Joost De Valk Interview – WordPress Plugin Developer & SEO Expert

Many Internet Marketers and Bloggers like to outsource and pay ‘experts’ to complete certain tasks, whether it’s for product creation or website development…

This isn’t the case with Joost De Valk….because he IS the expert!


Who is Joost De Valk?

Joost (pronounced “Yoast”) is a problogger, web developer, WordPress plugin creator and SEO expert all rolled into one. Joost currently runs his blog, Yoast.com where he regularly displays his latest WordPress plugins, tips and tactics for the aspiring web developer (HTML and CSS coding advice) and general WordPress help.

Joost has gathered his knowledge throughout years of experience as an ’employed’ web developer for companies such as Orange Valley, but as of 1st December 2010 Joost is no longer an ’employee’ of Orange Valley, but a true entrepreneur, living off of his own self-made success. In a recent blog post Joost explained his reasons for leaving Orange Valley…

“Being one of the best SEO’s of the Netherlands, which I think I can fairly call myself, is not enough. I want to be amongst and compete with the best in the world. Some people might think that’s arrogance, I’ve decided that doesn’t bother me anymore.”

This is the kind of attitude that has got Joost to where he is today; VERY comfortably working from home as one of the most respected SEO’s in the business.

One of the main things which I admire about Joost De Valk is that he has never sold out to the ‘get rich quick’ side of online business, but remained a true authority of web development and SEO. Having just quit his job with a few exciting products on the horizon (to be revieled shortly), something tells me that Joost is going to be just fine!

I would love to hear your thoughts on my first audio interview, and indeed what you think of Joost, so please take the time to leave us a comment in the ‘comments’ section at the bottom of this post. As many of you have different, preferred ways of learning and taking in information, I have provided a transcription below for those of you who like to read.

To our success,

Luke Etheridge
“The Interview Guy” at Blogtrepreneur.com


Joost De Valk Interview (Audio Transcription)

Luke Etheridge: Hi guys. This is Luke Etheridge from Blogtrepreneur.com. Today we have a very special guest. And his name is Joost-de-Valk. He comes from Yoast.com. Hello Joost, thank you very much for coming along today. And if you’d like to take the time in just telling our readers and subscribers about yourself and your online presence?

Joost-de-Valk: OK. Thanks for having me. As you said my name is Yoast actually. That’s what the domain name has as well. So English people get to pronounce my name correctly. I am Dutch. I live in Holland and have always lived in Holland with a wife and two kids. And basically I am sort of a crossover between an online marketer and developer, I guess, which makes me an SEO and some other things.

And I blog about that and what I do with that on Yoast.com where I also host the plug-ins I built for WordPress which is what most people know me for.

Luke: Cool, cool. So you spoke about Yoast which is what you are probably in the blogging world the most famous for. I read that it actually started as Joostdevalk.nl. Am I correct?

Joost: Yeah, I did quite a while back, yeah.

Luke: When you actually built that? Did you have any idea that it will grow this big, did you always have a goal to build a blog of this size. It now has an Alexa ranking of, I checked the other day at 4226. I mean that’s quite high. Did you always have that goal in mind?

Joost: Well my goal is still bit higher to be honest. And to actually have the traffic that Alexa rank makes you think I have. The thing is a lot of my visitors are webmasters and there is an enormous bias in Alexa for stuff like that.

Luke: When you say there is an enormous bias, what do you mean by that?

Joost: Well my Alexa ranking is a lot higher than you’d think if you saw my traffic.

Luke: OK cool.

Joost: But, I didn’t really do this with a plan. I just started blogging because I wanted to share my opinion with the world. And at a certain point I felt the need to start developing plug-ins and when I did I realized I could also release these. And it all went from there I’d say.

Luke: OK. Cool. So a lot of people when they visit Yoast it is very obvious that you do develop WordPress plug-ins. That must be quite a task. What’s your favorite plug-in that you’ve personally created, what one are you most proud of?

Joost: That will have to be my latest one, my WordPress SEO plug-in. It’s by far the biggest I have ever gone with a plug-in. I think it is more [inaudible 0:03:06.3] than my all other plug-ins combined.

