Project Quantity and Marketplace Size
The first criterion for evaluating online freelancing sites that I want to discuss is quantity: the number of projects the site has (and a related factor, the number of buyers). Now, this may seem to contradict what I said in my opening words for this section—after all, I did lament that too many people focus only on volume when looking at these sites. But there is no conflict here; marketplace size isn’t the only thing that matters, but it does still matter. Because the larger the site, all else being equal, the more likely you are to find projects that will interest you.
Now, I run a small freelancing site myself, so I certainly don’t want what I’m saying here to be interpreted as saying smaller sites have nothing to offer. They do. The problem is figuring out which of these small sites is worth bothering with, because there are a lot of these smaller sites around. Some of them are small because they cater to a niche audience, but most are small because they just aren’t very good.
Especially as a newcomer, you need to focus your time in the areas that are the most likely to yield results, and that means concentrating on the larger sites. This is also why this guide devotes most of its attention to these big sites as well—they are the ones that most freelancers use, and while some smaller sites are also valuable, they are usually (though not always) of secondary importance.
In a way, you can think of freelancing marketplaces as “Internet dating sites”, but oriented towards business relationships instead of personal ones. Freelancers and clients both “put themselves out there” hoping to find matches that will advance their mutual interests. If you were trying to find a significant other on a dating site, you surely wouldn’t choose a site solely on the basis of how many people use it. But at the same time, you probably wouldn’t want to waste time on sites that had so few people that you’d be better off at the local bar!
I like to think of buyer and project quantity as a filter. It’s not that these are the factors that I would use above all others to decide which marketplace to use, but I would use them to filter out sites that are probably not worth looking at further. After that I’d use the remaining criteria in the rest of this section to help choose from among the sites that are commonly used. Because while I said bigger sites are better all else being equal, as we’ll see soon, all else usually isn’t equal.
One nice aspect of this particular site characteristic is that it is relatively easy to assess. You can get a good subjective handle on how many projects a site has by spending a little time scrolling through a list of new projects and checking their timestamps. If the first page of most recent jobs has 20 entries and the time elapsed between #1 and #20 is less than an hour, it’s an active site; if it’s more than a day, the site doesn’t have a lot of projects being listed. There are also reports created by some organizations that try to track and compare sites based on how much volume they do.
In addition to looking at the number of projects posted on each site, I also assess the size of the marketplace using related metrics. These include the number of clients who use the site, the average dollar value of projects posted, website rankings and more. Some of this data comes from the excellent freelance market reviews published by WhichLance?. Some comes direct from the sites themselves, which often report to the public some surprisingly detailed information about their performance.
I need to point out that the size of a site can also be a double-edged sword. Just as you will probably want to avoid very small sites that likely won’t be worth your while, the same is true of many other freelancers as well. The big sites can be attractive because “that’s where the projects are”, but you may find that it’s also true that “that’s where the competitors are” as well. If site B has twice as many projects as site A but also twice as many freelancers of high caliber, the larger size of B may not yield you any real benefits.
Finally, note that project quantity and project quality are not independent factors. Many sites achieve their high volume status by doing everything in their power to make it easy for clients to list projects, even if those projects are of dubious value to anyone. Having lots of clients and projects doesn’t matter if 95% of them are garbage, and that leads us into our next criterion.
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Last Site Update: October 21, 2011
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