Keynote: Joost de Valk – Holistic SEO #pubcon


Good afternoon, Pubcon people. We’re in the afternoon keynote with the one and only Joost De Valk of Yoast.

We’re going to talk about lessons he’s learned while building Yoast SEO. To start all of that off he’s going to tell us how he got here. How did he get to being this plugin that suddenly everybody uses. The year was 2006. His wife was pregnant with their first child and he had just taken a new job. Because of her pregnancy, he wanted to work closer to home. Instead of working in the hosting industry, he decided to get into more techy stuff. He got into SEO. Within 6-12 months he was working with very, very large clients. He learned fast, mostly because he was a developer, and he had been working on webkit. It’s the core of Safari and Chrome. He was working actively on that and he was writing CSS3 Previews. He was also maintaining In hindsight, he wondered how much energy he had to maintain all the sites he was working on. But he was slowly moving them from being handbuilt into WordPress. WordPress is now 14 years old, but it was new back then. He figured out he could do changes on one site, and then build them into a plugin and he’d have the same change on all these websites. His first plugin was Robots Meta. It did fairly well. He blogged about it. People picked it up. And he created some more plugins. So many plugins that his email box overloaded quite quickly. The funny thing about having plugins that everyone uses was that he was seeing tons of websites.

Lesson 1: A good SEO needs to see and build a lot of websites.  He doesn’t believe in SEOs who don’t know how to build a site. When you’re an SEO, you need to diagnose problems. He went to site one, found a problem, fixed it. He went to site two, found the same problem, and fixed it. This is how SEO works. Certainly back in the day when WordPress wasn’t as optimized as it is now, it was a lot of technical work. He was blogging and tweeting about that and he build a name for himself.

Lesson 2: Blog, tweet and talk about your trade. Build a name. As much as he likes Moz. Moz is not your blog. Build your own outpost. He was a member of the Wikipedia anti-spam team which gave a lot of good ideas for posts, and he was a DMOZ editor.

In 2010, he decided he needed to build one SEO plugin, combine everything he was doing, and build one thing.

Lesson 3: Open Source is awesome. There is no reason to develop a new CMS. If someone wants to build you a website in their own CMS that they built, run.

“But… security!” Their self-built CMS is probably going to be way more insecure than WordPress will ever be. And second, WordPress can be made very, very secure. If you’re only willing to pay $5 a month for hosting, then yes, you have to do some stuff for yourself. If you can afford to be here, do away with cheap hosting.

In 2010, he started a company. The company was named Yoast. He called it Yoast because he thought he’d be on his own forever. He was wrong. Life was reasonably good. He had some good SEO clients. But he wasn’t always spending far too much time on this hobby project WordPress SEO. This wasn’t working out.

Lesson 4: Listen to my wife. This is a note to self, but it’s not just a note to self. You all need to listen to his wife. She said you need to make more money from this plugin or we cannot sustain this. If you consider your community (whatever it is) a green pasture where everyone owns that pasture together, everybody’s happy. If someone decides to put one more sheep on it, that’s fine. If everyone starts doing that, it breaks. By putting more on it, and not putting more of yourself in it, you are doing yourself and the community a disservice. It’s a freerider problem. The solution is fairly easy. By putting some of our profits to maintaining that pasture, we can prevent all of this from happening. We’re using WordPress so we invest back into it.

By not charging for my plugin, I was doing the community a disservice, he says. This changed in September 2012 when he released his first paid plugin. It was Video SEO. He thought he’d make a few thousand dollars a month. He made far, far more of that almost immediately.

 Lesson 5: Easy wins in SEO don’t usually last long. If too many people and too many websites get something out of a SERP enhancement, it becomes less valuable and very soon Google will take it away and give it to either no one or to some properties.

As we implement things faster, easy wins go away faster, as well. Because we get better at implementing things, Google say, “oh this is not gonna work like this” and takes it away. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on these things.

Lesson 6: Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Focus on what you’re good at. Don’t try to sell a client 15 services.

WordPress SEO Premium came at the beginning of 2014. He figured out quickly that they had a branding problem. Users were calling it a different name. His branding has usually been quite good.  He changed the name to Yoast SEO. Yoast is of course a memorable short domain name and brand, which makes lives a lot easier.

Lesson 7: Good brands are the keyword domains of our age. Branding, even in the SERPs, is incredibly important. Yoast SEO is running on 7.5 million websites. This is the scariest number he knows because every time he hits “release” and everyone updates he can break all of our sites. In comparison, there are 1.1 million sites running on Drupal. They do 500,000 downloads per week. This number is staggering. As they’ve grown to that size, they’ve learnd a very important lesson abut support. If you don’t actively make your product easier to use, your support costs are soon the biggest costs of your entire company.

Lesson 8: Accessibility and UX don’t cost money. They save money. You have to hire an accessibility expert. Today.

Give choices, not options. Which means that we make a choice about a lot of things and we don’t give you an option to enable or disable.

Good accessibility also means good readability.

Lesson 9: Text that’s easier to read is easier to rank. Algos are pretty stupid humans. He found a high correlation between posts having a high readability score and posts getting answer boxes on Google. Google is looking for answers to questions. All of this makes him sound like a Googler, he says. And much to his dismay, that’s probably true.

Lesson 10: Do as Google wants you to – optimize for the user. If you’re software is running on 7.5 million websites, we can’t say we’re the differentiating factor on websites anymore. So they need to put US to work. If you work for the users, you don’t have to worry about the algo.  He hasn’t had to change his optimization advice in the last five years, because Google hasn’t change a thing in the last five years. The eng goal has not changed.

He’s trying to put people to make better websites. Yoast has started suggesting internal links. The plugin gives suggestions and leaves it up to you to make the decision yourself.

The Future

Gutenberg is introducing a new concept called blocks. You add blocks – which can be an image, a shortcode, a Twitter embed. It means you will be able to have editorial comments on posts to help each other write better content, and they will be able to help you write better content, too.

And then there’s mobile. Google can not stop talking about AMP and PWAs. They are testing Canonical AMP at Yoast. This is almost as scary as it sounds because it means ditching HTML entirely. It’s building pages in AMP.