Tory Gray is the CEO and Principal SEO Consultant at The Gray Dot Company. Her vast experience in SEO extends into various leadership roles for reputable agencies and in-house start-ups. With a reputation for scaling and growing businesses, Tory’s strategic insight and adaptable lens to see the big picture proves her to be an SEO alpha and one of the keenest eyes in the profession.
In addition to leading the Gray Dot team, Tory is a senior SEO advisor for neighboring digital agencies and she’s a passionate mentor for the Women in Technical SEO community. To get more SEO insights from Tory, follow her on Twitter or YouTube.
1. How did you get into SEO?
Like most SEOs, I fell into it! Out of college with my PR degree, I got an “online marketing” job at a local web development agency. I learned everything on the job, there, and in subsequent jobs too, obviously.
2. What projects have you launched recently that you are proud of?
I care a lot about SEO education and reducing gatekeeping via that education. I also want to explore new subjects I’m less familiar with, and once I wrap my head around them, share the learnings. Therefore, I’m most excited about exploring new ways to organize SEO reporting around the Customer Funnel.
Related, we recently launched our new Digital Consumer Intelligence division, a service line dedicated to leveraging search & online data for use cases inside and outside of SEO. We started this after working with new and existing customers to more creatively use the data that we use every day, as SEOs – like search volume, video watches, trends, engagement data, and the like.
OH! And I also just started SEO_Affirmations_Bot, a fun & silly Twitter account full of feel-good SEO affirmations.
3. What was the most nervous moment in your life as an SEO?
Presenting to a Founding/Executive team for the first time! It was incredibly nerve-wracking, and unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources available today to support this. Explaining your growth strategy (that was realistic, unfortunately, more of a list of tactics, a list of reasons why with nothing to connect the dots in between!) to a room full of smart people who are about to poke a million holes in your reasoning is… unpleasant. Fortunately, it was a learning experience and a jumping-off point to do a better job of “telling the story” and explaining the why.
4. In your opinion, what are the SEO trends in 2022?
There are many, but here are the top 3 on my mind a lot these days:
1) The Rise of AI content
Google is working hard, and struggling, at combating huge volumes of content creation happening at scale via tools that use artificial intelligence to automatically generate content. How do they determine what’s fluff and what’s quality, and how quickly can they get it done? When Google struggles — we ALL struggle!
2) A challenging and rapidly evolving eCommerce space
eComm is more competitive than ever, with less pure organic visibility and net-more competitors, Prime Day(s) and Wayfair day to compete with vs Black Friday, and outside influences like supply chain issues, inflation, and a rise in generalized consumer price sensitivity. It’s never been harder to be an eCommerce SEO!
3) Organic traffic source diversification
Unless you live in China or Poland, SEO has largely been a game on Google (or Amazon!) for the last several years. Now we, as a community, are starting to discuss other sources where algorithms are at play — like TikTok!
5. What forms of content are working out the best for SEO now?
It depends! Ha, the classic answer. In this case, it specifically depends on how competitive your industry.
6. Do you think PPC and SEO can work together to drive business growth?
Absolutely, it’s the best-case scenario, honestly. These teams should work together to share data, learnings, and insights. They should coordinate to maximize revenue while reducing company costs, by dividing and conquering what they each go after. For example, it sometimes makes sense to rank organically for a keyword, and also to pay to show up it. But sometimes a keyword converts for paid — but it’s simply too expensive. Why not ensure you show up organically for these terms? Why not learn what keywords have the highest return via paid, and use those insights to define what to target organically? There are many big wins to achieve when these teams work together.
7. You are the CEO of a senior-level SEO consultancy company. What are the most important principles of an ideal SEO team structure?
While there is no perfectly correct answer for this — every org is different, and therefore there are multiple structures that work effectively. I’m a big fan of the “SEO Product Manager” trend, e.g. tech SEOs embedded with the Product and Engineering teams.
8. Have you ever used black hat and gray hat SEO tactics? What do you think about them?
I want to start by saying that, as an industry, we need to get away from using harmful & non-inclusive terms like this. We all need to get better about noticing and changing this for the better.
In terms of the concept, I’m generally of the opinion that this decision is up to company leadership — are they willing to undergo the risk? Is the possible outcome worth it? What are the repercussions if they are found out? What are the chances of being caught, and how do we reduce those chances? If the client understands those risks and believes it’s worth it… that’s their decision.
So as long as we’re not talking about ethically bad, ambiguous, illegal, or harmful things! Of course! That said, we, as an agency, avoid these manipulative tactics, and we do work to avoid them as a part of our work with clients. It’s still possible (and likely) to win by doing things the right way and that success tends to be more sustainable, anyway.
I’d rather win the SERPs knowing I did it the right way.
9. Will AI-generated content become a black hat SEO tactic?
No, at least not without a big battle from Google, as pretty much everyone is exploring their use — including brands that users expect to see in their Google search results. And while some have terrible results, we should keep in mind that it’s largely bad when done at scale with no modifications, no review, and no unique value added. They can also be amazing at helping reduce the time to a polished finished product when used correctly.
10. What do you think is the one rule that helps improve ranking?
Can I say two things? I need two!
- User-first. Solve a real user need in a helpful way.
- Keep in mind that SEO is a race, and therefore everything is relative. There is no one perfect right way — only the right way for your brand, and your customer, given your existing competitive space.
The same tactic that would work like a charm for brand A could be completely irrelevant for client B! Focus on where you can differentiate, provide value, and do it 100% better than any other competitor. If you can do that, the SEO will follow!
11. SEO is such a controversial thing. Every SEO specialist rates its success differently. What is your way to rate SEO success? What metrics do you look at?
I prefer to set these goals around the client’s objectives. How they define success for themselves varies, and ultimately, as an agency owner, I want nothing but happy clients!
Common measures of success we may use include:
- more leads or subscription signups;
- more purchases or revenue;
- traffic stability (Typically the goal of migration, for example. Typically we want to make other parts of the business better with a redesign, re-platforming, etc., so the purpose of the SEO portion is to mitigate losses in achieving those other gains.)
- improved processes (e.g. for content production — same results, but less time & effort means reduced costs and therefore higher profit)
12. What are the most important soft SEO skills?
Communication, communication, communication. There are more layers to this than you might think, both in terms of how to get SEO work done, especially when that requires product and engineering resources and how to ensure that the value of the work you’ve completed is understood/valued.
Therefore, I recommend checking out the SEOMBA, The SEO Sprint, and Chameleon Journals’ Resources.
13. The best piece of career advice I have ever been given is…
Work where you are 1) valued and 2) learning. If at all possible, don’t work for a boss that doesn’t have time for you or an organization that doesn’t respect you or your efforts.
Yes, it’s a privilege to have these things, but it’s also something you will likely need to work hard to achieve, regardless of who you are. So if/when possible, seek those situations, or look outside of work (aka: get a mentor!) to ensure you get that perspective.
Yes, even for self-defined “self-starters” (like I thought of myself!) You will inevitability lose traction trying to figure it out on your own vs having someone who cares enough to help guide you. So find yourself someone who cares, or better yet — a great boss who cares, at an organization that will support your growth potential!