SEO, WooCommerce and Building Plugins with Marieke van de Rakt

Do the Woo Podcast with Marieke van de Rakt Episode 95
Do the Woo - A WooCommerce Podcast
Do the Woo - A WooCommerce Podcast
SEO, WooCommerce and Building Plugins with Marieke van de Rakt

Anyone in the WooCommerce or WordPress space knows Yoast SEO. Marieke has been CEO for the last couple of years and has taken the helm of the company as it continues to have enormous growth. We couldn’t get away without dabbling in some SEO around WooCommerce, but also sought some perspectives on SEO, as well as hearing Marieke’s personal story of working with her spouse, Joost.

Whether you are building your first WooCommerce business site or you build for clients, you will find some great tips in this conversation— and also learn more about Marieke.

A Chat with Marieke van de Rakt from Yoast SEO

In episode 95, Brad and I talk with Marieke about:

  • The differences in SEO for eCommerce or for a traditional blog or WordPress site
  • What she recommends for anyone just starting out and trying to wrap their brain around SEO
  • How new sites out there can compete with the big shops when it comes to SEO
  • Why brick and mortar stores that are morphing into online entities should pay attention to local SEO
  • The contributions Yoast gives to WordPress core and why they have a team devoted only to that
  • What advice she gives for plugin builders who wants to enter the WooCommerce space
  • What she sees as trends or has found particularly interesting in the future of SEO and their plugin
  • How Marieke and Joost survive—and thrive—working side-by-side as a married couple

Connect with Marieke

Thanks to our Sponsors

The Conversation

Brad: All right, welcome back to another exciting episode of Do the Woo, episode 95. I'm half of the amazing duo, Brad with my cohost, Mr. BobWP. What's going on Bob?

Bob: I am simply another half. That's it, 50-50.

Brad: Probably should be more than half. This is your show and I'm just hanging out.

Bob: Okay, how about 49-51?

Brad: Who's the 51?

Bob: We'll let that go….

Brad: I'll gladly let you be the 51. You can be the majority owner of the podcast.

We're excited. We've got a really great show, so let's get into it, Bob. First as always, we want to thank our sponsors. First up is the amazing WooCommerce, which would you believe it, is what this podcast is all about and they're our sponsor. How awesome is that? So, definitely check out WooCommerce. If you listen to the show, we assume you know what that is. If not, buckle up, you're going to learn a lot over and they've got a great developer community as well.

We'd like to call that out because if you're not involved in that and even if you're interested just from watching from afar, but seeing the developer conversations around the building of WooCommerce Core, future releases, roadmaps, features and all those great discussions and a lot of extension and plugin developers as well. Check out the WooCommerce community Slack channel, and then they have an open discussion every Wednesday at 1400 UTC, so you can do the math on that, but 1400 UTC on Wednesdays is when they have their office hours every week, so it's a good way to kind of dive in and start to get involved in WooCommerce development.

And, we also want to thank PayPal. Chances are if you have a WooCommerce store, you probably accept PayPal, and we want to call out the Pay in 4 option that they have now, which is really cool because it basically allows your customers to break up whatever they're buying in four equal payments across every two weeks, they'll make a payment.

PayPal assumes all the risk. You get paid in full and PayPal handles the additional payments and all you have to do is enable it, so it's already ready for your account. So, it's pretty much a win-win in my opinion, maybe even drive up those average cart values, give people some incentive to buy more because they can spread out those payments a little bit, which is pretty cool. So, check out the Pay in 4 option with PayPal.

And with that, that was a lot, Bob, let's get into it because we've got an awesome guest. I've known her for a number of years now. I feel like I always meet her over in Europe in amazing destinations and it's almost like Yoast and WebDev and others travel together at amazing work camps and events and hang out with fun friends. So without further ado, we want to bring in Marieke from Yoast SEO. Welcome to show, Marieke.

Marieke: Well, thank you, it's really nice to be here and to see you again because it's been a while.

Brad: It has been a while. I think the last time we saw each other, I want to say was probably in Paris. I think it was at WordCamp Europe in Paris. This was three years maybe.