Luke: Yeah. Because a lot of us bloggers we were quite used to the All in One SEO plug-in. I’d assume that yours is a direct competitor of that quite clearly. And what separates your plug-in to ‘All in One SEO plug-in’?

Joost: Well mine for starters is a real all in one SEO solution in that it has XML site maps and bread crumbs and all these things that you need for SEO on your site, are actually built into the plug-in.

Luke: Yeah, of course it is something that you would have to go off of site and actually go outside the plug-in to do usually, even that you do within your plug-in.

Joost: Yeah. It’s all in there. So there is a huge array of functionality in there. But the thing that probably makes it a killer of all these other SEO plug-ins is that if you are on a post screen or at a page screen, you get a preview of the snippet of whichever that page in Google below your edit post box. So you can have the title and the meta-description and it will show you immediately what that would like in Google. And you’d enter a focus keyword as well saying OK I want this post to rank for this and this keyword.

And it will check your content and your title and your SEO title and your meta-description and URL for this keyword to check whether it is actually in there or not.

Luke: OK. So it will check your own SEO efforts all at the same time.

Joost: Yeah. So it helps you a lot more than all the other plug-ins did. And on top of that it does all the technical things that need to be done but that is just…right now there is a lot of option to see if you install it. But the plan for that is to get a full wizard which will just ask you some questions and based on that set the proper SEO settings.

Luke: Really so it would be completely sort of foolproof.

Joost: Yeah, that’s the plan. And then still allow you change it all. But since most people fuck up with their settings, I thought it would be a better plan to have all those settings and have an incredible array of options. But hide them form most people, and make it simple.

Luke: Yeah. I think that’s a great idea because I have to admit that when I first started using the ‘All in One SEO’ plug-in, still very well having the plug-in, but knowing actually how to use it to actually do what you want to do to rank better and that kind of thing is actually a task in itself. And you actually have to learn about SEO.

Joost: Yeah. It is quite hard. And if you can say that my plug-in currently has about eight times the options of ‘All in One SEO’ because of all the different things it does. It’s kind of impossible for someone to know what to do with all of them unless you are a dedicated SEO.

Luke: Yeah, yeah. Cool. You’ve heard it from the guy himself. Everyone needs to grab that plug-in now. If you’ve got the ‘All in One SEO’ plug-in, scrap it and get Yoast’s new plug-in. It’s much better.

Joost: And then don’t forget to import the old data because you’ll have to.

Luke: Yeah, yeah, good point. Very, very good point. Otherwise you’ll lose everything.

Joost: Yeah.

Luke: OK. Cool. So we are moving on to the next question. For any budding web designers out there, can you pass on any advice about learning how to code and create websites? Do you think it is necessary to go to say school or college to learn web design or self-education and trial and error thing? Is that enough to be able to.

Joost: That’s absolutely enough. I didn’t go to school for any of it. And to be honest I don’t think you can learn most of these in school. So I do read a lot of books on web design.

But you can pretty much learn all of it from just browsing all the different web design sites out there and just trying all that stuff for yourself, just copy and paste some stuff and then see how it goes, OK I want to…let’s see how I can change this or that.

And keep reading, reading, reading and learning all the time. And keep playing.

Luke: That’s good to hear because that’s exactly to be honest how I’ve sort of grasped the whole web design world. And it’s also how I’ve managed to become a graphic designer as well. It has all been trial and error.

But the reason I wanted to ask you that question is because it has always been a wonder of mine whether it’s even worth going to some kind of course to gain the knowledge. Or whether it’s everything is within the experience.

Joost: To be honest I’ve never, and I have hired quite a few designers in the past, I have never ever asked for education. I’ve always asked for what have you done.

Luke: Yeah, portfolio.

Joost: Yeah, and …show me that, and tell me why you made some of these decisions and…yeah, so it’s way more about that than it is about school. Because no school can teach you to do the things that are current. Well, they might be current today, but in a year when you are done, you’ll have to learn again.

Luke: Yeah, I agree. And I think a lot of it could probably be about seeing a vision as well, seeing what the customer wants and actually turning it into a reality, you know?

Joost: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Luke: When you actually started out and you started Yoast.com, you obviously heard about other blogs and things around. Were there any particular blogs that actually sparked your enthusiasm to blog yourself?

