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The ESL Cafe Story

by Torsten Daerr

When it comes to learning English on the Internet there is one web site that might be the most popular place amongst the ESL community: «Dave's ESL Cafe» Dave Sperling started his project in 1995 — a time when the Internet was still in its infancy. Now, Dave's ESL Cafe is visited by tens of thousands of ESL learners every single day and this number continues to grow.

Why do so many people visit Dave's ESL Cafe? To answer this question we have to find out what the ESL Internet market looked like in 1995. Back then there were very few sites that catered to the ESL community and Dave Sperling was pioneering the web with his ESL Cafe. As a matter of fact he could have well been the very first person to set up a site with free ESL materials. When he started off his ESL cafe it was located at until Dave registered the domain If you want to visit his site please make sure you type the address correctly — it's «», just one word — not — spelled with a hyphen (-).

So, back in the mid 90ies finding web pages was quite different from what it is today: You couldn't go to Google because Google appeared only in 1998 — 3 years after Dave's ESL Cafe opened its doors.

Yes, there were search engines available at that time too — AltaVista for example. However, instead of looking for new web pages in AltaVista, most Internet users of those early days would ask their friends for information and exchanging web addresses via email was by far the most reliable way to keep abreast of new developments. Even today a lot of people get websites through advertising or personal conversations rather than through using a search engine because when you are new to the Internet you simply don't know how to use Google, Yahoo or MSN correctly. Internet based search technology has been around for a relatively short period of time and although it has a number of advantages over traditional ways of finding information it will never reach the efficiency of the word-of-mouth principle.

Take Dave's ESL Cafe for instance: There are tens of thousands of people who know the term «Dave's ESL Cafe» not because they found by searching for ESL materials in Google but simply one of their friends told them about the address. You might ask how I can be so sure about this. Well, that's an interesting question and I'll try to answer it as clearly as possible. As you know the Internet is the first interactive mass media, that means unlike with conventional communication channels such as TV and radio you can send as well as receive data.

There are a growing number of companies that offer various types of information on how people use the Internet. One of those resources is located at where you can find several interesting applications such as the Keyword Suggestion Tool. It shows you how often a certain phrase or term is searched on the Internet. According to which uses data from Overture and Wordtracker the terms «esl cafe», «dave's esl cafe» and «dave's cafe» or looked up several hundred times every day. This means, people who have found Dave's ESL cafe either through Google or by communicating with a friend share the address in turn with their friends and acquaintances and so on. This is an ongoing process that shows the following pattern: In the beginning only very few people knew about Dave's ESL cafe. When he started his site in 1995 Dave was still teaching many students in his English classes and of course he would tell them about his project. Some of those students had access to the Internet and they were curious to find out about their teacher's Internet site so they pointed their browsers to and entered Dave's ESL cafe for the first time. Because they liked Dave's style of teaching and they thought Dave was an interesting person they also found his website unique. In Dave's ESL cafe they could find information on how to learn English along with interactive grammar and vocabulary exercises and top of it all they could meet with other learners of English and exchange experiences with them online. It goes without saying that most of Dave's students who visited his ESL Cafe would tell their friends and family about this fascinating website. In addition they would talk about Dave's ESL Cafe to other teachers who in turn would visit and promote the site. When you find a website that you deem useful and valuable you of course tell others about it.

Back in the mid 90ies email was by far the most widely used Internet service and so it is quite obvious that a lot of ESL students would copy and paste the address of Dave's ESL Cafe and send it to all their friends with an electronic mail account. This way the news about Dave's ESL Cafe spread like a bonfire across the World Wide Web reaching more and more members of the Online ESL Community. Among the people who got word about Dave's ESL Cafe of course also were university administrators, website owners, company executives and other decision makers who added to their website's link collection and entered the address to the infrastructure of their own organizations and networks. Within a few years Dave's ESL Cafe became so popular that almost everyone in the ESL industry — teachers and students alike knew about it. In the era after 1995 a number of events and developments even accelerated the spread of turning the site into some kind of Internet brand. Beginning in the mid-90ies the Internet saw a tremendous growth in popularity as well as functionality. It was the time when Online Networks started mushrooming with one company leading the field: There are lots of parallels between the success story of today's most widely used eCommunity and Dave's ESL Cafe and we are going to take a look at two aspects in particular.

First, took the Net by storm just as Dave's ESL Cafe did. Today ICQ has up to 3 milion simultaneous users and because those people are from all around the world the vast majority has a great interest in improving their English. With providing its members free access to state-of-the art online communication tools it is the ideal place to cultivate and propel the spread of Dave's ESL Cafe. On you can talk about any subject of interest and ESL is definitely one the top issues and as both websites were created at about the time (Dave's ESL Cafe in 1995 and in 1996) they received a lot of exposure from each other. Now both sites show the same extremely high Google PageRank of 8/10.

