Interview with John Honeck / JLH (old, probably outdated)

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Hi John, it’s great to have you here for a virtual interview! John is one of the strong posters who make up the backbone of the Google Webmaster Help forums. His blog at ( is strong on all things SEO, is quite popular and dares to ask uncomfortable questions that need to be asked. His detailed knowledge of the Google Webmaster Guidelines and the penalties resulting from abuse of them has helped many webmasters to improve their sites and to get them back into the Google index.

John, why do you spend so much time helping people who’s sites deserve to be penalized?

Google does a great job finding spamming attempts and deindexing / penalizing offending sites, however the algorithm doesn’t take into account the human element. Sometimes well intentioned honest webmasters stray into trouble, perhaps the rules have changed and they were busy working on their sites to notice, or even they just took some wrong advice they saw on another forum or blog. I’m not interested in helping spammers succeed but those who may have done something and not known any better. Google’s penalty system seems to treat everyone as criminals with no recourse to the law except through this Webmaster Help Group. There are so many requests that one has to pick and choose which ones to spend any real time on. I generally first make sure they are giving us the right information such as including the URL, some past history, what they’ve done or haven’t done, etc. I always look for some contriteness in their questions and actions. I try to avoid helping anyone that is trying to push the line to the brink of banning just for ranking purposes.

I realize the nearly impossible task of providing user support while at the same time fighting spam. It’s a thin line they have to walk between keeping spam out of the index while helping others create sites that are worthy of indexing. At some point though there is a time when evaluation algorithms have to stop and human perception takes over, and that’s the role I see GWHG taking. I see Google’s role as one who evaluates sites, my role is to not only evaluate the site in question but the webmaster.

As to Why I do it, well it’s fun seeing all the different sites and I always learn something every time I take an in depth look at something. I normally wouldn’t visit a lot of the sites because of my normal surfing behavior. I’ve developed many sites just based on an idea I got from visiting a niche I had never seen before.

What makes the Google Webmaster Help groups special? Why do you go there instead of one of the other major forums?

I’m a member of most of the major forums but rarely post on them. There are a few things I like about the GWHG over the main stream webmastering forums. #1 is that it’s a help group that attracts people who need help, sure you will learn a lot from the group but you will have to read a lot of posts to do it. It’s not a place to go to quickly find out how many characters to use in your TITLE for best rankings, though I’m sure its been discussed. Due to it’s help group status real live specific examples are discussed daily, it’s not rare to see a site get evaluations from dozens of people who all bring their own unique viewpoints to the discussion. SEO theory has it’s place but it doesn’t help the individual out who doesn’t want to become a professional site builder. Most SEO forums forget that the majority of the websites out there are not maintained by professional site builders but by people who just happen to use the web as another medium to operate their business on. There is nothing more frustrating to me than trying to follow a discussion without concrete examples, and some of the main webmaster forums out there don’t allow that. The 3rd reason on my list, but probably the highest ranking reason is the quality of members such as yourself that are constantly helping others. We’ve got people on this group that have answered thousands and thousands of questions helping untold thousands of other webmasters out there without any official public accolades. Sure some of the regulars may do a blog post here and there about the others, I even started a thread campaigning for links to the main helpers sites which got lambasted, but for the most part the real regulars contribute in ways that will never be compensated for. The quality of the regulars is beyond comparison, from marketing experience to incredible coding skills I always have someone I can ask one of my dumb questions. Perhaps down the line as this group matures Google will acknowledge the regulars in some public way and that would be great, but meanwhile I am comforted to know that everyone still contributes on a high level with no promise of the carrot or threat of the stick.

Assuming the Google Groups (and all your other forums) would shut down tomorrow, what would you do with the time that you spend there?

Besides starting my own one in about 3 minutes? For me webmaster help has always been a diversion, I haven’t pursued it professionally as I am too busy with my own endeavors. If I had no outlet for that I guess I’d blog more and maybe promote the blog so I get some readers.

The postings in the Google Groups bring up lots of peculiar items. Let’s assume you had a chance to meet each of the following people for a couple of hours to discuss the things that you’ve seen in the Groups. What subjects would you want to cover, what questions would you want to ask, what suggestions would you make?

- Matt Cutts or Adam Lasnik (take your pick or both):

I’m not sure how familiar Matt Cutts is with the goings on in the Help Group, so I don’t know if he’d even be interested in discussing it. Being that I’m not on any famous lists, don’t go to conferences, nor the webmaster of any very popular sites I doubt we’d have much common ground. I’d love to just meet him and try to have a conversation about the general condition of search, I’m not sure I could contribute much to the conversation but I would sure listen well. Then I’d ask for a link.

With Adam Lasnik I’d love to hear from him what direction he’d like someone like me who posts regularly to take the group in. Are there certain questions he wishes we’d leave alone or others where he thinks speculation is dangerous. If he was feeling overly generous that day I’d ask if there is anything I could look for “unofficially” in sites that on the surface don’t appear spammy but suffer a severe and sudden rankings drop. I wouldn’t expect to hear any of the secret sauce, but it would sure be great to have an area to look at. Perhaps its even something us mere mortals can’t see without special tools, and even that knowledge would help. There has to be some things that they’d like to tell the general public at times but surely can’t because if it came from an official Google source it would cause a stir, having an outsider say the same thing may help the individual asking the question but not cause it to be the subject of 3000 blog posts the next day. I’d also like to follow him around for a day to see the inner working of webmaster help support that he provides, having a better understanding of that may help me help others who are discouraged. Then I’d ask for a link.

