Jono Alderson manages special projects for Yoast
Jono Alderson is a digital strategist, marketing technologist, full stack developer, and keynote speaker. He is also a humble, self taught marketer with vast SEO experience.
With an enormous passion for technology, and for web standards, Jono is an inventor and connoisseur of what is possible.
This post is part of a series called ‘Conversations in Search’. I discuss the current state of SEO practice with other SEO experts and discover their views on the future of SEO.
Damien: Hey, Jono! Thanks for taking the time to chat. Every time I’ve heard you talk at a conference, my brain hurts, and there are about 50 things to takeaway! How are you doing?
Jono: We’re doing remarkably well, with my wife and we’ve got a garden and a cat, and we’re doing baking, gardening and DIY projects. We both work mostly from home anyway, so we’re pretty used to being cooped up together. We may be getting a little bit stir crazy, but otherwise, we’re fortunate that it’s not been a radical departure from normal life for us.
Damien: That’s great to hear. So I wonder if we could start by learning more about you before you got into search. Tell us what you were doing?
Jono: I was an archetypal bedroom developer. I was building little HTML websites for local businesses, butchers and bakers and the small fry, and found that I was increasingly interested in and gradually obsessed by what best looks like and how to make the perfect web page.
Should I use an alt attribute or title attribute and should links be underlined and should this tag go before this tag and all that sort of stuff. I found without having realised it, what I’ve started doing was technical SEO.
Then very luckily, in a series of being in the right place at the right time, I fell into the agency world. I got to work with some huge clients and catapulted up the ranks.
I am still at heart a developer and coder. In those days, I focused on the ‘end to end’ journey. For example, here is a small business who doesn’t know what they want or need, doesn’t know what questions to ask and doesn’t know what is possible — asking ‘How do we shepherd them through’.
I then started to consult a little bit on more content and marketing side, and I had to learn marketing on the fly and understand some of those principles with no kind of formal education in the space at all. So a lot of trial and error, and pain and speculation.
Damien: Some of the most precise knowledge you gain in your career is the stuff that you earned by trial and error and revisiting your assumptions.
Jono: Yes, indeed, if you are wrong, then think about why and work out what right looks like, and do that over and over.
Damien: Great point you make about realising when you’re wrong. Many people are afraid to admit when they are wrong.
Jono: Of all the industries out there, I think we [in SEO] are probably more towards the end of a scale where there aren’t any certainties. Either in how Google works or what we should be doing or whether link building is a thing and whether it might be tomorrow, or what this algorithm update might do.
There is only opinion and speculation, and then how much you can convince other people to trust and believe in your version of the truth.
Damien: As one of the most forward-thinking marketing minds in our industry, where do you think SEO is as an industry?
Jono: I think we are starting to become marketers, which is exciting. I think for a long time, we’ve been tacticians and hackers. The job in no small part has been finding shortcuts and manipulating the algorithm and getting quick wins. Now we’re starting to have conversations in our brand and maturity and around the organisational structure and how other channels influence us and are influenced by us.
Those kinds of conversations are fascinating. SEO has been a dysfunction of how young the industry was that we’ve been able to get away with tactics and hacks. Now, in the industry that we’re becoming, it is much more enjoyable. Those are much more interesting conversations. Like ‘how do I win this sector’ is much more interesting than ‘how do I up my rankings by a few points tomorrow’.
Damien: It requires a different mindset thinking about product and market fit as opposed to getting the point increase in SEO rankings. It brings about other opportunities, what are those in your view?
Jono: I think the gap between SEO, brand and product becomes much less wide. One of the things I’ve spoken about a few times is the idea that, for example, if you are a restaurant. You want to rank higher, and you want to improve your visits, your conversion, whatever, one of the best things you can do to affect that is to train your chef better or to increase the quality of the ingredients you source. Because that means that you’re more likely to get better reviews and better word of mouth and that drives more links, more engagement, etc., in the whole thing becomes a virtuous circle.
The more we start to look at the role SEO can have on other aspects of the company, then the better the business and the product becomes.
I’ve never seen it in the wild, but I love the idea that part of an SEO budget could go towards taking some call centre staff on a training day to understand different aspects of customer service or whatever. Because you know, that’s going to have some impact on your rankings and performance, whether it’s 10 degrees of separation away from the core stuff or not it has a real, meaningful impact on the real world. SEO isn’t just nerds in the basement with green screens.
