative; I was getting a ton of mind-numbing work done for 1.5 cents each.

Overall, my cost was $16.58 ($11.05 to the 25 workers and $5.53 to Amazon). It took the workers 22041 seconds (6 hours, 7 minutes) to complete the tasks, and I don’t think I could have done it much faster.

So essentially I outsourced my work for $2.71 an hour with Mechanical Turk.

Is Outsourcing to Mechanical Turk Worth It?

Absolutely. With the data collected I think I can save far more than $16 over the course of the next few months. It’s an investment I hope will pay for itself many times over.

On the downside, I did spend a decent amount of those 6 hours I saved analyzing the work and writing this post.

Who Are These Workers?

Who are these penny minions? I wish I could tell you, but they were anonymous to me (and I assume I was anonymous to them).

All I could see was information like worker A1G**********9 completed 105 tasks. It would be interesting to see a geographic breakdown of where my workers were located. In some parts of the world, where people are living on less than a dollar a day, $2.40 an hour isn’t a bad wage.

I’ve also heard stories of people logging on to do some work while they’re watching TV. Most of the time I imagine the work is pretty brainless, so if you can earn a few extra bucks in your spare time, why not?

And when a job is too hard for the reward, they can simply move on to a new one; at the time of this writing there were 73,909 HITs available.

Your Turn

Have you ever used Mechanical Turk? If so, please share your experience below.

One Review

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    • 55555

    I had a spreadsheet project I really wasn’t looking forward to. It was the kind of mundane repetitive task that turns your brain into mush, so I thought I would do an experiment and try Mechanical Turk instead. At first, I was getting really frustrated with their platform and the lack of documentation for newbies, but eventually I figured out to upload my HITs.

    I had over 1100, priced at $0.01 each. In about 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon, 25 different workers completed these HITs with better than 99% accuracy. After the fees, my total cost was about $16. Considering it would have taken my over 6 hours to do on my own, it was well worth it.

    If I have a similar project in the future, I won’t hesitate to use Mechanical Turk again.

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