On today’s episode, Kunle is joined by Marieke Van de Rakt, Founder and CMO of Yoast, a popular WordPress search engine plugin with over 5 million installations.
If you’re a long-time WordPress user, surely you’ve come across the Yoast SEO plugins. After a while, they became a WooCommerce app by bringing in many sub-apps to support a user’s eCommerce journey. Now, they’re furthering their eCommerce reach by applying their success in both platforms to Shopify.
Marieke shares the backstory of Yoast and how their husband-wife duo gave birth to the amazing app. She also opens up about how they are a multinational company even before being acquired by Newfold Digital, a leading web presence solutions provider.
This episode with Marieke is enlightening as it goes into the world of SEO with the different standpoints you should know and tools outside of the Yoast ecosystem that are crucial to eCommerce and SEO.
With the utmost confidence in the company, engineers, developers, marketers, and users, Marieke wishes to change their company tagline to “SEO starts with Yoast.”
Here is a summary of some of the most important points made:
On today’s interview, Kunle and Marieke discuss:
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In this episode, you’re going to be learning about what you need to know about SEO in eCommerce in 2022. It’s a terrific episode you do not want to miss.
Welcome to the 2x eCommerce Podcast. This is the podcast dedicated to rapid growth in online retail. In this episode, you’re about to read an interview I had with Marieke Van de Rakt. She was the CEO of Yoast SEO. For those of you who don’t know, Yoast started as a plugin on WordPress and then became a WooCommerce app with loads of sub-apps and now they’re on Shopify. I interviewed her. It’s a family business. It’s a husband and wife team that founded Yoast more than sixteen years ago. I’ve used Yoast so when the opportunity came to speak with Marieke, I jumped at it.
The gist of this is they’re trying to move the success they found in WordPress. If you run WordPress, you’re most likely running Yoast as your SEO tool. They’re trying to bring that into the Shopify ecosystem. In this episode, we discussed the backstory of Yoast and how they started it out. We also talk about where they are now as a multinational company. They’ve been acquired.
We also talk especially about SEO, and what you should know about SEO if you’re an eCommerce operator. If you work within eCommerce marketing or technical SEO or what have you, what you should know now from WordPress first principles standpoint. We talk also about the eCommerce space now, the most important things you should be doing from a keyword research standpoint, on-site SEO standpoint, and tools outside of the Yoast ecosystem that is vital to SEO. It’s purely SEO but not too technical. It’s what you should know about points of view or focus on SEO and eCommerce.
Enjoy this episode. I shall catch you on the other side. If you haven’t already, if you listen to this podcast regularly, definitely give us a review on the Apple app. Spotify now does reviews or star reviews. Please leave us a review on either platform. It’d be much appreciated and I shall catch you on the other side. Enjoy this episode with Marieke. She was a terrific guest. Cheers.
Marieke, welcome to the 2x eCommerce podcast show.
It’s very nice to be here. Thank you for letting me be on your show.
Thank you because Yoast is a platform I’ve used. It kick-started my blogging career back in the 2000s. It’s a phenomenal app on WordPress. I used to run a few WordPress sites. Even our website at the moment is run by WordPress so we even use your app, the Yoast app. It’s a phenomenal story. You guys have been on for a while since about 2010, I believe. You had the first version of the Yoast app back in 2006 or 2007. back in 2006 or 2007. I’d like to get to your backstory. You’re a husband and wife team. Do you want to rewind back, maybe five years back before you started Yoast, and what events led up to the inception of Yoast?
It’s a family story. More than sixteen years, that’s where the story began. I became pregnant. Joost and I were a couple and he had to find another job because he worked pretty far from home and we were getting a baby. I was doing my PhD at that moment so he decided, “I’m going to find a job closer to home.” That happened to be an SMS SEO consultant. He didn’t do SEO before them. He started doing that and started doing WordPress. I don’t know why but he wanted to start a blog about SEO and I thought that WordPress was the most SEO friendly. He also started contributing to WordPress because that was something he also liked to do.
The birth of our son was also the birth of the SEO career that Joost started. He quickly noticed that he was doing consultancy for big clients such as KLM in the Netherlands, but also Facebook and eBay. He noticed that everything he was telling those clients to do, he could also build into plugins for WordPress so that everyone could use the same advice. He was doing a lot of technical implementations for those big brands and at the same time, building that as a plugin.