Damien: Absolutely. nerds in the basement, you know, don’t always seem to get cut through.
Jono: Everyone decries how hard it is to get buy-in and budget, but we’ve been talking about the wrong thing. I’ve started to see a trend where people are framing SEO now as compared to quality. Rather than saying we need to fix these 100 broken things.
When you start talking about SEO in terms of customer experience and quality, you get a very different conversation, and you start accessing things like brand budget and QA processes. A lot of the on-page side of SEO should be just QA because these are known processes, I mean there is only one way a canonical tag should work, it’s a shame it falls to an SEO to diagnose that when it should be part of a QA process.
I think we are starting to move away from obsessing about things like measuring the value of links and crawling enormous numbers of pages to starting to ask some more interesting questions. I’ve started to see some integrate SEO tools.
For example, rather than saying ‘We found a thousand 404 errors, it’s much more useful to tell me ‘There’s a broken link in your footer’. Then start to connect that back to your analytics and say ten people are clicking that every hour and here’s the estimated business impact of that. I think we’re a long way from that yet, but we’re starting to see that transformation to tools understanding things like prioritisation, finite focus and shortcutting some of those processes.
Damien: Jono, let’s shift gears, before you became a developer, what was your career aspiration?
Jono: I had no idea. At one moment in time, I wanted to be a teacher because I love knowledge and sharing knowledge, and then I realised I hated children, so that fell by the wayside. I grew up in the theatre, so I lived on and off the stage.
I wasn’t good enough at it to do anything with it. So I did a little bit of acting, a little bit of teaching and a little bit of writing and I was solid four out of ten for all of it. That’s what predicated me moving more into the kind of web development and digital world because I was good at intuitively and could make a career out of it.
Damien: When you look back at your early web development, what was it that got you into web development, and what did you learn from it that you bring with you today?
Jono: I am woefully uncreative, I cannot draw, I cannot paint, I cannot sculpt, but I’ve got a creative mind. I love playing with ideas, and I’d never really been able to express it. Suddenly having a notepad file full of HTML the lightbulb hit me was when I grasped CSS for the first time.
I found that I can take the ideas and the images I have in my mind, and with a few lines of code, I can make them real, and that was eye-opening. One of the things that remains wonderful about this industry is you can just pick it up and create. I love the idea that there isn’t a barrier to entry.
My wife, Sam, is quite physically creative. She paints and draws and all that, but she has mountains of supplies. She has to get things in the pose, and then she has to work through trial and error, and if it goes wrong, then she has to bin it whereas I can just iterate freely and pick up new stuff without any kind of overhead.
Damien: So, your trial and error is the iteration. So thinking about that creativity, and the code as poetry, for example, how did you then decide, ‘You know what, I want to move beyond the code to this other opportunity to think more holistically?
Jono: It was in the agency world in my first job. I got a job into a tiny little SEO team at an agency called twentysix in Leeds. The agency was a full service, digital, design, develop, build, deploy, etc. with about 30 people at the time. It had an SEO team of two people. My role was ‘be the technical guy’.
The brief was literally ‘We need somebody who can put the h1s on to pages’. The agency at that time was trying to work out what SEO was and how it fit into its propositions.
As I started looking more and more at the things that the agency was building for its clients, I was spotting opportunities. Asking questions like ‘I understand the technical side, but where is our content strategy?’ or ‘What are we doing about analytics to understand how it’s doing over time?’.
As I started asking those questions, I realised that nobody had the right answer, so I started thinking okay, what does this mean, how does marketing work? So making sure we had answers to those questions I taught myself in the process what was almost as exciting as the tech side was the machinations of people, politics, relationships and budgets and all of those things.
Damien: When do you think you became aware of those other machinations that impacted you getting things done, creating that poetry, as opposed to just doing the idea that you want to do?
Jono: Sure. I distinctly remember there was a lot of internal conflicts where I bashed a lot of heads and made some enemies as a result of being very opinionated about things we should do and the things we shouldn’t do.
I got a reasonably stern telling off and then taken into the wing of a few senior people in the agency who helped me to temper some of those expectations and play nicely with others.