Joost: I’s quite a while ago now but at that time I was a big fan of SEOmoz. I still am but I don’t read them as much anymore as I used to do then because they post a lot more now and I just don’t have the time. So SEOmoz and SEO Book were probably my first two go to blogs.

As it happens, at that time I was still blogging on Yoast [inaudible 0:09:38.2] and I met Rand Fishkin at one of the conferences in Stockholm where we were both speakers. Rand came up with Yoast as a nickname because that was the way for him to remember how to pronounce my name.

So those two were probably my first blogs. When I need to find out something that’s been around for a while that I somehow missed, I usually check with Aaron from SEO Book. I think that for me is the number one SEO site out there.

Luke: Funny you should say that. I just interviewed Aaron a little while ago. It was an email interview that we did. He’s a very, very interesting guy and he’s got some really, really cool opinions about Internet marketing and the way things are going. He certainly knows his stuff.

Joost: Yeah, he’s a bit tin foil hattish, though. But he’ll excuse me for saying that.

Luke: [laughs]

Joost: I like him a lot. But he does have that tin foil hat on a lot more than I tend to.

Luke: What do you mean by tin foil hat, just out of interest?

Joost: He always seeks some sort of conspiracy behind things.

Luke: Yeah.

Joost: Especially related to Google.

Luke: I think the Internet is that kind of place. I think especially with these whole get rich quick schemes out there, and this is obviously aside from Google, but I think the whole Internet thing, you have to place your trust in the Internet in order to have an online business.

Joost: Yeah. I always think as soon as you become that un-trusting of people, I think it’s a loss in life. It’s a loss in how much fun you can have with all these things.

Luke: It’s a really good point to have because I’ve gained partnerships and things through just trust. You have to trust the other person on the other end of say Skype or the other end of email. You just have to trust them.

Joost: Yeah, exactly.

Luke: I think a lot of deals are done that way.

Joost: Yeah. I have done and still do a lot of work with Frederick Townes who wrote W3 Total Cache for WordPress and is the CTO for Mashable. We had done quite a bit of business before a couple weeks back we met for the first time. We’d been doing a podcast together for a year already. It’s just the way things work on the Internet.

I’ve been talking to Aaron I think for three or four years online already. I’ve never met him and yet I trust him and I tell him some of his stuff I’d not tell people in real life because I don’t trust them with my SEO secrets and I would trust him with that. So yeah. It’s a matter of trust. And I feel that you losing that is a pity.

Luke: Yeah, I agree. In order to work on the Internet and gain a success out of it, you just need to trust. And if there is nothing you can lose out of it, then why not?

Joost: Oh and even if there is something you can lose.

Luke: Yeah, you need to take some kind of risk.

Joost: Yeah.

Luke: And one thing that Aaron did mention, I just asked him, because I am quite interested in SEO itself. Because it is obviously quite an interesting subject in the way that it is quite hard to conquer. I did ask him for some quick tips on SEO but he sort of jumped around the subject a bit and said that it wasn’t as simple as it sounds and there is a lot to it.

I am sure you understand completely. But he did give me one tip which was about the domain. He was saying that the domain is very, very important to the SEO and that it’s fundamental. Would you care to elaborate on that too?

Joost: Oh yeah. It is very, very important. If you are trying to rank for a high competition keyword, and you can get a domain that has that keyword in the domain name, and is a proper dotcom or dot co uk, then you should just always do it. There is some talk from Google saying that they want to lower that importance in rankings.

But it’s ridiculous how much that helps in ranking at the moment, for several reasons, because the domain name is in the domain itself, but also because a lot of your links. And links with just your URL as anchor text will always have those keywords in them as well. So yeah, I definitely agree it is a very easy way of getting high rankings for keywords.

Luke: Yes. So if you are going to try and get it right from the word go, I think that maybe the domain is something to really, really think about.

Joost: Yeah, absolutely. Although it depends a bit on what you are trying to do. If you are trying to build a blog for your personality, for instance, then sometimes it’s better not do that and just go for something that’s brand worthy. So it depends a bit on what you are doing. But in most cases if you want to rank for specific keywords, keyword domains are ideal, yeah.

Luke: Yeah, talking about brands, it is quite obvious that when you visit yoast.com that you’ve got your cartoon up there. And what made you go for that? Was that kind of a branding? Was your branding in mind when you did it?

