Kate Toon on improving your SEO copywriting skills

Joost de Valk

Joost de Valk

Kate Toon

Kate Toon

Award winning SEO and copywriting consultant
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In this episode

Kate Toon is a copywriting superhero. She lives and breathes great quality copy. If you are an online copywriter, content marketer, or SEO listening to her conversation with Joost will make you definitely double-check your texts. In this episode, Kate will provide you with some helpful tips to improve your SEO copywriting skills and share her views on things that stand in the way of great web content (like bad website design!). Ever wondered if you should worry about Schema while writing? Or having difficulties picking the right CMS for your content? Kate will provide you with answers in this episode. Enjoy listening!


Joost and Kate will cover the following topics during this episode, with timestamps indicating when the topic comes up.

  • 4:04 – What makes SEO copywriting hard
  • 7:00 – Kate’s fear of public speaking and why she loves Clubhouse 
  • 14:57 – What has changed in SEO copywriting in the last decade?
  • 23:20 – How can we make people better at SEO copywriting?
  • 25:00 – Kate’s writing process
  • 29:35 – Improved readability and SEO through page layout
  • 35:05 – What about structured data and backlinks?
  • 38:32 – Pick the CMS that fits your needs

Follow Kate on Twitter or check out her website: https://www.katetooncopywriter.com.au/


Joost de Valk:  Hello and welcome to the Yoast SEO podcast. We’re joined today by a friend of the Yoast family, Kate Toon, who’s all the way on the other side of the planet. So thank you Kate for doing this with us so late in the evening.

Kate Toon:  I know it’s 8.30 in the evening, well past my bedtime. No, I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for having me! 

Joost de Valk: As always more than happy to have you! The last time we’ve seen each other was at YoastCon I think.

Kate Toon:  I know and what a conference that was. 

Joost de Valk: That was so good fun!

Kate Toon:  It was so much fun! I was really ill. I don’t know if you remember, I was really poorly, but that didn’t stop me. It was so much fun and dancing around with your wonderful boss Marieke. Meeting Jono and the crew. That was brilliant. 

Joost de Valk: Yeah, it was good fun, but it is a pain that you’re not able to get over here. At the same time, luckily, all this technology allows us to speak to each other isn’t it wonderful?

Kate Toon: It is fabulous

Joost de Valk: For people who don’t know you Kate, how would you explain who you are?

Kate Toon: Oh, it does a bit matter. I call myself the misfit entrepreneur. I have three businesses all in the digital education space. One, I teach copywriters how to be better copywriters. Two, I have an SEO course that teaches e-commerce stores and marketeers how to grapple Google. And then three, I teach people how to use digital marketing to build their business up and make more money. So all digital education. I don’t have any clients anymore, but I did start in the world of copywriting, SEO copywriting, and SEO consultancy. So that’s how I built my business up. And then I decided to teach other people how to do the same.

Joost de Valk: Yeah, it’s funny how we all end up teaching other people how to do it because we don’t want to do it ourselves anymore.

Kate Toon: Exactly. I thought it would be good not having clients. And now I have thousands of customers and it’s just the same really. 

Joost de Valk: Is it though? Because the funny thing with having thousands of customers is that you don’t have that one single customer that gets to control what you do.

Kate Toon: Well, I have a horrible boss who is very demanding and pushes me every single day. Of course, that’s me. So yeah, my customers, it’s funny, different customers are challenging in different ways, and teaching SEO is interesting because you see – as you have your courses that you have – that you’ve explained it this way and people just don’t get it.

So you have to keep continually coming up with different angles and different ways of saying the same thing until you get that aha moment. I’m running one of my courses at the moment and it’s interesting. It’s challenging to see how people you’re like, why don’t you just get it, come on. But then you remember when you didn’t get it. To explain something well, you have to know it very well. I enjoy that challenge. That wasn’t even the question you asked me, I just completely went off on a tangent. I’m sorry. 

Joost de Valk: We’re going to do that for another 40 minutes or so and be done with it. 

Kate Toon: OK! Alright!

Joost de Valk: We’re good. It is interesting. It’s one of the things that I’ve seen here. We have an Academy team, of course, that consists of people that are trained in how to make education. So they’re not necessarily trained in SEO, they’ve learned a whole lot in the process, but it is another way of looking at these things and I’ve been doing training for years myself, and they go yeah, you’re doing it all wrong.

They would never say it to me like that because they’re far too nice to do that. But if you look at what they create I see why people would get that better, but it’s hard.

What makes SEO copywriting hard to do?