For somebody who has always primarily been an independent person who is self-taught and then done all the things, it was a bit of a culture shock to them — those things like budgets, constraints and expectations. What we said to the client might not precisely match reality and all of that needed tempering, so I was lucky enough to find people to help me through all that.
Damien: Who is the standout person from that initial time to refining the way you thought about things?
Jono: I’d say Gail Littlestone who was the CEO of twentysix at the time was hugely influential, gave me a lot of opportunities, to Ryan Scott who’s now the Global CEO, but at the time was the Director of Search.
They moulded me and helped me, they put me in front of enormous clients when I maybe wasn’t quite ready, but it forced me to stretch and grow. More recently, Matt Roberts, Co-Founder of Linkdex was a significant influence for me. He forced me to reevaluate some of my thinking.
Always in the background, I learned a lot of what I know about SEO, the Whiteboard Friday and the Mozzers and Will Critchlow, Founder of Distilled.
When I left twentysix, I vowed I would not go back to the agency world. I don’t think you can deliver quality with the constraints and the limit on resources you have in an agency. So it was always about compromise and how do we survive today without getting caught out? I realised my frustrations with agency life were increasingly frustrations with the agency model.
I said never again, and then I changed my mind and went to Distilled. It was a fantastic experience. There was so much wisdom in that space with very little politics, and they’re unashamedly smart. Every day felt like a school day, where conversation and challenge were collaborative, and you could just open discussions on the shop floor, as it were.
From ‘How do we answer to this brief’ to more significant client questions like ‘Tell us how to win this sector’. We’d have to work out what the hell that question meant. We’d go about researching it, quantifying it, and then providing a strategy and understanding how we might execute on that as a service partner with all the bits in between. That sort of stuff is enjoyable.
Damien: So fun for you is playing out those different scenarios, codifying the QA and focusing on the more significant questions in SEO consulting?
Jono: Oh yeah, I did it a lot at Linkdex too, where we could take advantage of the sheer scope of data we had, even back in 2015. There were enormous datasets on where every keyword ranked and where it was ranking in every territory. Then the brief is ‘What can you do with that?’ The answer is a lot.
We had a fascinating conversation with one of the mobile phone vendors at the time who wanted to know ‘When people are thinking about upgrading or buying a new phone, what do they do, what do they see, and what opinions do they form? Then, as a result of that, what should we do?’
It’s not even a real SEO question, but our strategy was to get into the data, and research and categorise every single keyword in the mobile phone service space and cross-section it. There were something like 120,000 variations just on phone colour. We were then able to say ‘If people are particularly feature-centric, they are more likely to see an article by this journalist than that one, and therefore you should do X, Y and Z’.
Damien: You were thinking big picture SEO affecting the whole business in 2015?
Jono: Yeah. We were selling data and business intelligence solutions on the back of an SEO platform and had to work out how we could answer those questions.
Damien: So your practices moved to optimise for winning and not just covering leaks, how did that feel for you?
Jono: Yeah, incredible. So there was a lightbulb moment that profoundly changed how I thought about SEO. In that particular research piece in the mobile phone space, we found some examples where a lot of the product based searches, most of the results were comparison sites. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why that makes sense. The brand was never going to rank for that. Not least of which because you can’t authentically rank your brand on a comparison query, because you’re not unbiased.
The thing we found was a considerable amount of traffic going to retailers like Argos and Amazon. Then the question becomes, ‘okay, on these category pages of these sites, how do we get more visibility?’. One of the answers was in this particular case, the ranking algorithm for Argos category pages relied on the number of product reviews.
So, the SEO recommendation to ‘how do we sell more things when people search for this term?’ was to run a special offer. Reducing the price on the Argos website elicited more reviews, so more people see your product and buy it there.
We’ve not changed our website, we’ve not done any link building, and we’ve not written any content and it’s still SEO, its out there not inwards. What we have done is to make sure that when people search for a space we are interested in they’re more likely to spend money with us.
I think some of the more prominent brands have always understood this.
The more I think about these sorts of ways of thinking, the more it feels like we’ll all have to adapt to the increasingly zero-click search and the SERP isn’t a list of 10 links, it’s a whole bunch of things.
Damien: When you’re agency side or an in-house SEO, there can be a tension to implement SEO holistically. What’s your experience of winning over that type of objection?
