A bookie’s life – interview with Sebastian

Posted on 13 August 2007 at 12:31 UTC, filed under People, disclaimer

s603184568_5458.jpgHello Sebastian! You’re one of the more elusive people in the Google Groups, helping webmasters regularly and often with run-of-the-day problems and providing insight into things that are not so common. Your “no-BS” policy sometimes seems a bit tough on new users – but by “telling it like it is” you can get straight to the point and help where it hurts. It’s good to have your help in the groups and I’m glad you take the time to help no matter what problems a webmaster is fighting with.

Nobody knows who you really are – Aaron Pratt goes so far as to say “Sebastian is either running from the law or a bookie, I never could get his name” :-) . How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?

Howdy John, thanks for asking a dad working at home bookie running from the law for an interview. :) Actually, a few people do know who I am, for example my monsters, my dad, my laywer, my accountant and tax advisor, and last but not least all the nice folks at Google I had the pleasure to rescue my banned stuff chat with. *wink*

By the way, my real name is Sebastian(X). I’ve lost my surname in cyberspace. Shit happens. In fact it really doesn’t matter and if it would exist, it would be unpronounceable for the english tounge. It’s annoying enough that most folks call me Sebastion or Sebastien.

When I try to answer your questions honestly, would you be offended by natural choice language here and there? I do remember that I’ve promised to be nice, but hey, that’s an interview and not a Q&A in the Google Groups … please let me swear. :)

Feel at home, Sebastian

Thanks for your understanding John, and back to the opening question. How I’d introduce myself? Well, I don’t do it. Why the fuck should I? When someone contacts me I just ask how I can help. When s/he formulates an intelligent question s/he can judge me by the quality of my answer, vision, solution, or analysis. OTOH if the question tells me that I’m dealing with a fucking clueless moron, I don’t bother answering politely, hence an introduction is somewhat obsolete. Telling the truth can sound extremely brutal. Well, depending on the situation I can be diplomatic and friendly too, but I prefer to meet great minds.

Seriously, I’ve put up my business card on the Web. I frankly tell what I can do, suppressing stuff I can do but where I don’t think I’m an outstanding expert. For example I can code in several programming languages, but I don’t sell coding. Why? Because I’m not a coder. I’m an analyst, visionary, and a problem solver. I can design a simple solution for a complex problem, and then I work with different folks for each tier. I can do that although I’m not a genial UI programmer or Web designer, I don’t know everything about application servers and AJAX, or databases, Web services, XML’ish stuff and whatnot … but I learn fast and know enough of everything to make good decisions.

Looking through your site, you seem to have a wide range of IT-know-how. Why do you spend so much time on SEO, what makes it special in comparison to say database-design?

I couldn’t honestly offer SEO services when I’m clueless about databases, programming, software architectures, business processes, marketing, webmastering and whatnot. SEO is not all about writing great title tags and link building. When I optimize the crawlability of a large dynamic site for example, I do need to understand the IDE, scripts, data model etcetera as well as all aspects of the business plan. It makes no sense to optimize the Web frontend of a flawed business process, that won’t make the client happy on the long haul. And I’m not happy with well payed but hopeless jobs, so I don’t accept them. I can tag projects as helpless pretty fast, and if I’m told that hired guns don’t change the concepts but only implement them, I quit. Sometimes my zero-BS tolerance hurts in the wallet.

Probably it’s fun to write the book on database design, but then I could think of a few things more exciting than hanging out with DBAs and modelers during my whole career. Once I get something to work smoothly, it bores me and I look for a new challenge. Doing SEO and webmastering allows me exactly that, mastering new challenges every day. Not that I forget past projects. Recently I had to change a Cobol program I wrote decades ago. I was astonished that this beast was still running, and that I’m still capable to write spaghetti code like “go to a b c depending on i” in all uppercase without making use of caps-lock. BTW I’m missing the level 88 condition names …

What drives you to provide so much help – for free – in the Google Groups, to people who sometimes don’t even have time to say “thanks”?

I enjoy helping Webmasters, I pay back for the help I got as a noob, and it feeds my obsession about solving fresh problems. It’s a bit selfish too, because I’m educating myself by analyzing problems and developing solutions, or at least vague suggestions or ideas. Also, this group is simply addicting, and the gang of regulars rocks. Back then in the original sitemaps group there was potential for job acquisitions too, but that’s history unfortunately, probably because I edit out the verbal fondling (like dumbass, assclown, amoeba, and repetitive use of fuck in variations) nowadays, and don’t rant any more.

