And a song to read by: “Aonde Voce Vai,” by Antonio Adolfo
Today’s interview is with Lauren L’Amie, whose thoughts on SEO, the fight for digital eyeballs and Texas sex-education are as elegant as her French last name.
Lauren is from Austin and went to the University of Texas at Austin, before beginning her vertiginous ascent to the ranks of the bona fide East Coast Media Elite. She now lives and works in New York City (technically Brooklyn I think I am supposed to say!), where she is part of the team that fine-tunes the SEO for Wirecutter, a New York Times-owned product review site.
As a result, this particular interview gets a litttttle bit nerdy, but SEO is a source of endless fascination to me and anyone else who cares about ensuring that the things you write make it to the people you want to read them.
Who: Lauren L’Amie, SEO content strategist at Wirecutter
What do you do for Wirecutter?
I’m the content strategist on the SEO side, which means that I’m a part of a team of three, two strategists and one director of search. We work to increase the search readership and organic traffic to the site.
The three of us tackle that in different ways; the other strategist is more hyper-focused on the technical side of SEO: page-linking, interlinking – more product-facing. Then they hired me to be the editorial liaison, so I work mostly with editors to make sure their content is on the page meeting the needs of a search user.
Just out of curiosity: What kind of content management system does Wirecutter use?
We’re owned by the New York Times, so we’re currently migrating our domain to the Times site. That’s actually what I spend a lot of my time doing right now: migration work.
We use Wordpress right now, which I think surprises people. But Wirecutter started as a blog that took off at the height of blogging, in 2011 — Gawker’s primetime. It kept getting bigger, but they never took it off of Wordpress.
How did you learn to do SEO? Was it something you learned by osmosis, or did you say at some point, “I want to be an SEO expert”?
I never said that, no. I studied journalism and knew I wanted to be an editor, and that’s kind of where I stopped. I was heavily involved in my college newspaper and magazine, so the natural move was for me to be an editor.
I was an intern at the Daily Dot, and they posted a position for an SEO editor. At the time, I had an extremely rudimentary knowledge of what SEO was. I was like, “Yeah, search, strategy. You write stuff and Google says, ‘Yes this is good,’ and puts it at the top of the page.”
I got the job, and then I was like, “Oh fuck, I don’t know what I’m doing.” But the cool thing about search is that most people who entered into the field did so by accident and learned by osmosis. You don’t have to have extensive knowledge of algorithms to figure out how to solve something for search; it’s just problem-solving and manipulating language.
The media industry always seems to be hopping from one trend to another. Is SEO strategy the same way?
It changes quite a bit. I wouldn’t think of it in the same way as like a “pivot to video”; I wouldn’t approach search as something you just try out because you think there is potential audience there. There have been SEOs working for marketing agencies and businesses for 20 years now, and Google isn’t going anywhere; it’s just evolving.
I think the beast that we have to tackle now is fighting for independent publishers to still have authority in search, because search is where roughly 70% of people are getting their content.
The problem now is that Google itself, through a series of complicated SERP features, is making it so much harder for publishers to rank highly. A lot of people are mad about that, because it gives media organizations much less of a chance to pull in traffic.
That’s interesting, because you work for Wirecutter, which is essentially The New York Times, so I’m curious as to why you’re worried about small publishers. I appreciate it, but why at The New York Times is that something that concerns you?
I think it’s a journalistic ethics question that’s maybe just a bygone era that I’m still attached to. Yes, The Times inherently has more domain authority because of the name, but that doesn’t make it not at the mercy of Google.
The thing that’s fucked up about it is that we’re all at the hands of the largest tech company in the world. Both for small publications and The New York Times, autonomy matters. And Google can give more authority to pages that pay to be in those positions, pages that are keyword-rich but lack actually valuable content, or sites that essentially trick the algorithm with sneaky redirects.
We don’t do paid search; we don’t pay to be in the positions where we are. But you’re right, we don’t really worry about Page One ranking as much as other sites might.
A lot of my opinions come from where I worked recently, at Hearst, which owns hundreds of publications, including really small news outlets, but also some huge magazines like Cosmo, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar.
The way they thought about search, at first, was to game Google. Treat it like a game, win the game. You don’t have to produce quality content that serves a person.
That’s what I love about working at Wirecutter, because that’s the primary concern. Yes, SEO is a game; we have to cater our content to a bunch of tiny robots that have to read it before we cater it to people. That’s the nature of the thing that we do, but I like that we make sure the content is factually correct – always – meets Times journalism standards – because it must —and then we’re concerned with whether or not we’ve targeted the keyword in the meta title.
What’s your favorite thing to write about?
What draws you to writing about health and sex?
Well, I’m from Texas, and I grew up in an extremely conservative home with Texas-standard sex education.
So, once I got to college, I was really interested in writing about these spaces where there were gaps in my own education, and I think there was a lot of room to talk about them openly and honestly on the internet. For me, growing up, the internet taught me everything; I think there’s a lot of value to that.
What’s one trend in media/journalism that you predict will gain popularity this year?
I would really hope that this is an era in which we don’t write prescriptive content so that it suits the needs of these algorithms that we’re fighting with. I love solving the puzzle of getting something to rank, and I do care about that, and it pays the bills, obviously, but Google is getting smarter.
It’s starting to read and digest and categorize content like a human’s brain would. Hopefully with some of the changes to search algorithms, content won’t sound robotic because we won’t have to write it for robots anymore.
What does your media diet look like?
I read The Times every day, I listen to a lot of podcasts – I listen to “The Daily” every day, but I don’t love it every day. I listen to NPR every morning.
I’m obsessed with The Strategist, partially because we compete with them, so I always look at what they’re publishing because we try to out-rank them in every category.
But I’ll say this: I like a lot of their content. Same with The Cut. Any of the New York Mag sites, I love. I read The New Yorker. I fucking loved The Outline, and I’m devastated that it shut down.
What’re you watching right now?
Oh my god I’m watching so much. I will admit to watching trash reality TV. It’s a form of escapism we should all indulge in. I just finished “Too Hot to Handle” on Netflix. It’s awful; it’s amazing.
I watched “Tiger King” like everyone else. I watch a lot of true crime, pretty much every true crime special: Netflix, Hulu, HBO – you name it.
I’m also watching “Insecure” right now, on HBO.
What’re you listening to?
Like everyone I’ve been listening to the new Fiona Apple. I’ve been a long-time Fiona fan, so I was excited about this one.
I’ve also been listening to really comforting music, which, it turns out, is stuff I was listening to when I was 15. So I made a playlist that tries to replicate my teen iPod, i.e. 2010s alt-pop, like Phoenix, The National, Tegan & Sara.
It’s really nice! Music doesn’t sound like that anymore, because it was so much happier. I guess I’m listening to pre-Recession tunes.
What’re you reading?
I just finished a Lydia Davis novel, which was very devastating. It was about loneliness, which was bad timing. I started reading it when everything started blowing up and I was like, “Oof this isn’t doing it for me.”
Now I’m reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection, which has very similar themes and characters to “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.”
You’re reading about characters who are saying very awful, outlandish things all the time, but I think it’s about all of the things that we all think and never say. Generally acknowledging that all people are terrible, which is really pessimistic but I think it’s kind of beautiful.
What do you miss most about Texas?
The sun. The people. I miss public interactions, with strangers, that I don’t seem to have here. I’ve met a lot of warm, kind, wonderful here, but on my worst days I just wish that my barista was weirdly chatty. Those are the kinds of interactions I miss. And obviously my entire family.