Omar Reiss, CTO of Yoast SEO, illustrates how his Masters in philosophy contributes to his work at Yoast, explains what it takes to stay ahead in the SEO plugin industry, and talks about the future of SEO.
Omar Reiss is the CTO of Yoast SEO, undoubtedly the leading SEO plugin for WordPress websites.
A graduate of the University of Amsterdam with a Master’s degree in Philosophy, Omar was already on his way to becoming a full-stack web developer, working with an agile team for enterprise customers. He joined Yoast in late 2014 as a software architect and was soon responsible for the development processes. As Partner and CTO, Omar focuses on the bigger picture of Software Development at Yoast.
From a Software Architect to CTO
Omar’s first position at Yoast was as a software architect, but it was his great ambition that led to the dramatic change within such a short time:
“I kind of entered Yoast when we were like a 12 person company, and I entered as a software architect. I quickly saw lots of room for improvement with regards to the development process and the quality assurance and all that stuff. So I gave a presentation already after two weeks about what I wanted to do with the software development side of things and basically got the mandate to start managing all of that. So at first it was just building the processes, building a development team, developing a lot myself. And then very, very soon that grew. And I gained much more managing responsibilities, and at some point, I was invited to become a partner in the company and name myself a CTO of Yoast.”
And do you have a certain managing style and sort of your own approach to it?
“Yeah, I think I do. When it comes to processes, I really need teams to be sort of self-sustainable to a certain extent. I’m not a very good planner. I’m not a very good timekeeper. So when I have to rely on sort of linear schedules, that’s not something that I am very good at. So what I’m always trying to achieve is to have as many circular processes as possible, because then things can just run, and I can check on how the thing is running and sort of try to influence that, and that makes it possible for me to manage those processes and those themes.”
Do you look more on the macro level?
“Yeah, I think so. Like as a philosopher, I think I approach these processes as a sort of system and I always try to look at is the system functioning as a whole. And producing what it should produce, which is not only a product, which is not only profit but which is also personal development of all the employees, developer happiness or employee happiness. There are lots of things that are really important in our company and it also has to do with people and the company culture that are all part of that as well.”
Philosophy and Development Go Hand in Hand
Having a Masters degree in philosophy might not be so typical for a developer, but Omar finds his academic background has contributed to his career:
“I think the philosophy and software development and IT are generally very compatible. Mostly, I never saw myself doing a job in IT at first, but then at some point, I had a conversation with a cousin of mine who was working in an internet startup in Amsterdam, and he explained to me what kind of processes they were working with and what kind of problems they were solving. And he explained to me how Agile processes work and Scrum and how teams were communicating all the time to improve themselves. And how there’s this culture of continuous improvement in tech in some areas of tech. And I was so struck by that, so enthusiastic by that idea that I just had to see that for myself. I took upon myself a software development internship in Amsterdam. I was very lucky to get an opportunity there.
And then I basically learned how to code in an environment of fantastic professionals who were really able to guide me in that process. And from that point on I was hooked. I’m very happy to work in IT. It’s a very interesting space to be in. Also, as a philosopher who looks at the world like the web is such an important phenomenon that has entered into our lives. That is also just super interesting to be in the midst of, even as a philosopher and doing software development.”
Does philosophy actually help you in your position as a CTO, maybe help you making different workflows or different decisions that you make?
Yeah, I absolutely think it helps, or it helps me at least. There’s a couple of layers where I see that one is that I’ve been trained to think, and thinking is a really useful skill that funnily enough I think is still sometimes a little bit underestimated. And that is something that I’m very happy with that I’m able to think critically. I’m able to think outside of the box. I’m able to always have different models of reality in my head and compare them and to approach things from different perspectives. And I think my philosophy major really helped with that. And on the other side, programming in many ways on the higher level, especially in the software architectural level, has some similarities with sort of the activity that you do as a philosopher. Because you’re basically creating a sort of an abstract model of this reality that you’re creating that is your software application. And that’s very similar to what you do as a philosopher where you try to understand reality and you sort of try to sort of describe that in abstract terms. So those things are very compatible.”
What Does It Take to Lead the Technological Front
How does Yoast stay updated with users’ needs and what their product should include?
“So what we always used to do is we used to drastically follow what Google is doing. We have a pretty good relationship with Google, with being with other search engines. But we also used to have a lot of experiments around reverse-engineering algorithms, all that kind of stuff, which is still from the old days of SEO. So what we used to do is we would look at sort of the technicality of SEO and what is needed to do good SEO. And then sort of just put that into a product. And it was more of a top-down approach where we sort of had the attitude of, ‘Okay, we’re the experts, we’ll give you all the stuff you need to do SEO and you just have to believe us basically.’ We still have that a little bit but we recently, I think about a year ago started also shifting a little bit to doing more user research, knowing our users better, understanding their needs better and really sort of adapting our product strategy and our product development also to their needs.
So, on the one hand, we have an R&D, a big R&D department that is constantly sort of trying to keep up to date with what’s needed in SEO. And on the other hand, we’re also taking our users much more seriously and really try to actively listen and look at how the product is used and improve based on that.”
The Future of SEO
We asked Omar to try and predict future trends, or what SEO professionals can expect over the next couple of years:
“What we’re seeing right now is that we’re still figuring out what this voice search thing is like. And I guess the main thing if I look at it a little bit more sort of on the fundamental level is it’s about how do we interact with information? And what we see now that Google is doing, which sort of seems to not be about voice search so much is they’re starting to use structured data more and more and they’re starting to show more and richer results. And that’s definitely a trend that we see evolving. When you asked me what’s happening there, it’s also … I think there’s definitely also this relation with voice search because we’re figuring out the things … The types of information that we have on the web. We are figuring out the kinds of queries that weren’t … that are and how they’re related to what types of information or figuring out how to present that information to the end-user, all that kind of stuff.
That also means that some information might not be best consumed on a website, but might be better consumes on Google itself. That’s what we see happening with, for instance, frequently asked questions pages, which now Google could show an accordion in the Google search results featuring all the questions and answers straight on their site. People don’t come to your site for every search query anymore. And that’s very similar to when you ask, for instance, Siri or you ask Google a question in voice search. You probably don’t go to yoast.com, you’ll know that the answer comes from your system, but you probably won’t visit that site anymore to get that answer. So that is definitely a big thing that’s happening at the moment and we’re still figuring it out as we go. But Google is slowly releasing more of those rich results.”
A New Way of Managing the Metadata
We asked Omar if he could share some of the things they’re working on right now at Yoast:
“Yes, I can. What we currently are working on is quite technical in nature, to be honest. It has to do mostly with performance. We always did our metadata management in WordPress in the classical WordPress way, which is fine and which is not terrible but which is not the most performant way that we can think of. And it’s also not the most simple way. So we’re trying to come up with a new way of managing the metadata, and that could make it much faster for everyone. And then that could also make it easier to work with, and that would also be easier to for instance easily query metadata and do fun stuff with that. Because we could, for instance, relate metadata of different articles with each other and then analyze that on the website itself and give recommendations on what could be improved on that side.
So there’s lots of different implications to what we’re doing right now. The first implication will be that websites will hopefully just become a little bit more performance. But then we are looking at how can we use this new way of managing Metadata to give more site-wite SEO recommendations. And that’s definitely what we’re looking at — how we can provide more SEO recommendations on the site level and not only on the content level. We do some of that stuff already, but we’d like to do more.”