WordPress, at that time, wasn’t a platform that people were making money off. There weren’t any premium plugins. The first thing was premium themes but premium plugins weren’t the thing until we started doing premium plugins and that was in 2013 or something. Up until that time, he was making money with consultancy.
In 2010, we started Yoast mainly doing consultancy. When WordPress became bigger and a bit more adult, these premium plugins started to appear and so did we. That now led to the growth of our product-based company, which became much larger. We don’t even do consultancy anymore, except if we like to or want to. Apart from that, we only do products.
You’re a product-focused company. It’s phenomenal stuff. That transition from essentially a free app to a freemium app, what key differences did the premium version of Yoast at the time deliver to people who paid or to subscribers who paid?
We still have a few add-ons. We have video SEO, local SEO in WooCommerce, and news SEO. All these had features for a specific audience and then we had the premium version of our flagship. At first, it only had the Redirect Manager because we never wanted to take anything out of free and put it into premium so we had to come up with extra features to put in premium.
People get support if they have the premium plugin, which also is a reason for people to buy it but in those first two years, we didn’t have many advanced features because we didn’t want to take them out of the premium. Nowadays, we have a lot so we have a lot of internal linking functionality. We have a different SEO analysis. We still have the Redirect Manager and some social previews that are only in premium.
You both have PhDs right?
No, only me.
I beg your pardon. You’re the PhD. That’s fascinating. Your son’s 16 in 2022 so it’s the same age as Yoast. It’s phenomenal stuff. Did you name him Yoast? Did you name him after his dad?
No. We call him Tiho.
That’s a cute name. You guys are based in the Netherlands? In what city?
It’s called Wijchen and it’s close to the German border. It’s not big. There are about 14,000 people. We are in the city center and we have a few different buildings. If you live in our city and you go to your grocery store or to the market, you can’t not see us. We’re pretty big there but apart from that nobody ever visits us because we’re pretty far from Amsterdam.
It’s fascinating stuff. Is your team all based in the cities and towns?
No. We are with 150 people and about 100 work from the Netherlands and 50 are located everywhere around the world. A lot of our support engineers are located somewhere else because that makes sense from a time zone perspective. Ever since COVID, a lot of people enjoy working from home more so that allows us to also get people working here that live a little bit further from our offices and come in a day a week or something. Not everyone is working in our offices anymore. We used to have that but that changed which is fine.
From the sounds of things, you’re adjusting to a globally distributed workforce. Let’s get back to the early 2000s. I’d like to explore how Yoast evolved as a company and how SEO has evolved also because you’re riding this wave, which essentially wouldn’t ever stop as long as we have search engines. How has it changed team-wise and then from a technical standpoint, more search?
From our team, Yoast was a one-man company when it started in 2010. We now have 150 people. We have a lot of developers. We have 13 million users and that means that our plugin has to be compatible with so many different plugins because there are 13 million different user cases out there, which sets hard amounts on our development team. It’s pretty hard to develop a plugin that is heavily integrated into the editor but also works together with other plugins.
It’s a challenging job as a developer to work at Yoast. We also have a big marketing department. If you have an SEO company, you need to make sure that your SEO is top notch so we’re taking care of our own rankings as well. Organic search is the way we get the most traffic. It would be weird to get your clients via advertisement if you are an SEO company.
I was having a conversation with someone who said exactly that.
That’s weird so we need to make sure that we’re ranking well. We do a lot of branding. One of the first people we hired was a designer that made sure that our brand popped out from other WordPress brands, but also in the SEO world. We live in two worlds. We’re in the WordPress world and we’re trying to get on board in the Shopify world but we’re WordPress fanboys and girls. We are in the SEO industry, which is also a different world but where we’re in both.
If you look at how Google or search changed, Google got much smarter and other search engines as well. They’re much better and much more capable of understanding what a website is about. They’re much better and reading content so in the early days, you could get away with all those nice SEO tricks. Those don’t work anymore. Although in Dutch, which is a fairly small language, Google isn’t as good yet as English. That changed so the technical demands of SEO became stricter.