 SEO copywriting is one of those things that’s very hard to grasp. When are you overdoing it? When are you not doing enough? What is good enough? It’s very hard to do. 

Kate Toon: Well this is it. This is why I love.. although the technical week that I teach is challenging and loads of people come in thinking I’m not technical, I can’t do it. I love technical SEO because it’s fairly black and white. Your site speed is this or this. Your website is responsive or it’s not. Copywriting is a bit subjective. Does it flow? Have you used your keyword enough? Is it engaging? Is it readable? It’s much more subjective.

It’s funny today I got an article that was clearly written by an AI. I know that a lot of copywriters are feeling quite threatened by the oncoming AIs, but gosh, you could tell. It was like it was written by a fingerless monkey. It was so bad. And yet on the surface, it wasn’t. All the words were there. They were just in slightly the wrong order. I can’t even explain it. It just felt awkward. I can’t put my finger on exactly why that copy was terrible. And that’s why writing copy is really hard. Sometimes you just feel it, that it feels right and it’s not an intellectual decision. It’s almost an emotional decision. That’s what’s challenging. It’s not black and white. 

Joost de Valk: The things where I go like hey, that’s where AI could actually be useful, is where they write sports reports and stuff like that. Where there’s second to second information of what happens in the game and they can just basically say what is happening in real time in words. That might somehow work a bit, but even then you would still not get the right emotion at the right time and all that. 

Kate Toon: I am in all these clubhouse rooms at the moment where people are talking about apps that they’re developing to generate SEO content, and even they’re like oh we could use this formula for title tags and this formula for meta descriptions. 

But even that language, how you write a really good combo of title and meta, like Batman and Robin that works together perfectly like an ad that encourages click-through, there’s an art to that. It doesn’t work. Just having a formula across every page of your site and using the same structure. It depends on the product. It depends whether it’s a page or a blog post, the type of product, the season. I think we’ve got a way to go until AI fully takes over. Thank God. Hopefully when I’m too old to write copy anymore. 

Joost de Valk:  I want to test on the one hand with stuff like that. And on the other hand this is not going to work for at least another decade. 

Kate Toon:  I heard it from you. I’ve got 10 years left to make as much money as possible and then I can go live in a hut in the mountains. 

Kate’s fear of public speaking and why she loves Clubhouse 

Joost de Valk: On that, you used to travel a lot of course, now you can’t because we all can’t. But you speak all over the world, isn’t that exhausting?

Kate Toon: It is. And like you, I’ve got a family, I’ve only got one child. How many have you got? 19? I can’t remember. I’ve lost count.

Joost de Valk: Only four.

Kate Toon: It feels more during COVID. I really pushed myself to do that. Partly because I had a morbid fear of public speaking and I wanted to get over it. Speaking across Australia is still a fairly big deal because Australia is so big. It’s not like you can pop over, like pop over to London for the day and come back. It’s a big place. It takes as long to get to Melbourne as it does to get to London from where you are. 

That year when I came and spoke at Yoast, I spoke with you and then two weeks later I went and spoke in New York. Just the flights and the jet lag. I was glad, obviously COVID was disastrous, but I was glad for me that it gave me an opportunity to stop speaking. I think I was possibly doing it for the wrong reasons. I think I was doing it for a bit of an ego massage, a bit of a jolly, bit of a holiday. You meet amazing people and you have a real laugh, it obviously helps your business to some degree, but it’s a big cut out of your month. You go and speak in an event by the time you’ve prepared your presentation, you’ve flown there, your adrenals as well. The energy ups and downs are really full-on as well. Yeah, I enjoy it, but I find now that I’m able to reach probably a bigger audience through the podcast. I’ve got a podcast. You were a fabulous guest on it. And now with clubhouse coming along, I feel like I’ve got this new platform where I can talk to people all over the world that I wouldn’t have been able to speak to them otherwise. Clubhouse has come along just at the right time for me. 

Joost de Valk: The only problem I have with Clubhouse is that you can only talk to people who have iPhones. 

Kate Toon: Well, they’re the best people. No, they have said they’re going to be releasing the Android version they think early April. The platform is super glitchy and everyone thinks that’s because they’re trying to roll out the next version of it. So it’d be interesting to see what happens. Cause I think there’ll be a massive shift then, a cultural shift. 

Joost de Valk: It’s so weird to me that in a time where we all don’t have enough time, we all go for formats that take incredible amounts of time to do. I love podcasting. I used to podcast 10 years ago. I could literally pull my whole setup out of the attic and go okay, we’re going to do this again. But it takes so much time and I love doing it, but those people like yeah, I listened to eight podcasts a week and I go like, where do you have to time to do that?

