Senior Director at Healthline Media, Ryan Purtill runs SEO for one of largest and fastest growing consumer health publishers in the world, which includes the Healthline.com and MedicalNewsToday.com domains. Ryan shares the wisdom of his journey from studying psychology to becoming an SEO expert:
- What did he learn about his marketing career path by working at an agency?
- What’s his advice when creative culture is lacking?
- What are the SEO and soft skills he learned in the world of psychology?
- Does one need a sense of altruism to work in healthcare?
- How does he work cross functionally with engineers, designers, and editorial?
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Ben: Welcome to Career Day on the Voices of Search podcast. Today we’re going to learn about the skills accumulated and the lessons learned from a great SEO throughout the various stops on his career. Joining us for Career Day is an SEO expert focused on the healthcare space, who has also dabbled in comedy and becoming a therapist.
Ben: Ryan Purtill is the Senior Director of SEO at Healthline Media, which is the second largest and fastest growing consumer health publisher in the world with domains including Healthline.com, MedicalNewsToday.com, and Greatest.com, Healthline Media reaches over 300 million people a month. Before we hear from Ryan I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise-scale businesses monitor their online presence, and make data-driven decisions.
Ben: To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic where a member of our Digital Strategies Group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your three digital diagnostic, go to Searchmetrics.com/Diagnostic.
Ben: Okay, here is our interview with Senior Director of SEO at Healthline Media, Ryan Purtill. Ryan, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.
Ryan: Thanks so much for having me, Ben. As I was mentioning to you, we’ve been fans I think since episode number one, so it’s really cool and surreal to actually be on the podcast.
Ben: I am elated to have you here. It’s always great to have a member of the SEO community and a listener of the podcast join us. More than anything, I appreciate you reaching out and saying some kind words of the show, and sharing it with your team. It’s a love fest here, and I can’t wait to hear your story and learn a little bit about SEO from you.
Ben: Why don’t we start off by you telling us a little bit about how you got into SEO?
Ryan: Yeah, I think if I could track it back to the earliest, I was a senior at the University, and I think like most communication majors in their senior year, they’re very worried about finding a job. I had the dual kind of unfortunateness of being a theology minor as well, so I didn’t have a ton of employers knocking down my door, even though was an awesome university.
Ryan: At that time, what a lot of people used was CareerBuilder and Monster. And you’d put your resume in and you’d try to find someone to kind of connect with. I remember putting my resume in, and the cool thing about Monster and CareerBuilder was you could search either as someone who’s looking for a job, or someone who was looking to hire someone. So, I started trying to see if I could find myself, like if I was an employer could I find me? So I started typing in all these different things in their kind of search and seeing if my resume would pop up.
Ryan: More and more I’d be like, “I’m nowhere near this. I’m on page nine here.” So, then I started trying to optimize my job description, my resume to actually for what I thought employers would be searching for. A lot is very like… I didn’t realize there was a whole community of people doing this on a much larger scale. I just started doing all of the dumb tactics that you would see kind of how the SEO doing. So, I’m keyword stuff, I’m putting white text, I’m hiding things behind images to see if I can kind of manipulate the Monster and CareerBuilder algorithm.
Ryan: Over enough time of studying and the people who were coming up in search, I started ranking for all the things that I was trying to do, and job offers started coming in. It was kind of a cool first light bulb of like, “Oh, this is how in the future,” as the web kind of continues, “this is going to kind of be the future of all sorts of different industries.” So that’s when the first button started going off in my head. I ended up getting a job at an agency level. It was not SEO at all. It was like early branding PR stuff, because I’m a COMs major.
Ryan: But my roommate that I lived with right after college actually worked in paid search, and they were at an agency where they were just starting to do organic search, one of the first search agencies in Philadelphia. Then I started getting exposure through him, and eventually working at that agency, and then really started to cut my teeth on how professionals do SEO.
Ben: Incredible story. The fact that you are really a born SEO as opposed to one who decided to get it into a career path, that you were doing search optimization before even finding a job. You mentioned that you started off working in an agency, and I see on your LinkedIn page you were at Zero to Five, and then you went to unreal marketing and then back to Zero to Five. Talk me through that early point of your career. Were you bouncing around? Did you go back and forth to the same company? How’d that all happen?
