Crowdsourcing, Outsourcing and Distributed Workloads—Your Solution to Your Crazy Schedule

Google home screen.

Before we talk about crowdsourcing, let’s talk about what’s going on in the Internet world. The two topics are connected. The goal here is that of awakening small business to possibilities by these technologies.

Google keeps changing the rules, but the direction they’ve always headed is quality, quality, quality. High quality content helps everyone. But now it seems that backlinks are getting squeezed, too. It no longer seems to matter how many backlinks you have from high PR websites. Now, it seems you have to earn them.

How Google engineers have figured out how to tell the difference is beyond my pay grade. It’s starting to sound like magic. But instead of complaining and moping about what Google has done to us now, wouldn’t it be far better, simply to take advantage of this as an opportunity?

It seems that Google wants us to become marketplace leaders, for that is the surest way to “earn” backlinks. But to become a marketplace leader, you have to build a reputation, crank out lots of expert content, make yourself recognized throughout the online communities and generally make yourself known and well-respected. That sounds like a lot of work, but wouldn’t it be great if you could offload a lot of that work and achieve that goal with relative ease?

Pete Williams, entrepreneur and productivity guru, has come up with a host of ideas he calls “profit hacks.” The basic idea is, little effort in, powerful effect out.

Naturally, you can’t outsource being a marketplace leader or niche opinion leader. There’s only one of you and you’re already spread pretty thin as it is. Well, the idea of a “hack” is to find a shortcut or easier way.

Pete’s idea isn’t anything terribly new. He merely suggests outsourcing the repetitive actions you don’t particularly care to do—those actions for which your expertise are not required.

Let me give you an example. You need to research affiliate programs related to your market segment. Such a research project takes time, and nothing about it requires the “market leader” to do it. So, you go to a job website like oDesk.com or Elance.com, and write a description of exactly what needs to be done. Once you’ve received all your bids, you choose the person you want to hire and let them do the work for you. With workers in India, the Philippines and the like, you might well get the job done for a fraction of what you’d expect pay by hiring someone locally.

To be fair, Pete does give some creative twists on an old idea to maximize your productivity. Kudos to him for taking the idea to its logical next step.

Crowd of people at a train station.

Crowdsourcing is about getting lots of people helping you on a project.

Crowdsourcing—Outsourcing on Rocket Thrusters

Outsourcing is now an “old” idea. Likely there’s been outsourcing for as long as we’ve had civilization. Sending work out to others not in your group or company is essential when you either don’t have the time or the expertise to do it.

If you have a massive project that one person would not be able to complete in time, you naturally want to hire more than one person and to divide the job up into smaller pieces. This is sometimes called “microwork.” You want a “crowd” of people participating.

The key to making this work well, is to define the task with great clarity. You need to anticipate any possible confusion or conflicts and write instructions to reduce the potential problems. Also, if you find something isn’t working or that there is a common misunderstanding amongst your crowd, send a message to all members to warn them of that misconception.

“Implicit crowdsourcing” is an approach where participants will not necessarily know they are contributing to any valuable final product. Frequently, this means free labour! The reCaptcha initiative is a perfect example of this. Visitors to websites are asked to type in the letters they see to prove that they are human. With reCaptcha, scanned text from old books which cannot be deciphered by their OCR software are being deciphered by humans every time those humans participate in reCaptcha. Thus, thousands of hours of work are being divided amongst millions of participants.

Stellar nursery in a nearby galaxy (NGC 346).

SETI used other people’s computers to do millions of hours of work. (Picture courtesy NASA, stellar nursery in a nearby galaxy – NGC 346.)

This is similar to the distributed processing project that SETI@home created several years ago. Extraterrestrial signals needed to be processed to see if they contained any intelligence in them. Processing all of the signals would’ve required countless millions of hours of computer time. So, the SETI project came up with a method to allow participants to use their own laptops and desktop computers and their unused CPU cycles to do the work for them. Their software would download new work, process it, and upload the results automatically in the background, so the participant would hardly miss a beat of their own work. Thousands of people volunteered to help out. The thrill of assisting to do real science, plus being able to see the signal being processed and the prospect that your computer could find the SETI “holy grail” of alien intelligence, all made participating in the project seem worthwhile.

Your workload may not be as sexy as SETI science, but you might be thinking of ways to distribute your workload so that it gets done with greater speed and accuracy. If you don’t trust others to be precise and absolutely require accuracy, then you could have teams of verifiers take care of that for you. Of course, this adds another layer of cost and time, but if a deadline is looming closer, there may be no other way to get it done.

If you can think of a way to package your task, you may be able to get people participating for free, like those who worked on the SETI distributed processing project. They may work for recognition or a contest prize. The possibilities are endless.

The bottom line is that there are an infinite number of ways to solve any problem. Some form of crowdsourcing may be one that will work for you.

Please tell us your thoughts on crowdsourcing in the comments section.

About Alex

Alex Retzlaff is the owner of A Website Designer and Web Circle.

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