Lily Ray: Playing the Long Game Is the Best SEO Strategy | Podcast 22

Lily Ray: Playing the Long Game Is the Best SEO Strategy | Podcast 22

Interview by Vianca Meyer
Published: November 24, 2023

The 22nd episode of the DesignRush Podcast welcomes Lily Ray, arguably the #1 most influential SEO expert in the world.

Join our Senior Editor Vianca Meyer and Lily as they journey through AI’s ongoing and potential impacts on search engines, strategy essentials when it comes to SEO as well as advice SEO professionals should follow to boost their career.

Here are the top SEO insights from Lily:

  • Focus on creating genuinely helpful content, avoiding violations of Google’s guidelines and take advantage of areas of your true expertise
  • Consider creating less but more in-depth and interactive content, based on expertise and customer needs, with an SEO layer for visibility
  • While quick results might tempt some to deviate from Google's guidelines, it's safer and more sustainable to play the long game and adhere to white-hat SEO principles

Who is Lily Ray?

Lily Ray is a highly acclaimed SEO professional, who has been recognized as the #1 most influential SEO expert in 2022. Lily serves as the Senior Director of SEO and Head of Organic Research at marketing agency Amsive Digital, where she leads an award-winning SEO team of 15 members and steers them toward innovative strategies and cutting-edge research. She actively shares her insights through various platforms, including articles, interviews, podcasts and conference presentations.

Vianca: I'm keen to learn about AI's impact on the search world. How do you see AI reshaping search engines, content roles and SEO practices?

Lily: It's a pivotal question in our industry and beyond, with many aspects still unclear. AI's rapid expansion brings new possibilities every day. Regarding products like Google SGE and Bing Chat, there's a lot of speculation, but things remain uncertain. Google SGE, for example, is still an experiment.

AI's role seems to align with Google's ongoing direction – providing quick answers by leveraging their extensive data. This often means users don't need to click on websites for more information. AI supports this trend.

There are discussions about Google's evolution going toward a "Jarvis-like" model – a one-answer system utilizing voice or devices. This vision implies a future where Google could provide answers without citing or linking to websites.

However, I believe human nature craves exploration and variety.

People, especially younger generations, may accept answers at face value, but in general, humans are inquisitive and skeptical. They prefer to explore different sources, brands and viewpoints.

If search engines only offered singular, definitive answers, it might not fully satisfy this innate curiosity. Thus, there will always be a need for websites and content creators to provide diverse perspectives and information.

There's a sense that Google might be reducing reliance on traditional websites. What's your take on this? Could this trend affect businesses and website owners?

This concern isn't new in our industry.

We've long debated the viability of SEO and whether it's worth investing in, given the increasing competition for click-through rates (CTRs), not just from competitors but from search engines themselves.

Yes, search engines like Google are gradually reducing click-through opportunities, especially for websites with upper-funnel, informational content or generic knowledge.

However, there's still a clear need for authentic, human-generated content.

Lately, Google seems to prioritize forums, social media and user-generated content like Reddit. This reflects user preferences for diverse content sources. While Google might ideally want to answer everything through its Knowledge Graph, users still seek varied content types, including websites, images, apps and podcasts.

There's also a legal dimension, as seen in Google's current legal challenges.

It's unlikely we'll see a scenario where a single source dominates information provision. There's a balance to be struck between providing quick answers and catering to users' diverse content preferences.

Shifting gears a bit, considering AI's transformation of search engines into more personalized platforms, how does this impact user experience, especially with the challenge of distinguishing AI-generated content from factual data?

It's a complex situation. There's heightened competition from generative AI tools, which perform similar functions to search engines.

For instance, recent innovations in tools like ChatGPT present new alternatives to traditional search engines. This shift creates a potential threat to their established roles on the internet. The critical question is whether generative AI is beneficial for users, whether its content is detectable and if users prefer AI-created content or human-written material.

Google and other search engines have stated that AI content isn't inherently bad as long as it's helpful.

However, they also maintain that auto-generating content at scale without oversight is considered spam, which is against their guidelines. This presents a nuanced message, particularly as these platforms themselves develop AI tools like Bard and SGE.

One under-discussed aspect is the accuracy of these AI tools.

Many don't explicitly indicate which parts of their output might be inaccurate. There's enthusiasm for generating content with these tools, but I remain skeptical about replacing the effective work of human content creators with AI-generated material.

Considering the average user's adoption of ChatGPT as a search tool, do you think this will change how people use traditional search engines?

ChatGPT and similar AI tools have advantages for certain types of searches, offering more creative assistance than traditional search engines.

Google is innovating with tools like Bard and SGE to enhance creativity in search, but I use ChatGPT more as a creative assistant for various tasks rather than starting my searches there. The risk of AI tools providing slightly inaccurate information, about 5-10% of the time, is too high for my liking.

Google has spent 25 years refining its accuracy, which is nearly perfect most of the time.

As these AI tools improve, they will increasingly challenge traditional search engines. However, the significant hurdle for OpenAI and similar platforms is changing user habits entrenched over decades.

Google is ingrained as the go-to search method for many, integrated into phones and browsers. Altering this deep-rooted behavior will be challenging, but if users consistently find better experiences with AI tools like ChatGPT, a shift is certainly possible.

Looking into the future, if people start using tools like ChatGPT to create content extensively, what implications do you foresee for SEO?

