Finding subcontractors on Elance isn't always easy

Contracting out to Elance

Contracting out your SEO work to Elance is an extremely risky business. Chose the wrong contractor and they could get up to all sorts of shenanigans that lead to Google penalties and bans.

Generally for search engine optimization wholesale I wouldn’t recommend Elance unless the contractor can provide fully verifiable references that you follow up in order to ensure they are:

  1. not ghost companies and websites created by the SEO company in order to provide references,
  2. not websites that the SEO company actually has nothing to do with.

So why use Elance?

What Elance is excellent for is outsourcing well defined pieces of work. “Please do my SEO” is not a well defined piece of work. It is vague and open to all sorts of interpretation of what “SEOing a website” actually is as I have written about previously.

Well defined pieces of work might be:

  • create promotional graphics for categories in my online store
  • add a specific bit of functionality to my website (e.g. a newsletter system)
  • resolve a bug
  • make my website mobile friendly

In other words anything that can leave little argument about whether or not the work has been completed.

The issues with Elance

If you have ever tried to use Elance you may have been very disappointed with the results. You may have received only a handful of bids or been completely swamped by contractors and spent hours trying to sort out who should so the work.

Elance is infested with companies that will bid for absolutely anything and they create a huge amount of noise in the system. Some may even employ automatic or semi-automatic bidding.

These contractors take advantage of a flaw in the way Elance works which is this. If you award a project to a bidder and they just sit on it and do nothing there is also nothing you can do. Eventually you cancel the project but because, according to Elance, the project never happened you cannot leave negative feedback.

This leaves the contractor free to carry on bidding wildly but only actually doing a fraction of the work they are awarded while any projects they win, but realise they can’t do, they simply sit on until the project author cancels.

Making Elance work

I use Elance all the time but ensuring I get the right contractors bidding for my projects is a bit of an art so here are the basic keys to success:

1) Make sure your project title is clear and includes keywords

For example “Add a delete button to my cart page” isn’t clear at all as we can’t see what cart you are using or what platform you are working on. Much better would be “Add a delete button to my WooCommerce cart page on WordPress”. Now your project is much more likely to show up to the right contractors – i.e. WordPress and WordPress WooCommerce plugin specialists.

If you are not sure about the keywords have a look around Elance for similar projects and see what words they use. For eample “Edit an image so the product is on a grey background” would be better as “Image manipulation: place product on a grey background” because image specialists search for “image manipulation” that’s their keyword phrase.

2) In the text description of the project include only a basic explanation of the project.

Again make sure it contains the types of keywords that the right contractor will be searching. e.g.: “I have installed WooCommerce plugin on my WordPress site and I would like to add a function whereby products can be deleted from the cart page”.

However you’re going to keep this description short because the detail will be contained in a Word document that you will attach to the project. The reasons for this will become clear in a moment. So add a line like “The full details, including how to bid for this project, are in the attached document”.

3) Create a detailed brief of your project in a Word document

Word Documents allow you to include screenshots and format your text (heading, paragraphs, etc) to be clear. Assume nothing. You are close to your website, the contractor is not

  • Explain what you have done,
  • include screenshots with arrows to highlight what you want where,
  • include screenshots of websites that have achieved what you want,
  • etc.

Make sure your document is smart and well presented. If you want to attract professional contractors you need to look professional as well so take a bit of time to get this looking good.

4) Explain what the bidder should do if they have questions

Many contractors to Elance are new and may not be familiar with how it works. The basics are that a person can bid for a project without specifying an amount but instead place questions in the text of the bid.

You can then message them via Elance to answer those questions in what is known as a ‘workroom’ and they can then add their actual $ bid later. Explain this in the briefing document so you can quickly see bids with no value and check them for questions.

5) Create a trip wire

Now here is the main reason why you are using a word document. In step 2 we said “the full details, including how to bid for this project, are in the attached document” so we made it very clear that any bidder should read the brief.

To know that they have add a specific section at the end of the Word file with a heading like “Bidding for this project” and in it add a line such as “In order for me to know that you have read this document in full please start your bid ‘I have read all the brief in full'”.

Now when the bids start coming in you will be able to immediately ‘hide’ the contractors who do not start ‘I have read all the brief in full’ – because they haven’t so their bids are not to be taken seriously.

6) Fund your project

OK so this is an auction and you don’t know how much the project will cost until the bids come in but you can make a symbolic payment of a few dollars. This just shows bidders you are serious because you have set up a way to make the payment.

There are thousands of muppets on Elance every day who waste contractors time with projects they never intend to do but the idea just came to them on the bus. Stand out from them.

7) Choose an approximate budget

Elance forces you to do this. If you’re note sure look around at other current Elance projects. I contract out small image manipulation work, spreadsheet work or basic coding so in almost all cases it is ‘less than $500’.

8) Invite bidders – maybe

After you have posted your project Elance shows you selected contractors it recommends you invite. Most of the time I skip this step. If you have used a good title and project description then the right contractors will beat a path to your door.

If I have used a good contractor in the past for other similar work I will search them in Elance and invite them separately.

9) Keep calm!

Once your project is live the bids should start coming in pretty quickly. Remember to immediately use the ‘Hide’ function to get rid of any contractors who did not start their bid text with the line you defined.

You may experience some pretty heavy handed selling from some contractors who seem to think it is essential to Skype with you. Usually this is only so they can give you a sales speech about themselves so ask why they want to Skype and what it is they can’t achieve via messaging.

You can chose a contractor at any time but let your project ride for a few days so you get a good selection of bidders.

10) Backup and be secure

Before allowing any contractor access to your website backup your content fully. Once they have finished their work delete any accounts you created for them and check their work thoroughly to ensure you don’t need to recover your site from the backup.

11) Leave feedback

As always try to sort out any disagreements in advance but leave feedback, especially for those who deserve it. Elance is a cut throat arena and those who provide excellent service deserve to be recognised.


That’s it – be clear in what you want, provide a way to flush out the time wasters and make sure you have a backup if the contractor makes everything go pear shaped! That happens very, very rarely and is something I have never seen happen but better safe than sorry.

This may all seem overwhelming to start with but it will become as natural as riding a bicycle after you have been through the process a few times.