Kate Toon: When you are in the bath, when you’re on the loo, when you’re walking your dog.  In those moments, doesn’t everyone do that? And this is it, Clubhouse, again sorry I’m obsessed with clubhouse at the moment. I’m not using it throughout the day because obviously I need to work, but it is good for those interim periods, I’m walking the dog in the morning and I can run a room. You can talk to 200 people and that’s great. The only thing that’s not great about it is it’s transitory. You put the effort into a podcast, solid eight hours or whatever it takes to record it, make it, edit it, do all this stuff. At least it’s there forever.

Whereas with the Clubhouse room, if you weren’t there, you missed out. You have to be really intentional about Clubhouse and work out what you want from it. We’ll see where it is in three months. We’ll see if people are still quite as excited about it. 

Joost de Valk: I think you’ve just found one of the payment models that Clubhouse could use. To actually charge people, to listen back and back to those conversations.

Kate Toon: Yeah. I just saw that Twitter’s doing some kind of paid tweet thing. Obviously they are launching Twitter Spaces. They’ve just started rolling that out. So I wonder if when Twitter Spaces come out, everyone will go back over there. I’m not sure. It’s an interesting time.

Joost de Valk: And soon enough Facebook will copy it in one of their apps.

Kate Toon: I am not surprised if they haven’t already. They’ve got their Rooms, which I don’t know if anybody uses Facebook Rooms, but of course they’ll copy it. What I think is interesting is the connection. People are craving connection. We’ve had a year of not being able to talk to people other than our immediate family. We’re sick of our immediate family. So now talking to some random bloke in Azerbaijan on Clubhouse is my idea of fun because, what else can I do? I think it’s taken off so much because people are essentially quite lonely and Clubhouse makes you feel a bit less lonely. I’m getting all deep. I’m getting too deep Joost, I’m sorry. 

Joost de Valk: No! It is very social in a way. I’m curious where this will go once COVID goes away. It won’t ever truly go away, but once we were all vaccinated and happy to do things again. I’m also curious to see what will happen to the speaking circuit and all these many SEO conferences, et cetera we all had everywhere. I certainly won’t be on a plane as much anymore as I used to. 

Kate Toon: No I think it has changed my mindset for good. I’ve also been asked to speak at a lot of virtual conferences and you realize that learning via conference, honestly, isn’t the best way to learn stuff. We were talking about teaching earlier. If I want to learn Schema, I’m going to go and do your Schema course, or I’m going to go and read a really comprehensive article on Search Engine Land or something. Sitting in a room full of people, coughing and drinking coffee and listening to someone on stage isn’t the best way of learning necessarily. It’s really just more about the connection and the people in the after party. I think when you really realize that you’re like, so do I want to spend 4,5 grand in two weeks of my life going for a party? Do you know what I mean? I think it just made us realize a bit more that we don’t need conferences.

Joost de Valk: Yeah I agree. At the same time, I think we do need them for the news sharing.  We need the conversations and maybe Clubhouse is part of that and other tools. But it is weird. You look at it and you go okay, so what does a really cool conference look like now?

How could we make that happen again? YoastCon was always relatively small scale and by design not having 2,5 thousand people, because that is not fun. 

Kate Toon: No and that was its charm. You know that I run a conference over here called CopyCon. Obviously I haven’t run it last year and this year maybe we will be able to have it happen, touch wood. But again, mine is small, mine’s only 300 people too, deliberately so because I’d been to some of those big conferences in the US. Which are amazing, but they are so vast that you feel like you’re in a city and you’re just going into different towns to watch, really so many people. There’s no intimacy and it’s quite hard to, unless you’re quite extroverted, it can be quite challenging to meet other people. I’m not sure those huge American conferences are for me. 

Joost de Valk: They’re not just American. We had WordCamp Europe every year, which was one of our biggest conferences that we went to, which was somewhere between 1500 and 3000 people every time. Honestly, for me, just walking around there is exhausting. 

Kate Toon: You should come to the one in Australia that is much smaller, there’s 200 people, but they are amazing. Really amazing. 

Joost de Valk: So you come for the community, but if it becomes so massive, that is harder.

What has changed in SEO copywriting in the last decade?

We were talking about teaching, but let’s go into what you were saying there actually a bit. You teach people how to write good SEO copy and you think about titles, descriptions, et cetera. Has anything changed in that regard in the last decade? 