Joost: Yeah, it was a pretty conscious decision. The funny thing is that in my redesign which is coming up like tomorrow or the day after, it’s gone. That is a conscious decision as well. The thing is when I started this I worked for a company and I was on my own and it was all OK. And right now I’ve got quite a few people working for me. And I don’t want to be Yoast just on my own.

There are other people blogging on yoast.com as well, who do terrific things. So it wouldn’t be entirely fair to keep my face up there all the time. But yeah it was a pretty conscious branding decision at that time. And it worked out quite well and made quite a few design galleries and stuff like that. So yeah, it was I think…

Luke: OK. So moving on, you just mentioned that yoast.com is not just you which many people might not even know that because when you visit it’s pretty much about you. Which is what you said, you are going to try and get away from that kind of image. And so you are going to try and build is a bit of a sort of community of many bloggers.

Joost: Well not entirely but the thing is, as I said I do a podcast with Frederick each week, a colleague of mine from a company I worked here for. [inaudible 0:16:59.7] and writes all the posts about Magento. There is some other occasional guest posts. And what I tend to find is that most people don’t want to post too much because it is too much me. And also, I tend to find that this design, while funny, doesn’t necessarily convert very well into sales. And as I am an independent consultant, I need the sales as well.

Luke: Yeah, you mentioned guest posters. Where do you stand on that? Obviously you have them, so obviously you do agree with it. Is there a vetting process that you go through when you pick the guest poster? Do you have to see..?

Joost: Yeah, usually. The only people who have actually guest-posted on my blog so far are people I’ve met.

Luke: Oh, OK.

Joost: Or worked with for quite a while. So, yeah. It’s not like I take guest posts from my contact form and put them online. I could do that a lot more. I have been playing with the thought because I’m getting more and more requests, because it’s obviously becoming very popular. The thing is, I always tell them, “You’re welcome to submit a guest post. I’ll have a look at it.” But I’m very, very…

Luke: Fussy?

Joost: Well, no.

Luke: [laughs]

Joost: I want it to be very good.

Luke: Yeah, I agree. I agree.

Joost: I’ll apply higher quality standards to it than I do to my own posts. Which might be unfair, but…

Luke: No, no, I don’t think it is. I think that if someone is going to write on the blog that you’ve spent so long to build, and you’ve built this community that now trusts you so much, I think you wouldn’t be doing your readers or your blog any justice by just sort of letting any person guest-post and put it up.

Joost: Exactly. That’s why I don’t. I agree.

Luke: It’s good to hear that it’s really that serious.

Joost: So yeah. Also, I don’t post that regularly. I do post a bit more recently than I have in the year before or so. But I can easily go a month without posting sometimes. So I only post when I have, A, the time and, B, something quality to post. I’m not the kind of guy to come up with the “me too” posts, because I hate those.

Luke: Yeah, yeah. Alongside posting, you’ve also got a founder of design company’s website. Is it Alpha Web Design?

Joost: Yeah, that was the company name I used to work under before I made Joost my real company name. So there’s quite a few more local, as in Dutch, customers that are still under that label, but it’s nothing more than that at the moment.

Luke: OK. So is it nothing to do with you, you say?

Joost: Oh, it is me. It’s just one of the many brands I have online, and this is one you can find. So it is me, but at some point it’ll probably just be merged into Joost. Joost is actually the Dutch version of an inc.

Luke: Oh, OK. So when you actually go ahead to create, say, a new website, you’ve mentioned on the Alpha Web Design website that if you need a layout done, you would usually consult another person to do it, and that you’re actually the coder, the guy who does all the coding and things. When looking for a new layout or a design for a new website, what do you think is the most important thing? What’s the first thing that you look at? Is it color-coding? Navigation? Branding? Headers?

Joost: I always start with, “OK, what’s this website got to do?” and then go from there to a site map. So, what kind of pages do we need? What’s the most important content? Which actions do we want people to take? And then I start wire-framing those, and I usually make some sort of a rough wire frame that I send off to a designer.

Luke: OK. So you actually sort of put yourself in the shoes of the visitor and walked them through almost.

Joost: Yeah, I find it very important to… Usually you have a website and you are trying to get people to do one, two, or three things and if you don’t map that out well from the beginning, one of these things tends to be pushed to like somewhere below the fold or and something less important is more on top.