Jono: I hear you entirely. Bartosz Góralewicz talks about the death of the Pareto rule. Where other aspects of the business have run on the idea of 80/20, you find the most impactful bits and get the most reward from the 20%, and that it just does not work in SEO anymore.
You have to do all the things because there’s a network effect of tying all that together. If you have a perfect website, but no content or attention, you can’t just have bits of it. So there’s an education piece that is trying to help clients. One of the things I found is how we help by giving them a mental model that helps them understand this.
Rather than having an endless, enormous list of things they need to fix and do is to try and quantify the distance to perfect. This is a concept I stole from I can’t remember where. But if you can visualise a chart where your brand is at 60% and perfect at 100%, how do you close that gap? That becomes the metric you optimise for, how do we reduce the deficits to perfect?
Surprise, surprise, closing that gap correlates almost directly with performance because you are cherry-picking and finding opportunities to make significant shifts as well as all the little shifts. It’s the idea of getting past being stuck in the middle where nobody ever prioritises the small fixes because there’s greater importance drowning them out, and nobody ever prioritises the massive repairs.
Damien: I’ve seen a change recently where large management consultancies are partnering with or buying into agencies to deliver SEO. Increasing competencies, but also leveraging the probability of having SEO affected holistically when those conversations happen at the top of businesses. Is this something you’ve noticed too?
Jono: SEO is increasingly something where you can impact the change if you’re having those conversations right at the top of the business. There’s no way that you can get an SEO agency to come in at the marketing level of the big corporate and say ‘The most impactful thing we can do for SEO is retraining your customer services team’. That’s going to go all the way up and then come down. Those kinds of board-level and C-level conversations are fundamental.
There’s one thing we’ve failed to do as an industry, which is to permit ourselves to escalate those kinds of conversations and to think outside of our constraints. I mean like nobody except us has said that the role of an SEO is to buy links and to fix web pages.
There’s no reason at all why we can’t walk into a business and say ‘You know what, I need to have a conversation with your boss about X, Y and Z’.
We’ve created the little box we find ourselves. Otherwise, all we will do is tweak content and tags and try and get links from journalists. We will become increasingly irrelevant as the McKinsey’s of the world, as you say, will deliver holistic brand-led improvements which have more of an SEO impact than the conventional SEO we’re doing.
Damien: Thinking about the scalability of SEO solutions, which side of the fence do you stand on progressive enhancement or graceful degradation?
Damien: The search engines have many smart folks with PhDs. What would you say are their strengths?
Jono: I’m in a lucky and exciting position that I get to talk to and see different bits and people from Google than a lot of the SEO community because of the reach and impact of Yoast. We quite often end up having conversations about our pipeline and their pipeline around things like structured data. So I see behind the curtain a bit.
One of the things I’ve been impressed by is a strength and the weakness on their side is that they operate as autonomous project teams. They have somebody who will come up with a new feature or new product and Google will say ‘You six people this is yours’.
There aren’t big monolithic teams, processes or bureaucracy. There are just project teams, and it almost operates like a university researching different things with different groups of people collaborating. These teams enable them to work much more effectively than they would in big teams, but also to innovate, to fail quickly, to go at it on moonshots and to try exciting stuff.
A lot of what we see coming out of Google is only the stuff that they’ve tried, tested and seen success. There’s so much stuff going on behind the scenes they’re playing with and experimenting with like products that might never make it to light, ideas that might get changed or scrapped. There are tonnes of stuff going, and I think that’s quite powerful.
Damien: And their weaknesses?
You can see Google lacks empathy in the search results pages. Google does not care which websites win or lose. They only care that some sites win or lose and that the search results pages are populated. They have no interest whatsoever in any given site beyond fulfilling the expectation that if I search for ‘newspaper’, The Guardian ought to be there. Beyond that, they have no interest in individual websites or pages whatsoever.
A lot of those websites represent people and businesses with mortgages, etc. It doesn’t matter if some percentage of them fail to move the machine forward. Not in a cruel way – the websites are just fuel.
Damien: How might search engines better serve those needs of the ecosystem of businesses on the web which fuel their success?
Jono: I’ve called Google out on this a few times, and I think Gary Illyes, John Mueller and increasingly now Martin Splitt do as good a job as they can with the resources they have of interfacing with the [SEO] community.