Another thing Dave's ESL Cafe and ICQ share is the way their popularity spread across the Internet within a very short period of time. This effect is also called «Viral Marketing» and describes how new communication technologies help speed up the spread of web addresses.

As the Internet continues to grow by the hour and more and more people turn to this new medium to find information and learn languages Dave's ESL Cafe will welcome thousands of new guests every day.

Is Dave's ESL Cafe a good website? Judging from the information you've read in this article so for you might say yes. However, there is a down side to too: It simply lacks good fresh content. People turn to the site not so much because Dave Sperling offers the largest collection of free ESL materials but rather because his cafe was the very first of its kind to be available. It's like Microsoft dominating the world market with its software although there are lots of companies providing better products. Google has indexed more than 100.000 pages of — yet, only a tiny little fraction of them was originally created by Dave Sperling, the owner of Dave's ESL Cafe himself. The vast majority of pages are generated by the forum members Dave's ESL Cafe has been able to accumulate over the years. There is just one section on his website which Dave updates several times a year: His photo gallery. The rest of his content pages (His Idea Cookbook, the Phrasal Verb list and the Idiom Collection) were originally created by him and one of his colleagues many years ago and have never been added to ever since. If you go to Amazon's web directory you can search for and you will be able to read what some people say about Dave's site. The following are examples of comments about Dave's ESL Cafe made by ESL enthusiasts on the Alexa website:

"Was of no help to me,
Needed something for a class and was told by a colleague to try this site. Spend 20 minutes looking around in vain for something creative before giving up. There are materials on the site, but they are boring and repetitive. This site was created in the mid-nineties and has its mindset still ten years back. In the end, found, and other one called or something similar....all had far better range of communicative resources."End of quote.

Here is a more drastic one:

"Horrid site,
Its visual dullness doesn't even begin to justify the negative comments here about this site. It is just unimaginative and that is a far worse crime on the web. Continues to benefit from sites linking to it "because it is, after all, Dave's ESL Cafe" without any real justification for doing so. Should be a case study in how certain sites have lived on reputation alone for years and years on the web. Being first to the waterhole most certainly WAS important in this site's case and to believe otherwise is just putting your head in the sand." End of Quote

OK, you might say we at are biased and that's why we publish only negative comments about Dave's ESL Cafe. Well, as Ervin Nemeth from Hungary states, fairness is the true issue here and that's why we want to finish our article with some positive feedback which has also been taken from

Quote:(by Ervin Nemeth of Mako, Hungary)
"Fairness is the true issue here.
There are people who chase fashion trends, who use every possible new technology to make their site "top class." Not so with Dave! Good old content that actually works and all the junk to lure students and a whole bunch of people who can help the site keep on going.
If you say, "Dave has nothing valuable," I must ask, how many of the "Ideas" or "Hint of the day" pages have you seen? 'Cause there are like zillions and those are just the kinds of things an ESL/EFL teacher can use in actual teaching situation. I've been using many of Dave's ideas (even actual content) in my classes ever since I've discovered the site. Many of my students were motivated by the slangs & idioms Dave shared -- those were not available in EFL textbooks in my country at the time. For some such motivation meant a successful language exam. I don't think it's that bad...

It's important to get more specific about what one wants to do with a Web site. ESL/EFL is just too huge a topic for one site. I'm happy to see that Dave stays with what he knows most about and does not experiment too much with fancy contents and pages (which sometimes simply wouldn't work on some computers). For a rather conservative guy like me that means a sense of reliability that is just as important as a cup of hot coffee early in the morning.

Oh, and I still remember the time when my ESL Net was not that much behind Dave's ESL Cafe in 1995 or so with multiple mailing lists, msg board, chat and far more free stuff than today. For some reasons Dave increased his visitors greatly and I lost most. Not (only) because I removed some stuff due to hosting quantity limitations. Is that proof enough that "First to the waterhole" is irrelevant here?

Finally, about Dave's picture. At a time many wanted to know how Dave looked like. Perhaps not the best snapshot, but it does what it is supposed to. Also, not everyone goes to all the pages, so it's not bad to have the picture on every single page. Or, would a link to the personal items be more appropriate? Let's leave it to "The one and only Dave" to decide. End of quote

When I was writing this article Dave's ESL Cafe showed a Google PageRank 8/10 which meant that this site used to belong to the most popular places on the Internet. After Google updated their index the PageRank of Dave's ESL Cafe dropped from 8 to 7. There can be a number of reasons explaining why this happened and maybe in a few months the site will be rewarded with a Google PageRank of 8/10 again.
If you want to learn more about Google's innovative and unique system of assessing the value of a web page you should read the appropriate sections on the Google website. In addition, you can contact us here on the Forum which is open for you to discuss any topic as long as you do so in English.

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