Kate Toon: In the last decade? Yes, definitely. Gosh, it used to be so easy. You just whack up a blog, shove a few keywords in and Bob was your uncle. Obviously there was so much less competition and I think although I teach SEO copy these days I really teach the whole kitten caboodle now. Because I don’t think that no amount of good SEO copy is going to get you out of a technical hole. If your site’s taking 27 seconds to load, and there’s not a single backlink to it in the universe, no one’s ever going to read that beautiful copy. The thing that I try to impress on everybody is that you can’t learn SEO copy in a vacuum, but yeah it changed hugely. 

I don’t think necessarily title tags and meta’s have changed that much. I think the art of writing a good ad SERP snippet is still the same. I just don’t think many people take it seriously. They leave it up to their developer to just plop something in. Obviously the SERPs just keep changing every five minutes, featured snippets were all the rage, but there’s been a massive turn down in those in the last couple of months. I’ve seen loads of people who had featured snippets, just losing them. And then, obviously the sophistication just gets more and more, with the Bert update and that natural language processing, just the ability for Google to understand the myriad of meanings of a given word and what difference the pronoun makes or adding a single preposition makes the structure of a sentence. This is your jam, isn’t it? With the Yoast plugin. It’s amazing really and terrifying. As I said it’s the AI that is working this out.

Joost de Valk: The funny thing is It’s not really the AI though. I was listening to another great podcast, the SEO 101 podcast where John Mueller was a guest recently. They were like, yeah, but you don’t know why stuff ranks anymore and he goes like well actually we do. Because there’s not as much AI in there as you think there is. He didn’t say it in that many words, but he said there’s parts of it that are absolutely machine trained but we still know why it works the way it works and it’s all just models. 

And the funny thing I find in how we do language analysis, what not everyone realizes that we do all the language analysis that the Yoast SEO plugin does in your browser. So that code is JavaScript that runs in your browser. It has to therefore be very simple. They are relatively simple models, so we’re constantly simplifying those models. I think it’s just interesting to see that Google is admitting to that as well, by saying, hey, this isn’t all that hard. At the same time it is hard because copy is hard.

Kate Toon: Yeah I think there’s a big misunderstanding in the copywriting world that if you’re going to write SEO copy you’re going to write SEO copy. If you’re gonna write conversion copy, you write conversion copy, and never the two can meet, which is complete nonsense, obviously.

Cause I think that, still in this day and age, people think it’s about shoehorning keywords into particular positions and using exact match phrases and they just don’t understand that Google’s gone beyond understanding the words in the phrase. It actually understands the structure of the phrase and what the phrase means.

There’s a great sentence that I use. This might not make sense to you, I know. When my friend was an actor at college, she was given this line to say again and again, and it was: who are you when you’re alone in the bath? And what if you change the emphasis in that sentence, from the different words, to the different words, if you say, who are you when you’re alone in the bath? Who are you when you’re alone in the bath? Who are you when you’re alone in the bath, as opposed to somewhere else. That is one sentence and you can change the meaning so many ways. 

Now Google can’t work that out because one thing Google can’t do yet is really understand intonation. We’ve got voice search, it’s getting good at voice recognition, but it can’t get intonation. It doesn’t understand. There’s no sarcasm font, there’s no emphasis font really. Maybe bolding will become a thing. The fact that Google is really understanding things like ambiguity and homonyms and homographs, I think that’s amazing. As you said it is AI, but it’s AI that’s been taught on basic natural language processing, which already existed, these skills were already there.

Joost de Valk: Yeah, and which already existed, but they also have to train for every language every time they add a new one. And that’s what a lot of people don’t realize. 

Kate Toon: We talked about this at Yoast and your plans to expand to the different languages. Where are you up to with that? Can I ask you a question? Where are you up to with that?

Joost de Valk: We have full morphology support now for 15 languages. So in 15 languages we do the singulars to plurals, et cetera. We recognize those things, but that is an incredible amount of work. If I look at how much work that is for us, I can only realize how much work it must be for Google to do all this right. I think they try and do that a lot more with machine learning and with AI, where we sometimes go a bit more old fashioned in a way and try to do it with models. But you get very close to the same result in the end because well, in the end, it’s the same copy. 

