Wellspring Digital Chats – Lily Ray, SEO Director at Path Interactive

On this week’s Wellspring Digital Chat, we have the amazingly versatile and talented Lily Ray, legit SEO expert, DJ, drummer, and fitness evangelist. Karl Hindle, CEO, and Founder of Wellspring Digital, kept bugging me to set up an interview with Lily.

lily-ray-seo-expert

Once I heard she was a drummer, I made haste. We do talk a little bit about drumming, but the bulk is about SEO. There is a ton of great stuff in here…

  1. SEO Tactics You Need to Stop Right Now
  2. Google’s E-A-T as a Ranking Factor
  3. QDF and COVID-19
  4. Non-Techies and Understanding SEO
  5. The Ultimate Street Fight?

So, you ready? Let’s dig into that big SEO of hers…

Digital Transcription – Edited for Readability

Introductions

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Hello, I’m Jon-Mikel Bailey and this is the Wellspring Digital Chat, where we bring marketing brains directly to you. We have someone who I just met a little while ago and also found out that we’re both drummers. And that’s way cool. And that’s all I really want to talk about. But I’ll hold back. So Lily, if you could please introduce yourself to these fine, folks.

Lily Ray: Sure. My name is Lily Ray. I’m the director of SEO at Path Interactive. I’ve been doing SEO for about 10 years. I’ve been doing music a lot longer than that. So I started playing drums when I was like six and I’m a DJ as well. I do both things, but very, very focused in SEO, love technical SEO, you know, service a lot of different clients for Path. I help run the strategy across many, many different types of homes. So it’s kind of my, my passion in life.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah. Well, as I said, Our CEO, Karl Hindle, introduced me to you and kept saying, “you got to talk to Lily Ray, you got to talk to Lily Ray” and I said, “Fine, fine.” And then I read your bio, and I was like, “man, I want to talk to her a lot sooner. This is so cool. She’s way into music, and I’m into music. I love drumming.” I haven’t been playing quite as long and I’m probably not nearly as good as you are but doesn’t matter.

SEO Tactics that Need to Stop

I could talk all day about drumming but we need to dive into SEO because you are a badass SEO. I’ve been reading up on some of your stuff and in prepping for this and technical SEO is no joke and you’ve got a handle on it. So I wanted to dive in a little bit into that, but first, I wanted to talk about you know, you mentioned “You’ve been doing SEO full time for 10 years.” And between 2010 and 2020, a lot has changed in SEO.

I wanted to, you know, kind of pitch out a softball here and see if you could tell us some old school SEO tactics that people just don’t seem to get rid of, that they won’t let go of, that they don’t want to let die.

Lily Ray: Yeah, well, I think the biggest one is link building or, you know, links that violate Google’s guidelines, which it’s tricky because they still work in some cases. So there’s like this big gray area about what works and what doesn’t.

There’s a whole undercurrent of people that obviously sell links and buy links. For many, even reputable SEO agencies, or professionals who are still making that part of their process, it’s very difficult to earn links organically. So I don’t buy links anymore. I did at one point. That never seems to go away.

And then just like cutting corners in general, I think a lot of people have this understanding of SEO, the way that it used to work where you could tweak something small and see really big impacts from it. And that’s less and less the case lately. It really requires a creative strategy. And not everybody can do that. So I think that’s probably the biggest change that’s happened over the last 10 years or so. You can’t really get away with things as much.

Google’s E-A-T as a Ranking Factor

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, that makes sense. I keep waiting for the algorithms to get even more hardcore and just clean house but it seems to be a rolling update. But one of the things I wanted to talk about I actually just came up on a call with a client today was E-A-T or EAT.

A lot of SEO articles are talking about E-A-T and I wanted to see, you know, I feel like it’s been a ranking factor for years in some respects, but it’s only sort of been talked about recently. I wanted to see if you could tell all these people what it is and then give your thoughts on its importance and how to go about achieving it.

Lily Ray: Yeah, so first of all, it stands for “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.” And to the point about this has been part of the algorithm for a long time. I think that’s true and for sure, but Google kind of started clearly defining it a few years ago, and it’s search quality guidelines, it started in like 2014.

Now, it’s a really big part of the search quality guidelines. So that’s what they use to train human evaluators of the algorithm, and of the performance of the search results. So it’s an indirect thing where like, that’s the main place where it lives as part of Google’s documentation.

So it’s not something where they’ve said “improving E-A-T directly impacts the rankings of your page, the way that they have for something like, you know, keywords in your title tag or using SSL or PageSpeed, or things like that. But it’s an indirect thing, and it’s certainly something that’s becoming, I think, increasingly important for especially websites that handle topics related to people’s health and safety.

The news and anything that could potentially be like, you know, like fake news or disinformation or anything where Google’s really scrutinizing the quality of its search results as it relates to user safety. It is a really big factor. So the things that go into it, I think many of those signals have been part of the algorithms for many years. But I do think they’re turning up the dial. And I do think that they’re looking at new considerations in the past couple of years.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: What kind of impact do you think that’s going to have, on the average, say, you know, businesses looking for rankings and that sort of thing? What do they need to know? Obviously, they don’t need to get super technical with it, but what kinds of things should that mean to them?