Ryan: How that kind of happened was, so I’m working at Zero to Five. It’s really like a media/PR-type agency. They do some early brand stuff, working with very early tech education-type startups. I’m using some SEO techniques, but really in the realm of PR. So, this is at the time where you’re like, “Oh, you could optimize the press release to try to get more eyes on things,” or I’m writing up bids and I’m like, “Okay, how can I use search information to try to get this in front of more reporters,” and things like that.
Ben: You’re just an SEO hiding in a PR man’s skin.
Ryan: Basically, yeah. I thought I was being kind of hacky, and “Oh, this is just a creative way,” but realized I kind of liked that more than what I was actually doing. So, also a pitch process of PR, I hate it. I hated calling up people and kind of doing the schmooze of, “Hey, you should talk to my client about-” I didn’t like that. I liked it way more on the digital landscape, but I was able to get by, by doing these kinds of… I would call them hacks at the time, of getting reporters in front of press releases or whatever.
Ryan: Essentially what happened was as I got kind of connected with my roommate and his kind of agency, they offered me a job to be an SEO copywriter for them, because I was a good writer. That early job at Zero to Five really honed me as a professional writer, because your ghost writing for CEOs and CMOs and you’re 22 years old. So, learn how to write really quickly and well. Eventually, I started working as an SEO copywriter, and that’s where they really started teaching me SEO.
Ryan: Eventually, the original firm reached back out to me and said, “Hey, we’d like you to come back. We know you didn’t like the media pitching and media training side of things. ”
Ben: But none of our press releases are showing up in Google. Please help.
Ryan: Yeah. They reached out and said, “Why don’t you start up an SEO component at our agency? We haven’t done it before. You know our business. You know our clients. You kind of know where this might fit in, and now you have a little bit of chops on the SEO side. Why don’t you come back and start it up on the agency level?” At that time, on real marketing, which was a crazy, fun place to work and just oodles of talent in that group, I look back on the people I worked with and they’re directors at Google and Razorfish. It’s just an amalgamation of just really high talent.
Ryan: That agency was starting to go on its decline. They eventually got bought. It was right before they got bought, so I could kind of read the writing on the wall and was like, “I don’t think we’re going to be hanging around here much more.”
Ben: Talk to me about that experience. There’s a lot of people that have come onto the show on our Career Day segment that have had some experience both as an in-house marketer and jokingly what I call an out-house marketer, somebody that’s a consultant or works at an agency. A lot of the times the agencies either are acquired, or there’s some sort of dynamic shift in the business, or they try to expand too fast and something happens. How did you know, or what gave you the sense now looking back, that the agency wasn’t doing well and it was time to go?
Ryan: Yeah, so there were a couple things that were very clear. There was kind of layoffs in different groups, and you started seeing it being starting to get kind of streamlined in the sense of covering their expenses. Some other things, there were some certain big clients that we weren’t very well diversified, but they had huge brands. This is USA, and Chase Manhattan, and all these different groups, but they lost a really big client and didn’t really communicate that well internally but you could kind of hear… You saw different groups saying, “Hey, we’re not doing those calls anymore.”
Ryan: So, it was kind of more like piece by piece. It wasn’t super overly communicated to the group, but you could kind of feel it. It was also kind of a tail end in that development where it’s like, “Hey, I’ve learned a whole bunch about SEO, but I’d really like to own it from the start not just be kind of copywriting.” I kind of liked the… I was starting to get into RFPs and starting to understand technical SEO, so I’m like, “Hell, this is a cool way that I can start owning this,” and then that opportunity came at a really good time from it.
Ben: I think it’s really important lesson, and mostly for people that are early on in their careers, or at an agency and they’re not really sure about the direction they’re heading. At any agency, there’s a lot of volatility. It sounds like you were sort of using your instinct and saw some of the writing on the wall, but I feel like that’s an experience that a lot of SEOs have gone through. They sort of wait until the bitter end because they’re not really sure. They’re sort of heads down trying to do the optimization, and aren’t paying attention to how their business is doing because they are not working in-house. They don’t own the brand relationship.
Ben: It’s interesting to hear how you figured out what was happening. You went back to Zero to Five and you were now focused on SEO specifically. What was the reason you went back to the same company, and how was that experience?
Ryan: The reason originally was, is hey I kind of understand these guys. I understand their business. There’ll be less of lead-up. They’re giving me a big opportunity to just own something and kind of plug me into their sales pipeline. So I was like, “Oh, these are all really good opportunities for me.” There was also some other things in the terms of going back, I also had some… And I think this is a little bit about just being early on in your career. I think when you first go to a place, and if you see certain things that don’t really jive with your development style or your learning style, or how you like to be managed, you kind of think that’s the whole world. That’s how the world operates business-wise.