Marieke: That's been a while, been a really long while.

Brad: It has it been a while, so it's great to see you. Welcome to the show. For anyone that maybe isn't familiar, which I would be surprised, but if anyone's not familiar with you and Yoast SEO, we'd like to ask everyone, how do you do the Woo? Give everyone a quick kind of update on how you got to where you're at and what you're doing over there?

Marieke: Well, I think Yoast is most famous for our WordPress plugin, which helps you to rank high in the search engines. So, that's what we do in WordPress. And with WooCommerce, well, Yoast also runs a WooCommerce store, so we're customers of WooCommerce and of course we also have a special plugin for people who have a shop, so a WooCommerce plugin. That's also a part of the plugins we offer.

I've been the CEO of Yoast for two years now and I do a lot of growth, trying to make it grow, and also a lot of company culture, which is really challenging, has been really challenging last year because we were pretty much an office-based company and, well, we're remote now as well because we have to be. We can't work in the office anymore. So, it's been challenging to run the company like this.

Brad: Yeah, I can imagine. There's a lot of different directions I think we could take this conversation because I have a million questions about a lot of the different things you just said. I think to kind of narrow it a little bit back into e-commerce I think is probably a great place to start because that's the focus of our show around WooCommerce.

And, I think one of the things I love about SEO and search engine optimization is really with just a little bit of knowledge you can have a pretty large impact on your store or on your customers or clients' stores. And, what I mean by that is maybe just even by activating your plugin. That alone can have a positive impact, even if you don't start kind of drilling down into the more granular settings and controls, like literally just turning on Yoast SEO and the WooCommerce SEO plugin right there out of the gate is already going to improve the SEO.

So, I look at it because I think a lot of people look at WooCommerce and look at WordPress and they immediately think, "Well, I probably have to get in a code at some point." And, that's not really appealing, but the world of SEO, there's so much to learn and so much that you can do that's outside of code and it's really not focused on code, right? It's more around the content and keywords and things and that's something I love to preach to our clients and the people I work with is that SEO is probably the biggest bang for your buck in terms of actually improving your store, conversions, traffic, all of that stuff.

So, it's kind of a long rambly way of... Well, my question of what I want to get to is just around some of the new challenges of SEO and specifically around e-commerce boards. Maybe we can kind of dig into that a little bit, what people should be thinking about the differences of SEO for an e-commerce store versus maybe just a traditional content site or a blog.

Marieke: I think you're really right about that only installing our plugin takes care of most of the technical stuff and we build our plugin in such a way that everybody can use it. So, our mission is SEO for everyone. So, we try to do it the way that everyone can use it. So, if you're just enabling it or installing or plugging them, we will take care of a lot of the schema, which is really important I think, especially for shops because you'll need that on your side and, well, you can do a few things, especially for a shop that'll make it easier to rank in the search engines, which is I think the best way to get people to your sites because if you have a site, you want people to come to it, otherwise it's no use.

Brad: I'm surprised even on big sites, sometimes I hit them and I wouldn't consider myself an expert level SEO. I like to say I know the basics. I understand title, I understand meta, I understand the things that you want to have in place and the things that you can manipulate a little bit to your advantage, like the content in your title tags and meta tags and even the content and imagery and things that you're using throughout for your products and the content of your site. I think it's interesting how you might hit a store and I'll look at what's in the title tag for some massively popular, huge, $100 million store.

And by and large, a lot of times it's not great, and I don't know if it's because they're not paying attention or focus on it. I'm like, wow, a little bit of extra legwork here and focus on title tags or a little bit more of your content, and I'm talking even big stores aren't doing a great job of this, could have a really big impact. A lot of people just load a product and they're like, red flannel shirt, and then that's all they say about it. And I'm like, it's awful. There's so much more you can talk about than just the fact it's a red flannel shirt..

Marieke: Yeah, you can, and if it's a big store and probably a big brand, they have the advantage of being that big brand, which is a really big advantage in the search engines, but also in marketing, but if you're just starting out and having a shop, then SEO is probably the best way to get that store the attention that you want it to have because you're not a brand yet.

Brad: Right.