Lily Ray: Yeah, so if you haven’t been deceptive in your SEO strategy or your marketing strategy, or you haven’t been cutting corners or producing really low-quality content because maybe you got like affiliate revenue from it or something like it, you’re probably not going to run into huge issues.

If you’ve been mostly authentic with your brand and your marketing and everything like that. It’s really like a lot of the churn and burn type sites that especially in the health space that has seen big impacts from this. So if you’ve cut corners for many years, and you happen to rank a couple of years back for like financial keywords or health keywords or legal keywords, that’s probably not going to happen anymore.

If you weren’t very forthcoming about who’s writing the content, how much can you trust those people? And that’s something that we actually saw and one of the reasons why I talked about it so much is because it happened to my one of my main clients at Path on August 1, the medic update and it was so devastating.

And I hadn’t seen a core algorithm update play out in that way since Penguin, but during Penguin I was buying links so it was a much more clear like cause and effect. Right medic. So it’s important, but it’s for many sites, it’s not a huge consideration. But for sites where it is it’s very important.

QDF and COVID-19, Consequences of Google Updates

Jon-Mikel Bailey: It makes sense. So kind of, you know, segueing into that you, you wrote an article for Path where you talked about how QDF or something similar is causing changes in search results because of COVID. I’m going to read this, specifically, you mentioned, and I’m paraphrasing, “Google is showing new search features for health-related searches, which is reducing the visibility of non-government health publishers.” So first, can you explain what QDF is? And then talk a little bit about some of the unintended consequences of our new COVID reality?

Lily Ray: Yeah, so a couple of different things there. QDF is a name for Google algorithm or set of algorithms that were developed in like 2007. So it’s not entirely new, but it stands for “Query Deserves Freshness.” And it’s Google’s way of identifying if the user’s query should produce results that are timely in nature.

So a top stories panel would be triggered in Google News and maybe the search results themselves contain some updated new content. What was really interesting about Coronavirus was that we saw either QDF or something very similar to QDF happening in the search results for a lot of queries where you wouldn’t expect that to be triggered.

So something like hand sanitizer, obviously, right like in 2020, there’s a lot of news and a lot of new information about hand sanitizer where maybe last year that wouldn’t have been a PDF keyword, because there’s not that much new information about hand sanitizer…

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Just like Amazon links, or…

Lily Ray: Yeah, it’s transactional or something that’s like, pretty predictable. But that’s just one example of thousands and millions of keywords that suddenly became newsworthy in 2020. So the result of that was that a lot of queries that you wouldn’t expect were producing results that were entirely new.

So there was some gaming keywords or some sports keywords, where last year, you would have seen like statistics around college football or whatever. But this year, if you typed “play football” or “football” or something or other, you might see a bunch of online games to play football, because football is canceled, but you can play it online. And the algorithms were detecting that without people saying play the game online. They were just saying play football.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I think that’s an interesting example of being able to see the algorithm play out where the layperson may not understand that there’s a lot of layers to what Google is doing. And, and I think it’s a great example of how you know, people need to take the SEO guidelines, the real SEO guidelines a lot more seriously. Because they could be dependent on rankings that are gone one day.

Lily Ray: Totally interested in a lot of that this year. Another example with QDF was that I saw a lot of state queries. So if you type like “New York” or “California” or anything like that, maybe you’ve had a page that was about things to do in California or tourism in California, and that was just something where your visibility was completely reduced, while Coronavirus News dominated the entire first page at the top first half of the page. And that’s again, that’s like, you can’t really do much about that, especially if you’re a tourism company, but maybe you can produce some content about the current restrictions on traveling in California.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: There are ways to adapt. Do you think that’s gonna happen? Sorry for droning on on this, but I think It’s really interesting, do you think that’s gonna happen more often? Or I guess, maybe be more visible to people that Google is gonna, you know, that QDF is going to. I’m butchering this question. But, you know, do you think that’s going to happen more frequently where people are going to go “Okay, yes, Google is serious about giving search results that are topical, on-point, on time and what people are really looking for,” as opposed to, “I can add a bunch of keywords to my website and rank?” 

Lily Ray Yeah, absolutely. I think, um, Google determining intent has been one of the main priorities of their, you know, organic search algorithms over the past forever. But they’re getting better at it. And now there are so many new search features that they can play with and experiment with.

So you know, there’s a lot of queries that are super ambiguous in nature. So one that I’ve targeted for an old client was toner. If you just type the word toner, and it was a skincare client, so for them it was like the most valuable keyword. But they’re competing with printers to sell toner as well.

So Google has to grapple with, “okay, we only have 10ish results on the page, right? We don’t know if the person searching for makeup or, you know, printer toner.” So I think what they’re trying to do is really refine what’s someone’s intent and they have a lot of different ways that they’re doing this.

I talked to Bill Slawsky, who is the expert in Google patents and he dug up a patent that looks at, I don’t know if they’re using it or not, but it was something that Google patented a couple of years ago that looks at your personal search behavior, your personal emails, your contact list, where you’re standing, you know whether or not you’re driving at the time that you make the search.