Kate Toon: It’s very freeing as a copywriter. Every time this happens and people feel threatened and worried, when the Hummingbird algorithm update happened, when Bert came out, it basically just means we can write more like humans. We already should have been. We already should have been, but people get it wrong. Still, even somebody in one of my copywriting groups today said they’d had an email from an SEO agency that had said they wanted 12 blogs about local stuff and they needed to rank for plumber Sydney. So could they use the keyword, plumber Sydney, every 250 words? I’m like really, in this day and age? Are people still? And this is an SEO agency saying this and my copywriter is trying to push back and say, it’s not going to do anything because they want to get in the local pack that isn’t even controlled by this content. Yeah, there’s still an awful lot of misinformation about how to write SEO copy, I think. 

Joost de Valk: Yeah it’s also because the internet doesn’t forget, so all these old articles are still out there and people are still reading those old articles and getting the wrong information. That is hard. I think Google is doing a better job of actually explaining how it does work, but it is hard to tell people like, yeah, but what you’re trying to do here is impossible. Literally things like trying to get into a local pack by writing copy and it’s oh no that’s not really going to help.

Kate Toon: Two separate things! We had Matt Cutts back in the day and now John is manfully doing the videos and they’re much better at explaining things. Even the guidelines are written in a much clearer way. But I think people will find ambiguity where they choose to find it. Unfortunately, somebody will find a site where someone has done this and gone look it works! They don’t look at all the other factors involved. They just look at the copy and they say no, they’ve used the word painter 72 times. It must work. There are so many other reasons, but if you don’t understand that big picture, then it’s hard for you to examine that, you know?

How can we make people better at SEO copywriting?

Joost de Valk: How do we get people to do better? Is there a way that we SEOs of the world can improve the web by all telling them the same story? It’s probably not going to work, right? 

Kate Toon: Oh, no. I think people like you and Marieke and other people are dejargoning SEO. We don’t need to use some of the phrases that we do or there are alternative phrases that normal humans understand. We need to encourage people to write naturally and normally, but to write with focus. Like why does this piece of content need to exist? If you’ve already written it, do you need to write it again? Simple questions to ask people. And then, if you really are writing about something that you’re passionate about, that solves a pain point, you’re going to use keywords without even thinking about it. You’re going to use them in the headline. Maybe after you do a quick little check. 

This is what I say: think about your focus, think about the phrase you, someone might type into Google. Obviously think about intent. Is it conversion, information, investigation, whatever. Pick your focus keyword and synonyms, then throw them away and write the best damn article you can write. Make it interesting, engaging, readable, break it up with sub-headers and short sentences and bullets and images.

Then maybe just come back in the end and go whack it through a bit of word cloud software or Yoast. Just so you know, did I cover the basic touch points? Did I at least use this keyword in the URL? Whatever, it’s not rocket science. It really isn’t. Rocket science is writing good copy. Making it SEO friendly is actually relatively easy, but the good copy bit is the bit that people struggle with. 

Joost de Valk: Absolutely.

Kate’s writing process

 To go back to the writing process, where do you write? Do you write in your blog or in WordPress or in Google Docs? What do you do? 

Kate Toon: I am a Word girl, I am still a Word girl. I can’t do Docs. I can’t write directly into WordPress. I have to write in Word. I’m old school and I know that I am old school, because I can see the next generation of copywriters coming up who are like 20, 25 and they are all in Google Docs. They are all using Google Docs. They’re also using a lot of transcription software, so they’re reading their copy out which is a great way to do it by the way. If you feel you’re not a good writer, just talk to a transcriber like Rev or Otte.ai. And you will find that the words flow so much easier. Most people are challenged by the white page, but yeah, I’m a Word girl. I can’t use anything else. I’m terrible. 

Joost de Valk: One of the things that why I asked that is because I think that actually we could make much better web experience if we would get more people to actually write in the editor, in Gutenberg. Because you could actually use blocks more intuitively as you write and to build the page much more. What I worry and wonder about is why do people like Google Docs? Why do people like Word? What is it that makes you like that? Is it that it’s only that and nothing else? 

Kate Toon:  I think it’s basic functions like search and replace and the really ease of cut and pasting and all the short keyboard shortcuts, which I know work in some of the browsers as well. I just feel that maybe the real estate within the browser. Within a platform there’s not enough real estate. There’s not enough white space. I can’t see around the edges. That’s it for me. And the ability to cut and paste because I’ve got one of these fancy quirky keyboards. I’ll just show you. It’s very good. I’ve seen other keyboards where you don’t have a screen where you just write, but a lot of writers need to edit as they go. That’s just how they are. I think Word just gives you that freedom to edit a bit better. I can’t bear the editing experience on Google Docs. I don’t like the way it highlights and tracks changes. I don’t know. It’s a weird one.