Marieke: And, then you'll need that.

Brad: And, for those people starting out, where do you recommend? Because it is a wealth of knowledge out there as... You guys put out a lot of great content and with anything there's great content and then there's some not so great content and maybe even more so in SEO because then you get into kind of that really shady black hat things you shouldn't really do side of the house. So, I guess there is really bad content, I guess for SEO. Where do people start? What do you trust when a lot of it's just based on... It's not all exactly like this is the answer and this is why, a lot of it's a little more theory and studying algorithms and what seems to be working and not. Where should people start to learn this?

Marieke: Well, you could start to learn this in our academy. Yoast has this great academy with all these courses, which teach you everything, but I think the basic line is if it feels like a trick, then it probably is a trick and it won't work in the long run. So, sometimes we call it seriously effortful optimization. It's a lot of work and I think you should always start by thinking about, why do I want to sell, why do people want to buy this? What problem does it solve?

And, just think about what your product's niche is, and if you find that, then it's not a big step to finding out which people are searching for you and what words they are using and that's a really important step. So, that's always the first step I would take if you have a new shop or just beginning, and even if you're already a shop owner, and I've been around for a long while, then thinking about what is it what I actually do and why are people coming to my website are really important questions to ask yourself.

Bob: But, would that be the same answer in the same line, if you're out there building sites for clients and they're smaller shops and they're saying, why even bother with all this SEO? I can't compete against the big shops. Does that fall into that same mentality that you got to find that niche.

Marieke: Yeah, you didn't start that shop for nothing. You had an idea behind that, so you probably are doing something differently from those big shops and that's what sets you apart and that's also where your clientele will come from. And if you start ranking on these, we call them long-tail keywords. So, less people search for them, they're much more specific, but they can get you a little traffic.

And then, if you start ranking for those, you can shovel up a bit and try to compete with a little more competitive terms, and then you'll have your brand and Google will see your website more often, and then you can climb up and be a really big brand too. If you have a new site, you always have to start at the bottom. It's just the way it is.

Brad: You've got to find your niche, right? Really in any industry, I think back to my company and when we really got laser focused on WordPress development specifically, it helped us really focus in our marketing message, focusing... Everything we talked about just made more sense because we could be laser focused on that niche and 10 years ago it was less saturated. So, it was easier for us to rise to the top and start getting bigger clients and things of that nature. Where now obviously, WordPress is much more popular, so it might not be as easy just to say, we're going to be a WordPress shop.

Marieke: 10 years ago, everything was easier I think. All the markets are being more saturated I think. So, it's hard for a new brand to start. That is hard.

Bob: One of the things I wanted to touch on, and this piggybacks on what we were just talking about, and it's the current situation, is the small shops that are brick and mortar that are jumping online now, how much of their focus should be continued on local SEO versus thinking, "Oh, and now I'm online." They may get this idea that the world's at my fingertips and I can get everybody in there, but I'm thinking with your clients, if they build up that local... And, of course you should use your existing customers, but if you're brick and mortar, you should focus a little bit more on local SEO versus thinking the world's at your fingertips.

Marieke: Yeah, I think local SEO for all these businesses that are going online, we have those in the Netherlands as well. Local is really important that people are searching for stores nearby. Even for me, if I buy something, I usually buy something from a Dutch company because it's really hard to buy now from the United States because it takes ages to get here. So, I think local is really important during a time when it's hard to get postal things around the world, and we have specific... We have also our local SEO plugin, which helps you rank locally because that's a different kind of game you're playing there. But for a lot of entrepreneurs, that will be the way to go.

Brad: I'm always surprised how many local businesses... Up until honestly the pandemic, didn't really have an online presence or certainly didn't focus on it. It was maybe there and half working, but wasn't really at the forefront of what they were doing. And now with obviously the world has changed and now online is the forefront, or it kind of has to be for many of these businesses to continue surviving. Many restaurants and local places by me that didn't deliver, now they all deliver because they had to evolve with the situation that we're all in. So, the local aspect I think is huge.

