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Some Things are Hard for a Reason

(Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes)

A few weeks ago, I was working with a client to figure out why his blog’s microformatting is not configuring properly. In this case, he’s using my WordPress hRecipe plugin, but something isn’t quite right. The code passes the testing suite. Google Rich Snippets testing asserts the plugin works correctly for me. But not for him.

But that’s not the real issue here.

The real issue is I cannot give him a “solution,” because:

  1. I don’t understand his workflow, and
  2. We are not yet communicating effectively.

Applying the “5 Why’s” results in “microdata is hard to understand because it’s hard to understand.”

Context is critical

Which is ironic, because microdata is fairly simple… if you already understand something about structured content, how search engines work, HTML and CSS syntax, and probably a few contextually relevant odds and ends which slip my mind.

Know all that, microdata is trivially easy.

Our challenge, my client and mine, is finding that sweet spot where he learns just enough context to handle the issue internally (I’m expensive), and I don’t spend all his money writing a long treatise on material which is available for free all over the web.

So it’s hard. So what.

However, the impetus for this blog post came from P. J. Onori’s article “In defense of hard.” People who know me well won’t be surprised:

I agree with almost every word.

For this client, I wish I could give him a simple fix. But I don’t have one.

What I do have is potentially far more valuable: I know what’s worth learning and what’s not. Here’s what Onori has to say about that:

If a subject is naturally complex, work to make it no more complex than it needs to be, but no less. People are not naturally averse to complexity, however they need to know it is worth their time and energy. Educating them on how to do something is not enough, there should be education on why it’s important.

In this client’s case, for his business model being dependent on serving structured data to search engines, it would be smart and wise to learn as much about structured data as possible, and that includes HTML and CSS as well as the microdata.

Note that I stated “…as much about….”

I didn’t state “learn to be a designer/developer.”

I didn’t state “learn to be a WordPress guru.”

I didn’t state “master PHP programming.”

Learning about something is far easier than learning the thing itself. Learning about something is far more cost-effective and time efficient. Learning about something lets you identify and communicate problems, and maybe even fix those problems yourself, instead of paying me or J. Random Hacker to do something we probably don’t want to do anyway.

You owe it to yourself

I didn’t make the rules, and I didn’t invent the technology. I just report on it and implement it.

If your business model depends on your ranking in Google search results, I very strongly suggest you learn everything you can about microformats, microdata, schema and structured content. This technology is not a magic bullet, and it may not help you, but it’s clear that not having it will hurt you.


  1. Dave,
    I concur completely with the direction of your post here. The key word is ‘as much’ but even more important is why. The whole internet technical world is full of jargon and buzz words, some of which I think I understand, some of which I recognize and some of which seem like the chantings of a witch doctor. I’d love to find a lexicon of these terms with some context of what they are and what they do. Do you have a whitepaper on that?
    Ralph@Retirement Lifestyle´s last post ..Connecting in Venice

    • The Big Why I can’t answer. That’s your job.

      The little whys I can answer, if I understand where someone is starting from and where they are intent on going.

      The irony is that learning about something and starting the path to mastery requires taking the same steps. “Learning about” allows one to step off that path, mastery requires continuing.

      For example, anyone writing web application code should have knowledge of how HTTP works. Without that knowledge, it’s all alchemy. With that knowledge, the pieces fall into place. For both, one good place to start is using a packet sniffer such as WireShark or Fiddler. That provides enough knowledge to be a much more effective web programmer. Mastery of HTTP would involve writing one’s own HTTP server or client library.

      Both paths start with watching packets.

      Stepping back, creating such a lexicon is the responsibility of everyone who works in technology. Creating a lexicon large enough to encompass everyone’s needs would serve no one.

      Thus, no whitepaper.

      • The problem with the why for me is I don’t usually know until I’m well into it. How to know what to start learning? I hate to learn something and then find I didn;t need to learn it. Sometimes I read something that gives me a clue about what to start-and sometimes it saves me from wasting time. Other times not.
        Ralph@retirementlifestyle´s last post ..Other People’s Scripts

    • Also, the biggest barrier to my success is my skepticism. Pivoting off of skepticism into belief is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted.

      • Skepticism is good. It means you’re thinking. Just don’t confuse it with cynicism or curmudgeonliness.