I’ll tell you one tip that was passed on to me, which is brilliant as well for people who struggle to write. If you’re really struggling to write, use Word and turn the font to white. And write in white copy on a white page because it stops you from editing and you can just write. It all flows out of you. You can’t edit a blank page, as they say. So once you’ve got that out, then you can go back and structure and work it out.

But when I write, I do have a very clear process. I start with something called a skeleton draft. In my skeleton draft, I will outline the focus keyword, the synonyms. I will have a think about the headline for the page. And then I will literally bullet out the key messages I want to write on that page. Let’s say it’s an about page, what are the bullets I’m going to include in the opening paragraph? The second paragraph. And I may move those around to structure my argument and tell a story to make sure I’ve got a clear beginning, a middle and an end. And get my facts straight. That’s when I go off and get my data and my links. I’ll send that to the client and say, this is what I’m going to write. Is there anything missing? They get their opportunity to change it. Then I come back and I am literally gluing bullet points together with perfect prose or I read the bullet points, delete them and I write the paragraph. But that process of getting your facts straight and getting rid of the blank page and then going to the writing is really helpful.

If you just try and write it all out, it’s really hard. Also then when the client comes back with an extra point they want to make, you’re like there’s nowhere for it to go. I’ve got to break that paragraph in half now and put this in. So it’s really helpful. So that’s my little structure.

Joost de Valk: Yeah, absolutely. I think Marieke teaches it in a very similar way to you and she’s always pushing me on if I just read the first sentence of all your paragraphs, I should be able to understand what your text is about. I’m like, oh my God, this is so hard. That’s why I leave most of the writing to other people. And I just do a podcast. It’s a lot easier. 

Kate Toon: It’s a lot easier to talk. If you only read the headline and the sub-headers, can you understand the argument? Can you understand the whole article? If you don’t read a single paragraph, just the headline and the subheaders. That makes you work harder at your sub-headers as well.

Improved readability and SEO through page layout

Joost de Valk: Which in the end also makes it a lot easier. The funny thing is that I look at it the other way around. I look at it like: if we do all this well, and if you structure your paragraphs like that, it becomes so much easier for an algorithm to figure out what your content is about. 

That’s why we’ve been talking about stuff like readability ranks for quite a while now, and it seems that the SEO world is slowly waking up to it. Just looking at an algorithm and go Hey, it’s actually hard to do this, but people are now playing with it and some of the SEOs are going like, Hey, let’s see how Google works and let’s try to do this ourselves.

And then you go like Oh, but wait if I write readable copy it’s a lot easier to make that algorithm do its thing. That’s the whole point. It is better for humans and better for robots which is wonderful.

Kate Toon: We almost read like robots these days. I think that the recommended reading age is grade seven or eight, it’s not graduate level because we’re reading this article on a phone while moving with the sun flashing on the screen. We need short, simple paragraphs. We need clear sub-headers, because we’re not reading like we read when we read a book in solitude, in a quiet room. I think Jakob Nielsen says, we don’t read the full copy. We forage around on the page to find little bits of information we’re interested in.

So that readability is everything and so important and so underestimated. Like white space between paragraphs people. Give people time to their eyes to breathe a bit of time to pause before you move to the next argument. So many blog posts, and you see it too, you’ll go in and it’s just one solid lump of copy.

Joost de Valk: Or the other way around, which is also horrible where there’s two new lines after every sentence. 

Kate Toon: Yeah and 75 animated gifs. Which are fun, but should be used sparingly. 

Joost de Valk: Yeah, it is hard. Web copy is hard. I’m glad to hear you say it’s not like reading a book. We get this every once in a while where people go yeah your readability test is super bad because Hemingway wouldn’t pass it and I’m like, that is not written for the web. 

Kate Toon: Yeah and even just the basic thing. I see this a lot, and we’ve got the whole core web vitals update coming out, but just the UX of a page. These pages that have copy that is spread all the way across with no padding and the eye literally cannot connect to the next line. That’s why books are as wide as they are to make the eye be able to connect with the next line. And this is something that you guys need to sort out with your WordPress connections, not allowing people to build these full width pages. 

Joost de Valk: It drives me nuts. The funny thing is that one of the things that WordPress did when it even started way back in the day, when Matt Mullenweg forked it from B2, one of the things he added was a lot of automatically doing quotes right and getting text to look better. Somehow we don’t always seem to get that right in themes.