I think there's a lot of opportunities there for people to be involved with helping those companies get online or improve what they have online. Because like you said, the local stuff, there's so many people who don't realize you can validate your business with Google. They mail you a little card. I think they still do that. You validate it online and then you can modify a lot of their results on Google, like the times you're open and if you're closed or all that stuff. So, just having a little bit of knowledge around that can really set you apart.

Marieke: From the others, from the other stores, and I think that will get even more important. Because of this pandemic, people will be more used that every store will have a website, even if we're all open. Our shops are all closed now in the Netherlands, so now the only way to get your stuff is via the internet. Even my parents now order online. So, it's going to be... It has been a shift I think in the way that people use the internet or websites, so that will probably remain.

Brad: It's kind of accelerated what I think is what many of us think was the inevitable anyways, the importance of online. It's really just kind of accelerated that probably a decade or two and maybe a generation or so where our parents didn't necessarily expect to have to do that and now they're kind of forced to in a sense. Which from a technology standpoint, I think is great. It's just unfortunate for obvious reasons, but here we are.

So, we're all trying to make the most of it. Obviously, if you do any kind of SEO, anything around WordPress, Yoast is at the top of all of those conversations. You guys not only have amazing products, but you give back a lot to WordPress in very public ways, which I think is great because I think it helps validate, hey, here's a very successful company that we all know doing it. So, maybe we should contribute back more. I think it helps validate that for the company and it just shows you as really a part of the community more so than just one of the top, if not the biggest plugin company out there, that you actually are passionate about open source and contributing. You have, is it two, three, four full time?

Marieke: We have more, we have an entire team at the moment.

Brad: A whole team dedicated just to contributing to WordPress, right, like full time?

Marieke: I think five, and yes, they are.

Brad: Amazing.

Marieke: And of course, it's our belief that you have to give back, but it's also very necessary because we have to know what's coming up and we have our own agenda and it doesn't mean that our ideas are the ones that are going to be built. I wish it was that way, but it isn't, but still, we do know what's going up because our plugin is so heavily integrated, especially with the editor, that you need to know what's the next step going to be in order to stay integrated and stay on top of that.

Brad: There's a lot of wins by doing that and what you just said is clearly a great thing for your company. It's also a great thing by giving back, and it's another reason why at WebDev we like to attribute Five for the Future. And again, it's another kind of public way of us saying this is us. We give back in a lot of ways behind the scenes and formerly at WordCamps and stuff like that. But, this is our official public way of doing it and our team really gets behind it and is really excited.

And again, there's like win-win-win for us too because they get to work on things that are more passionate project, they get to dive into WordPress Core plugins or whatever, then bring that knowledge back to us as a company and our clients. So, I look at companies like Yoast as... And, I talk about you guys a lot in very good ways.

Marieke: Oh, that's great.

Brad: You're a good example of a company out there doing really good things in a public way in this WordPress community. So, I definitely want to thank you because I think it makes it easier for other companies to justify it and maybe for people to sell it to their executives or they’re higher up in a way. So, we're all benefiting from the work you do, whether we're paying for your products or not, so-

Marieke: Well, thank you.

Brad: Thank you for doing it because it's not something you have to.

Bob: And, I can't remember a time that my site didn't have the Yoast plugin. It seems like it's always been there.

Brad: Well, back then it was called WordPress SEO.

Marieke: And in the beginning, it wasn't one plug-in, it were multiple plugins and then Yoast built one plugin out of it and I think that's like eight years ago or something, I don't know.

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Thanks for PayPal for being a community sponsor at Do the Woo. And now back the conversation.

Bob: Speaking of the plugins, and I'm just going to pick your brain a little bit because a lot of the people that listen to this show are plugin builders. And of course, they all dream of having a plugin as successful as Yoast, but not everybody can do that, but there's a lot of success at different levels out there. Anybody that you meet that just is thinking... Not an SEO plugin, just doing, especially around WooCommerce, a plugin for WooCommerce, oh, I want to get into this space. What is your first words of advice just around what they should be thinking?

