Interview with Cracked Columnist John Cheese
January 12th, 2012 by
Cracked columnist and longtime internet comedy writer John Cheese put out a call for interviews recently, and I jumped at the chance to talk to him. Out of all the writers on Cracked, a site I have been fairly addicted to since about 2007, John Cheese has probably spent the most time eloquently weaving his own life experiences into his always funny and often moving columns.
John ended up really driving home a rather simple yet all-encompassing idea that we have adopted as a mantra at Search Influence: fresh content is king. It really doesn’t matter whether you are advertising a novel, a list-based comedy site, or a small business anywhere in the world – if you can produce quality content that people find interesting on a regular basis, everything else will fall into place. It doesn’t hurt if you are as insightful, funny, and talented as John is either.
Take a look at the results of my email interview with John Cheese:
As an Internet based writer, how important are good SEO practices to you?
Working for Cracked, I’m in a position where I don’t have to worry about optimization. I’m in a comfortable place that many writers dream about: I write my article, and the rest of the staff takes care of everything else. But even back in the day where I was running my own website, I still didn’t worry much about it. My fame and David Wong’s fame were gained through 100% word of mouth. Someone would read something they found funny and pass that to their friends, and the next thing you know, we’d have a massive influx of traffic.
Back then, Google wasn’t as much of a concern as writing high quality articles and letting the traffic filter in through sheer internet buzz.
How closely do you follow the ever-evolving world of SEO?
I don’t at all, actually. Since Cracked takes care of all that on the back end, I just have to worry about content and fresh ideas. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t think it’s important. Quite the opposite, actually. Good, useful SEO brings new users to the site — but without the quality content to set the hook, your site could be ranked #1 in every conceivable search term in every language, and it wouldn’t much matter. That content trumps everything.
Do you think about how search engines will view your work as you are writing it?
Not with Cracked, but I did “aim” my writing when I was running my own sites. When Britney Spears was first getting big, I used to do occasional fake interviews with her. They were obviously satire and parody, but not to a search engine. They saw “Britney Spears Interview,” and the rest of the content just didn’t matter. That funneled in massive viewers back in my early days of writing…not all of them desirable.
As a writer and a website owner, this is where I had to be careful. I had a site full of sexual and violent jokes. My characters were doing drugs and talking about beating their wives… and those Britney Spears articles were bringing in 13 year old girls.
Back then, I could have used the help with not just raising my search rankings, but focusing the results to reach a specific, target audience. Not all traffic is good traffic. There are exceptions.
What advice would you tell someone just starting their first blog today, in terms of getting it found by Google?
The first thing I’d tell them is to not skip over the meta tags in their HTML. It’s easy to do as a first time net writer. Aside from that, I’d tell them to focus on their craft first — but if they’re going to get into the world of SEO, they need be true to their work. Think about the audience they’re after first…think about the volume later.
But I’d also tell them to not just leave it in the hands of the search engines. Yes, search engines are important. But that article needs traffic, and the fastest way to gain it is to get people talking about it. Nothing in the world of entertainment is as powerful as word of mouth.
How much time and energy do you spend crafting your online presence?
Before Cracked took me in, I spent around ten years writing under this name and developing a very specific character and persona. The funny thing to me is that once I got signed as a weekly columnist for them, I dropped all that and just started being myself. In fact, the change in tone and style was so dramatically different I considered not using the name John Cheese at all, and writing under my real name of Mack Leighty.
When people search for you online, what do you want to show up?
I want it to show some of my highest traffic articles or my columnist index, which pretty much happens right now. Cracked has a pretty crazy team of people on the back end who know their shit inside and out. Which is awesome for me because the less I have to worry about, the more I can just focus on content, content, content.
How has the SEO world changed since you started writing on the Internet?
When I first started, it basically didn’t exist. Google wasn’t really a thing — I think the big one back then was Lycos. And searches seemed to operate on reading meta tags and spidering. I remember when web pages used to put 200 hidden links at the bottom of their pages, containing the top 200 most popular search terms, just blatantly using bullshit manipulation to trick people into clicking their sites.
What is the most effective way that you connect to your audience?
Social networking, without a doubt. It’s one thing to pull a lot of traffic, and it’s awesome to get fan mail…but the more traffic you pull, the more messages you receive. You eventually reach a tipping point where there’s not enough time in a day to answer them all individually.
So now, I use Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr because if I can’t connect with everyone on an individual by individual basis, at least I can speak directly to my audience through a non-Cracked format. And I believe that’s incredibly important. People need to view me as a human above all because the second they start thinking of me as a soulless figurehead, my articles that touch on humanity become meaningless.
What would happen to your career if Google stopped indexing your work?
I’m sure I’d lose some traffic, but at this point (in my experience) the social networking sites are trumping the search engines. My Apology to the Occupy Wall Street Generation article busted a million views in the first 24 hours, and it was all word of mouth and Facebook shares. Now, that’s not saying that Google didn’t play a part in that, and it’s not saying that the search engines aren’t important. But in my experience, if you’re a good writer, and you come up with a piece that people genuinely want to read, it’ll spread like wildfire.
How do you go about promoting your other projects, like the John Dies at the End novel and upcoming movie based on it? Do you depend mostly on the Internet, or do you turn to more traditional methods?
I run the social networking sites for the book, and I do monthly updates on the book’s main website (www.johndiesattheend.com). The movie is a completely separate entity, ran by a team not related to Wong or myself.
But we’ve done a couple of different things with the book. Simply keeping people talking about it on Facebook and Twitter is huge. Giving actual updates — funny and interesting articles, rather than just occasional ads for the book — on the main site is a big way to do that. We also ran an alternate reality game a while back, and are planning another sometime this year.
The key is getting people involved and not making them feel insulted by claiming that we have a new update, only to give them an ad when they click the link.
But yes, it’s all Internet based.
What’s it like writing for Cracked?
It’s the most time-consuming job I’ve ever worked — and I wouldn’t change one millisecond of it. Not just because I get a paycheck for writing comedy, but because I’ve gotten literally thousands of emails and private messages from people, telling me that something I wrote changed their lives for the better. You can’t put a price on that. I owe Cracked a lot for giving me that opportunity. They really are an incredible bunch of people.