All great advice above (from users giving freely of their time because you can't get proper answers from anyone on oDesk). Just a quick no-brainer from me (although you weren't to know at the start it was a no-brainer):
NEVER EVER let oDesk make automatic suggestions or decisions for you, because the algorithms just do not work. They are for the most part no better than random, and I suspect that whoever writes them must be dyslexic. As an example, I'm an English proofreader/editor, and today got an invitation for a job as a Polish writer, from a client who (like you) had blindly trusted oDesk's algorithms (fondly known on here as the mad robots).
Unfortunately you have to put in the work yourself searching through profiles for the right freelancer - and he or she is out there...
Reading over your account of what happened...
This is just a nightmare. I have to agree, however, that this isn't oDesk's doing. You had a really bad agency you were working with.
I don't blame you at all if you're completely soured on oDesk.
But I don't see how this situation would be substantially different on any other freelancing platform, though.
Working with a bad agency there will be pretty much the same as working with a bad agency on oDesk, except that there are some differences in how refunds and disputes are handled on different platforms.
But you don't want to worry about refunds and disputes. You want the work done, and done correctly.
I can tell you for certain that there are individual freelancers who you could have handed this material to and they would have done things right, in fact better than you had planned, without having to deal with all the nightmares you're dealing with.
There's little chance of getting an agency for this type of work who will perform as good as a quality freelancer.
This agency was just terrible, though, all around. Even most agencies, even though they won't be as good to work with as a quality freelancer, would be far better than this fiasco.
Also, almost anytime you deal with somebody who wants to provide you with a WordPress solution, you're dealing with people who are not genuine programmers or software professionals, you're usually dealing with people who primarily want to make money rather than learn quality programming and web design technique.
Thank you to everyone who answered. I really appreciate the info.
Dianne M: Thank you for the summary of steps toward getting a good freelancer. I was careful to review oDesk tutorials and suggestions to beginners before starting. I firmly believe that communication is crucial to any project, which is why I was so surprised when the "freelancer" (fake freelancer) refused to talk to me. I should have dropped the contract there, I guess….
Krisztina U: Thank you for the practical suggestions. I will try to get to tear 2 support to see where things stand. Any suggestions on how to get in touch with anyone from oDesk staff online? So far I only managed to get them on the phone, so I have no way of following this through. I am not trying to be vindictive here, I just want to make sure that this disaster doesn't happen to anyone again. Really.
Stephen B: I did not realize there that one can get a proofreader on this site. How can I contact you professionally?
Preston H: Thank you for making a point to distinguish between the agencies and individual freelancers. The person who finally partially fixed some of the damage to our site is an individual freelancer, and I am thinking of retaining his services to complete most of the project. I found it interesting what you said about freelancers who offer WordPress solutions. Most of our site's skeleton is built with WordPress and its plugins. Since we needed to work both the front and the back ends of our site, I figured going with the agency would make sense… boy was I wrong?! You mention individual freelancers who can manage project such as ours. I hope this is not an inappropriate request so could you please suggest 4-5 such individuals to me. I understand that this is probably not the right forum for this, but we are way behind the schedule and I need to dig us out of a pretty deep hole. Please, feel free to use e-mail, oDesk messaging system, or any other method of communication you can think of.
Everyone who responded: thank you! For a while it felt pretty lonely out there
Alexander, you should by all means contact support and ensure that the agency is taken down. It's not being vindictive but doing the community a favor by taking down a bad apple. You can reach chat and email support here: https://support.odesk.com.
I would suggest you start a ticket and take it from there. If you already spoke to someone, you most likely already have a ticket, in which case you should keep all communication within that ticket. (See attached screenshot.)
We cannot give out our profiles or recommend certain profiles for you. It is prohibited in the site and forum rules and can get us kicked out of the site.
And yes, there are plenty of freelancers here for almost everything! I'm mostly a writer and project manager, Stephen is a proofreader/editor, Preston and Aseem are tech guys (sorry guys I'm not techy haha), and Krisztina is an all-in-one office superwoman (she hires people too? can't see her profile so not sure).
The point is, there are plenty of good freelancers at oDesk and a lot of them are more than great. Not to make us seem better than other freelancers but we are not getting a single cent for posting here at the forum and yet we post and share what we know here. Why? because it helps everyone and helps us indirectly.
More good clients in the site means more possible good clients for us. Given that you take time to thank us for sharing and wants to find a way to make things work, I think you're a good client. That's why we are trying to help you out so you don't think all freelancers here are bad like the ones you encountered.
ODesk can be a bit tricky to navigate...especially the recommended freelancers list you get when you post a job. Whenever my company posts a job and they ask me to find someone for it, oftentimes, the oDesk recommended list contains only 1 or 2 freelancers out of 10 who can do what needs to be done. What I find disturbing is that the list sometimes contains freelancers with bad feedbacks so not sure how come they are recommended.
What we do is search for freelancers ourselves or if we some time, read every application and profile (including those in the hidden folder). Oftentimes, you can find a gem where you least expect it. Beware of fake portfolios and copy pasted profiles though because there are still plenty of them on the site despite efforts to clean them up. It hurts everyone...especially good clients who just wants their job done and us good freelancers.
Btw, you can ask oDesk to help you find freelancers. They have human recruitment specialists (don't go for the automated list) who can sift through profiles for you or you can hire a freelance recruitment specialist. There are freelancers specialising in recruiting for tech like hiring programmers, some specialises in hiring for writing/translation, some are general human resources types etc etc.
