Senior Director of SEO and Head of Organic Research at Amsive Digital, Lily Ray is one of the most sought-after experts in search engine optimisation.
Renowned for her wealth of knowledge in E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness – three things Lily has in spades), Lily has a depth of knowledge and insight about Google’s algorithms and strategies that makes her a go-to resource for both businesses and other SEO professionals.
While Lily leads a team of 30 SEO specialists by day, by night she also pursues her passions as a DJ.
Jump to highlights
- What were some early lessons that you learned from your family that helped shape your mindset and approach to your work today?
- If you had to pick between DJing and SEO for the rest of your life, what would you pick?
- How has international travel impacted your view of search?
- How does user behaviour and expectations vary in different countries?
- What is the weirdest SEO experiment that you’ve seen Google do?
- What do you think Google’s end game is?
- What is one SEO myth you’d like to stop being propagated on Twitter?
- What was it like working in SEO in the U.S. during the Trump era?
- Do you like talking about E-A-T, or do people like asking you about E-A-T? Also what does an E-A-T audit entail?
- What does digital empathy mean to you?
- Where do you see the internet in 2023?
- What’s on your Spotify playlist?
What were some early lessons that you learned from your family that helped shape your mindset and approach to your work today?
Lily: My father was a distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems and later, Oracle – he was part of the team that helped create Java, the programming language. I grew up in a household where everything in my house was Java. Our dog was named Java, we had Java mugs and t-shirts and all the swag.
From a young age, he taught my brother and I so many things about the internet as we were growing up along with it. I think the cool thing about growing up with my dad was that he was an open-source guy. The philosophy at Sun and his approach to the internet was wanting to share his work – that instilled a lot in me because I too like to share my findings with the public.
Woj: You do share a lot of knowledge, which is very much appreciated by the industry!
During lockdown you did a lot of DJing, how was it?
Lily: It was fun. I miss DJing during COVID, believe it or not. Obviously, I don’t miss COVID. The interesting thing about that was, it forced me to stay inside and do something productive and creative. I quickly learned my live streams were doing well through the growth of donations that I received – which went to local businesses. It helped generate thousands of dollars which then led to bigger campaigns for different organisations, like the ACLU. I’m still DJing at nightclubs and everything, but I do miss the live streaming.
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Who is your favourite drummer?
I was also into progressive rock for a while, so Jon Theadore the drummer in The Mars Volta and their style of intense drumming, I really like. Neil Peart is really good at technical drumming, which is exciting for me.
Have you ever played with any well-known bands?
Lily: I had this surreal experience when I was a teenager. I was in two bands that both did extremely well, almost to the point where I had to make a decision to pursue music or go to college. I chose college thankfully.
When I was in a band called ‘Two Seconds’ we were just two teenage girls. We played angry girl indie rock, similar to the sounds of White Stripes, Sleater-Kinney or Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was a lot of fun. We won our local battle of the bands and had the opportunity to open a big festival, which included a lineup of rock bands like The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Echo & the Bunnymen and some other big bands. We also opened for The Dandy Warhols, so we got to hang out with them backstage. That was pretty cool.
If you had to pick between DJing and SEO for the rest of your life, what would you pick?
Lily: That’s a hard question, it’s so hard to choose. I think I’m going to be doing SEO till I die, if it’s still a thing that exists. I can’t even go on vacation these days because I like to see what’s happening in the SEO space.
There might be a point where Google doesn’t exist anymore or it transforms into an entirely different beast where we can’t compete with its Knowledge Graph.
But search is always in some capacity, going to exist.
I can’t answer that question, I have to do both. If I spend all my time doing SEO on the computer, I feel crazy, but being a professional full-time DJ would also be a nightmare. So, it has to be both.
Woj: I feel like they’re two different parts of the brain, although they’re both kind of creative and logical, so they probably cross over.
Lily: The SEO space is somehow filled with musicians. Half of my team are musicians. I don’t know if there’s a correlation but there’s certainly a lot of overlap with music and SEO.
How has international travel impacted your view of search?
Lily: I was fortunate to travel internationally a lot in the past several months and meet SEOs around the world. I spoke at SMX Paris and went to Germany and other countries. There’s a different vibe in every place. It was interesting meeting Argentinian SEOs because I think their search engines are different. It’s possible that the indexes vary in countries, just like how certain tactics work depending on where it’s implemented.
I spoke in different countries about E-A-T, content quality, Google’s core algorithm updates, and more advanced strategies that we use in the US. When I spoke in Paris, I actually said verbatim, “You should stop buying links. It’s not a good idea.” And everybody came up to me after and they’re like, “What do you mean by that?” Because there were many link-selling companies. They questioned, “But isn’t this okay?” And I realised it’s a different ballgame out here.