Schema changed so Google rolled out this whole language to talk to your search engine which became important in the past few years. If we look back, we did that. More than two years ago, our company wanted to turn ten and then we looked back ten years ago. Much of the advice that we gave back then was still the advice that we give now because Google wants to serve the audience the best results.
If you’re also trying to build a website that’s good for your audience, you’re probably doing well for Google as well. All the advices stayed the same over the years. The landscape now is changing a bit because we don’t know what Apple is going to do. Are they going to launch a search engine? That would be awesome. Privacy laws are becoming more important, especially in Europe. It will probably change something as well which keeps the field of SEO interesting.
It’s a lot to take in. The one real message I picked from that was this schema and the ability for webmasters or websites to speak with search engines is powerful because it’s almost taking an object-oriented approach to technical marketing in a way. That opened a lot of opportunities.
That’s becoming important. Google became good at understanding text but it’s not good at understanding what is what on a page. If you have a product, a person would immediately see, “If we write it down, this is the size of the product and this is the color,” because we are smart but Google, just by looking at a page like that, sees what is what. It needs you to tell it, “This is the product name.” “This is the product description.” “This is the color.” “This is the stock.” That’s exactly what schema does so that’s something that’s important and we’ll benefit from a few talents that will benefit you in your rankings.
It’s contextualizing the actual content on objects within a page and the feature sets and it’s giving it some more relevant and in-depth information in order for it to give more relevant results. On your website, I’m looking at all your WordPress plugins, as you alluded to the video one, the local one, the news, the general Yoast WooCommerce SEO, and the Yoast Duplicate Post. You have a Shopify ecosystem now. You did mention that your Shopify app is in beta or is it alpha? Is it out?
It’s out and it’s really good but there are a lot of features coming in the next few months. If you’re a user of our WordPress plugin, it’s not the same product yet. Shopify is a different ecosystem so we’re not going to give you all the features. For example, internal linking is something that works differently in Shopify. We’re figuring out how to build that in the Shopify environments but you will find all the usual suspects or you will have the green bullets and the schema integration, which is already in the Shopify app which we do well.
Schema is something that’s hard and you see a lot of SEO apps doing that. They do a part of it and for Google, Google needs to understand that all that schema is tied together. This is your company and these people belong with the company. You’ll see that a lot of schema apps make little pieces of schema, instead of tying it all together. That makes for a great reason why you should use Yoast SEO and for Shopify, we do that as well.
That being said, we need to do some work and get some more features out there. It’s pretty hard if you’re using a different SEO app in Shopify to get to ours because of your settings. Now, we’re building a way to import all your information and get it into Yoast SEO for Shopify. That could be something you want to wait for if you’re not sure to get our app.
What is the switching cost? Oftentimes in tech or whenever you’re considering technology, there’s the time, effort, and resources, you’ve put into a platform or an app. Because you’ve put in so much, you don’t even want to think about, as an eCommerce director, switching because you’re thinking, “That’s going to give me a lot of work.” Do you have any transitions like in the phone business? Apple is offering Android transfer and vice versa for users who want to change platforms. Is there anything like that if you’re running an existing app on Shopify, it is easy to transition what that app is doing with Yoast so it duplicates functions?
In Shopify, it’s hard. In WordPress, we have those importers and we help you to transition. We’re building that now in Shopify but that doesn’t exist so it’s hard if you have an existing app on Shopify. You’re pretty set on having that forever which is something we didn’t know from our experience in WordPress, which is open and normal to have. We’re the first one to build an importer and an exporter. We’ll have that and it is still not fluent but we have a support team that will probably help you if you want to transfer and we’ll get you set up. I can imagine it’s a hassle.
Sometimes you don’t want to break what’s not broken. If it’s working, it’s working but there is still potential. Some people are frozen on that particular option. I read an article saying that Yoast was acquired. Do you want to speak to what you are now from a company structure? Where are you guys at? Is it true that you were acquired?
The rumors are true.
It must have been a huge one.
We were acquired last August 2021 or it might be July 2021 but it was in 2021 or something that. We were acquired by Newfold Digital which is a large company. It’s a new company so a lot of people don’t know it but it’s Web.com and the Endurance Group. They came together and founded a new company and that was at the beginning of 2021 and they acquired us half a year after. They are an American-based company, but they have employees all over the world. They do a lot of hosting but also a lot of domains.
