Jeremy Burge has built a 180-million-pageview-a-year business from cataloging emojis. Here's the story.
“Emojipedia! That’s the name.”
As he walked home from an evening out celebrating his birthday on July 14, 2013, the name hit him. "And that was it," Jeremy recalled. "I went inside and registered the domain that night."
What's happened in the three years since that night has been a rollercoaster ride - from humble beginnings of one or two visitors a day, Emojipedia now boasts over 15 million page views every month and six-figure yearly revenues.
We talked to Jeremy, about how he launched Emojipedia and how it transitioned from a side project to one of the most popular sites in tech.
How a 'failure of the internet' sparked the idea for Emojipedia
In 2012, Jeremy was a web developer and his fascination with emojis began to manifest as he played around with adding them to websites for some of his clients. Then, when iOS 6 came out a bunch of new emojis were included and Jeremy was struggling to identify which ones he hadn't seen before:
"I was driving myself insane just searching on Twitter “Is ‘x’ emoji new?” And my top Google searches were like, “Is the frog emoji new?” And “Is the doughnut emoji new?”
At this stage, a few people were talking about emojis, but it was a niche subject and nowhere online had all the information Jeremy needed. "It just seemed like a failure of the internet that this didn't exist," he said.
"It just seemed like a failure of the internet that this didn't exist."
"You expect the internet to have the answers. I felt that you should just be able to type into Google, 'Is this emoji new?'or, 'What are the new emojis?' and find the answers. And this resource wasn’t there. The idea was percolating in my head for a while until the name 'Emojipedia' came to me. That was the key, for me. Once the name popped into my head one night I went, 'Yep, that’s it. I’ve got to build this website.'”
"When I thought of Emojipedia I didn’t feel like, 'I’m a real clever guy for coming up with documenting emojis.' And even the name seems obvious, but I think those are the best ideas. I almost felt compelled that I had to build it. I didn’t want to be the guy who thought, 'Here’s a good idea, someone should build a site called, ‘Emojipedia’ and then not do it. It just seemed obvious that someone would build it if I didn’t."
Building v1 of Emojipedia
Jeremy researched more about emojis and discovered the Unicode Consortium - a not-for-profit organization responsible for emoji and their development. He also found each emoji had a specific name and began to list them out on his newly founded site.
The first version of Emojipedia was pretty simple and started out as an iOS only database with three basic pieces of information on each emoji:
- When it was added to ioS
- What it looks like in iOS
- And the emojis official name
An early version of Emojipedia.
The site was far from an overnight success. "Nobody cared about it for months," Jeremy recalled. "I saw numbers slowly trickle up from one or two a day up to a few 100 a day. But honestly, the first six months were slow."
The rise of emojis in popular culture (and take-off for Emojipedia)
6 billion emojis are now sent every single day and according to Swyft Media, 74 percent of people in the U.S. regularly use stickers, emoticons or emojis in their online communication, sending an average of 96 emojis or stickers per day.
Emojis are also big news nowadays - almost every new release from Unicode will become a trending topic across the internet and even mainstream media. This trend started with the release of the middle finger emoji (or Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extended, to use its official name).
"That was the point where people then had a narrative about emoji that was cultural as well as just technological," Jeremy explained. "Until then when it was just showing pizza or a turtle or something. There’s not really much more to say about those things. There’s only so many words you can write about, 'What do we think about Apple adding a doughnut emoji?'"
That middle finger emoji was the key feature of that draft list of the new emojis in 2014. That was what people were excited about, like, 'Why is there a middle finger emoji?' And 'Is this really coming to our phones?' And 'Isn’t that offensive?' It gives it more weight, it’s almost like adding a swear word to your keyboard. It makes people think about it, whereas until then they were more innocuous characters I think people just went, 'They’re smileys, we’ve always had smileys.'"
'A whole new world' for Emojipedia
This new found mainstream coverage and interest in the middle finger emoji lead to a huge spike in traffic for Emojipedia.
In early 2014, Jeremy had put up a breakdown of the new draft emoji list from Unicode, "I thought it was interesting but no one paid any attention to it for months," he said.
Then, out of the blue, an influx of traffic began flowing to Emojipedia: "A tech website, linked to our list and said, 'Look Emojipedia has the list of new emojis.' And then from there it was a snowball effect, where bigger and bigger sites started linking to it. Culminating in the BBC and major sites around the world linking to this list on the website to say, 'Here’s the new emoji list.' That was definitely a turning point."
"The site crashed and I was on holiday trying to fix it on my mobile phone. I know everything has to start somewhere, but compared to the first month of 100 page views with most of them being me. Yeah, it’s a whole new world. A lot of people came back after that day."
Emojipedia didn’t see traffic like that for a good year-or-so after that initial spike. But nonetheless, it continued to grow, as is on track to hit over 180 million page views in 2016.
Right place, right time
Timing has been a key part of Emojipedia's success and becoming a detailed database for emoji before the mainstream media were paying attention has helped position the site as the go-to resource for all things emoji.
"I think it was just that Emojipedia was there, before the mainstream press got on board and cared about emojis. Because I had been doing it for a year or two already Emojipedia appeared as an authority and had all the information."
"By the time people did care about it, they could look back and go, 'These guys have been actually documenting this the whole time. It’s just that we haven’t been paying attention.'"
"For a topic that could barely get a mention in the tech press a few years ago, we’re now talking breaking mainstream news whenever an emoji changes. Which I guess is right place, right time, that I was there before that shift happened," explained Jeremy who has now been on BBC and CNN news shows to discuss the latest emoji updates.
Going full-time and looking ahead to the future
In 2015, Jeremy was able to quit his consulting work and go full-time on Emojipedia. He also has a designer and developer working alongside him now, too. "Yeah, it’s a real thing now," he joked.
Next, Jeremy and his team are planning to focus on supporting multiple languages on the site and figuring out how to move with the fast-moving landscape of emojis:
"The fact that Emojipedia is only in English is a pretty big failing," he said. "Almost certainly we have to figure out getting into different languages and from there I think a lot of it’s just drive by what happens with emoji. It’s getting more customizations and there’s been talk of hair tones or color swatches to change from red wine to white wine. There’re all these proposals out there at Unicode and that really affects how we build the site and what people want from it. I think that’s going to be the next interesting step, is what happens with emoji and Unicode and how do we bring it to the forefront of conversations and make it easy to browse and keep on top of."
Given how emoji popularity and usage has grown over the past couple of years, and Emojipedia's explosive surge from zero to 15 million monthly page views, the sky's the limit for Jeremy Burge and his team.