August 1 is World Wide Web Day. On this date, back in 1989, the world wide web was born at the CERN lab in Switzerland. Something that started as a way to share knowledge between scientists, has grown out to something none of us can imagine life without. And because the web is such an important part of our daily life, we at Yoast are always working on ways to help make it better. In this interview, our founder and CPO Joost de Valk and CTO Omar Reiss talk about how we can make the web a better place for everyone.
Why we talk about making the web better
At Yoast, we have a few core values to achieve our mission of making SEO possible for everyone. And the first one on our list of core values is Making the web better. Which sounds good, but can also have different meanings to different people. So, let’s start with the obvious question:
What do we mean when we say ‘Making the web better’?
“To answer that question, we’ll first have to give a clear definition of the web,” Omar explains. “The web started out as an enormous collection of documents linking to each other. And to a certain degree, this is still a simple definition of the web as we know it today. But the web has gone through some evolutionary stages since it first saw the light of day. A guiding principle in its development has always been an increase in interactivity. Interactivity between users and the site they’re visiting, but also interactivity between different platforms on the web. Making the web better means helping the web become more interactive, in a way that reinforces its open, connected, and accessible nature.”
“Exactly”, Joost adds to this. “Speaking from a personal point of view, my background in open source has always helped me understand the importance of an open web. And the importance of leveling the playing field for everyone. When you think about it, it’s quite amazing that anyone can create a site that someone at the other end of the world can visit with the click of a button. But what I also love about the open web, is that it makes it possible for every site, from well-known names to a small bakery around the corner, to be found through online searches.”
“It’s important to maintain and improve on that possibility to be found online. Even if your background is not in coding or site design, or even marketing. Although the options are definitely there and we (together with others) are continuously working on improving these options, there are still many steps we can take in making the web, and software, open and accessible for everyone.”
Can you tell us more about these steps we can still take?
Joost: “Take Google for example. The only reason that Google is able to give us search results we’re looking for, is because it’s able to crawl so many sites. By indexing everything it finds on sites worldwide, it can show you the results that will most probably give you what you’re looking for. But, as you can imagine, this is quite difficult and there are also many platforms Google can’t index because it doesn’t have access to the content on them.”
“Right”, Omar adds. “You’re probably familiar with different social platforms that allow you to post Stories. Which is pretty cool, but why can’t you host these Stories to any platform you want, including your site? They seem to work in a similar manner, so why not make it possible to use them in different places? The same goes for videos, which right now you embed on your site, and that essentially means that a user is viewing this video ‘through a window’ on your site instead of on the page itself. Ideally, you’d want these platforms to communicate with each other in a way that makes all of this possible. And also requires just one user profile across social media, different sites, and other platforms.”
“There are already a few who’ve taken the first steps towards these connections between platforms. But we have to think bigger and work towards an all-encompassing way to connect everything online. We believe that structured data can be the answer to this. Because to make something interact, it needs structure. And although a simple HTML document has enough structure to show a certain page layout, it lacks the structure to tell us exactly what information is on this page and how users are able to interact with it. Structured data, and the use of Schema.org, is the way to make these pages interactive. And this makes it possible for other platforms and search engines to understand what they can do with these pages.”
What does Yoast do to contribute to this?
Joost: “We want to contribute to connecting everything on the web. And we want to make this connectivity, and with it visibility, to be possible for everyone. One of the ways in which we’re doing this right now is with our structured data blocks. These blocks do not only communicate what information can be found on a page, they also explain what actions a user can perform with this content (such as viewing a video or subscribing to a newsletter). This helps search engines better understand your pages, and with it, helps your pages rank for the right interactions.”
“To be honest, structured data has a bit of a usability issue”, Omar adds. “It needs metadata to organize the information it’s been given. However, most of us don’t know how to input the information in the right way in this organizing system. Let me explain this by comparing it to a library. Although a visitor of the library might be able to easily browse through its inventory, the role of the librarian is more complicated. This librarian has to organize all the books in a structured way that makes it easy for visitors to find what they’re looking for. And to do so, they need information about every book, such as its genre, title, writer, year of publication etcetera. To make everyone’s life easier, the library could implement a system to make sure every new book automatically comes with this information. But how will people who submit a new book know what information the librarian wants? And how they want to receive this information? This asks for a standardized way of sharing this information.”
“This is where we come in, by helping you fill in this information in an intuitive way. For example, with our Google snippet preview. This preview allows you to edit what your page will look like in the Google search results. By editing this preview, you’re filling in information that Google needs to understand your page: your title tag and meta description. We do this with our snippet previews, social previews, and structured data blocks. This way, we’re helping our users add metadata in an accessible and understandable way. “
“But that’s not everything we do”, Joost continues. “Making the web better and making SEO accessible for everyone, always plays a role in product decisions we make at Yoast. When we built our readability analysis, the choice to make this a premium feature or not in our plugin was easy. We wanted everyone to have access to this feature to be able to optimize their content and increase their visibility online. That way we contribute to opening up the web for everyone and creating equal opportunities.”
“That’s one of the reasons why I love working at Yoast”, Omar adds. “Moments like the one when Joost and Marieke so easily decided to make the readability analysis part of our free plugin, give me so much energy. It’s amazing that we’re able to help so many people improve the quality of their content. Which helps them with their rankings. And eventually, also contributes to a better web.”
In your opinion, what would the ideal web look like?
Omar: “A lot of important challenges of the web today have to do with different elements of trust. We’ve got quite good open solutions for things like online identity and authorization. But we still lack public and impartial institutions online, who could take care of our online identities with a special concern for privacy and data integrity.”
“Yes, and to take this even one step further” Joost adds, “it would be great to see reliable information about the author of something you’re reading online. Not their name necessarily, because that’s information you don’t always need. But say you’re reading a medical text online, wouldn’t it be cool to know that the author actually has a medical background? Which doesn’t mean that others shouldn’t be allowed to write about these subjects by the way. It just gives readers an idea of the background that a writer brings to the table.”
“A great example of a step in this direction, and something I really believe in, is WordProof. WordProof allows you to prove that you published certain content at a specific moment. It allows you to claim your content. The only thing that’s still missing is proving that you are who you say you are. And that’s something they’re working on. But as Omar said, I think this is something that should be done by one (or multiple) impartial parties. I don’t think that’s something we at Yoast should play a part in. Where I do see us making an essential contribution is with everything after that. In helping people output the right metadata and tying everything on the web together. Something we’re already doing, for example, is giving people the possibility to link their profiles on Github, Facebook, and Twitter on their author profile.”
Omar: “To conclude, I think everything we discussed here can be brought back to accessibility. For search engines and other online platforms, this is the accessibility to content that makes it possible to connect everything on the web. For people, this is the accessibility to software and tools to make your site rank and compete with others.”
Joost: “Right, a better web is a web that levels the playing field and that’s usable for everyone.”