An Interview with Joost de Valk, Founder & CEO, Yoast
I think that just about every WordPress developer knows the name Yoast – if not the name Joost de Valk – since the Yoast SEO plugin is basically the standard SEO plugin for WordPress. It is certainly one of the handfuls of plugins that I automatically install on every WordPress website. In this interview, I discuss with Joost the changes in his business strategy and focus, his plans for Yoast, and how he sees the future of SEO and WordPress plugins.
HostAdvice: Before diving into Yoast and SEO, please tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today.
My name is Joost de Valk, founder and CEO of Yoast, father of three boys and a girl, and husband of Marieke, who runs Yoast alongside me and our business partner Michiel. I’ve been interested in computers from an early age, launching my first website at the age of twelve in 1994. In the early 2000’s, I started blogging as well, mostly about coding, HTML and CSS. In 2005 I was bitten by the open source bug, when I became involved in the WebKit project.
I didn’t have any interest in SEO until 2006, when I understood how it impacted all the sites I built. I started writing about SEO, which led to me speaking about SEO on conferences. Before I knew it, I was a well-regarded expert in the business.
In 2010, I made the decision to start my own business. After about two years, I hired my first employee, Michiel, who is now a partner. In the years after that, Yoast grew like wildfire, not in the least because of the runaway success of our Yoast SEO WordPress plugin.
HostAdvice: A few years ago you made the decision to offer a premium paid version of Yoast SEO in addition to the existing free version. What led to that decision? How has it turned out – do you have as many people opting for the paid version as you had expected?
It’s quite simple: if we get paid to develop a plugin, we can invest in it more. We have a dedicated development team that works around the clock to make our plugins better, develop new features and do research to find out what to focus on next. Our goal is to make SEO available to everyone, and therefore we must have usable, stable plugins that deliver results.
It’s also the reason why we focus so much on accessibility. Everyone, and we mean everyone, should be able to use our plugins. In addition to that, if you are a software developer I’d advise you to do the same.
Getting paid for our work also means we can contribute more to the open source world. We have multiple developers in house that only work on the WordPress core. We feel it’s our duty to give back to the community and products that gave us so much.
HostAdvice: A more recent change, perhaps even more surprising, is that you sold ownership of your other extremely popular WordPress plugin for Google Analytics. You stated in your announcement that the reason for this was so that you could “focus on building best in class SEO products, from plugins to reviews, eBooks and training programs.” Isn’t there a big risk in betting the company on SEO instead of diversifying a little bit?
SEO (including social optimization) is a huge market. Keeping track of that and the analytics market was becoming too much of a burden on the team. As both were still growing, we needed to either grow the company much faster than we felt we could, or choose one product and “get rid” of the other. We chose to do the latter, sought and found a great buyer in Syed and closed that deal pretty quickly.
HostAdvice: Can you give me an idea of the percentage breakdown of revenues for each of your offerings – plugins, site reviews/consulting, eBooks and training programs?
Yoast SEO Premium is our main source of income, with site reviews and eBooks following at a respectable distance. However, our Academy branch is growing fast. People are very much enjoying the courses we put out. We are also focusing more on services now, with our new Yoast SEO Care packages.
HostAdvice: Can you describe for me the process of your website reviews?
Sure, before starting a review, the team will check for objectionable content. When the site passes that test, the team will start looking at the site from a distance. How does it look? Can you make out what the purpose of the site is? How are the graphics? What kind of content is on there? After we have a clear picture of the site, we start analyzing it in-depth.
In these reviews, we check a lot of things. There are over 300 checks on our list. Among other things, we look at site speed, mobile readiness, social media use, the code of the WordPress template used, site structure, error messages and 404 pages. We tend to find the most problems in the content, though. It certainly is a sore point on a lot of sites. And it's something you should work on if you ever want your site to perform.
HostAdvice: What are the most common mistakes or issues you discover in these reviews?