Ryan: You don’t realize, “Oh, every company has a really distinct culture.” If there’s certain things that don’t align perfectly, you have an opportunity to go to other places and test out different things. I think I was a little too naive for that, and I kind of thought, “Oh, I’ll go back to this place, but I bet things will be different. Things will feel different kind of culturally.” Zero to Five is a great agency. It just didn’t personally set up really well with me in terms of creating a development culture that I was looking for.
Ryan: When I came back, a good learning for me was, “Oh yeah, this is still here.” I wasn’t crazy the first time around. I wasn’t too young. Sometimes you can play those games kind of retroactively and say, “Oh wait, you know I was right out of college, and I was still learning. That’s why it was a struggle to really get developed there.” Then you go to a new agency, and you’re like, “Oh, this really works. Okay, it’s me. I’ve been maturing.” But your culture is so important early on in developing you. When I went back to Zero to Five, even though I had this new role, and the duties I liked a lot more, and there’s people there that I’m lifetime friends with, and there’s people I like, the culture of really developing and this kind of creative culture wasn’t there.
Ben: Yeah, there is a dating metaphor, and I’m probably going to get myself in trouble for this, but it’s like when you break up with a girlfriend, boyfriend, significant other, whoever it is, and you go away and date other people, and you come back and you start dating that person again thinking it’s going to be different, and it’s still the same underlying person.
Ben: Companies have their own identity, and because they are an amalgamation of a group of people, it’s really hard to change that identity. For better or for worse. You might want a culture that embraces sort of creative freedom and liberty, and they have a ton of structure. Not to say, they’re good or bad, but sometimes you just know that the relationship is or isn’t going to work.
Ben: Eventually you move on from Zero to Five, and you move pretty far across the country. Talk to me about how you landed your next gig. It’s a little different. Why don’t you tell us the story.
Ryan: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. As I’m at Zero to Five, the culture’s not quite grasping for me. I’m finding myself unhappy, just fundamentally unhappy in work life and personal life, and all these things. I took a little time out and just kind of reflected, and tried to… What am I missing in this whole thing?
Ben: You needed more beer.
Ryan: Yeah, well that was part of it. A big part of it is I felt I’m not helping anyone. I’m doing anything that helps anyone. Actually between Zero to Five and my next career move, I went and got a master’s degree in clinical psychology. I was going to be a therapist. I did three years at Villanova. I stayed with Villanova, and did their graduate program in counseling psychology. It was just one of the best boot camps that you can possibly do in your life.
Ryan: The soft skills that I developed there had been fundamental throughout my success later on in life. It was such a core foundation of one, finding that something like I’ve got feel like I’m helping people. I’ve got to feel like I’m selling a product that I really care about. I think that’s missed on a lot of particularly young marketers. It’s like, “Oh, I want to be at this company.” It’s like, do you love that product? Could you actually put yourself in the user’s shoes? Could you actually execute on a tenth of way that a user would?
Ryan: I think part of that is knowing your product and loving your product. Being in a graduate program really helped me start solidifying what are my value systems, what do I care about. This is all in Philadelphia, right outside of Philadelphia. During this time, I also meet my now-fiancé who’s from Marin, from California. She’s at grad school at UPenn. We’ve been dating now for like four or five years, and she goes, “I want to go back to California. Would you come back to California?”
Ryan: Now, this made things really kind of interesting for me, because the rules for being a therapist in different states is different. When you’re all set up to be a therapist in Pennsylvania and you move to California, the rules change on you pretty quick. All of a sudden I have an apartment to pay for in San Francisco, and one of the rules in California was you need to acquire almost about three years of unpaid hours before you’re an MST. That’s their here.
Ryan: I was like, “Uh, oh. I can’t really afford to not work for three years with San Francisco rent,” so I found myself in this hard place of do I go into a PhD program? I had been accepted to USF PhD program.
Ryan: U-S-F, University of San Francisco.
Ryan: And do I want to go that route and continue schooling, and then when I’m out there’re less hours you have to do if you have a doctorate. Or, can I find some sort of middle ground where I feel like I’m helping people and kind of doing this other analytical kind of approach. Actually, for me SEO and psychology are… I’ve had so many interviewers who go, “This is an odd pairing. It seems like it’s a departure.” To me, it’s not a departure at all. It’s kind of like input/output systems. It’s like what new element can you introduce to a dynamic that you can’t really see how it works, and it’s going to be super complex like the human brain or Google’s algorithm, both very complex. Then, how can you get a result from that?