They pretty much left us as we were. We get some advice and help and we can profit from some of the deals they already made with partners so that’s good but we’re running the business as we usually did. With the exception that we transfer to Microsoft from Google. That was the biggest thing. We didn’t like it and now we’re back to Google Drive. That made my day because it’s hard to switch if you’re used to something. I’m so happy.
I feel your pain. I recall when I joined Octillion, my current company. The team was on Microsoft and I was like, “No.” It’s the same here. We’re back.
Why would you do that?
I don’t know. It’s the way it is. I love the Google ecosystem. It works. I like Gmail. I like the speed and the search. You need to be able to search your email and get instant results. You don’t need clunky apps. I prefer to use the Gmail app itself. I don’t like the Apple Mail app. I don’t like Microsoft Outlook. I the native Gmail on Chrome or any browser and the one on the app on the phone works. Newfold is a pretty big organization that owns Hostgator, Bluehost, Web.com, Domain.com, Register.com, and SnapNames. This is a huge one. Congratulations. You’re part of a family.
Because it’s so big, we’re pretty small for them. We’re allowed to, as long as we run the business correctly, do what we were doing. I was the CEO at the time of the acquisition. Prior to the acquisition, I already said that I wanted to step down as the CEO basically because I like doing product, strategy, and not so much the other human resources side of being the CEO.
It’s not that I don’t like people but that’s definitely not the reason why we founded Yoast. We founded Yoast because I’m a marketeer and I like to think about product and strategy and not so much about parental leave. I hate finding answers. I hate that part and now it’s not my responsibility anymore. I’m not the owner anymore so I can focus on the things that I’m good at.
You could always hire a CEO who’s happy with all that responsibility. Congratulations on that. I like the fact that you have your autonomy within yours given that Yoast is part of a huge family of top digital brands. Your role is a CMO and head of strategy now at Yoast. What about your husband, Joost, himself where is he in the organization chart?
He’s not in the organization but he’s still with Yoast but only as an advisor. Part of his reason to sell Yoast was that he got bored. It’s awful so let’s read it through. If you have owned a company for fifteen years, at one point in time, he was like, “I want to do other things as well,” but you can’t because you have 150 people on your payroll so you have to do something with them. He is an advisor. He comes in every other week for a day. He’s an advisor at Yoast and also at Newfold. Apart from that, he’s figuring out what he wants to do besides that. We made a lot of money selling us so it’s also looking into new investments and new things we can do in the future, which is exciting.
Fantastic. It’s good stuff. At least you’re a member. You being there is excellent in keeping the pulse of operations at Yoast. Your team is cross-functional. You said 100 in the Netherlands and another 50 spread around the world. It’s interesting stuff. Okay. Let’s get back to eCommerce. The audience intent in 2x eCommerce is largely eCommerce. From a first-principle thinking standpoint, as an eCommerce director reading this that wants to get SEO and wants to get serious with SEO, what are the key things he or she should be focusing on to get a strong foundation and stranglehold on SEO in 2022?
These sites have been around for a while. If you’re online now, you probably will have a site for a couple of years. What we see is that they get bigger because people don’t want to throw anything away which means that Google has to crawl through quite a lot. For the crawl-ability, we made some features for that in our new releases. Scalability is something that we’re talking more and more about because those websites get big. You need to have Google crawl through it and index your entire site but it also needs to know which pages on that website are the most important.
If you’re a blog, or if you have a lot of products, you’re probably your own biggest competitor because you need to tell Google which pages, posts, or products are the most important, and the way you do that is via your internal links because Google crawls your website and follows your internal links through to see where it ends up. That’s the road Google takes. If you have a lot of internal links towards a certain post, Google will come there pretty often and think, “That’s important.”
If I could give advice to people that do SEO for especially larger eCommerce sites, it’s to look at your internal links, look at your site structure and see what Google sees. Which pages have a lot of internal links pointing towards them and which pages haven’t? Are those, in fact, the most important ones, or aren’t they? If you have a lot of pages on your website that aren’t that important anymore, it could be time to clean that up because you are letting Google crawl through all of your old ones as well. It’s not sexy to talk about site maintenance but it’s important to get that part of your SEO done.
