Amazon's Mechanical Turk lets you make $$$, sort of

Amazon's Mechanical Turk lets you earn money for doing small computer tasks like eyeballing highway photos and classifying Web sites, but with average rates ranging from a penny to 10 cents, you have to have a lot of time on your hands to make it worth yo

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
7 min read

Like me, there are a lot of people who fantasize about making extra money in their spare time. We've all seen the "earn cash while you work from home" flyers taped to the street posts but there's always a hitch, like the need to pay $500 up front to get the materials to start working.

So, when I heard about Amazon's Mechanical Turk business opportunity, my interest was piqued. It's one of Amazon's Web Services in which it offers things like infrastructure, computing power and storage on an outsource basis to start-ups. With Mechanical Turk, companies that have small computer-based tasks can get quick access to a large labor pool.

The service is named after an 18th century mechanical chess-playing device housed in a wooden mannequin decked out in Turkish garb, built by a Hungarian nobleman. Naive spectators were told that the machine made decisions using artificial intelligence, when in actuality a chess master hidden inside actually did the thinking.

At Amazon, anyone with a computer and Internet access can serve as the human intelligence behind all sorts of tasks that computers can't perform on their own. The Web site promises a way to make easy money: "Complete simple tasks that people do better than computers. And, get paid for it--Choose from thousands of tasks, control when you work, and decide how much you earn."

I liked the sound of that, so I decided to try it out.

I dove right in with an assignment that requires you to look at photographs taken of roadways and identify lamp posts and drains on the side of the road. Easy enough, I thought, but I guess I didn't read the instructions very carefully and found myself clicking away for naught. I realized my mistake--you have to click on each of the photos in sequence before tagging the items--and I was on my way. Basically, I was looking at rain-drenched highways that looked like they were taken in England. I had to click on the drains, some of which were difficult to see when obscured by puddles, and draw lines on the lamp posts. Once I got going I was pleased with my fast-paced clip, but realized that anyone with repetitive stress injury in their wrists could never do this task, as it entails a lot of mouse work.

I also learned that doing "work from home" projects at the office is not such a good idea. I kept getting distracted by work, e-mails and instant messages that required my attention given that I was still on the clock, and by well-meaning co-workers, offering me gum and wanting to chit chat. "Please don't disturb me, I'm earning money in my spare time," I told them with a chuckle.

Some of the tasks on Mechanical Turk require tagging of drains (green circle) and lamp posts (red lines) on roadways. Amazon

After about 10 minutes of tagging roadway items, I realized that I had earned possibly 6 cents. For some reason, probably due to my own fault, the system only recorded one of my tasks. Then the company has to first review the work and accept it before any money is actually earned. Groan. I lowered my expectations a bit and moved on.

I decided to raise the bar and try a task that was worth more money, 10 cents. The task was classifying Web sites, something that sounded sexier than tagging lamp posts, and which seemed more suitable to my experience. I was given a set of Web pages and for each I had to assign a category to it, such as "entertainment" or "politics," flag it if it was sexually explicit, had broken links or no content, and specify whether it would appeal more to men or women and of what age range.

The first Web page was a blog written by a young mother. I tagged it "personal" in nature, aimed at women and targeting people 25 to 44. Easy enough. The second site required registration. There was no instruction for that so I moved on to another set of pages. The next Web page offered another personal blog that was just a list of musical artists and songs, all starting with the letter "A"--"Alice in Chains," "Aerosmith" and "Christina Aguilera." Easy--teen girls. The next Web site was mostly in Asian characters and had images of a model, food (what looked like pasta in tomato sauce with chopsticks), an interesting candid shot of people at a table, and photos looking through a kaleidoscope. Very artistic. Another blog was written by what appeared to be an exchange student from Hong Kong, living with a San Francisco family that has a "really nice dog" named "Ginger." That was followed by more personal blogs from Asian teens, all on the Xanga social network site. On at least one of them I forgot to tag it as foreign language, so I expected to be penalized on that count. I also spent too much time looking at the sites, fascinated by the intimate look at the bloggers and their lives. After about 35 minutes I may have earned a total of 30 cents. Obviously, not an efficient use of my time.

