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Interview with an IceGiant (2007)

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The following is a transcript of an interview I was asked to give for a website in the United Kingdom in 2007.

Sasch, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. What are the aspects that interest you most in a website (text content, graphic design, accessibility, admin, database, SEO...)? How do you blend these components?

Firstly, I’d like to thank you for taking the time and interest to ask me for an interview. It really does mean quite a lot to follow in the wake of two such dedicated experts as the Johns (Müller & Honeck).

“What are the aspects that interest me most in a website?”
Speaking as someone who makes his living mainly through writing and web promotion, I’d have to say text-content first and SEO second. I mainly leave boring things such as databases and admin to other people, although I dabble a little in graphic design now and again.

Ever since learning the language at school, English has fascinated me, since it is much more malleable and expressive than German, which is very rigid and [to my mind at least] overcomplicated in its nature. Used properly, English can tickle with the subtlety of a feather or be wielded like a nail-spiked club, whereas German tends to be a blunt instrument all the time.

Ok, ok, I’ll try to stop being pretentious now ;-)

I got into the whole ‘writing thing’ back in the early 90s, after I was asked to help with the script for a friend’s student film project. And, given my love for playing with words, writing web content was a sort of natural progression when I discovered the Internet and started to build websites a couple of years later.

Although I think that the phrase ‘Content is King’ must easily be ranked as one of the most overused and misunderstood clichés being bandied around the Internet, I’m in fact a great believer in the importance of high-quality informative text content, as the whole concept of ‘relevance’ invariably falls down without it.

The trouble with a lot of site owners and copywriters out there these days, especially those who find each other on freelancer sites, is that they confuse the need for quality with a need for quantity when it comes to content being king. As a result, there are a lot of sites out there which are filled with reams of ‘$2 Fluff’ and very little else.

Which kind of brings me to component number two SEO.
Although I do enjoy writing, I know that good content can’t win the search engine war by itself; it needs to be applied together with a number of other factors to be fully effective. As you’ve already pointed out, I enjoy the occasional game of chess now and again, although I would have to say that my ability to drink beer far exceeds my ability to play chess, so you may have listed my hobbies the wrong way around. ;-)

In any case, as a German, I guess the whole ‘strategy thing’ must be in my blood or something. I say this partly because I still get an almost irresistible urge to go to Poland every September. ;-)

Personally, I consider web promotion to be the single greatest game of high-stakes chess anyone could ever play, against the single greatest opponent there is: the direct competitor in any given market sector. Overseeing this ongoing game and making sure your opponent plays by the rules and doesn’t steal your pieces, you have the biggest referee of them all; Google [and to a certain degree Yahoo - MSN seems to be off for a toilet-break or something at the moment].

The pieces at a player’s disposal are ‘Content’, ‘Inbound Links’, ‘User-Friendly Design’, ‘W3C Compliant Code’ and ‘Meta Title & Description Tags’. There used to be one called ‘Meta Keywords Tag’, which could be used to bum-rush older style referees such as Excite and Altavista, but nobody pays much attention to that one anymore since Google has chosen to ignore its existence. Unless the player takes advantage of all the available pieces to maximum effect, and in a completely balanced way, web promotion chess becomes a pretty unwinnable game. If you don’t use all your pieces together you’re screwed, or at least your website is.

Good Content + Good Quality Links + User-Friendly Design + Compliant Code + Relevant Title & Description Tags = Success

Drop or misapply any one of the above components and the end-result equals various degrees of ‘Screwed’. ;-)

So; “How do I blend all these components?”
Very carefully...

You know many parts of the globe well. Does this international side of your life relate to the international Google Webmaster Help Group, to how major search engines like Google are known and used all over the world?

I suppose it does, in an indirect kind of way. While I was living in the UK pretty much permanently between 1991 and 2005, I’ve also done a couple of stints away from the place, including six months back in Canada in 2001/2002 and one memorable 6 week work excursion to France during 2004 which was only supposed to last 6 days.