Marieke: It's very smart to build a plugin surrounding WooCommerce because WooCommerce is a shop and the people who have a shop probably are the first ones to have money to buy something. So, even in our clientele, we see a lot of WooCommerce users because if you have a shop and you earn your money with your shop, it makes sense to invest in your sites, and we have a lot of users who just have a blog for fun and I totally get that if it's not your day job, you're not going to get a premium plugin for it.

So, if you want to make money with your products or with your plugin, then I think something surrounding sites that actually make money is a really good way to go business-wise.. It's hard, I would think of something simple to start with because WordPress is so very hard and there isn't one site out there that's similar... Well, similar there is, but exactly the same as the other ones. So, everyone will have a different configuration of plugins and it has to work with all of them and that makes it for a very challenging task.

Brad: That's like the best and worst thing about WordPress.

Marieke: Well, it is the best thing because you have so much freedom and you can choose, but as a plugin developer.

Brad: It's challenging.

Marieke: Well, we have 11 million users, so our testing process has become this enormous thing, which a lot of people are just testing whether nothing breaks in all kinds of combinations with plugins. So, that makes it hard, so I would come up with something that doesn't integrate too heavily with the editor that makes it simple. And, I think we always scratch our own itch, so make it something that you're going to use because if you are your own user, then you probably come up with the best idea and that's what WordPress is all about I think. If users run into something, want to solve it, and then they extend the WordPress ecosystem.

Bob: And, Brad will agree with this. It’s what we've heard from a lot of plugin builders. They were scratching their own itch or something for our client, and that's how a lot of them grew out of it.

Brad: Yeah, a lot of great ideas are born from a client need or doing something for themselves. You're right because that right there is going to have some point of passion around that. Which is always going to help drive it, especially when you run into frustrations. I can't imagine shipping an update, it's nerve-racking. Our most popular plugin custom post type UI, it's about 800,000 active installs, but that's certainly less impactful if there were a problem than something like screwing up someone's SEO on their-

Marieke: No, and the stakes are high. If something breaks on your site, that's too bad, but if you lose your rankings.

Brad: If you break something and Google picks it up and then it takes months to fix or even longer, yeah, that's terrifying.

Marieke: So, we have a large responsibility, which I think we're doing great, but still, last year we had a release and nothing of the SEO broke, but in 1% of the sites we did have problems. 1% of the sites are like hundreds of thousands of people, which is... That was a terrible week for us board people.

Bob: You have to think in that perception of how many plugins you have out there when people hear, oh, this plugin is having a problem, this plugin is having a problem, compared to the person that has 1,000 installs and they got 1% problem compared to Yoast having 1% problems, it's amplified a bit, both everywhere in the world kind of thing, and it just looks more major than it really is in the sense. Even though it's important for that 1%, you look at it and you think, God, this must be like half the people that have this plugin are having this situation the way people are talking about it and you realize it's a small percentage.

Marieke: It is a small percentage, but still, it is a lot of people. So, we have that responsibility to take care of them. It's only that... Last year, we did a large rewrite of our code base, which is necessary at one point because it got too bloated. So, we needed to make sure that it was... It has to survive for another 10 years, so we have to rewrite something and we already knew that this is going to affect stuff and we reached out to all these hosts to make a test and we got to like 98, 99% in which it went smoothly, but still, that 1% is, well, it's bad.

Brad: Hopefully the good outweighs some of the challenges, but I'm sure it does. It should.

Marieke: It does, it really does. It does and you have the large impact is also really, really cool to have, but it's also a large responsibility, I think, to carry because you want to make sure that people will remain having their rankings in Google, which is really important because for a lot of people, it's their livelihood.

Brad: It's got to be a pretty cool feeling. I know when I'm researching a site or a company or something, I'm looking to see if it's WordPress, I have some tools I run, I go into the source code. You can usually quickly identify it fairly well and probably 99.9% of the time there's always that powered by Yoast SEO tag right there every time.

Marieke: It's cool at the White House has your plugin. That's a cool thing.

Brad: It's got to be a cool feeling when you see brands and people, celebrities maybe, or governments like, they're running our code. This is pretty cool.

Marieke: It's cool. My son is 14 and he does a bit of support in the weekends and he knows now how to do the code, and he's like, "The White House is running our plugin." So, that's very cool.