So they’re doing the best they can with all the information that they have. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Google is so pervasive on the internet is all this data. But they’re certainly getting better at it. For sure. Yeah.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I was just on a chat with Bill yesterday for VC buzz with Ann Smarty. That was fun.

Lily Ray: He’s brilliant. It’s so fun talking to him as well as Ann, she’s very smart as well.

Non-Techies and Understanding SEO

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Both of them. So another thing that we have in common is we come from a technical background. So my dad used to code through the night and on like, the punch cards. So I would, I would go with him to work and sleep on a cot in an office while he’s like, you know, doing his thing.

But I think you know, that helped me. I’m not a super technical person, but I I am able to understand those things because of the way I was brought up. You talk about that as well that this technical background has helped you in your in your SEO career.

But do you think is there a way for the layperson, the non technical person to be able to understand SEO at a certain level? Or do they even need to understand SEO on any sort of technical level? If they’re trying to market and get rankings for their site?

Lily Ray: Yeah, no, I think SEO has become such a big field that it’s not entirely necessary to understand technical SEO. You should absolutely have the foundational understanding of it if you’re going to be on an SEO team.

But it’s really important to know what you’re an expert in and to know when you’re not an expert in something and to make sure that you have somebody on your staff or on your team that is an expert. So every SEO team needs technical expertise. Does every single person need to be a full-on expert? I don’t think so.

It’s not possible and what happens when you try to structure a team that way is that the people who are not suited for technical, you put them in situations where they’re supposed to be identifying technical problems or communicating technical things to clients, and they just can’t. And it’s just not a good solution.

So we have someone on my team, who’s the technical SEO director, and he’s phenomenal. And he supports everyone on the team when they need that help. But the other people are experts. Another thing, so maybe you’re extremely good at local SEO, you don’t need to be a technical expert, to know how to do local SEO really well.

Or to be a content strategist, you just don’t need those skills, but you can still call yourself a good SEO. I mean, you’re still coming up with SEO strategies, you’re still increasing organic traffic. But it’s important to delineate because there’s too much knowledge in the SEO space for someone to be an expert in everything.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Exactly. And then I run into clients who, who they read an article maybe, you know, a year ago and that’s what SEO is. I almost think business owners and marketers should all have a baseline understanding of what SEO is and what it isn’t and whether they want to go further with it is up to them in their roles. But yeah, I agree.

The Ultimate Street Fighting Duo?

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So this last question is just for me. And so you played drums in a duo called Two Seconds, which is pretty badass. And I watched the videos and you guys rock and it was good stuff. So I like creating fake Street Fight scenarios. So in a street fight between The White Stripes, Lozen, and if you’ve never heard of them, they’re out of Seattle. The Black Keys, who I think would get their asses beat, The Carpenters and Two Seconds, which duo would be the last band standing?

the-carpenters-tommy-boy

Lily Ray: Well, first of all, Two Seconds was my band from the ages of 15 to like 20 so it’s not a real band anymore. So as far as the street fight goes, we would have been teenagers, which is something to consider.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: You’re scrappy, probably pretty fast. You got nothing to lose.

Lily Ray: Yeah, that’s true too. I felt that way for sure. God, that’s a hard one. I was kind of hoping you would ask like Slater Kinney and Bikini Kill and bands like that because they would probably just kick us. But as far as the lipstick

Jon-Mikel Bailey: As far as duos.

Lily Ray: Got it. I’m going to say Two Seconds. I mean, like the White Stripes are glamorous. Like Jack White and a fight? It’s just, you’d be too worried about his makeup like it’s not, not you know, we’re badass as when we were teenagers. So I’m going to go with my former band.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: My pick would have been between Two Seconds and The Carpenters only because you just can never underestimate The Carpenters. Have you ever seen her drum solo video?

Lily Ray: I have not.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: In her day she was a badass.

Lily Ray: Wow.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, something to check out. There’s something scary about the brother.

Lily Ray: Yeah, something.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Something creepy about the brother I think he would but yeah, at the end of the day, I gotta go with you guys. I think you can tell that’s your highest honor.

Lily Ray: Meg White, when I was super into drumming, I was just like, “this is not fair.” Like no offense, Meg White, but like, come on. She can do something a little more interesting than that. It’s hard to watch, no offense.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: She did her best I guess. Well like I said, I could talk about drumming all day with you. And I really appreciate everything you’ve given us in terms of understanding SEO, especially technical SEO. It’s great to meet you and I really appreciate your time and stay safe, stay healthy, and all that.

Lily Ray: Thank you for having me.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Absolute drumming. Yes, keep fighting the good fight. Thank you.

Lily Ray: Awesome.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: All right. Thank you. Well, bye. 🙂

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Jon-Mikel Bailey is the Chief Development and Marketing Officer for Wellspring Digital, a full-service digital marketing firm specializing in SEO, PPC, Marketing Automation, and Content Marketing. He has been published in MarketingProfs, Business2Community, SpinSucks, {Grow}, Social Media Today, and more. He has spoken at the Digital Summit Series, MarketingProfs, ITE, Grant Thornton, and others.

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