Five years ago finding good work online as a freelancer was a tall order.

There was certainly no lack of work available – there was more than you could hope for, in fact. The problem was that most of the large freelance work destinations – Freelancer.com, oDesk, Elance – operated on a global scale. Freelancers working in Western economies routinely found themselves massively undercut by freelancers in Asia with comparatively miniscule costs of living. With most sites operating on an open bidding system, cost-conscious clients would always choose the cheap and cheerful option.

These were the days of “content mill” companies like Demand Media whose raison d’être was to produce web pages and written content by the boatload to attract search traffic from Google and the associated advertising revenue. As the quantity of work became more important than the quality overseas outsourcing took hold, and many freelance creatives – especially journalists and writers – found themselves priced out of online marketplaces. In a forum thread on the subject from 2009, users vent their frustration:

“I find it to be a waste of time. You have to spend a ton of time searching for jobs and preparing bids, and then in most cases the jobs go to the low bidders.”

“I signed on a few months back, and even applied on couple of projects. I had to bid higher, since the budget was ridiculously low…I found many designers are bidding lower just to get the job. I didn’t like the idea of competing to get a contract and then lose money.”

“I signed up when I first started freelancing. What a waste of time. I’ve found that the bids go to the lowest bidders, or to large companies that can bid pretty low and churn out crap in a day. Most of all this is outsourced […] I can’t live off $200 a month.”

Many freelancers with respectable day rates abandoned online freelancing sites altogether, while many treated them as a fallback in case work couldn’t be sourced from elsewhere.

A new hope

In the last two years a new breed of freelance job site has emerged, fusing the roles of marketplace and recruitment agency, and promising to connect curated groups of high-quality freelancers with well-paying clients who value an expert hand over saving a few pennies. Most focus on a specific breed of work – design, writing, or coding are the most popular as this work can easily be completed remotely.

To keep quality high these sites often operate on an invite-only basis. Freelancers are granted access only if they can prove a certain level of experience, show a certain calibre of client, or are invited into the inner circle by other users.

These niche sites are still dwarfed by their larger, established competitors – Upwork claims the jobs posted on their network are worth almost $1 billion annually, whereas OnSite, a curated digital job site for the UK market, has billed £10 million in around two years of operation.

For freelancers the advantages of such sites are clear – significantly higher rates, no endless pitching with no guarantee of work, and association with premium brands that look great in portfolios.

For hirers the decision is more nuanced. Although the available talent is of a higher quality, it comes at a much higher cost – a piece of design work that could be bought for dollars through a large freelancing marketplace could be priced at thousands of pounds through a niche design platform.

For many of the agencies and large brands already using curated freelance sites, though, the cost is not an issue.

Paul Macgregor, cofounder of OnSite, says the companies that want to use his site are after quality work, and don’t have the time to sift through hundreds of bids to get the result they want.

“I don’t really do much persuading as clients come to come to us through word of mouth. We service a different market anyway. I don’t know many agencies or well financed startups that would look for talent on [large freelancing marketplaces].”

Contently, a curated freelancing platform for writers, has seen a similar trend. Cofounder Dave Goldberg told us:

“Our clients are marketers who don’t have time to sort through a ton of pitches that are poorly written or don’t make sense.

“The basic premise of Contently’s pricing is that creating content isn’t easy, and our contributors are skilled professionals. We have an in-house team that researches what top-tier media outlets around the world are paying and sets up benchmarks to offer competitive, industry-specific prices.”

Large freelancing marketplaces were born out of opportunity – the chance to connect a global self-employed workforce with companies who needed their skills – and had the unintended consequence of decimating day rates for many in Western economies. Now a new opportunity has presented itself – the chance to offer hirers a high-quality pool of vetted freelancers. These sites are the artisanal coffee shop to Freelancer.com’s Starbucks.

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But there is also an element of frustration in their origin stories. Paul from OnSite is a designer and developer by trade – the very people his site helps to find work. One of Contently’s cofounders is a journalist who struggled to find well-paying work. YunoJuno, a marketplace for creative and technical freelancers, was built by a community of creative and technical freelancers.

YunoJuno laments the “frustrations” of freelancing online, Paul Macgregor says OnSite’s birth was designed to address a “the race to the bottom”, while Contently’s cofounders hoped to fix the situation where “content farms were exploiting writers”. These sites could be seen as a corrective force in the freelance economy, helping to get day rates back to where they need to be for people plying their trade online.

While Freelancer.com, Elance and oDesk quickly rose to dominate the online freelance recruitment market – worth anywhere from $3 billion to $16 billion per year, depending on where you get your estimates from – sites like Contently and OnSite predict they will remain niche offerings. Paul Macgregor says:

“Unfortunately, not every client can be persuaded that high quality work, be that design, development, copywriting, is something with paying for.”

While Contently’s Goldberg thinks there is “an incentive for curation and offering more competitive pay when a job requires trained skills”, but that there will “continue to be open bidding freelance marketplace platforms.”

The future looks bright

For freelancers and contractors looking for work online, these vetted marketplaces are an exciting source of new work. The withering rates of 2010 are gone and, with most sites operating globally, the client pool is bigger than ever. The only challenge is being let through the door.