So yeah I do try to do the wire frames. I always tell the designer that you are free to move stuff around if you think it’s better. And just say I need all this stuff in there.

Luke: OK. Cool. So really the design is secondary and the sort of structure of the website is your main concern.

Joost: Absolutely, yeah.

Luke: OK, cool. Well, being a web designer you also created some popular websites of, sort of gained a lot of traffic, Yoast being one of them. What advice could you give to someone if they were going to start out from scratch and they wanted to build some traffic to their website?

Joost: Well, two things. One, do something you care about. Because that’s the easiest thing to keep up for years. And you don’t build the brand like Yoast or I used to own CSS3.info for instance. You don’t build brands like that in a month or a week. It takes time and effort and a lot of both. So you better do something you like.

And then stay true to that. So stay true to what you are aiming your website to do. And if you find yourself doing about four or five different things on your website, try to move them into different websites so you can approach different people with different websites.

Luke: Yeah, I completely agree with you. It’s all about tapping into your passion. And a lot of people they’ve got sort of four or five passions and you can really tell on the website that it’s a bit sporadic. It is all over the place and you can never really get your head down on what’s the subject because there is this sort of too much to look at.

So I think what you’ve just said that’s quite important in the fact that yeah you need to look at what you actually enjoy doing the most. And then focus on that. And if you are going to focus on any other things then split it out into other websites.

Joost: Yeah. And you can’t go quite long with combining stuff. I do combine quite a bit on Yoast.com from Google Analytics to WordPress SEO but it is sort of all relates at a certain point, so it is still OK in my view. For instance CSS3.info I started because I had a lot of these previews that are still on there. I was coding those. And at a certain point, more than half of my traffic was going to those previews.

And I was like OK, I should probably separate these out so I know what to do with the different things. And that worked out quite well. So it’s a matter of doing that at the right point in time.

Luke: Yeah. OK. I am moving on a little bit. When creating websites I do tend to consult the W3C validation service. I usually sort of type my URLs into that just to make sure that they comply. How important do you see that service, how important you see submitting URLs to that to see if your coding is correct. Is it important for SEO?

Joost: Well for SEO, some issues are important and some are not. So it’s not like Google will give you bonus because your pages validate. That’s the not the case. But if you have unclosed anchor tags or headings or stuff like that, and you are making your page harder to understand. And a validator can be a very good way to get those issues out of the way and make a page easier for Google bot to understand.

Next to that, I think validation is very important. Mostly because it helps you maintain your website a lot easier. If your pages are valid html, it is always easy to find certain bugs just by validating the page and seeing oh wait something is going wrong, there is an unclosed tag or whatever.’

So I tend to validate all my pages. But I don’t go fuzzy about having to remove an XML space for Facebook because it doesn’t validate. Something like that is just ridiculous.

Luke: Yeah, some people they go over the top having to have it fully parsed but the thing is doesn’t need to full parse but you need to close those tags.

Joost: You just make a simple html that works that is…and that usually works best with search engines as well. But make sure that you close all those H1s, that you close all those anchor tags. It’s just that simple. So validation is a very good way of making sure that.

Luke: Yeah so if things start, basically if you don’t validate your website, you can sort of unearth some…if you come across a problem on your website and you haven’t validated, it may be validating it can actually bring up the reason why you are having that problem.

Joost: Yeah, absolutely.

Luke: So you run Yoast now. What’s your next move, have you got anything else in the pipeline or what you are doing. Where do you see yourself in say five years from now?

Joost: Five years…that’s a long time. Yeah, I’ve got some things in the pipeline. I said I am working on the WordPress SEO plug-in that is not fully released yet. It is now in beta and we are working on some paid ad-on modules for it. So that is more new business for me, I have not done that before.

There are some other things as well which I can’t tell you about but will tell you as soon as I can. It’s funny because it’s true I guess. But there are definitely some plans. And I’ll be working a lot with Frederick in the coming months as well. Frederic’s hands at the moment should be full. So yeah, just a lot of all of that.

Luke: OK. Websites have obviously been evolving for the last 10 years just ridiculously. And we’ve seen new websites popping up all over the place. I think that the Internet is just getting so busy nowadays. What do you think is the sort of next step for web design. What do you think is we are going to see a lot more of in the future?

