Photo: jm3

If you make your living on a contractor basis via the internet, there’s a good chance you use oDesk (which has the highest annual freelancer earnings) and/or Elance (the oldest/most popular freelance site). If you’re just starting out, these are both among the premier media for connecting freelancers with people looking to exploit freelancers.

Just kidding. Most people don’t do that.

I still remember when I was starting out as a fledgling freelancer. It feels so long ago (actually just over a year) that I asked Google, “Which one is better, oDesk or Elance?” These are the answers I wish I could have found back then.

Basic services

oDesk and Elance offer the same thing: a place for contractors to build profiles and show potential clients why they should hire them. Both seem to be equally open to a huge range of contractor types, whether you’re a writer, animator, web architect, font designer, Skype stripper, or whatever.

Website functionality

Elance
The website offers great features for users, like a centralized inbox for all notifications with color-coding and urgency rankings and stuff. But the problem is there are like, 15 colors. Elance’s website suffers from too many options and too much complexity, making it hard to find what part of the site to check for certain notifications, and to manage those notifications.

oDesk
The oDesk website may look less aesthetically pleasing, but I think that’s okay. You’ve got tabs for messages, contracts, finding jobs, reports, and a dropdown for new notifications that marks them as “Read” automatically. It’s just way easier to use/learn oDesk.com than Elance.com.

Profile building

Elance
Both sites offer basically the same profile-building tools: resume, portfolio, keyword tags, personal description, “certifications” from quizzes in your professional niche, etc. As the more overtly professional option, however, Elance offers a few more credential opportunities. You can pay to have legitimate college attributions, or post a list of references with contact info.

oDesk
With fewer options, it’s easier to get a strong profile started on oDesk that can set you apart from other contractors on the website. The simplicity does detract a bit from the job opportunities, though, as people looking to hire can’t segment an applicant pool as specifically as they can on Elance.

Quality / variety of jobs posted

Elance
Since free Elance profiles limit the number of applications any contractor can send more strictly than oDesk, there seems to be a generally higher quality of jobs available on Elance. Elance has a significantly higher job floor than oDesk, as well as fewer jobs to sift through all the crap for. Another big benefit of Elance’s jobs is that clients fund through escrow, so everyone is way less likely to get ripped off.

oDesk
I’ve found some really incredible clients on oDesk, some of which have been startlingly legitimate, as in “What the heck are you doing searching through weirdos on the internet?” I’ve also found some truly god-awful jobs. It’s not uncommon to see ridiculous postings on oDesk (“Need 20,000 word ebooK!! Pay Dayly! 15$!! Best writers ONLY Apply!?!”), or even spam jobs.

Usage fees

Elance
Nothing that helps you make money online is really free, but paying a small premium to have a medium to make money is worth it. Elance charges a flat fee of 8.75% for every transaction between client and contractor. And while Elance itself is free to use, there are optional tiers of subscriptions you can sign up for, some of which might actually be worth it depending on your position.

oDesk
You get exactly what you expect, and sometimes that’s great. But there are no subscription tiers and a slightly higher 10% fee for every contract — easy to calculate, but for bigger contracts it can be disheartening to see you won’t get the full advertised payment for a job you did.

Hourly time trackers

Elance
Elance’s time tracker shoots exploding laser beams out of its jacked biceps directly into oDesk’s anus. If you’ve never worked hourly online, basically these are just programs that monitor your computer activity, take irregular screenshots, and time you for hourly gigs to prove you’re working for the amount of time you say you are. Elance’s is really non-invasive, very basic, and can be paused whenever you want to get up and pour some tea, snack on brie, or take a pee.

oDesk
…on the other hand, is highly invasive and very annoying. In addition to desktop screenshots, their hourly time tracker also links to your webcam and makes sure you’re not on your phone, picking your nose, working naked, answering the door, or pooping. What’s worse, you only get paid by the intervals this happens, so if you pause it 13 minutes into a 14-minute session, you lose that 13 minutes. It also pops a little notification thing up in the corner of your screen when this happens, which — unfailingly — always interrupts typing.

Verdict – sort of…

There’s really no way to choose one definitively over the other. I do know that I’m glad I chose to start out with oDesk by itself (I used that exclusively for about 8 months), and would recommend that to new freelancers. It’s simpler to use and has a larger volume of low-end jobs to build a resume with. Building up your Elance presence after that should be much easier, so you can then use both — and heck, why not go into Freelancer.com after that?

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