WordPress sites are rarely really bad. However, there are common mistakes people make. In doing these reviews, a lot of the same things keep popping up. Sites often tend to try and rank for impossible general keywords, with content that’s not even fit to rank for a long tail niche. Most of the time it turns out they haven't even optimized any of their pages. Therefore, they can’t get anything to rank past their homepage. This is true for a lot of sites out there. Content is the weak part of many sites.
HostAdvice: What is unique about your eBooks and training programs?
They are targeted at different markets. Our website offers loads of information on every type of SEO question people might have. However, due to the huge number of posts, it is sometimes hard to make out how all of this fits together. For this reason, we’ve written several highly focused eBooks on SEO for WordPress, Content SEO and UX & Conversion. In December 2016, we’re launching a new book, called Shop SEO. This last one is entirely about making your online shop better.
The same can be said for our courses. These offer focused information in a clear concept. Users can learn a subject in their own time, by watching videos, reading texts and testing the newfound knowledge in quizzes. Our courses are a success, so we’re continuing our focus on this.
HostAdvice: Your most recent eBook is ”UX & Conversion from a holistic SEO perspective.” At first glance, many people might think that User Experience (UX) and SEO have very little to do with each other. Can you explain why you see them being very closely related?
By the time you are reading this, we’ve published another eBook, this time on improving your online store. In regards to the UX book, yes, UX and conversion have a lot to do with SEO. In our view, you must strive to be the best possible result in the search rankings. You can never be the best result if your site is unusable and yields zero results. You have to work on every aspect of your site or else you’ll never get anywhere.
HostAdvice: Who do you see as Yoast’s main competitors? How do you differ from them?
We don’t really think about our competition much. We’re looking at what our customers need and how we can improve their workflow.
HostAdvice: How do you see the WordPress plugin market evolving in the coming years?
It’s professionalizing rapidly, we hope that continues. There’s room for several more major plugin companies we think.
HostAdvice: What are the major changes you see currently – and in the next 1-3 years – in the field of SEO?
Predicting the future is not my forte. What we see is an intense focus on AMP and structured data, mostly JSON-LD. We’re writing a lot about both, whether they apply to you is entirely dependent on the type of site that you.
HostAdvice: What are your future plans for your SEO plugins?
To keep on improving :)
HostAdvice: What are your future plans for your books and training courses?
Our Yoast Academy is growing rapidly, so we’ll definitely expand this part of the company. We are now working on different courses, the first to be released being Site Structure. After that, we are planning a whole slew of technical SEO courses. Because of the size of this subject – and its importance – we’ve chopped these up into smaller, more manageable pieces. Look for these in 2017.
HostAdvice: What is your favorite advanced SEO tool? What is your favorite SEO tool for beginners?
I have dozens and I have a hard time picking favorites. One tool that’s made me happy this year is Moz’s keyword explorer, which I think is suitable for both beginners and advanced usage. Another tool we really wouldn’t want to live without is OnPage.org.
HostAdvice: What other tools do you think are essential for today’s WordPress developer?
HostAdvice: What is the meaning/story behind the company name Yoast?
In the early 2000’s, I was speaking at a lot of conferences. People always had difficulty pronouncing my name. In 2007, at SMX Stockholm I tried to explain my name to Rand Fishkin, when he said: “O, that’s just like toast with a Y”. Yoast was born.
HostAdvice: I understand that your wife also works at Yoast – how/why did that come about? How do you handle the inevitable challenges of working together and essentially spending all of your waking hours together?
She doesn’t just work here, she runs Yoast alongside me and Michiel. Her input has always been there and is invaluable to me. She created Yoast Academy and runs a large part of our marketing. She was pursuing an academic career before she joined me at Yoast, but Yoast just started growing too quickly. It’s great fun to work together like that, especially as she’s not just my wife; she’s also my best friend and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.
HostAdvice: How many employees do you have today? Where are they located?
Currently, we employ almost 50 people worldwide. We have 35 Yoasters in our company headquarters in Wijchen, The Netherlands. In addition to that, we have employees in Italy.
HostAdvice: How many hours a day do you normally work? What do you like to do when you are not working?
I don’t track my hours, as a way to keep my sanity. I do spend a lot of time with my kids too though, and pick them up straight out of school at 2 PM two days a week.