Google more broadly is criminal in its negligence for the way that it interacts with SEOs, and more broadly, the web. There’s a lot of work to be done to improve their documentation. It’s much better than it has been. Recently the Webmaster Relations team has made significant strides. There are still many areas of ambiguity, bits missing, and broken page references.
Putting three humans with emotions, baggage and finite time and motivation as the single bridge in between the whole world and everything, all of the power that Google has, feels like a terrible way to manage that relationship.
I don’t know if they know that they’re not doing a great job. I don’t think that there is a way to communicate with them to tell them that, that doesn’t feel combative. I know that as individuals, they’re trying hard, and they are pouring a considerable amount of their souls, time and energy into it.
I think it’s an omission from Google that they don’t realise the vast numbers of businesses, people and money hinge and often fail on a typo in a tweet or a tiny bit of ambiguity in wording in the documentation. It doesn’t matter, and it never affects them because other sites will rise to fill those gaps. It’s not like its intentional, but there’s some accidental, harmful behaviour there.
Google could throw ten times its budget at its documentation, its outreach or producing videos to help people. Their advice and the way they educate people have real-world repercussions.
One of the things that they seem to fail to recognise is they’re often going through SEOs, webmasters and web developers who are acting as conduits to businesses. In turn, those business owners have questions. They have to make business decisions on ‘Should I do A, or should I do B’ and they come back with questions and we SEOs filter it back in their businesses. We get either ignored, or trolled, or ambiguity, and then they just shrug and watch businesses fail.
Damien: You’re now working to help businesses of all sizes succeed and avoid the ambiguity you mentioned. Tell us about the work you’re doing at Yoast?
Jono: Wonderful company to work for and I’m having the time of my life. My job is an absolute dream. I mostly decide how best to spend the day, and that’s usually a combination of research and development for the product roadmap and features.
We’ve got a roadmap of stuff and a team of developers building stuff, and I’m working on what they should be building 6 to 12 months from now, based on something in the SEO industry, where I see opportunities, etc.
Then I’m doing conferences, speaking and writing and other bits and pieces around the business. Not to mention that orbit of structured data and Schema were working hard on.
As part of that, we get to talk to bits of Google on some of it. It’s enlightening because the people were talking to, especially in the more WordPress space, are super sophisticated.
They understand their strengths and weaknesses. Many of the big bets are on better standardisation of the underlying platforms, and that starts with WordPress.
If the challenge is that we are struggling to scale to reach and educate people on how best to build their websites, let’s remove that problem by just fixing the internet itself.
There are all sorts of flavours of these conversations happening, which is exciting. There are still gaps, and usually, we’re aligned, but sometimes it’s a bit of a pain because they have so many different teams.
We had a real headache with the recently ‘combined indexing and serving directives‘ update for supporting publisher content extraction. You can now specify the maximum number of characters from a meta description, and so forth. We were frustrated with how they rolled that out because it’s inconsistent with the rest of the meta robots standard, and warned that it was going to cause issues and problems.
We are then essentially mandated to roll that out across 11 million websites, and to try and push that to WordPress core as well, a third of the web, so it’s pretty significant.
Then, having called out the risk and potential issues, Bing has replicated the same standard, but it’s implemented in a slightly different way because you specify its for Bing or Google.
As a result, there will be added bytes to billions of HTML web pages on the internet. All of Yoast users and all of WordPress. When you start looking at the carbon cost, the processing cost and the overheads of this sort of stuff it becomes hugely significant.
We want a little bit more care from them around their decision making, because there are real losers from this.
Damien: How do you specify and sell that type of advantage reduced carbon cost sufficiently to your product team so that you avoid unintended consequences?
Jono: We interrogate it hard. A lot of the long term unformed roadmap comes from a combination of Yoast and me thinking, what do we need? What’s interesting? What are we seeing happening?
Then there’s a rigorous, robust, a long process where that gets handed to the product team, which I’m part of. We start to specify the details and interrogator it. That gets handed off to development. We have two types of developers we don’t have like junior and senior, but we have developers and architects.
The role of an architect is to imagine and structure. They will consider how we make this scalable, what happens if this bit breaks? How should we integrate this? It goes through all these integration, development and testing processes and maybe 6 to 12 months later, after lots of automated testing, it comes out the other side.