It’s funny just how much people’s attitude towards, and knowledge about, computers and the Internet does vary from one country to another. In Canada for example, I confounded one computer shop assistant by asking him for an outlandish component to rebuild my machine which had come along for the ride in bits.

“Floppy Drive Cable? What’s one of those?”

Ok, so it was a small town sort of place on the west coast, but I considered moving back to Canada permanently and opening a computer shop quite seriously for a while after that incident.

In France I encountered one techie whose pet phrase was: “I ‘ate Windows. I use Linux.”

It took me a moment to figure out he had a dislike for the operating system rather than an appetite for it, and when I asked him what OS the bulk of his customers used, he grudgingly replied “Windows XP”, and admitted that his lack of knowledge about the platform left him at a disadvantage more often than not.

Cyprus? Don’t even ask! :-()

If anything, my time in all these various places has helped me to understand that people are weird wherever you go, and trying to figure out how your target audience thinks or which end of Google they’ll try to pick up and use isn’t always as simple as it may seem at first.

Where the Google Webmaster Help Group is concerned, the fact that I’ve had a bit of experience with various nationalities does occasionally help me to keep a perspective on things inasmuch as; “No Sasch, not everyone thinks the way you do”, which in turn helps me to be diplomatic even when the questions get a bit strange, inane, or repetitive.

The one thing it does not help with is new users blundering into the group screaming for help but failing to give enough information so someone can actually have a chance to look at what’s wrong.

Why IceGiant?

Ah yes. Well you see… it’s like this…

Back around 1995, shortly after I first discovered the web, I became involved with ‘The Obsidian Temple’, a Star Wars club with leanings towards the Empire. Here, under the nickname ‘Yobsodoff’, I built my first website, before changing my handle to ‘Forcekin’ [Hey, it was a tongue in cheek Star Wars Club, right?] and looking after one of the club’s IRC channels.

By 1998, the club had unfortunately become crowded with a load of Forcekins who took things altogether too seriously and just wasn’t a fun place to hang around anymore, so I took my leave and started to look for an alternative ‘handle’.

I’d bought a couple of domains by then and was looking for something a bit different, just for email purposes. Having done some reading up on Norse mythology I was considering ‘Frost Giant’, but then I found a reference in a book by one of my favorite authors about the gods being angry at the ‘Ice Giants’ for not having given the lawnmower back. As someone who’s blown up the occasional garden gnome in his time, this was the sort of absurd thing which appealed to my twisted sense of humor, so I bought the DotCoDotUk domain which I later lost for a while due to a disagreement with an ex-business partner, but that’s another story. With hindsight, I should have also bought the DotCom, but they cost £40 a year back in those days and all I wanted at the time was an email domain.

Over the next couple of years I became known as the IceGiant in my local tech/web community due to my email address, and by 2002 I decided to actually launch the first formal IceGiant website to go with the others I’d been building.

The rest, as they say, is home-economics. The name just kind of stuck.

These days, ‘Team IceGiant’ [a.k.a. the Ridiculous Geezers in some places] consists of five core members who’ve known each other for something like 15 years and are scattered all over the place. We normally meet face to face once or twice a year to relive the old days, discuss business and have one or twelve beers.

Tell us a bit about this perfect mix you achieved: your work with websites and living in a wonderful place you like very much.

This comes right back to the four guys who work with me, since, without the sort of working relationship/friendship we have I wouldn’t have been able to sustain enough momentum to make the professional move to Cyprus in anything resembling an orderly fashion, despite my girlfriend’s almost god-like organizational capabilities.

As I said, I mainly write, promote and consult these days. Quite frankly, coding anything other than HTML and a little Java now and again bores me to tears. Without having the guys’ backup, there’s no way I could actually function smoothly in my current situation.