Joost: Well I think people are finally starting to grasp that web design is something different from print design in more than just one way. In print people were used to having fixed positions for things. And we basically just copy pasted that model to the web. And now finally people are starting to see that liquid layouts, and liquid, or even semi-liquid designs actually work a lot better and make it possible for sites that work both well on an iPhone and like [inaudible 0:29:28.5] .

So I would see a lot more sites coming out that have several different ways of appearing to people both on an iPhone and iPad or another type of phone. And I know your web browser in your computer. Based on the same style sheets and the same design. So now having a mobile version of a website but making sure that your normal version works well on mobile.

Luke: Elaborating from that, I just recently visited Problogger on my iPhone actually, and I’ve noticed that he’s actually got a complete mobile friendly version of his website. Do you think that’s important to do if you have a blog or any website?

Joost: It’s becoming more and more important. Problogger, it has redesigned, I think it was yesterday, I would say, and I don’t know if you saw the old or the new design. I don’t know which mobile version he runs. And there’s as couple of WordPress programs that do very good mobile versions for your website, but you sort of lose the branding. Yeah, Problogger uses one of those, as well. You sort of lose the branding. If you look at Mashable, that is ridiculously well done in a mobile version.

Luke: OK. I’ll make sure I have a look at that.

Joost: And because it has a mobile version, but it is a good version of the site, and it maintains its own branding, which I think is very, very important.

Luke: Yeah, that’s probably one of the first things I noticed about Problogger site, that if you passed your phone to someone and said, oh, look at this website, they wouldn’t really necessarily know it was Problogger. It’s very much plain, and there’s not a lot of branding on there at all except a very small logo at the very top.

Joost: Yeah, exactly, which is WPTouch, which is the program they use, is very good.

Luke: You didn’t make that one, though?

Joost: No. But I really think it’s a very good plug-in. It does a lot of good for a lot of people, but if you’re that low to brand, I think it’s more important to maintain that branding throughout, even on a mobile version. And it’s very possible, as well. It’s just that people have to learn how to do that with CSS3, media queries, and all this stuff I’ve been writing about since 2006, which is now finally in all browsers.

Luke: OK, cool. Lastly, just to sort of wrap it up a bit, this is a question I ask to pretty much every single person that I interview. It’s just a last question that I like to ask just for a bit of fun, to see what people come up with. But if you lost absolutely everything, if you lost your products, your database, all your online business, and your contacts, and you had to start from scratch all over again, what would you do tomorrow to get back on track to wealth and success?

Joost: Oh, God. That thought just sends shivers down my spine, seriously. No, I’d probably go at the same thing again. I’d find a WordPress plug-in to build and start from that, build myself a simple website and get going.

Luke: I feel like I’ve just ripped your heart out.

Joost: No, it’s not, but yeah. It is a scary thought. It takes years to build stuff like this.

Luke: Yeah, we’re getting that sort of reaction from a few people now, especially online entrepreneurs. They’ve just, you’ve built up so much and have spent, this is a good point to make actually, that it isn’t get rich quick. It takes years and years, which is why a lot of people don’t like to think about it.

Joost: It is hilarious, because it’s easy to make a million once you’ve made your first $200,000.

Luke: Yeah. I mean, that opens up doors already, you know, just having that amount of money would open up loads of doors, so yeah. I completely agree with that.

Joost: Yeah, but there’s nothing like really getting rich quick without doing the work. You’ll have to work your fucking ass off.

Luke: There you go. That’s a good point to make just to wrap the interview up there. Well, thank you very much, Joost. I keep meaning to…

Joost: It’s no problem. I’m very used to that.

Luke: I’ll bet you are. But really nice to meet you, Joost. Thanks for doing the interview today.

Joost: My pleasure.

Luke: I’m sure the readers are going to love it. To the readers, I invite you all to comment in the boxes below. Let us know what you think of Joost, what you think of his website, and what you think of his plug-ins, as well. And make sure you also check out his WordPress SEO plug-in as well. I’ll put a link to that at the bottom of this post. So thanks a lot, Joost.

Joost: Cheers, mate.

Luke: And I’ll see you soon. Cheers, mate.

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