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From Hobby to SEO Career in 60 seconds, with Lily Ray

Lily is a passionate and enthusiastic SEO professional with 10 years of experience (as of 2020). She currently serves as the SEO Director at Path Interactive , where she leads the agency’s NYC and Nashville-based SEO team and provides strategy across all client accounts.

She previously led the SEO team at Flying Point Digital / Women’s Marketing (later rebranded to Stella Rising) for 6 years, and focused heavily on retail and ecommerce SEO.
Home Blog A truly wonderful interview with Lily Ray about how an SEO career should look like

SEOlium: Lily, your SEO career is remarkable. Can you tell us when and how it started?

Lily Ray: Thank you for the kind words! I started in 2010 just as I was finishing up college, pursuing a degree in Politics and Spanish. I found a job doing social media and SEO for an educational startup, which at the time really just meant adding keywords to pages (even the meta keywords field!) and sharing content on Digg, Tumblr, etc. I’ll never forget the day my boss opened up Google Analytics and showed me the impact my work was having in terms of website traffic. That was the day I fell in love with SEO and decided I couldn’t get enough.

When I graduated college, I took on a job doing in-house SEO at a small business finance company, and that’s where I really started getting my hands dirty with learning and implementing everything myself. It was a crucial learning experience before I eventually moved into the agency world.

SEOlium: At the very beginning – was there someone who left their mark on your SEO specialist career? Did you have a mentor?

Lily Ray: My first mentor was Brandon Heagle, the President and COO of my previous agency, Flying Point Digital. Brandon hired me when the agency was still pretty young, and I was among the first 5 or so SEO employees there. It really felt like from day one, Brandon believed in me, trusted me, and gave me a chance. He allowed me to provide honest feedback about agency operations, our SEO department, company culture, and more, and it was clear he took my feedback seriously. I was lucky to be able to work closely with him, watching how he ran the company and interacted with our clients – I think I picked up a lot of cues from him during those years.

It wasn’t until later in my career that I started to have mentors who specialized in SEO. I would say the first was Mike Levin, who was the SEO Director at my previous agency before I eventually moved into that role. Mike was a programmer and taught me a lot about the role of programming and web development in SEO, which I loved. Eventually, I began to become closer friends with a lot of the SEO masterminds in our industry, many of whom have become mentors to me, like Glenn Gabe, Marie Haynes, Dawn Anderson, Alan Bleiweiss, Bill Slawski, Cindy Krum, and more. I’m so grateful to have them all as people to learn from, both in terms of SEO as well as with general work/life skills.

SEOlium: And you’re the SEO Director at Path Interactive. How did that happen and what do you actually do every day?

Lily Ray: I met my current boss, Sarah Fonseca Gray, several years back at a Conductor C3 conference, and we hit it off immediately. It was nice to meet another young woman who was running the SEO department at a small NYC agency – we had a lot in common right off the bat. So I always had Path in the back of my mind, and when I saw they were hiring for an SEO Director, I looked up all the cool things they were doing as a company, and I knew it would be a great fit for me to join.

My day-to-day is a combination of providing strategy and oversight for the SEO department, as well as supporting our Business Development team by providing research, speaking engagements, and articles related to SEO. I work closely with our SEO strategists and our clients to develop and execute creative, effective SEO campaigns, while ensuring the team stays on top of the latest industry updates and changes to Google’s algorithms. I also love to get my hands dirty and dig into the data and the tools to provide guidance and fixes for our clients, especially related to technical SEO.

SEOlium: How about career-changing events? Were there difficult moments/situations and how did you manage them?

Lily Ray: There have been a handful of career-changing events recently, from speaking at a few industry-renowned conferences, to winning a handful of dream clients, to being quoted in major publications, and more. There have surely been difficult moments, especially related to clients who have lost SEO visibility during Google’s core algorithm updates. Emotions can run high when companies have lost 50-70% of their organic traffic overnight, especially when they don’t have a lot of patience for doing the hard work to get the traffic back. It’s been a learning experience for me to try to help guide clients through the stressful process of earning back the visibility through patience, consistency, and hard work. Sometimes you lose clients in the process, which can be devastating – sometimes they don’t trust in your advice or aren’t willing or able to wait. But often, in those cases, you’ll see the results of your efforts kick in after the engagement is over. SEO takes more time to show results than many people realize.

SEOlium: Is COVID-19 affecting Path Interactive?