- Larry Page or Sergey Brin (take your pick or both):

If I had an audience with either one I guess I’d take the opportunity to lobby for the ‘normal’ webmaster, not from the CEO of eBay or the writer of a blog with 100,000 subscribers perspective but from a normal person trying to fight it out from their basement on the computer with no budget. They are living the web developers dream by taking a concept and converting it into a thriving business and I’d really like to hear about that experience from their point of view. Then I’d ask for a link.

- Bill Gates:

Bill Gates would be very interesting to talk to, he’s kind of the grandfather of computing wealth and power now, but from what I’ve seen also the most normal person to have billions of dollars. I don’t think I could have an agenda with someone of his stature, I’d just sit back and listen. Then I’d ask for a link.

- A politician of your choice:

Politicians don’t impress me, I’m sorry. As I said before, I usually judge people on their intentions and it surely seems to me all politicians are looking for only one thing, power. They may have started out with good intentions when they ran for the school board 30 years ago, but by the time the make the public stage most have been jaded by success. It would have to be a setting with no cameras and no reporters so that they couldn’t gain any exposure from it, if then only then, my question would be “Do you really believe xxxx, or is just because a poll told you to believe it?”

If your children wanted to get started on making websites, what would the most important lesson(s) be that you would want to teach them?

Have an original idea. So much is discussed in webmaster circles about “duplicate content” or “original content” etc, but rarely does anyone talk about having the subject matter being original. I’ve seen way too many people wasting their efforts trying to write “original” content for their site when they should be working on making an original site. There are only so many ways you can talk about the Miami Hilton Hotel and original or not the market is saturated with content. What I see lacking in today’s webmaster discussions is new ideas, it just seems that too many want to take concepts that have already been done and add their own spin to it, expecting success. Unique content and better content is great but it’s not enough for you to build a wildly successful site when there are already popular ones that provide the same service. Is it unfair? Yes, but it’s also reality. There are probably thousands of people out there that can sing circles around the pop icons today, but the reality is that when one of those teen idols puts out a new album it will sell millions of copies, being better does not always promise success.

How did you get started with making websites?

My first site was a one page site I published on my dial-up ATT account in 1998. It was a page describing how I built a centrifugal dust separator for my table saw. I did some crude sketches, published some some tables I made in excel, and posted the link on a popular newsgroup I was a member of. I had a hit counter on it because that’s what you did in those days and had over 600 hits in the first day. I was hooked ever since. It’s something that has always registered with me, so much today is made about search engine positioning, and what is lost is creating content for an established audience. If you cannot find an online community that would be interested in what you’ve got to say, you’ll have a hard time getting searchers to find your site as well.

Let’s go visit the legendary deserted island. You have a laptop with solar power and a satellite internet link (books, what’s that?) that can give you read-only access to exactly one site on the internet. What site would that be and why? so I can read my feeds. It’s how I know what’s happening in the online world.

On the same island, you suddenly have access to an empty web-hosting account. What would you do with it, what kind of site would you put online?

Probably would be my first attempt, after that I’d make a bundle telling my story!

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?

What would I change about Google? That’s a great question and a blog post that’s been in my drafts for months now. I’ve got a bunch of specifics written down but I doubt it will ever be seen by anyone that can do anything about it. My biggest beef with Google has always been their mixed signals. I don’t want to sound like I’m down on Google as I’m not I’m a huge fan, but they change their message so often it makes me wonder how honest they are. For example the whole paid links debate, Adam Lasnik says that the general penalty is that link sellers will get their ability to pass PageRank removed, then in the guidelines the discuss the issue as if its the responsibility of the buyers to make sure the links are nofollowed. You can’t have it both ways and the mixed signal makes me question their motives. If Google was a person I would not be their friend as they seem to lack focus and shift their positions with the wind, which is generally a sign of not having conviction.

If I had control I’d also force them to finish the projects that they’ve started before starting new ones. Just as one example we’ve Google’s Webmaster’s Tools, which is a great product and revolutionary in the way they communicate information to the site owner. However it’s updated so infrequently and only shows actual statistics for quite popular sites that it fails to help those who need the help most. Rather than making calls for what features to add to it, I wish they’d fix the ones that they have. Multi-tasking is a great trait to have but getting things done is also important, I’d imagine that is just a symptom of the culture they try to breed at Google,inc. I’d add a link for myself.

And to finish up, if you had the chance to rewind back to before the internet entered your life, would you get started with the web any differently?

I wish I would have spent more time on programming. I’m a degreed mechanical engineer, if I could go back I’d probably get a degree in computers instead.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?

Thanks for the opportunity to think about some of these things. I don’t speak at SEO conferences or get 800 comments on my blog a week so I think its a unique experience for your readers to hear the points of view of just average citizens. Good luck with the new blog, you’ve got a lot of loyal followers and thousands of people in debt to you for your help so I am sure it will be successful.

Thanks for answering, John!

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