There are certainly numerous ways to creatively leverage AI tools like ChatGPT, especially as they evolve to become more capable.

For instance, in data analysis or strategy formulation, they're invaluable in accelerating workflows and generating innovative ideas. However, when it comes to relying solely on ChatGPT for content creation, I remain skeptical. This viewpoint might change in a year or two as the technology progresses, but presently, it seems somewhat unethical and inauthentic.

Using my personal content creation experience as an example, I wouldn’t integrate ChatGPT in its current state.

There’s a noticeable lack of authenticity when I see content generated by ChatGPT, whether in comments, tweets or LinkedIn posts. If a brand were to heavily rely on ChatGPT for most of its content, it could diminish the brand’s authenticity.

We’ve already witnessed some backlash in the community against AI-generated content, and it's plausible that a similar response could emerge from those tired of AI-driven content.

Lily Ray posing while sitting on a staircase

Reflecting on Google's careful integration of generative AI, what strategies could search engines implement to monetize these AI-driven enhancements while maintaining accuracy and user trust?

As search engines evolve with tools like SGE and Bing Chat, the key focus is on the relationship between generative AI responses and the sources of this information.

The key question is: if a search engine uses my content, what benefit do I, as a publisher, get from it?

Google has been proactive in trying to address this, ensuring that these AI tools benefit publishers by incorporating links and annotations. Bing Chat has been using links from the start, but the real test is whether these links drive sufficient traffic to the publishers' sites.

Then there's the aspect of monetization and the costs associated with these advanced tools.

Google has slowly been experimenting with adding ads to SGE answers and modifying search results to maintain ad visibility. However, if such tools significantly reduce click-through rates, impacting ad clicks, it poses a financial challenge for Google.

This is a balancing act.

If generative AI tools are costly and result in reduced ad clicks, it could disrupt Google’s business model, which heavily relies on ad revenue. Therefore, it's crucial for Google, advertisers and the SEO community to find a harmonious path where generative AI can coexist with traditional search mechanisms without undermining the viability of either.

Given the debate about Google's healthfulness potentially diminishing search quality, how do you navigate this evolving SEO landscape?

For SEO professionals, the approach depends on their goals and risk tolerance. Some choose short-term gains by exploiting loopholes in Google's algorithms, but these tactics are risky and often short-lived.

On the other hand, a more sustainable approach is to focus on genuinely helpful content, adhering to Google’s guidelines and leveraging real experience. Instead of keyword-stuffing, I recommend creating content that genuinely benefits your audience and layering SEO strategies on top of that.

This might mean producing less but more impactful and richer content. As Google continues to index a vast amount of data, focusing on quality over quantity becomes more critical.

SEO is about understanding the fundamental principles that guide search engines like Google. While adapting to changes is necessary, it's also crucial to stay grounded in practices that prioritize user experience and content quality.

By focusing on what's genuinely helpful to the audience and combining that with smart SEO tactics, we can create a sustainable and effective approach to SEO. This might mean a shift from traditional keyword-focused strategies to a more holistic approach that considers the audience's needs and the evolving nature of search engines.

With the frequency of Google's updates, do you think we are moving into a perpetual update mode? And what should SEO professionals focus on in response to these updates?

Google maintains that the frequency of their updates hasn't changed significantly; they're just more communicative about them now. However, the impact and proximity of these updates make them feel more significant. Google now has multiple ranking systems in place, each with its guidelines and implications.

SEO professionals must understand these varied ranking systems and how they might affect a site concurrently. For instance, a site could be simultaneously impacted by product reviews, unhelpful content, link spam and other issues. By understanding Google's specific guidelines for each ranking system, you can better strategize your SEO efforts.

My advice to those in SEO is to start with Google’s documentation. There's a wealth of information available about their ranking systems and guidelines. This direct information from Google is the best source of truth, rather than interpretations or third-party SEO advice. Understanding the rules of the game from the source itself is vital for navigating these updates effectively.

With the frequency of updates and changes in Google's algorithms, do you think this is the new norm for SEO?

Absolutely, there's a consensus that continuous updates are likely to be the norm.

We're seeing a shift where specific updates, like the 2023 reviews update, will be integrated into Google's core algorithms and no longer announced separately. This will likely lead to ongoing volatility and make it challenging to pinpoint what's causing changes in search rankings.

The key is to align closely with Google's guidelines, focusing not just on what's currently driving traffic but on what Google advises. It's about understanding the underlying trends in Google's communications and recommendations.

Those who follow these guidelines closely will generally avoid major issues with algorithm updates.

How should SEO professionals approach these frequent updates then?

The approach should be holistic and in line with Google's stated guidelines.

It's crucial to avoid short-lived SEO tactics that might give quick results but could potentially violate Google's guidelines. While these methods may be tempting due to their immediate impact, they often lead to long-term issues.

I advocate for a "white-hat" SEO approach, which may not seem as glamorous or quick to yield results, but it is more sustainable and safer in the long run. Paying attention to the nuances in Google's communication is vital.

Google's new ranking systems or algorithmic changes might seem sudden, but if you're observant, these shouldn't be surprising. Playing the long game and staying true to ethical SEO practices is key to navigating the ever-evolving SEO landscape.

We thank Lily for this amazing conversation. If you enjoyed it too, be sure to follow her on LinkedIn and stay tuned for more of our interviews with industry experts!

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