I do have to say, I think the core WordPress themes that we output do that very well. So if you look at the last 2021 theme that came with WordPress core, I think it does it very well. But it’s a relatively small column, people can’t read much wider than that. So I agree with you. It shouldn’t be that wide. Core web vitals is a painful process in itself because everybody is looking at how do I make my site as fast as Google wants it to be? And honestly, if it’s hard for us at Yoast I fully understand that it’s going to be hard for a lot of people.

Kate Toon: Yeah, it is so challenging, but I think it’s about making decisions about what’s important on the page? We know there’s so many sites that have that monster image at the top that takes forever to load and you’re just starting to read the copy and then suddenly everything shuffles and moves down the page because the layout hasn’t been put in and probably the dimensions haven’t been entered.

I think it’s about sacrificing some of the sexy stuff for the content. Clarity over creativity, function over form. Not that we should go back to having Wikipedia style websites with just plain text and I’m not a huge fan of AMP either, for most sites. But there’s a lot to be said for just plain black text on a white background. It doesn’t need to wiggle and jiggle and flash and move. It doesn’t need to have all these fancy rollover states and parallax scrolling, just black text on a white background, please. 

Joost de Valk: Yeah I couldn’t agree with you more, although I do like dark mode websites as well.

Kate Toon:  Oh I can’t deal with them! That’s such a boy thing. All the products I know are in dark mode. I just don’t get it.

Joost de Valk: It’s user preference, but I do agree with you that it’s very much function over form. It’s funny because a lot of the core web vitals that we struggle with right now as people are caused by ads that Google outputs. So it’s in a way Google’s own fault. 

Kate Toon: You can’t always blame Google, come on.

Joost de Valk: We will keep on blaming them.

What about structured data and backlinks?

 In all of this, when you think about copy, do you think about it as structured data a lot? Do you relate to that? Or is that not something that you touch on? 

Kate Toon: Yes, obviously, especially with e-commerce sites and ensuring that we have e-commerce Schema in there. With most of the sites I work on or where my students work on it’s local business. I’m not going to toot your horn, but as long as I got Yoast installed and they’ve got those local bits, they don’t need a whole lot more than that. Obviously if it’s a recipe site or events site, we might look into that.

When I’m writing a product description, I imagine that there is no such thing as Schema and I work very hard to have consistent product descriptions that have a nice conversion focused, engaging fun intro. But then in terms of the specs that they are formatted really cleanly, material: cotton;, size: ; whatever. So I imagine that Schema doesn’t exist and I have to do the labeling. As you said, if we make it easier for humans, we make it easier for Google. So we can’t just rely on Schema and label things in a big, massive paragraph of crap. We should do our best to make the paragraph less crappy to begin with. That’s how I think about it. 

Joost de Valk: I couldn’t agree more. It also makes it a lot easier to relate the actual Schema later on. But that is one of the things where I hope we will be able to create an editing experience where you don’t have to think all that much about structured data, but we do the thinking for you.

Kate Toon: I remember Jono saying at the conference, which I loved, when he did his future presentation, which I’d say was one of my favorite presentations I’ve ever seen. I hope he doesn’t listen to this cause he’ll get a massive ego. But what he and you said that the good thing is that all the platforms are taking away these problems for us. And when you take away all the tech stuff and we’re not supposed to be building backlinks anymore. You take away all the tech, then really all you have is the content. All you have is the content and how it’s written. And so it becomes super, super important. 

Joost de Valk: And honestly, we’re not supposed to be building backlinks anymore. Is that true though? I think what Google has been saying for years, and one of the things that is funny to see them sometimes backtrack on a bit, is you need links, but we don’t want you to go out and buy them. Of course they don’t want that because that breaks their algorithm, but they’re not against digital PR or how you want to call it.

Kate Toon: They want us to earn backlinks rather than build backlinks. They want us to just produce content so good that random strangers want to backlink to it. And of course that’s not going to happen. We all need to put that content in front of the right people and encourage them.

So yeah, of course, but what I’m saying, I think the main thing is a lot of people are frightened of SEO in general because of the tech stuff. As SEO gets more technical, it kind of gets less technical because the platforms seem to be working much harder to solve those problems for us.

Joost de Valk: And we should!

Kate Toon: It’s your job!

Joost de Valk: Yeah! Why would a normal user that just wants a website have to think about canonicals or hreflang or stuff like that? It’s way too hard.

Pick the CMS that fits your needs

Kate Toon: Yeah, it’s way too hard. That’s why I think platforms like Shopify and Squarespace don’t allow you to fiddle with those things. You don’t have to worry about backups and security and really sitespeed cause there ain’t not much you can do about it. You can change your images, but you can’t be fanning around with caching plugins and whatever. And that’s why they are growing in appeal. I’ve seen since I launched my course five years ago, when I started it, maybe 5% were on Shopify and Squarespace. Now it’s at least 50%. 