Woj: Like the wild, wild west a bit. There’s nothing like rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard work by building a brand and earning links.
How does user behaviour and expectations vary in different countries?
Lily: In Europe, you have GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), so browsing the web is an entirely different experience there. Whereas, in the U.S. they don’t seem to care about our privacy at all. So that is where it’s different. Similarly, there’s certain publications you can’t view in other countries. One time in Germany, I saw a Twitter post that read, “House burns down in Brooklyn, New York.” – where I live. And I was saying, “Okay, I’m hoping that’s not my house.” And I was in Germany, so far away from home, and I clicked the article and it’s like, “Sorry, you can’t read this article.” I was like, “No, like you don’t understand. I live there. That’s my neighbourhood.” So, there’s a lot of that.
Also, the U.S. has websites that feel dated to me in many cases. That’s probably a huge generalisation, but it’s nice to be in the country where Google operates because you get to try out the latest and greatest stuff that they’re working on.
Image by: Moz
What is the weirdest SEO experiment that you’ve seen Google do?
Lily: In August 2021, Google decided to roll out this new system for displaying title tags. I immediately started tweeting about it, but received backlash from the SEO community, saying “They’ve always been doing this.” And eventually Google confirmed the changed process.
To me the change indicated that Google thinks they know better than us. Whether they are overriding a title, or other sources, such as the headline, anchor text, or from other people’s links.
That showed that the majority of changes were unnoticeable, but there were different outliers that made it look awful. Headlines were truncated in the middle of the sentence and it didn’t make sense. Or certain words were cut off in a way that didn’t make sense. It was the first time that I’ve seen Google roll out something that (sorry if you’re listening Google) was not ready. Although, once Google tweaked and fixed the issue it became much better but in the months it was being improved we had clients affected by it on a revenue level. This can damage businesses a lot in the interim, which was the frustrating part.
What do you think Google’s end game is with the types of experiments you’ve been tracking?
Lily: I think it’s fair to say that Google wants to keep people on Google. It may be controversial to some people, but it’s pretty obvious. Google wants to index all the world’s information and make it easy for everybody to find. I think that’s accurate, but it’s a little bit of an existential crisis for everybody else because if you take all our information, you own all the information, and people don’t need to visit any other sites.
Woj: It’s just Google. It’s not the internet anymore.
What is one SEO myth you’d like to stop being propagated on Twitter?
Lily: Lately on Twitter I have been coming across niche, affiliates on my feed, the messaging is filled with brand new SEOs proclaiming, “I’m making $30,000 a month with my new niche site. This is how I did it. Read this thread.” I’m like, “Shut up.” And I get people sending it to me like,
“Hey, Lily. Like, this person did this thing. So, it probably means that E-A-T doesn’t matter, right?” And I’m like, “Call me in six months and let me know how that site is doing.”
What was it like working in SEO in the U.S. during the Trump era?
Lily: Google had a misinformation problem, and they were made very aware of that, and they adjusted their algorithms in a really big way to fix it. Other social sites didn’t do as aggressive work on that topic, in my opinion.
So, what I think Google’s philosophy was, is they created this notion of E-A-T. They updated their algorithms aggressively to the point where sites that were known for circulating political misinformation, completely lost visibility over the course of several months.
You could actually visit those sites and it wasn’t just politics and news. It was like natural health sites, diet sites, and these people spoke up about how, “Google obliterated all my traffic. It isn’t fair.”
But that’s because the E-A-T was so, so, so aggressive after 2016. Then from 2018, Google wiped a lot of sites off the internet, and eliminated their ability to compete, and that was to combat misinformation. What Google has done over the past couple of years, if you Google anything that could potentially present a conspiracy theory, you’re just gonna see the Mayo Clinic, and The New York Times, and the CDC, and the World Health Organisation. It’s like, they’re not even giving anybody a chance to have a different opinion other than the big authorities.
Other sites, like Facebook, don’t have that aggressive view of handling misinformation. So, I have to give Google credit because at least in the U.S, it’s hard to stumble upon misinformation on Google.
Woj: Yeah. I remember when ‘Holocaust deniers’ seemed to rank well when googling information about the Holocaust. There was more chatter about the denial of it rather than explanation of the event, so therefore that started ranking. So, Google must have worked out an algorithm to look for the facts in a different light.
Lily: Google has a video about this called, “How Search Works” [watch video below]. It was published in 2019, and you have people at Google explaining that exact example. They’re like, “It was brought to our attention that when you type ‘Holocaust’, what appeared was a Holocaust denier website.” Google was very quick to be like, “That should not be happening. We’re gonna go and take a look into it.” I like that Google realised they need to make a lot of really big changes to avoid that happening.