Lily Ray: I think COVID-19 is affecting every marketing and advertising agency in some capacity. Path was lucky to be able to pivot and recover very quickly when some clients had to pause their budgets or temporarily close their doors. We have also shifted our focus to providing valuable content and research for businesses to be able to navigate these tough times and best serve their customers. We have completely revamped our SEO strategies for many clients, identifying new opportunities for relevant and engaging content that resonates with their target audience, and leveraging the new features Google is offering related to COVID-19.

SEOlium: You’ve begun your SEO career a decade ago. How did SEO change in these 10 years and what do you think the future has in store for us SEOs?

Lily Ray: The same story has been true throughout my 10-year journey with SEO: Google cares about providing high-quality, valuable, relevant content to its users as quickly as possible, and Google also hates spam. So, stop spamming Google! I started my career dabbling in black hat SEO and learned very quickly that the risks were not worth it. I think that, as a rule of thumb, if you keep your SEO strategy focused on the above concepts, you will be successful.

SEOlium: You’ve become an evangelist for all things white-hat. How would you describe the fine line between black, grey, and white-hat SEO?

Lily Ray: The nice thing about being a white-hat SEO is that the things you would want to see as a Google user are usually the same things you recommend for your clients’ SEO strategies. With white-hat SEO, everything is focused on surfacing high-quality and helpful pages, while reducing content that is low-quality, unreliable, untrustworthy, or hard to use. Just familiarize yourself with Google’s Guidelines and don’t bother wasting time trying to trick the algorithms. I would define black or grey-hat as the strategies that are either directly in violation of the Guidelines, or a close violation. Either way, those strategies are usually not worth the risk, unless you’re working on sites where you don’t mind risking being penalized or devalued during an algorithm update. That is not an option when you are working with medium to large businesses and major brands.

SEOlium: You know, Lily, there are a billion recommendations for SEO newbies about what they should do, how they should learn, where from, etc. But what are the things an SEO newbie should definitely not do? Can you share a few things inexperienced SEOs should steer away from?

Lily Ray: Again, don’t dabble in grey or black hat SEO tactics (buying links, creating low-quality doorway pages, buying fake reviews, cloaking, etc.) It’s just not a good approach to starting a career in SEO and thinking that these types of tactics will reliably drive traffic to your clients’ sites without also putting them at risk.
It’s a much better approach to start small, test things on your own business or a friend’s business to see what works and what doesn’t. Stay on top of the major SEO publications and look for trending articles on those publications – it’s important to do this each week (at least), as SEO really does change that often.

SEOlium: Lily, aside from being an SEO professional, you’re also a DJ, drummer, and fitness enthusiast, as mentioned on your website :) How do you find time for all these activities?

Lily Ray: It’s easy to find time for activities when those activities are the things you love! I have no problem doing SEO all day and DJing all night because both of those things are my passions. Also, I don’t spend a lot of time watching movies or TV much anymore; I much prefer to spend that time producing or creating things – whether it be SEO research, writing, DJing or making music. When it comes to fitness, I work out every day in some form. Before coronavirus, I was at a gym class almost every day – primarily spinning, boot camp, or calisthenics. During quarantine, that routine has shifted to daily virtual classes plus a lot of biking or running outside. Fitness and good nutrition give me the energy to do everything else I love doing in my life. I would consider fitness my primary passion above everything else.

SEOlium: Finally, we all know New York City can be as bright as heaven or scary as a nightmare. On a scale from 1 to 10, how in love are you with The Big Apple? What are your top 5 must-see recommendations?

Lily Ray: If I wasn’t a “10” on a 1-10 scale of loving NYC, I would not be living there. For a lot of people, NYC is not an easy place to live. It’s expensive, crowded, dirty, noisy, and pretty chaotic in some places. But for me, I thrive in all of that. I love the diversity, the culture, the music, the attitude, the fast-paced lifestyle, biking through the city, and the endless choices of people to meet and places to go. It is literally my happy place and I’m so grateful my family is from there.

Top 5 recommendations:
  1. I’ll group the East Village, the Lower East Side, and Williamsburg together for the best dining, barhopping, and music in the city (and Bushwick if you’re willing to venture a bit further).
  2. Biking anywhere and everywhere – the city has become friendlier to biking every year, and it is by far the best way to see as much of it as possible.
  3. Prospect Park
  4. The beaches (Jacob Riis, Fort Tilden, Brighton, The Rockaways and Coney Island – they all have their own perks!)
  5. Shopping and/or dining around the Flatiron District and Chelsea.