It’s putting some precedents in your information architecture. XML Sitemaps used to be a big thing. I remember when they came out, are they still a thing with Google and SEO at the moment?
They should be but Google crawls a lot while they could crawl far less and that’s important because they spend so much energy on crawling the web. If they were to crawl the XML Sitemap and if you use the Yoast SEO plugin, that would be okay because we’ll tell Google exactly which pages have been changed since the last time Google came around but Google comes around so often so I know that the website of my father has twenty visitors a week.
Google comes around 10,000 times that same week and nothing ever changes because he is a retired physical therapist with some nice articles on his websites for people to read but nothing ever changed so that doesn’t make sense. Google and other search engines should pay more attention to the XML sitemap, but they tend to crawl everything anyway.
What about external links? You alluded to internal links. It’s putting that structure and weights on from internal links. Before we talk about external links, how do you do it? I’m an eCommerce store. I have twelve category pages. In Shopify, it’s the collection pages apparently. I have maybe 52 SKUs and I want to drive more traffic to my category pages because my category pages seem to drive more traffic keywords. How do I internally link to these category pages? What do I link with in order to signal to Google that, “This is important.”
If you get a link from all of your product pages to your category pages then you’re pointing towards your most important so that could be a good strategy. See what’s in a certain category and make sure that you link from all of these different pages to the one that’s most important. Google will come there pretty often because it crawls and gets back there. At one point, it thinks, “This one must be important that I keep ending up here.” I always think of Google as a human being which is, of course not. That could be a great strategy by putting internal links from all of the lower heading less important pages to the one that’s most important.
This is what you guys are working on in your Shopify app to make this so more seamless.
In the WordPress app, we have a WordPress plugin. We have an entire workout we call it in which we ask you, “What are your most important pages,” and then see how many internal links they have. We give suggestions and which articles you could put internal links to and then help you fill that out. We’re not there yet in Shopify, but we should, because this is an important part of your overall SEO so you can do a lot of optimizations on your product pages or in the text.
As the scroll-ability issue becomes more important and your website gets large, you should also do something with your internal linking. You were talking about external links. Those are important as well. They keep being important. In the old days, you could get away with buying links and people still do that. Never do that. Never buy links.
If you have nice content, and people will want to link to it, that’s the way to go. Figure out what way it makes sense for people to link to your website and try to get those partners and introductions ready because it helps to have external links. That’s the way Google comes through your website. It’s the links they follow. Especially if these are high authority websites that’ll do well for your SEO. I know it will but it’s still important.
In the old days, the internet used to be quite a reading ecosystem. Most content was written and SEO thrived. This was the heyday, the glory days, or the golden age of Wikipedia, blogging, and blogging was a thing. Over the last decade or so, more people gravitate towards video and multiple video platforms, social and podcasts. How’s all this panning in the ecosystem in SEO? Is it leaving the potential of SEO weaker? Is it to further strengthen SEO? Are there any takeaways that SEO strategies can borrow from from this multimedia world we live in now?
If I ask my son, he never does anything to search on Google. He’s searching on YouTube. The only difference in the search engine Google, you’ll find websites. While on YouTube, you’ll find videos that were uploaded on YouTube. You’re not necessarily going to the website of a person. You’re just looking at their videos. You can do a lot to optimize your video as well and it’s not that different from SEO tactics. You should make sure that you have a nice description and your video should be of a certain length and stuff but it’s still your ranking only with that video and not getting attracting traffic to your website.
In that world, branding becomes more important because if you want, you’re trying to reach people in different places so you have social, YouTube, and you’ll have the written internet. If you want to do that in a way that benefits you, the best thing is to put up a brand that’s multimedia and make sure that your brand experience over all these platforms is similar. It’s similar that people recognize your brand from YouTube and then from your website. They see that that’s the same thing that makes sense but it’s not easier than it used to be.
If you take it from a brand perspective and say that I have interacted with a brand on YouTube and spent 30 minutes or even 3 hours of my time interacting with their content. When I go to search and I’m presented with a set of results because I already trust a resource I’ve interacted with on YouTube, depending on my circumstances, it’s quite anecdotal. I’d be more attracted to click through to the brand I’m more familiar with on Google so it works in a way. It’s anecdotal, not fact.