        For example, I’m extremely skeptical whenever someone tells me that something is easy, convenient, or cheap. I always ask “for whom”? The answer to that question is not always what one might think.

        I like what you say about the difference between learning something, and learning ABOUT something. The best thing you can do as a novice looking to learn about a topic is to find someone who knows how to explain about something, and can figure you out well enough to give you the right information at the right time, in the right way.

        This goes for lawyers, teachers, programmers, architects, designers, financial advisers, doctors, and anyone whose profession involves the communication of complicated ideas.
        Anca´s last post ..Oakland City Park Supervisor Uses Social Media to Mobilize Volunteers

  2. Technology should make everything convenient. How long did you discuss this issue with the client? I hope that client will be able to fix the problem anytime soon before it can affect his site.

  3. You can show him the way, but it is not your responsibility to take him there. You can save someone from drowning but first, he has to raise his hand. Some clients think that if they pay you, they can waste your time anytime they want. I agree totally Dave

  4. I’d rather teach someone to fish rather than give them the fish every time they need (as the saying goes). Even when it comes to paying customers. They have to be able to figure out the minor problems, you have other issues to work out.

  5. I used to be completely reliant on my web designer for everything, and slowly but surely he was able to direct me into taking care of a lot on my own. It took some serious trial and error by me, but with patience and his guidance I was able to take over a lot of adjustments to the html of my various sites as well as the on site SEO. I’ve been visiting websites like this to help supplement my knowledge since then and they’ve helped as much, if not more than he did. I’m not trying to be a website expert, but it certainly has helped me having a basic understanding and knowledge of the terminology not only to better communicate with developers but in saving myself some money in the process.

  6. Hi Dave,
    You’re absolutely right, working with clients becomes vastly easier when the know even a little about the area.

    This is especially true when it comes to web design as so many clients seem to think if they can mock it up in photoshop then it will come out exactly the same on a live webpage.

  7. The single hardest thing for me when I started three years ago was getting to the point of knowing what I didn’t know and figuring out what question to ask, of who to ask it, and how to make the question understandable.
    Bob@HayleStorm Interactive´s last post ..Slow down. You will save money.

  8. Cheziannhe says:

    It is really hard to explain some things especially in work and if you are not communicating properly…Anyway, I like what you said that you didn’t invent rules and technology…You implement it…
    Cheziannhe´s last post ..Relaxation Techniques For Anxiety

  9. You are right that everything needs determination to do something.. More than skills, comportment is required.. You might not be a wordpress geek, but writing good content regularly can help you growing a lot…
    Prithvi´s last post ..How to track adsense check without tracking(reference) number?

  10. Definitely someone plagiarizing Dustin Wax says:

    I’m a crappy guitarist. In the 20 years that I’ve been playing, I can’t once remember playing scales, and I’ve never sat down to “practice”. I still have trouble with F-chords, I have awful right-hand technique, and my tempo has been known to swing from too fast to too slow without ever hitting “just right”.

    I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

    See, I realized a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be a Famous Rock Star, or even a semi-locally-famous folky. That dream I have where Ronnie’s down for the count and I have to fill in on-stage with the Rolling Stones — and we’re going on in 5 minutes! — would always be just a dream (thankfully).

    That realization freed me to stop trying to be cool and to just enjoy playing, and to this day my guitar is the one thing I own that I would consider going into a burning building for. Playing guitar has stopped being something I do for everyone else (even if they weren’t listening) and has become one of the few things I do simply for the sheer enjoyment of it.

    [I am almost positive this is plagiarized by an SEO firm from something Dustin Wax wrote. Jeb Blount, do you play guitar?

    Update: I found the original article:

    This behaviour is despicable. I've already closed comments for articles older than 30 days, I may have to move that up. I won't mention the actual URL or keywords this spammer trying to support. I will mention that they IP address is .in. The company they are representing has an onerous Captcha box which hinders contact.]

  11. Thanks for the tips. My business is SEO, but it never occur to me that microformats, microdata, schema and structured content is that important – new insight ! I am into web development this year and will spend some time looking at your suggestion. Where are some good sources for learning ?
    Henry Sim´s last post ..Choosing a Web Design- 7 Reasons To Engage a Web Designer

    • Henry, microdata and microformats are an avenue for truly helping people put better content on the web. The SEO benefits may not be direct, but those benefits are surely indirect, and growing.