Most of us who posted here have done that for some clients in the past (from what I've read in the forum) so we know how it works but again, we cannot send you our profiles or other freelancers' profiles because that is prohibited in the forum rules. The site has rules like that to prevent abuse and spam from freelancers. As a client, there is nothing prohibiting you from initiating contact with any of us though
Also, I think Dianne is offering fantastic advice here.
One point I might differ is on hourly versus fixed rate.
Fixed rate contracts are usually best for the client (such as yourself).
But for CSS design work, fixed rate is not necessarily the best way to go.
If I was in your situation what I would do is EXACTLY WHAT I DID last week.
I hired 6 different people to do CSS design for the same project, I paid them hourly rates a capped number of hours. After they submitted their work, I kept what I liked best and threw away the rest.
This isn't how you want to do all types of work, but it can be less time-consuming and less expensive to handle CSS design this way.
Also, if you do this for a small amount of CSS design to start out with, you should be able to pick a favorite designer who you feel turns in good work at a good price.
I think a lot of your problem was not realizing how radically different the quality of work would be depending on who you hire.
Really, I've hired some people who just blew me away. I couldn't believe how good and affordable they were. And other people, meh. Don't call me. I'll call you.
Sorry, I posted my question in the wrong spot in the string, so I will re-post it here:
"You mention individual freelancers who can manage project such as ours. I hope this is not an inappropriate request so could you please suggest 4-5 such individuals to me. I understand that this is probably not the right forum for this, but we are way behind the schedule and I need to dig us out of a pretty deep hole. Please, feel free to use e-mail, oDesk messaging system, or any other method of communication you can think of. "
This goes not just for Preston H, but for anyone who can suggest a good individual freelancer competent in WordPress, Plugins, HTML/CSS, and PHP.
Stephen B: I did not realize there that one can get a proofreader on this site. How can I contact you professionally?
I've changed my profile to public (I thought it was...) You can message me on here, or go through my profile link, or use the freelancer searches. If you do the latter, you will see that there are a lot of proofreaders around...
Thank you for your response to the posts written by myself and some of my fellow frequent posters in this community forum.
I'm not certain about how much I can help you with specific names.
When I think about some of the truly stunning experiences I have had, not just with my own hiring but with that of colleagues who have hired, it has been with some contractors who have deciphered and untangled very technical networking/configuration issues, far more complex than anything you are facing. They were patient, knowledgeable, very affordable, and got the job done. I spent between $40 to $100 total on individual incidents in which talented individuals helped me out solving problems that would have taken me weeks to figure out on my own, if ever. I hesitate to single out countries, but I've never gone wrong with Ukrainian engineering expertise.
I have had great success hiring for CSS work by using a more shotgun approach, and finding fantastic (NON-Ukrainian) practitioners among a group of just-okay workers.
I realy am not sure why you would want to hire the same people to do CSS and PHP, when you could hire specialists in each.
Great CSS designers can be found for relatively low rates, and they can focus on the visual design of your overall system while a PHP programmer can focus on functionality.
I don't think Johnny Depp did the set decoration on "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies he starred in. No offense to CSS designers, whose work I value, but it's a different skill. Most great PHP programmers can do pretty good CSS, but why would you want to pay their higher pay for doing PHP when you can pay less to CSS experts who will do better CSS than the PHP expert? Harrison Ford was a VERY talented carpenter, but after he starred in Star Wars, nobody was going to pay him to build sets, because they could pay somebody else so much less to do the same thing.
And WordPress experts are basically crafts service caterers who decided they could direct a movie, but have never gone to film school or watched any films other than Michael Bay movies.
(Your competitors in the market place are the people who are most glad to see you are using WordPress.)
As for genuinely talented PHP programmers, there are many people who fit into this category. (None of them work for agencies, by the way.) Frankly speaking, I do magical things with PHP that many people don't even realize can be done (I am both a contractor and client), but I don't use this forum to solicit work and I am not available to work on your project.
Personally, if I were looking for a great lead PHP programmer I would identify 6 small constituent tasks that need to be done on my overall website, post six different jobs, hire 6 different people to do each one. Each of these jobs is around one to two hours worth of work or less than $200 each as a fixed rate project.
The programmer who most impresses me in terms of finishing on time and doing a great job is the one who I hire.
Or just hire 6 different people to do exactly the same task.
One of the ways to gauge the quality of a PHP programmer? Who submits the source code with the fewest lines of code/fewest total number non-comment characters, yet at the same time, submits code which is most easily readable and understandable to somebody who is NOT a computer programmer.
Assuming all source code submitted performs the same function with the same level of efficiency, that's your best programmer right there: the programmer who sends you 50 human-readable lines of code in one source code file instead of 500 lines of code in 8 source code files.
The same goes for your CSS designers: Given two websites which look and behave identically, the CSS designer who gave you the fewest CSS files with the fewest lines is the best CSS designer.
You said: "I found it interesting what you said about freelancers who offer WordPress solutions. Most of our site's skeleton is built with WordPress and its plugins."
WordPress has may uses and can be used for many things.
But you described your website (in one of your first posts that your first posts) as "interactive."
WordPress is not a serious tool for people creating a highly interactive website.
It is best used by individuals creating mostly static websites if they do not have access to an actual programmer.
(Of course, this is my own opinion. It is not the opinion of oDesk or the opinion of web designers who rely on WordPress).