Do you like talking about E-A-T, or do people like asking you about E-A-T? Also what does an E-A-T audit entail?
Lily: I still love talking about it. I think Google’s getting smarter about E-A-T. Our strategies with my team are changing and we’re learning and adapting. Google’s quality rater guidelines just changed last week in a really big way that impacts E-A-T and the concepts of money and life. The world is changing, and a lot of the previously non-ranking sites were able to rank to higher pages just after this year’s May core update. Google has dials that they adjust during different world events or for their goals as a business.
So I love talking about E-A-T because it’s an ever-evolving topic. The E-A-T audits are really fun. I’m working on one right now. It’s a fun area of SEO because it’s not a checklist ever. It’s really so many different types of data analysis. What I like to do is pull in data from many different sources. Similar to custom extraction, I’m pulling from a lot of different attributes about the page and cross-referencing that with performance, even attributes like the author name or the sentiment of the types of content that they write, or how much social engagement it’s getting. Getting all that data in one place and doing an analysis can help companies understand what topics of content perform better than others.
That’s definitely a big part of understanding the brand’s reputation on the internet. Lately, I’ve been much more focused on the content itself because
I believe that Google is getting better at understanding E-A-T through the language being used.
For example, if there’s any major reputation issues on the site or the company is not well established in Google’s Knowledge Graph, or doesn’t have a great brand presence on Google, those are E-A-T considerations too.
With such a busy travelling lifestyle, how do you keep fit and what do you love to eat?
Lily: I don’t know if it’s one specific thing, but I eat pretty clean. When I travel I don’t, but otherwise, I love vegetables, salads, and smoked fish. I also like eating healthy, hearty salads with nuts, sprouts, avocado and with clean proteins like tofu, that’s my jam. Also, Vegan pizza, not just in New York, but in different cities where they’re using cashews to create a vegan cheese. It’s so, so good. Not like the crap you get at the supermarket, but try any place that uses cashew cheese, it’s the best.
Woj: I’ve been getting into Beyond Burger. It actually tastes pretty damn good.
Image by: Seze Devres Photography
I made a podcast called “WojCast” talking about digital empathy. When you hear the term digital empathy, what does that mean to you and what would be your definition of digital empathy?
Lily: I think that it’s the most important skill for SEOs to have and not everybody has it. SEOs sometimes lose sight of what they’re doing because they’re so involved in the process.
They need to question, ‘What are we doing? Did we think about the user’s journey to this site? Did we think about how a company with a similar name is ranking above them?’ It can be really confusing.
I like tools that illuminate really low-volume, long-tail questions. So, Google’s Question Hub, for example, is questions that people didn’t find an answer to on Google, so they specifically submitted their question to Google. So, it’s important to dig through so you can get an understanding of where your user is at.
Woj: Yeah. And you kind of understand where they’re coming from and why they’re searching. Wil Reynolds did a talk on this a couple of years ago at MozCon.
Lily: Wil is such an inspiring leader. I encourage everybody to listen to his talks and watch his videos and everything because he really changes the way you think about, well, the world.
Where do you see the internet in 2023? Do you think virtual reality, video search or TikTok will impact our lives?
Lily: I was holding out on building a TikTok profile until yesterday. Until I was like, “I feel like the future of my career depends on it.” I’ve been hearing in the advertising space that they’re demanding TikTok as a knowledge skill. I do think it’s gonna change the way people search. I also think that visual search, in general, is gonna become a bigger thing. I don’t think people realise how amazing Google Lens is, and other similar products, but that’s gonna change search behaviour a lot. It’s a game-changer.
Woj: Oh yeah. I’ve been using that a lot. I’ve been taking screenshots at workshops and conferences and just letting Google Lens get the words for me.
What’s on your Spotify playlist?
Lily: I’m currently listening to a French artist called Lemongrass. Generally, you’ll find me listening to a lot of Brazilian jazz, bossa nova, downtempo, world music, and then, of course, a lot of house and techno when I’m preparing for my DJ set.
Finally, who should I interview next?
Lily: Roman Demry on my team. He’s just the most amazing SEO that should be a million times more famous than he is. He runs the ship on our team. He’s a technical SEO genius. He is one of the most fun people and a good friend in my life.
Also, Crystal Carter, she’s a rock star. She’s just doing amazing work these days. She had the most incredible MozCon presentation. I love the way she interviews and speaks and everything. So, you should definitely talk to her.
For more, read Lily Ray’s detailed work on understanding E-A-T and its impact on your Google Search results.
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