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The problem of whether the client should pay first or the contractor should work first is only part of the trust problem with online freelancing. There is a larger, more generic issue: how do you know whom you are dealing with at all? As a freelancer, when you read a project listing, what assurance do you have that the person who posted it is honest, will communicate promptly, and pay you without hassle? As a client, how do you sort through all those proposals to find people who have a proven track record for quality work done in a timely manner?
The tool used by most freelancing sites to deal with this essential difficulty is a feedback system. This mechanism allows clients and contractors to rate each other after work is completed. Over time, freelancers and clients alike build up a feedback history, which can be read by future potential partners in order to reassure them before they make a commitment on a project.
As usual, the devil is in the details. Here are a few of the specific issues related to feedback systems that I look for in assessing a site.
Even though I said feedback systems let clients and contractors assess each other, many sites are not entirely symmetric when it comes to their feedback mechanism. While all sites include a good system for clients to use in evaluating freelancers, many skimp on the system when it comes to freelancers evaluating clients. Sites do this because they’re afraid of scaring off clients, but this makes it harder for freelancers to be selective about whom they choose to work for.
The two basic feedback types are written comments and numeric ratings. Comments are just what they sound like: written text describing a user’s experience with a business partner. They allow free-form, open-ended feedback about how a transaction went from a client or contractor perspective. Some sites also allow responses to be made to written feedback.
Most sites also use a numeric rating system, where past business partners rate you on a numeric scale, and then these ratings are averaged to come up with an overall score. Numeric ratings are a bit of a double-edged sword: the advantage of them is that they let you see at a glance how others have rated an individual or company over time, without having to sift through dozens of comments. But that’s also their weakness: boiling someone down to a number can be very misleading.
As always, the exact implementation of numeric rating systems varies a great deal. Some of the pertinent issues:
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Last Site Update: October 21, 2011
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