I think WordPress is increasing as well, because it’s just so many more websites, but the people who choose Shopify for the ease, cause they just want to focus on the business. They don’t want to be worrying about Schema at the end of the day. Who does? Even people who like Schema don’t want to be worrying about Schema I think.

Joost de Valk: I want us to worry about it, but I agree this should be a very small group of people that thinks about this and makes the standards, and that makes it work for everybody. Shopify does a really good job of that of actually simplifying it to the bare bones.  Which is a challenge that I think not all CMSs in the world have figured out yet that that’s their challenge. 

Kate Toon: Yeah, they just got very good at doing one thing very well. They focus just on e-commerce whereas of course WordPress has tried to be all things to all people. It’s stores, it’s directories, it’s memberships. It has a lot more complexity. 

If I look at my sites and the amount of plugins that I need just to do the basic functions. There’s no wizzy stuff, it’s just the basic functions. It’s substantial. That’s obviously all JavaScript and CSS. But if you choose a platform that does one thing very well, and that’s all you need, then that’s fine. But then obviously you don’t get the versatility of WordPress. 

Joost de Valk: You can go both ways and I certainly understand both choices. If I had to run just a webshop and I didn’t know anything, then I can certainly understand why people go for Shopify. And they’ve been doing so in droves. Twice a year, I do this overview of what CMSs are doing well and Shopify’s growth is astonishing, 

Kate Toon: I think as well, that plays into what we were saying. These days, choosing the CMS is less about the SEO friendliness and more about you as a human and what kind of person you are. I’m someone that likes to tinker and I like flexibility, and I like to play around. Some people just don’t even want to think about that. It’s like the sort of person who cares about what’s under the hood of their car versus the sort of person who just wants to pay the mechanic, so I think it’s a good thing. And I think the same as me, if I was just going to launch a shop tomorrow, would I choose WordPress and WooCommerce? I’m not sure. I might go with Shopify. 

Joost de Valk: Yeah, the thing is, in your comparison I’m the guy who is willing to pay a premium to not have to do anything with my car and to make sure that it just always works.

We were getting some more hosting companies, et cetera, like that, that are a lot more white glove and just take care of everything for you. I do think that we have a ways to go there in what people get offered, because I just don’t want to deal with all that stuff.

Kate Toon: No I know, but the thing is you want ultimate flexibility, a site that can do everything and you don’t want to play with it. You don’t have to touch it. Can’t have everything. Not yet!

Joost de Valk: Why not? This is where we should break out in singing. Let’s not do that, I need to get my soundboard ready for this stuff. 

Kate Toon: It would be a great way to start singing your way out of your podcast. That would be for you.

Joost de Valk: That’s Jason’s spiel Jason Barnard does that. 

Kate Toon: Oh, he does. Jason when he first did that to me, I literally didn’t know what to do with myself it was so awkward. 

Joost de Valk: Yeah the same for me, I was flabbergasted, a bit shocked. And then thought okay you are an awesome person.

Kate Toon: Yeah what a dude. You know he’s in a band and everything. He’s going to love that we’re talking about him. I’m going to tell him straight after this, he’s going to be like yeah!

Joost de Valk: Well he was a guest before you, so he has that.

Kate Toon: You had him on before me?! 

Joost de Valk: I’m sorry. He’s geographically closer so it’s a lot easier. 

Kate Toon: Whatever!

Joost de Valk: The thing is, it’s funny, you think that me going to London takes as much time as you for you to go to Melbourne. And honestly, I can be in London in two hours from now. 

Kate Toon: Really? Not now you can’t, you’re trapped in your house.

Joost de Valk: Well not to Londen. But Jason is in Paris that’s a four hour drive. Europe is so much smaller than most people think.

Kate Toon: I know. And it’s so far away. Australia is beautiful and sunny and we’ve got koalas. So there you go. 

Joost de Valk:  Yeah and you don’t have as much COVID as all of us do. I can break into a new subject, but I’m not going to. I’m just going to ask you to be back at some point, because it was awesome talking to you. Thank you.

Kate Toon:. It’s always good fun talking to you. You always cover a myriad of topics and I love it. 

Joost de Valk:  Yeah, likewise. For everyone listening. If this is the first time you’re listening, make sure to subscribe on your favorite platform. We are everywhere. This was the Yoast SEO podcast with Kate Toon and thank you very much!

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