Omniglot - a potted history

Being the tale of how Omniglot came into being, what my work on it involves, and how I make a living from it.

In the beginning ...

Omniglot was started as a hobby in 1998 by me, Simon Ager. Initially it was part of a site promoting a web design and translation business I was trying to set up - I'd taught myself web design while working for the British Council in Taiwan between 1994 and 1998, and did quite a bit of translation and interpreting between Chinese and English there. So I thought I could start my own business doing that, but unfortunately it wasn't very successful. After about a year I found a job building multilingual websites for Study Group in Brighton, where I worked until 2008. During that time I continued to maintain and develop Omniglot in my spare time.

Income starts to trickle in

In 2003 I discovered that I could get a commission on sales if I put Amazon affliate links on my site, so I set up a book store containing language learning materials and related books. Then I signed up for various other affiliate programs and for Google Adsense, and advertisers started approaching me asking to place paid links on the site. I also get many link exchange requests, and if they are from a commerical organisation that offers language-related products or services, I try to persuade them to pay for links. I haven't actively sought advertising, or spent anything on marketing, apart from printing and distributing business cards. Income from Omniglot started to trickle in at first, and gradually increased as more and more people discovered the site.

Time for something different

After being made redundant from my job in Brighton in 2008, I applied for a job with another company in Brighton, a language-travel agency, and ended up doing some freelance writing for their website. I also picked up some freelance writing work for another website, and was offered a job as a publications manager for a company in Shanghai, which I turned down as I didn't really fancy working in China. With the money from the freelance jobs and from Omniglot I was able to make ends meet, though not really in Brighton, which is quite an expensive place to live in.

But what?

I'd been thinking about alternatives for quite a while and had considered joining a circus, or training as a teacher or as a speech and language therapist. It was the latter path that appealed to me most, and I worked out that I could do an MA in linguistics first, then do an MSc Speech and Language Therapy. I chose Bangor to study linguistics because the course sounded interesting, because the cost of living is quite a bit lower than in Brighton, and because I wanted to be in a Welsh-speaking environment - after many years of intending to learn Welsh, I'd finally got round to it while in Brighton. Before leaving Brighton I had Omniglot registered as a company (Omniglot Ltd), to make things official, and found an accountant.

Life as a student

I enjoyed my time as a student and studied some interesting and useful things, including phonetics and phonology, pragmatics and semantics, sociolinguistics and language disorders. For my dissertation I wrote about the decline and revival of Manx Gaelic, and compared it to other endangered/revived languages, such as Cornish, Irish, Basque, Maori and Native American languages. This also inspired me to learn more Manx and to make regular visits to the Isle of Man. While studying I kept Omniglot going, though didn't always have as much time as I would have liked to work on it.

And then ...?

By the time I finished my MA I was making a good living from Omniglot and didn't need a 'proper' job. So I decided to stay in Bangor and have been there ever since. My income currently comes from the adverts on Omniglot, together with affiliate commissions and occasional donations. Some adverts, such as Google Adsense ones, pay me a small amount for every click, some pay commission on sales generated, and some pay a fixed amount every month, so my income depends to some extent on the number of people visiting the site.

Where does all your traffic come from?

It has built up organically from nothing in 1998 to about 1.6 million visitors a month. It reached 100,000 a month in 2004, and since March 2011 it has been over a million every month. After launching the site I registered it with all major search engines, and I make sure pages have relevant meta tags (title, description, etc). Apart from that, my main marketing 'strategy' is telling people I meet about the site and handing out business cards. I do my best to keep the site up-to-date and make regular corrections and improvements, and add new pages every week.

See Omniglot visitor stats

What do you actually do?

I spend my time answering questions from visitors to the site (for free), adding new material and improving existing content. I don't know to what extent these activities affect the number of visitors or my income. As it involves doing things I enjoy and find interesting, it doesn't feel like work, and I can choose when and where to work, and what to do. I generally work on the site in the mornings, and maybe for an hour or two in the afternoon, and spend the rest of my time doing things like learning and using my languages, playing musical instruments, singing and writing songs, and practicing my juggling and other circus skills.

Friends sometimes ask me for advice on setting up websites and web-based businesses, and on how to monetize existing websites. I do my best to help them.

Offshoots of Omniglot include:

  • Omniglot blog, where I muse about interesting words and phrases I encounter, language learning, language-related news stories, and other language-related stuff. At first I tried to post something everyday, but currently post maybe 3 or 4 times a week. Every Sunday I post a language quiz, which usually features a recording in a mystery language that I invite readers to identify.
  • Omniglot forum - a place to discuss languages, writing systems, conlangs and related topics
  • Omniglot Facebook fan club - a Facebook group with thousands of members who talk about all sorts of language-related things. Also a good place to post translation requests.
  • Omniglot Youtube channel - a collection of short animations which give me a chance to practise use my languages, to be silly, and to tell stories.
  • Omniglot on Twitter - the latest up-dates on Omniglot.com, plus random sentences in languages I'm learning
  • Omniglot on Google+ - the latest up-dates on Omniglot.com, plus Les Mots de la Semaine (new and interesting words that come up in the French Conversation Group I go to, in French, English and Welsh)
  • Multilingual musings, my blog on which I sometimes practise using languages I'm learning. I also post interesting words and phrases that come up in the French conversation group, and occasionally from the Bangor Language Café. The words from the French group are posted with English and Welsh equivalents.
  • Omniglot Chinese app - an iPhone/Andriod app which helps you learn basic Chinese characters developed by Leafcutter Studies and Omniglot
  • My songs on SoundCloud - a collection of songs, some silly, some serious, that I've written. Most are in English, but a few are partly in other languages.
  • My photos on Flickr - photos from some of my travels in foreign parts, and in the UK.

About this site | Omniglot - a potted history | About me | My language learning adventures | My singing adventures | My songs | My musical adventures | My juggling adventures