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Interview with Englishforums.com

Introduction:
Below you'll find an interview with Frank West, the founder of Englishforums.com, a community forum site designed to help people learn English. Here is how Frank describes the purpose of his project:

Our immediate aim is to provide the world's population with a pleasant and non-confrontational arena to practice English. Many Internet communities are rife with pompous known-it-alls; those who consider owning a skill as a good enough reason to make beginners feel like idiots. We frequently ban people with these characteristics, regardless of their level of proficiency.

The site handles approximately 30,000 visits a day; our team consists of a small number of administrators, and a larger number of moderators. The combined effort of these volunteers enables us to reliably moderate the day to day functioning of the forums at this traffic level. Most questions are answered in minutes and students are always treated with respect.

Torsten:
Frank, when and how did you start Englishforums.com? What triggered the idea to create this community?

Frank:
I was helping develop sites for Elanguest, an English language school in Malta. We decided it would be useful to ask the teachers to build an archive of common EFL questions and answers. We started the site towards the end of 2002; it grew to its current size after approximately a year.

Torsten:
How many new discussions are being started in your forums every day?

Frank:
Approximately 60-80 new threads a day, ranging from «Plural proper nouns» to «What do you think about sex before marriage?» We have a number of sections that allow people to discuss controversial subjects while practicing English. That adds up to around 300-400 posts a day.

Torsten:
Congratualations Frank, these are amazing numbers. How have you managed to achieve this level of popularity? Was it just word of mouth?

Frank:
The theory is quite similar to a disco: nobody wants to dance until somebody else is on the dance floor. I spent around three months talking to my own aliases on the site. Eventually other people began to join up and slowly things took off. You have to be patient, a little bit crafty, and blindly confident!

Torsten:
Yes Frank, I like this approach as we have been using it ourselves. How much time are you spending on your site these days?

Frank:
As much as is possible! - Through the use of AdSense, we've managed to form a small team of developers; we are also working on projects that will eventually extend our internet 'village'. The majority of technical work revolves around day-to-day maintenance and code updates, so it's a full-time job.

On the community side, the work is completely handled by our administration and moderation teams. I made it a point to hand control over to trusted members early on. Had this not been done, the site would have been overwhelmed by now.

Torsten:
Please tell us more about AdSense and how you have been able to build a team of developers. Also, what countries are your team members from?

Frank:
AdSense is a recent development; we originally ran the site without ads and paid for all the hosting in-house. As the site became more populated, the costs increased beyond good sense. Depending on how many ads you display, you can either cover your costs, or take occasional holidays.

Rather than make our site look like the ad-infested freak show that most communities have become, the team decided to keep it subtle and display them only for non-registered users. I don't mind ads at all: they're part of life. However, I can't tolerate sites that mislead users into clicking them at every turn.

We have a dedicated server sitting in a nice air-conditioned building with a couple of huge processors and a bunch of speedy SCSI-drives. AdSense has covered the cost of this, plus helped justify hiring a new person dedicated to SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).

Our development team are from England, Malta and Germany - we're also considering joining up with a team in Moscow.

Torsten:
So, Englishforums.com is a truly international online community that serves as a meeting and learning place for professionals with various talents and skills. Are you planning to run the site as a full time job?

Frank:
Relying on the whim of the search engines is a fundamentally precarious place to live! It's great right now, but one bad index could ruin the entire community. It's not a safe career move unless you take the necessary precautions.

We're branching out as much as possible, and covering as much internet ground as we can. We'll continue to ensure Englishforums.com remains technically intact and can expand indefinitely. I'm hesitant to rely on a single site, as in my opinion that's not a great idea in today's «flux-dance-tastic» environment.

Torsten:
I see when you mean. Putting all your eggs in one basket is probably not the wisest business decision. Could you please tell us more about your plans for diversification? What areas of the online world are you going to move in to?

Frank:
We're moving into different sectors but trying to keep the general community theme for now. We've just released www.thechatpage.com - a simple but clean technology for chatting. It might sound «done», but as you'll see, there's no downloading and signing up or general nonsense for the end user. We'll also move into course building / travel and other tools for education this year.

Torsten:
I have checked out thechatpage.com and must admit I'm impressed. Congratulations! The site is very pleasant to look at; I especially like the friendly and clean layout, and of course the big yellow smiley. Also, I'm glad to see so many users engaging in active conversations in your chatrooms. Another feature I find valuable is the poll section. Who comes up with the ideas for the survey questions?

Frank:
Thanks, Torsten; we spent a good few days going back and forth between «yellow» and «slightly yellow»! The idea of the site was to be «instant-on» — no delays and no hassles for the new visitor. The polls are dreamt up by the community; however, as we develop the population, our moderators and administrators are coming up with «tasty» topics each day. I do believe in aliens!
Author: Frank West and Torsten Daerr