A natural-language search company, called Powerset, had a work order that seemed right up my alley. I had to answer factual questions after reading articles. I skimmed several items and found the answers to questions like "What band was Jerry Garcia in?" and "When was MTV started?" Piece of cake! After 10 minutes I earned maybe 6 cents.

This was one of the more interesting blogs I had to classify for my Mechanical Turk task. Xanga.com

Another task required me to read a product review and identify product features, for equipment like digital cameras. At 10 cents a pop it was fairly straightforward. The following task required me to locate e-mail addresses for a group of gyms and health spas, most of which didn't seem to have a Web site. That one seemed too much like work to me. Next, I tried out a task for Guessnow.com, suggesting future predictions that "have a compelling edge without character defamation," as the instructions advised. I asked people to predict when Lindsay Lohan would enter rehab again, only to have that question rejected later because "question does not make sense." Well, I think it does. Whatever. There went 7 cents down the drain.

Other tasks were just way too complicated to even attempt, like the ones where I would have had to extract data from different vendor contracts at various state governments (at 4 cents a pop, definitely not worth it) and find universal product codes for items in catalogs--too much research and not enough pay at 5 cents a task, if it's a valid answer.

MySpace was offering 50 cents for creating a tour map for a band on the Web site, but only if the band decides to actually use it on their page. Other companies were offering: 15 cents to write a review for cameras and cell phones; one cent to write a short (25 to 400 words) summary of your family's Thanksgiving tradition; 10 cents to write a health-related blog entry; 2 cents to comment on someone else's blog entry; 2 cents to vote on items at news aggregation site NewsBigg.com; and 10 cents to post an article entitled "Should I buy a radar detector?" that was written by a radar detector merchant to blog and article submission sites.

Some bigger ticket tasks were: $1 for people who worked at Gold's Gym or 24 Hour Fitness to answer a short survey; $2 to add numbers to statisitics wiki site Numberpedia.org; 50 cents to write short plot descriptions for movies ("avoid spoilers"); $3 to rewrite articles on cat training; 70 cents to tag stub articles on the African diaspora in Wikipedia; and 75 cents to record your screen and voice as you browse a Web site.

Granted, I did take notes for this article while I was completing these tasks, which no doubt dented my earning capability. But still, earning potentially 47 cents for an hour's worth of work isn't quite what I had expected, especially given that I could have earned $15 an hour doing data entry for one of the companies advertising on Craigslist.

I asked Peter Cohen, director and builder of Mechanical Turk, about the economics of the site. "There are some people who do this purely to make money and support themselves," he said. "There's a woman in Canada who uses her Mechanical Turk earnings to buy Christmas and birthday presents for her family."

And others use the credit they earn (you can either have your earnings transferred to your bank account or applied as credit on Amazon purchases) to buy college textbooks, Cohen said.

Hmmm. I figured that by the time I actually earned enough to buy a recently released book it would be out in paperback already.

Mechanical Turk isn't just about supplementing your income--it has also been used for more noble efforts. For instance, thousands of volunteers have been eyeballing satellite images of the Nevada desert on Google Earth looking for signs of a downed airplane ever since the disappearance of adventurer Steve Fossett on September 3. So far, nothing has turned up through Mechanical Turk, Cohen said.

Eager to find out how I fared on my Mechanical Turk tasks from the night before, I checked on my account on Amazon's site and discovered that so far, two of my tasks were accepted and I have earned a whole 20 cents. Woohoo! One task, the prediction question, was rejected, and 10 tasks are pending review.

I see there is also a list of pricey tasks for which I have met the requirements. Here's one I think I'm qualified for that pays a shocking $10: create a short video resume for Doug Leeds, vice president and product manager at Ask.com. But, given that I cover Ask.com for CNET News.com there would be a conflict of interest with that.

Instead, I think I'll try one of the blog writing tasks worth $4. Now, what can I say about gothic prom dresses in 500 words or less?

My Mechanical Turk Dashboard shows that I have earned 20 cents so far from two tasks that have been approved. Amazon