Brad: That's pretty cool.

Bob: Is there anything coming up in SEO, especially around e-commerce that has you particularly interested or you're seeing there's a trend going towards that, that it will really affect what you're doing with your plugin?

Marieke: I think schema will continue to be really important. So, we're we're going to release some of new schema blocks, which make it easy to add schema to your sites. So, I think that one will remain important and will keep continue to be important, and what we see is that Google is getting more and more able to understand texts, and I think that will continue as well. So, they'll get even better in understanding texts and content and how it's all related to each other, which is like... Google is on the one hand, really, really smart about texts, but then you need to tell them this is the heading because they don't understand that.

So, they're not that good in understanding structure, which is like... I hope they'll get better, but I think computers aren't that smart in understanding the relative importance of stuff. You need to tell them that. So, I think that will remain the thing, so some things you need to tell the search engines and some things they'll get smarter and smarter, and then these tricks that we used to do aren't working anymore. I don't think like a major update is coming up. I haven't heard of it, but you never know, maybe tomorrow, you never know.

Bob: It'll happen the day after we record and it'll have happened before the show in two days.

Marieke: You never know because Google runs all these tests and then all of the sudden they run out a new update. It could be because so much has changed in internet usage. It wouldn't surprise me if they come up with something at one point.

Bob: All-righty. Well, Brad, do you have anything else before we close out the show?

Brad: I guess maybe one last quick question just to wrap it up. I know you talked about obviously you running the company and the plugin has been around for a number of years. I think the one thing that you and I have in common is we work with our spouses and we're in this kind of unique club. It might be a little bit of the crazy club as people have told me, but I'm wondering what is it about us, me and you, we can work full time with our spouses and then obviously spend the rest of our time with our spouses? So basically, we're together like 24/7. How does that work? I'm still trying to figure that out.

Marieke: Well, I can't say how it works for you, but for me I like it and actually because of our situation with the children, Joost and I now take turns to work in an empty office or either at the house and I miss him because we are actually apart every day. It was just crazy because I see him every evening. I think this is what it's like for other people who can't see their spouse. Joost and I fight a lot and we tell each other everything right away, which I think is our secret that we never... Well, if something is bothering one of us, the other one knows it and we'll speak our minds entirely. He's I think the one person that I feel entirely safe with, which makes it really easy to come up with new ideas because I'm never insecure with him that he might think my idea is stupid and that gives this great, well, connection or something.

Brad: I think it's a secret weapon like you're saying. A lot of people ask me if I'm crazy, but I think it's actually a secret weapon, if you can do it.

Bob: Well, Judy and I have been doing it for about, oh, I'd say, oh man, 25 years or more. And people say, "How do you do it?" And I said, "If I could put it down in a book, I'd probably make a bestseller, but it's just laugh a lot and be up front with her and when those arguments come up, get them out of the way and get them over with."

Marieke: Get them out of the way, but we're always honest with each other, which I think brings out the best in each other and brings out the best ideas because, well, I'm never afraid to hurt him and he's never afraid to hurt me because we know in the end you'll make amends and it's always okay.

Bob: Perfect, very cool. Well, we could talk about SEO forever, but we'll talk about SEO in part two sometime. So, we'll just keep on the conversation.

Before I go, let me just thank PayPal again, Pay in 4 and WooCommerce. Brad was mentioning the development community, I just did a recap of their community chat on the blog over on our news site. So, check that out in Where can people connect with you, Marieke?

Marieke: I'm on Twitter, so you can find me on, Marieke Rakt which is my last name without the van de between it. It's a weird Dutch thing, and of course on because I'll blog there. And, I also have my personal blog, but I always forget to blog there, so you can find me there, but not much to read and that's

Bob: All right, cool. Well, I appreciate you taking the time. This has been really, really great.

Brad: That's great, thanks so much.

Marieke: Okay, thank you for being here. It was really nice talking to you.

Bob: Yeah, we will do it again.

Marieke: Yes, we will.

Bob: All right, everybody, thanks for tuning in and keep on doing the Woo.

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