Interview with Richard Hearne (“Red Cardinal”)

Posted on 6 September 2007 at 20:55 UTC, filed under People, disclaimer

Hi Richard, welcome to my blog! When I look through the top posters in the Google Webmaster Help groups, you’re almost always in there – it’s great to have you there and your posts bring in a lot of background knowledge that I’m sure many site owners appreciate. It’s interesting that you are – as far as I can tell – the only one of the top posters who is professionally active in the website-area.

Hi John. Thanks so much for asking me to participate – it’s a great honour to talk with you. Odd that you mention about my professional background. It has dawned on me that I might be the only professional SEO on the group (I wasn’t sure about this), and I’m slightly surprised that there isn’t more participation by other professionals. I’m quite sure that there are lurkers from the SEM industry, as the group is an excellent educational resource. More thoughts on this aspect a little later. Back to your questions now.

Why do you spend so much of your time in the Google Webmaster Help groups – isn’t that almost like giving away the work that you would normally charge for? What’s in it for you?

Funny, I’m a little embarrassed that I don’t get more time to contribute on the group. I’m not sure why that is, but I suppose I feel a small amount of ownership having posted as regularly as possible. I actually went to my profile recently to try and see how I first came across the group. I can’t say with 100% confidence how I found the group, but I was able to uncover what it was that sent me there. I was trying to find out whether Google would give .EU cTLD any special treatment in terms of country level searches. My first interaction with the group was with another ‘regular’, and that individual gave his time and knowledge freely. There’s something very endearing to actions which are without motive.

I’ve been very lucky both personally and professionally in the past few years. I live a comfortable lifestyle and I’m getting opportunities to work on projects that even I would never have imagined not so long ago. In a way I owe some of my success to the group. There is only one resource I know of that provides more insight into Search Engines in general, and Google in particular. That resource is action – learning by doing. The group comes in a very close second place. The knowledge shared there is absolutely priceless. The individuals who contribute are, by and large, equal to and above many ‘professionals’ in the SEM field. As I said, the group is as close to the coalface as you can get without actually doing everything yourself.

What’s in it for me? A few things. The chance to mingle and converse with some very clever and insightful people (Random Chit-Chat can contain some gems), the ability to broaden my knowledge base, and, quite simply, the ability to commit the odd good deed or two and feel good about yourself.

As a professional website optimizer, for search engines, usability and accessibility, how do you rate the answers given in the groups? Do you feel that site owners are generally being given good advice?

I’m neck-deep in this kind of stuff professionally. I know that in some cases individuals and companies have saved or made themselves huge sums of money by logging into a Google Group and asking a question. I can safely say that some of the advice given there for free would attract substantial fees had it come from a large agency of superstar SEO. I think that speaks volumes for those ‘regulars’ who help people out day-in, day-out.

In my opinion the quality of advice given is generally of a very high quality. And I think the Group self-regulates itself pretty well, so if you see bad advice, more often than not it will be debunked fairly soon after by a regular. I can’t say that I’ve seen many instances where bad advice has been given (excepting the period where certain negative forces existed in the Group).

This might cause some grief, but I’m going to state for the record that I don’t believe that compliant mark-up makes much of a difference. I am very committed to clean mark-up, but I think modern crawlers can just about munch through anything, and bad mark-up is rarely the primary cause of ranking issues (indexation perhaps more so). Connected to this, I not a subscriber to the broken META validation problem. I know the code breaks validation, but if it really was an issue I think Google would do something about it. I actually shot Phil Payne an email on this once, and while I have the utmost respect for both Phil’s experience and view on this issue, I still just cannot bring myself to buy into this particular fact (or myth?).

I think the greatest shame about the group is the architecture of the application itself – some absolutely fantastic information gets buried by the crap platform that is ‘Groups’. I’ve been on it for near a year now, and I still can’t figure out a good way to sort the wheat from the chaff (and then to find the wheat later on… *sigh*).

You have a lot of really great content on your site – is there a reason why you don’t seem to promote that content in the Google groups?

Thank you. The beauty of the Group is that it is impartial and there are virtually never hidden agendas. I think that if I or any other poster was to start promoting their wares on the Group it would be a very negative development. Besides, I’ve never been one for overtly promoting myself or my business (inside the Group, or out), I prefer to talk about those things I have a passion for, and it just so happens that SEO, on-line marketing and on-line business are topics dear to me.

Oh, and just in case that’s misread by anyone – I’m not saying that it’s bad to point at your own content, just that I have to be a little more careful than others given the potential for perceived conflicts.

In the groups and in forums everywhere, the question of whether or not it’s worth it to make sure that a site is valid (X)HTML code and complies with the generally accepted usability and accessibility guidelines is always a hot topic. On your blog you often mention such errors in sites that you review, why is valid code, usability and accessibility so important to you as a SEO?

As a child I used to love Lego. Every time I got something new I’d rip open the box, discard the instructions and build from the picture. (Ended with my progression to Tecnics…) But seriously, you can obviously see that I don’t read ahead, hence I’ve sort of answered this above.

The valid code issue comes into play for me because it’s just so easy to manipulate good mark-up (tables for tabular data, not layout please). In terms of usability – well SEO is about achieving high ranks in the SERPs, but traffic is rather pointless if you cannot convert it. I’ve turned away quite a few jobs because I know that the site owner wont re-develop her site, and all the traffic in the world wont make any difference to the bottom line. In the past 6 months a large proportion of my work has been in usability and conversion optimisation actually.

Accessibility is a no-brainer for me. You needn’t conform with every point from the strictest guidelines, but why not give as wide an audience to your content? The added bonus is that crawlers rarely if ever have issues with well coded accessible websites. It’s a win-win.

Why is the focus of many of your blog postings on sites for and in Ireland? (I love the local touch with the unique and interesting content about search and websites in general.)

I suppose it’s a comfort zone thing. Most people tend to write about what they know best. And besides, I love to stir things up when I see websites that are making those stupid mistakes that require more effort than doing things well. (On an aside, controversy can be a very strong marketing tool, but manage wisely :) )

Is there anything I can pass on to Google, from you in particular, as a professional SEO, SEM and someone very active in the Google Groups?

*sigh* where do I start…

  1. Webmaster console used to be great, but the information is becoming so stale that it borders on useless. (Part of me thinks this is all part of the great anti-SEO crusade Google is currently on.)
  2. Stop crapping out my searches with spyware interstitials – I’m logged in, you can identify me, I’m not infected. (Further tactic in Google’s anti-SEO crusade.)
  3. More Blue badges in the Group please – if you guys can take time out to hang in WMW, surely it’s not too much to expect a little interaction in your own ‘Official’ support forum?
  4. On a local note – given the huge base here in Ireland (‘Paddyplex’) why isn’t Google more active in the local web community? MS puts you guys to aboslute shame with the local support they give to grass roots. Not even a peep out of Google.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Very, very well done on your new job. Something tells me ‘perfect fit’ applies here. The only negative might be that Google’s gain will be the wider community’s loss… Hand on heart, you’re definitely one of the kindest and most knowledgeable people I’ve met on my short travels across the Interweb.

Thanks for your time, Richard!

No, thank you John.

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