Be that as it may, by late 2004 I’d gotten tired of the UK for a great many reasons, and was actively looking for a way out. IceGiant [temporarily renamed ThunderSpirit, as I was still trying to get the IceGiant domain back] was just taking over the running of a property sales website specializing in the Republic of Cyprus. During the early part of 2005, it became apparent that this company’s staff in Cyprus needed English-trained hardware/Windows support, because the island was [and still is] a little short on decent techies. Since I’d worked in hardware for something like seven years before becoming a full-time webbie and was in a position to carry out my online work from anywhere in the world, I decided to become their part-time support guy in Cyprus, signing up for an initial 6 month contract to ‘try before you buy’, so to speak.

I moved over here in September 2005 and haven’t really looked back since, although life in the Republic of Cyprus can usually take a little bit of ‘getting used to’ when you first arrive. For starters, if the locals were any more laid-back, they’d be horizontal. It took me a good couple of months to figure out that here you don’t have to race through life with the needle pushed to the rev-limiter 24/7, the way you do in the UK for instance.

In fact, Cyprus feels more like a village than an E.U. country, albeit a village with a couple of international airports and a really big swimming pool. It’s also very easy to forget that I live on the edge of the Middle East with Beirut only 125 miles away as the crow flies, simply because the island is such a tranquil, peaceful place compared to the UK.

And, as most of my clients are in the UK and as such two hours behind me time-wise, nothing much happens of a morning before eleven o’clock anyway, so my day really does start with a swim in the Med, if only as atonement for beers consumed the previous evening in some cases. ;-)

A question I'm sure is on everyone's mind: Where do you go on holiday for a break from daily morning swims in the Mediterranean?

To paraphrase the Canadian computer shop assistant: “Holiday? What’s one of those?” ;-)

I don’t actually get a chance to get away that often, maybe twice a year if I’m lucky; and even then, work usually follows me around to a certain degree. My usual haunts are the UK, where I still have an awful lot of friends and family, and the extreme south-west of Germany in the corner of the Swiss & French borders. My visits to Germany usually happen in early July and coincide with the wine festival in Neuenburg, my old hometown along the Rhine.

Some time ago, I was also asked to co-author a book about the crusades, so I’ve penciled in a couple of research trips to Turkey, Israel, Syria & Lebanon during the next six months or so. Oddly enough, and maybe it’s something to do with the fact that I live in such a sun-drenched country, I’m increasingly getting the urge to take a look at Iceland and Scandinavia in general.

A few words to the readers of Google Webmaster Help Group?

Although I was a C64 and Spectrum owner, my first serious ‘relationship’ with PCs was a 486/SX25, which I crashed, mangled and generally destroyed on an alarmingly regular basis to start with. Fortunately, a couple of my friends were techies who, for a couple of beers [What is it about techies and beer by the way?], would not only fix things for me, but also show me how to fix them myself and avoid such embarrassing mishaps in future.

Without someone to ‘take me under their wing’ and educate me about these strange beasts called computers back then, there is simply no way I could [or would] have ever contemplated a career which involved the damn things. I’d probably have become a filthy-rich and internationally famous celebrity or something, either that or I would have wound up sitting under some bridge eating cold beans out of a can. ;-)

Whatever the case may be, my point is that the Google Webmaster Help Group personifies this attitude of taking others, who simply don’t know their way around this weird cyberspace world, and trying to show them how to do things, solve their problems and generally get the job done on their own.

And, in the words of Columbo: “Just one more thing.”
A while ago I said that I consider Google’s Webmaster Help Group to be the single greatest webmaster learning tool on the Internet today. It has certainly taught me an awful lot over the past year or so. And while Richard Hearne [Red Cardinal], quite rightly pulled me up and pointed out that nothing will ever be able to beat hands-on learning, I still stick by my statement, simply because it is the advice and help found within the group which gives so many of its visitors their best chance of gaining the ability to go away and learn about web design & search engines hands-on.

I can safely say that I’m more than a little proud to be a member of this community which includes regulars like Cristina, John Honeck, John Müller, and all the others which are far too numerous to mention. Now, I think I’ve blathered on quite enough. If you’ve read this far, I can only congratulate you on your tenacity. Quite obviously not even the transcript of a train-spotting convention would be able to bore you to sleep. ;-)

Seriously though, thanks for taking an interest. :-)







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