Ryan: From that result, how do you do it again? What would you change in the input to get an output? So this opportunity kind of came up… And again, in the meantime I had worked for a brewery just because I was trying to find… That was kind of my time of what do I do? Do I go into the PhD program? Do I try to do something else? So I worked for a brewery and distillery for a little bit doing marketing for them. Really, the big opportunity came with Healthline.
Ben: Before we get into your current role, I do want to hear what you’re doing at Healthline, the interesting thing to me is you said that there is a sort of obviously correlation between becoming a therapist or understanding human psychology and being an SEO. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that. To me, just as a marketer in general, understanding human behavior, understanding who your customers are, what their value systems are, and being able to predict and adjust your marketing campaigns to their behaviors, is something that is very much tied into human psychology.
Ben: Now, using Google and manipulating the words that you have on a page, and your tactical SEO to get it to rank is a tactic, but at the fundamental level we are all marketers listening to this show trying to understand how to provide our users with relevant content. I do think that there’s absolutely a correlation there.
Ryan: I absolutely agree. Really, and to clarify what I was getting from employers or people I was talking to was, “Your clear path seems to be-”
Ben: Well, they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Ryan: Yeah, and that’s how I felt. At the heart of all marketing is human psychology, so having to grasp at that is huge. Also, the world I kind of was in, in psychology, is a bit of branch of psychology, which is all user-centric. It’s all about how do you focus on the relationship with the client? They found out, “Hey, actually the most curative factor that you can have here is a relationship with your therapist.” So, this kind of user-centricity, even in the School of Psychology that I was most interested in, to me was a direct correlation in that it’s marketing. How do you become super user-centric, and then how do you deliver on that promise for your user?
Ben: So, you’ve developed some technical skills early on in your career. You’re learning SEO. You have some writing skills based on your work out of college. You decide you’re going to take a step back and learn a little bit about human psychology. You start slinging some beer, working in PR and marketing for a brewery to pay the bills in San Francisco. Tell me the story of how you connected the dots and ended up at Healthline.
Ryan: I had a friend reach out to me, and this is just a good queue for anyone listening, of keep your contacts alive from all these agencies. Frank, who really taught me SEO is now one of the leaders at Bodify, reached out to me and said, “Hey-” they’ve asked me to go for this senior SEO role in San Francisco. I live in New York, so I’m happy to do that. But I told them, “I know an SEO in San Francisco if you’re interested.”
Ryan: I looked at it and I said, “You know what? I kind of like where I’m at right now, and I kind of like, but the idea that if I do my job really well, I can help a lot of people kind of scratched this double itch for me. Like, this curiosity itch I always had on the SEO side of figuring things out. But, this other therapist side that was I want to help people. I want to help people have a better life. As I was kind of looking at health content around, and I wasn’t ultimately familiar with Healthline, I just like everyone else just kind of Googling around, I just felt content-wise, the content was just so much more empathetic and just so much more usable, that I was like if I do my job well I can save lives here.
Ryan: That’s really cool. So, it kind of worked out because kind of fell on my plate and someone said, “Hey, here’s this opportunity,” and I said, “Yeah, this seems to scratch both itches,” and went and interviewed.
Ben: Okay, so you find a role that sort of scratches both itches as you mentioned, sort of the satiation of being able to put the puzzle together and understand how to use the technical skills that you’ve developed, and also this sort of sense of altruism that you want to be able to do something to help the people around you. Talk to me about what your role is at Healthline. I see that in the what looks like four years that you’ve been there, you’ve been promoted twice. You’re obviously moving up very quickly. Talk to me about the responsibilities you had, and how those changed over the time you’ve been there.
Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. I came in as Senior SEO Manager, and it was a pretty small team. I reported directly to our Senior Vice President, and there was just one other person on the team and they really worked in a building capacity, like reaching out, doing outreach and trying to gain links to the site. It started off pretty small. Since then, now we have a team of 10, and we have two new domains since that time in Medical News Today and Greatest.
Ryan: The company has really been growing incredibly fast. The roles, to our management’s credit which I think really allowed me to flourish, they gave me a lot of room to say, “Hey, we do pretty well in search. You have a good head start here but build a process around this. Build a team around this.” They let me build my own team, let me really try to figure out where I wanted to send the direction of the company which was really awesome, especially as someone who’s just coming from a place where I didn’t really have that opportunity to scale, do these things.
