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How You Can Use Amazon's Mechanical Turk for Business

Perfect for tedious tasks, Amazon's Mechanical Turk may be the perfect alternative to hiring temporary workers for singular projects.

Think back to the last time you had a task for which you would've loved to have had an army of workers.  Perhaps you had to sort through thousands of articles looking for something specific, or you had to transcribe hours of audio recordings, or you had to check for duplicate records in a database of thousands of entries. Or perhaps you saw an opportunity in the market that would have required you to mobilize hundreds of people to help you in a short amount of time.

Until now, you've had three choices: hire temporary workers, which can be messy and inefficient, overburden your staff or, worse, let the opportunity slip away.

That's why Mechanical Turk, the web service from Amazon.com, one of the most trusted brands online, is so interesting to business owners. Mechanical Turk is an online marketplace for temporary workers. Using your Amazon account, you can hire workers to complete tasks that a computer can't do efficiently.

Here's how Amazon describes the inspiration for the name "Mechanical Turk":

"In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelen's 'Turk' was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinet's doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk: a chess master cleverly concealed inside."

The point, of course, is that a lot can be accomplished when real human beings are working behind the scenes.

To use Mechanical Turk, you post your task (Amazon uses the catchy acronym "HIT," which stands for "human intelligence tasks") into the online marketplace and pick a price (minimum 5 cents per task) for your HIT. Workers–people from around the world looking to make a little extra money from home in their spare time–can then view your request.

I experimented with the site and saw basic HITs, like tagging a database of images for 5 cents per HIT all the way up to translating a block of 10 Japanese sentences into English for $1 each.

Businesses have been taking advantage of remote work forces for years. Jet Blue famously staffs its reservations lines with a network of home-based workers spread throughout the U.S. While sites like eLance.com have allowed businesses to hire a flexible work force for projects, Mechanical Turk is unique in that it focuses on providing an answer to the mundane, rote tasks that are so hard on a business's permanent staff.

What opportunities could you chase if you had access to hundreds of workers in minutes?


Last updated: Jul 15, 2011

JOHN WARRILLOW is the founder and CEO of The Sellability Score, a self-assessment questionnaire that lets business owners evaluate the “sellability” of their business.

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