You’re right there’s always a question of do we think the trade-off is right for carbon emissions, crawl efficiency and all these essential things, and that happens quite early on in the process. There’s a fascinating set of trade-offs, and we’re always kind of keen to slim stuff when we can.
Our processes fit well with the core WordPress ethos, which is ‘to make decisions not to provide options’. If we can just get stuff right, invisibly and efficiently in the background and not provide tonnes of overhead, then that’s better for everyone.
Damien: You’re an advocate of ‘test, learn and iterate’. There’s a real cacophony of noise online. What’s your message to those who take pleasure in gaslighting others who put optimisation hypotheses out there.
Jono: Two things. One is there is value in us all testing and learning and experimenting, but it’s too easy to fall into the trap of what I am loosely calling ‘SEO testing’. Which is where you change your logo from blue to red and your rankings drop two places, and then you say, okay, red is wrong, and that gets retweeted by somebody and becomes cultural knowledge, and it becomes incredibly hard to shake.
Today and certainly tomorrow it is nigh on impossible to derive any kind of meaningful insight from that kind of testing. Except for using something like large scale template level AB testing, but even then, you don’t know what you’re testing. There’s an excellent example from Tom Anthony on this.
In short, it’s tough to derive meaningful, repeatable insight from SEO tests. But, people should play with sites and pages, and try and learn and see what works for them in their context and not fall into that trap of that becoming cultural knowledge.
You only get to understand some of this, you tweak it and play with it. The other side is I think there’s a lot of huffing and puffing and time wasted in solving problems that are already resolved, for example, canonical tags.
How, where and when they work is a binary solved problem. Just read the documentation, understand it and implement. Any time spent reverse engineering and doing that from scratch is time burnt.
Damien: Where are we going Jono with SEO, where is its future?
Jono: I see two possible exciting features. One is the diminishing relevance of websites. As Google evolves and changes in a way that means more of us spend more time and solve more of our problems in the search results, we need to start asking, what are our websites for?
There are some interesting possible answers to that. One is just brand storytelling, but then you’ve already got to attract attention and then brand recall. I think the more interesting technical one is as databases for our content, propositions and the stories we want to tell if we start thinking of our websites less as content management systems and more as structured data systems.
We need somewhere to write our content, but that might not be where it is consumed. Maybe our website is just a system that pushes to Pinterest or Twitter or Schema or wherever else. There’s a fascinating technical evolution that needs to happen to enable that. In that timeline, Google wins because why would I ever not just use Google’s search results page as the place I consume content and take action?
The flip side of that is legal and financial implications to Google’s monopolistic behaviour, tax strategies and various other issues mean that this whole emerging paradigm falls apart because they can only do this if they [Google] continue their course.
I’m watching closely the legal battle they are currently having in the EU. If the legal hammer falls and Google is forced to cease to be the ultimate affiliate and aggregator of ‘all the things’ then the opposite happens.
Everybody’s individual own website and property becomes radically more critical because the rental property won’t be particularly valuable, and we’ll all need to build our equity.
I quite like both versions. I’d like the utopia that the first creates, assuming Google isn’t evil, because everything becomes easier and better for consumers at the cost of corporations.
In the latter where all companies are trying to build their websites and stuff, it’s all a bit disjointed and fragmented. But there’s no evil overlord at least, so it’s pure capitalism, in theory serving the consumer.
Damien: Assuming Google does maintain their position, their strength and grow it, what does that mean for Yoast customers who maybe have a hard time conceptualising what a Schema, data-rich future means for them?
Jono: We’ve already thought about this a lot, and we’re prepared either way. Our current narrative is building your own equity. In the Google winning timeline, we already handle all the schema stuff invisibly in the background. We make a point of not putting that in people’s faces because it is abstract, it’s complicated, and it’s confusing.
What we want people to be doing is writing about the stuff to do. So I don’t think that would change radically. What we will do is to start to do that transformation of what the website is.
At the moment, your website sends a page to users, and in the background, it makes that only one of the outputs. We do things like we automatically pipe to Google or Bing or wherever else and make the website behave much more like an API.
We recently launched support for accessing all of the data for an arbitrary URL, headlessly. It’s exciting as you start to think of WordPress as a data hub, the operating system of the web.
Damien: Jono, thank you for your time to chat. Good luck on future code releases!