Ryan: It was like a breath of just pure energy, and I was like, “Oh, okay we can do this.” One of the first kind of things that we did was really get into a data-informed process. The SEO data that we had prior to this was more of just, “Yeah, we check out rankings and we check out organic search,” but we didn’t have this huge kind of demand process that we have now. That took years to kind of get set up. Once that started moving and started doing really good. So, I manage now like a team of 10. We span three domains, and our job is really… There’s lots of different things.
Ryan: I always say, “SEO is the amalgamation of making sure lots of people at Healthline are doing a really good job,” and that includes our engineers, and our designers, and obviously our editorial group. I’ve kind of been emerged in all these groups, and kind of as a consultant and part team member for all of them. We do everything on the technical side of things, but really our primary drive is we pick the topics that we’re going to write on in the future, and we execute on those in a way will rank really well, and will drive traffic.
Ryan: There’re all sorts of little side initiatives that are attached to that, but that’s the gist of it.
Ben: As you think back on your career going from being a student at Villanova as a communication and theology major, developing your skills, deciding to take a departure and learn about human psychology, and now back into SEO and moving from an operator to a manager role, what advice do you have for other people who feel creative, want to solve solutions in the way that you did when you found your job? What can you tell them to encourage them to sort of drive down a path that they feel is right for them?
Ryan: Sure, great question. The first thing I would just say as advice is there is hope. I remember this feeling when I first started out, and the kind of lacking on the technical skills, and lacking on the upfront stuff, and just feeling like, “Okay, there’s no real place for my creativity to shine. There’s no real place for culture building to shine.” I find as I’d gotten further on in my career, that technical kind of stuff, which you need and you’re going to get anyway if you’re starting off, but it becomes less and less important the higher you go.
Ryan: Your emotional intelligence gets more and more important. Your ability to talk to people and influence people, and really listen and understand problems, those kinds of soft skills will shine later on. I remember having this feeling of if I never got out of the entry level kind of roles, I would never have had a chance for these skill sets to shine. The other part of is find people that value that. When you interview with companies or you’re thinking about going somewhere, bring those questions to an interview. Talk about, “Hey, what sort of culture do you have here in terms of development? Can you give me an idea of how you’ve allowed employees to kind of build influencing skillsets later on in their career path?”
Ryan: Those kinds of things, there’s people out there that care about it. There’s people out there that will foster it, and are looking for that. First thing is don’t lose hope at all. The second thing is try to get I would say experiences on multiple levels. I tell everyone if you’re going into the SEO world, get agency experience and get in-house experience. They’re so different from each other. Both will help you be just a better SEO in general on the tactical side. The skills that you need, in my opinion, on the agency level are just so different than the skills you need on the in-house, both of them together just make you an unstoppable force.
Ryan: On the agency side, you’ve got to be able to politic. You’ve got to be able to sell a package. You’ve got to be able to understand customer needs on various different levels because you’re jumping into lots of different companies. In-house is where you start developing these long set skills. How do you test and iterate? How do you really understand your business, and how do effect it? I always say try to get experience on both of those sides, and don’t lose hope. If early on in your career you feel like you’re not being creatively used, that’s pretty common. Look for people that will use you. Stand up, and try to make a little noise and hopefully someone gives you an opportunity to kind of bring those skills home.
Ben: I think that’s all incredible advice, and I appreciate that you’re taking the long view and not just necessarily focusing on what people can do to start the career but finding the path for them. Ryan, let me just say, I want to reiterate how much I appreciate you listening to the show, how much I appreciate you reaching out and it’s great to have you as our guest, and as a listener of the show.
Ben: As the host and co-producer, let me just say thanks for sticking with us, and it’s great to have you here.
Ryan: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on, Ben. I’m looking forward to the next episodes. You guys are doing an awesome job. Tell Jordan I said hi.
Ben: Will do, okay. Okay, and that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Ryan Purtill, the Senior Director of SEO at Healthline Media. If you’d like to learn more about Ryan, you could find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can send him a Tweet @RyanPurtill2. Or, you could visit his company’s website which is Healthline.com.
Ben: If you have general marketing questions, or if you’d like to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a Tweet @BenJShap. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility or to gain competitive insights, head over to Searchmetrics.com/Diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our Digital Strategies Team.
Ben: If you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed later this week. Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this episode and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the Apple iTunes Store, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Ben: Okay, that’s it for today. Until next time, remember the answers are always in the data.