What are your thoughts on SEO? I made a post back in 2014. That was my last SEO post, which is interesting. I made a post back in 2014 around SEO on eCommerce. It was well-received. I talked about the fact that Google seems to be featuring the larger eCommerce brands, not just stores in a search engine, not because they have sophisticated SEO teams but because Google feels that these brands offer more results.
I gave an example of boohoo dresses, for instance, a certain kind of dresses for ladies that commanded hundreds of thousands of searches on Google USA. The thing about it was that 70% of the results were from mainstream eCommerce businesses with lots of SKUs on their results. Google shows relevance. Does size matter? My question is for competitive keywords or for keywords that will drive revenue for eCommerce retailers. Does the size, the number of products you list in that category or collection page, matter in SEO?
Size matters but I’m not sure if it’s the number of products or it’s because those companies are much bigger. They have more budgets to be able to maintain a blog and have more authority because they’re big companies and Google sees that they’re legit. I don’t know if it pays off to get 1,000 products in there and then start ranking. It doesn’t work like that. For those hack terms that you call them, the search terms, everyone is going after, those big brands are always the ones that are in the top 10.
For a smaller eCommerce store, I would never even try to get to those most competitive search terms but get into the more niche search terms because you probably are able to rank high for those. Although there are fewer people searching for these kinds of niche search terms, if you offer something that they are searching for, the chances for you to convert them as a client are much bigger. Trying to go after search terms that are a little bit more niche, but in fact, resonate well with people that want to buy your stuff could be the best thing for a smaller eCommerce store to get off of because it’s hard.
I have another follow-up question. When an eCommerce team that uses Yoast and that eCommerce team is educated on how SEO works, Yoast is a wizard or at least the WordPress experience you deliver is like a wizard. It’s an SEO checklist wizard that takes you before you publish any piece of content, whether it’s a product page, a category page, a blog post, or a normal page on your website, the WordPress experience for Yoast delivers a, “Have you put your title tags in?” “What keywords are most important?”
It does all the analysis for you and comes back so it’s almost like an assistant like an SEO assistant. Speaking very specifically to eCommerce teams, when do eCommerce teams transcend Yoast in the sense that they need extra help? When do they need extra help with SEO? You’re still using Yoast, but when do you think their needs will change and they need an expert to take the rest of you to the next level?
Is it an expert or a different tool? I want to change our tagline to, “SEO starts with Yoast,” because it’s the basics. You need the technical stuff. You need to make sure you’ve taken care of that and then you have some extra help with writing stuff. I’m a writer so this was hard for me but I’m testing out an AI tool to help with writing product descriptions. A content AI tool can be wonderful because these product descriptions can be quite boring to write. It’s not that you need original content and those AI tools can help you to write something quickly to draft some sentences.
You still need Yoast to check whether or not the AI tool in fact wrote your focus key-phrase enough times and do a little tweaking but that helps. I like the Semrush integration. We have a Semrush integration in Yoast which allows you to check which key world you should be focusing on. Those are tools you can use next to Yoast to figure out, “Which terms need to be found for and which can give you a little bit of help if you have a hard time writing a text for example, which is something we all struggle with.”
If you need anything after that still we have a lot of courses at Yoast that you can follow but not everybody wants to do that. That could be the time if you’re serious about that to hire an SEO consultant. I work with an SEO consultant and he trains large teams and then he says, “First do all the courses of Yoast and then I’ll come in.” We have a big academy with a lot of courses that will help you to do it yourself if you want to.
Wrapping up, how does your Shopify app work from a pricing standpoint? Is it a freemium model or are you purely a paid app?
It’s a paid app, but we’re adding a free version to it pretty soon, which allows you to check out the app, and then it’s $19 a month, which is pretty similar to other SEO apps in the Shopify world. It’s good that you can try it on for free, check it out, and see how it works. I hope that’ll help a lot of people to make the decision to go with Yoast.
Do you also have Shopify Plus support?
What’s the roadmap for Shopify Plus?
To get access to Shopify Plus, we need a little bit more subscribers.
Hopefully, this should give it a boost.
That would be great.
It’s an interesting conversation. For those of you who want to find out more about Yoast, it’s Yoast.com. Under Our Products is a Shopify app or go to the Shopify app store and search for Yoast. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you, Marieke
Thank you. I liked it as well. It’s great being here.