In your interview with Aaron Pratt you mention a background in adult websites and a “pretty dark grey” hat many years ago. That sounds interesting. Do you have an old “war story” you care to share with the readers? How were things on the web back then?

Well, as a porn peddler you kill for traffic, because you need that much of it to feed large networks of mini sites all selling up to the money makers like paysites you own, and to trade it. Actually I wasn’t that aggressive, because the search engines loved my stuff, not always voluntarily I admit. Most of the methods like spider traps we used back then don’t work anymore, and Matt’s gang took down these neat constructions within few months like a clockwork. Interestingly, I heard that Yahoo and MSN still send fair amounts of traffic to sites I gave away years ago because they were suffering from Google’s death penalty since 2001 or so. I fear there are no real war stories worth telling today. I wasn’t that bad really since I quickly realized that I can make XXX-bucks with whitehat SEO and purchased traffic too.

How were things, huh … Ok, here is a detail which sounds unbelievable today. Back then DMOZ was a porn traffic machine. See, you don’t buy it. It’s true however. AOL search was powered by the ODP and often updated. Adult Webmasters, err DMOZ editors, were awesome fast in adding submitted sites plus a few of their own. I submitted new sites daily and they immediately made money just from AOL traffic. Submissions to a few links lists and indexing by the crawling search engines created a stable traffic stream within 1-2 months. A crappy sales pitch leading to 30 pix in the members area did easily bring in thousands. Until Google overtook search and became way to picky. ;)

What made you move away from the “dark side”?

That’s Matt’s fault. He taught me to think like a search engine engineer when evaluating and developing particular architectural respectively promotional aspects of site building and traffic management. It did pay on the long haul. Costs of development of fly-by-night and durable projects are comparable. Hence building somewhat future-proof stuff maximizes the profits. Also, I hate it to produce throw-away products. It’s much more fun to watch a baby growing up.

That does not mean that I ignore techniques beyond Google’s guidelines by the way. I consider burning a domain or tiny network for testing purposes educational, and there’s nothing wrong with making money with experiments. Playing by the rules means maxing out any given policy, so you’d better know todays thresholds and predict future changes accurately. Some of these experiments have a rather long life cycle. For example I still monitor a site running on autopilot since 2003 which lives off ‘user generated contents’ gathered from SERP referrers mashed up with, uh, other sources. It’s still under the radar because it deals mostly with long tail phrases and prunes milked out contents automatically.

As a parent, you have certainly seen that there are some experiences that a child has to go through alone in order to learn properly. If one of your children were to start making websites, which experiences would you want them to make for themselves?

Literally everything. I’d help with planning, coding and whatnot, but as a consultant, not as a coach. There is no better method as learning by doing, fucking up and retrying. I won’t allow copyright violations and stuff like that though, none of my monsters deserves that kind of a lesson and it’s easy to teach that in theory.

Assuming you were to teach your kids how to make websites that succeed in their market (perhaps you’re already doing that :-) ) – would you start with teaching (X)HTML or marketing?

The first step is developing a solid business plan and funding it with pocket money or savings, so that’s lesson one. Monsters are marketing geniuses by themselves, highly skilled attention whores, IOW great baiters for all kind of stuff, so I skip lesson two (marketing) and let them experiment until they’re at least 15 or so. Lesson three is an ongoing process, I do markup and coding sessions with my eldest son and both of us enjoy it.

Turning the tables on Google, assume you had full access to their websites and some web designers + programmers to help you, what would you change?

That’s a tough question because I pretty much like Google’s clean and uncluttered pages, except the unreliable groups thingy in its current stage and a few Blogger weak points of course. One of the first things I’d do is lifting the consequences of an ongoing Google-Blogger conspiracy by adding a few links to Google’s blogroll. Next I’d catch the saboteur in the Blogger team to hammer the nofollow semantics into her or his brain. Then I’d look at the groups’ pipeline, because I can imagine that they have some pretty exciting things cooking in their labs whilst we pawn sacrifices suffer from their legacy hacks almost daily.

Of course way more interesting than plain Web design issues are things that matter. For example I’d like to spy for information on themes like the still imperfect REP standardization lacking major evolvements despite the newish X-Robots-Tags, or my pet peeve rel-nofollow. There’s a lot more exciting stuff I’d like to learn more about, and I could think of a few improvements of the Webmaster tools. Unfortunately, because I sold Google’s ranking algos to Ask they won’t let me in. :(

Is there anything you’d like to add?

While answering your questions the Berlin wall just turned 46 a few minutes ago. I wish that before I mutate to the old grumpy fart I am –mentally– already, I can change a few things to the better, for the sake of my monsters.

Thanks for your replies, Sebastian!

Thank you John :)

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