Key Insights from KeyRelevance's Christine Churchill

It’s no secret that the SEO industry is full of stunning women. No, Jane and Lisa didn’t pay me to write that but I’d be happy to accept payment, if they insist. KeyRelevance‘s Christine Churchill, however, takes it to a new level. Obviously being a supermodel simply didn’t interest her. At the risk of gushing like a 14 year old boy, this woman is an absolute goddess. In our wonderful email conversations and during the unfortunately brief time we had to chat at LondonSEO, I discovered that pedestals were created especially for women like this.

Without further embarrassing nonsense on my part, I give you the lovely Christine Churchill, who was kind enough to let me interview her, something that made me giggle with glee.


KeyRelevance’s Christine Churchill

Q: You have an utterly frighteningly impressive background, speaking at conferences, moderating forums, writing for industry publications, serving on boards and industry associations, running companies…I could go on and on, as anyone who reads this blog knows. However, what I find most striking about you is that with all these prolific contributions to online marketing and SEO, you continue to do interesting things. How do you keep yourself wanting to stay so involved?

Thank you for the kind words Julie.  I’m afraid my accomplishments are quite humble compared to many others in this industry, but I love search, so it feels natural to me to stay involved.   That said, there are a few things that motivate me and keep me excited about search.  I love how search continually morphs and evolves.  The SEO of today is different and better than the SEO of the 90s.

I also like the variety of working with different clients.  Online marketing is an industry that every business can benefit from.  Over the years I have had the honor to work in a variety of verticals and with a variety of niches including cruise lines and hotels, steel foundries, schools, ecommerce sites, security companies, babies to brides, software companies, service companies, etc.  I’ve worked with sole proprietorships, partnerships, and large publicly traded companies.  I’ve worked on nationally focused and locally focused companies.  This variety is an important part of what keeps the work fresh and interesting.  It is still fun for me to get involved with a company and help them to figure out what they need and how KeyRelevance can help them to solve their problems and achieve their goals.  My company is small, and I like it that way: I want to stay “hands-on” with my clients and not just be a figurehead.  That hands-on involvement as a part of their team is what keeps things “alive” for me.

If your day SEO work doesn’t give you exposure to a variety of niches, something you can do on your own time to help renew your love of search is to apply the knowledge to work on hobby and personal interests sites.  I would encourage any SEO to have a few fun sites.  Playing on these sites allows the SEO to hone skills, try out new ideas, and explore the changing landscape of the search engines.

Finally, I would have to say that one of the biggest ways I have found to keep search “fresh” is to find ways to use search skills to “give back.”  I still believe in that old saying “the more you give, the more you get in return.”   For me, I have found that getting involved with local non-profit and other local grassroots groups gives me a new energy and a positive intangible feeling.   Almost every organization wants a strong web presence and they rarely know how to go about achieving it.  When you offer search skills; it’s usually very welcomed.

I like to get involved with activities that overlap in my personal interests.  For example, I am an avid horse person and love children and the environment.  I didn’t have to look very far to find local organizations needing talent.   I’ve donated time to my local school district, a therapeutic horse riding school, and a local conservation organization.  In fact, I am on the Board of Directors of the local non-profit conservation group right now.   There is nothing like having to work on a shoestring budget to challenge your creative skills.  It will revitalize you, improve your skills, and remind you that search can be fun.  Isn’t that the reason we all got into search in the first place?

Q: Have you had instances where you felt that you weren’t taken as seriously as you would have been if you’d been a man? Strong women aren’t always 100% welcomed, sadly.

I grew up with four brothers who thought of me as their punk little sister, so I learned early in life how a woman often has to work twice as hard to be taken seriously.  The good news is that the Internet is a great equalizer.  It is new technology, and with the World Wide Web being around for less than 15 years, I think it has avoided some of the good-ol’-boys stigmatism that exists in other established industries.

I also feel that the generational difference in the WWW-era companies has helped women.  Younger generations are often very accepting of women as equals.  We do still see some problems when the SEO companies have to speak to old-school bricks-and-mortar companies and their sometimes entrenched philosophies, but overall I think women in search are taken very seriously.

If you can show positive results, it doesn’t matter what your gender is, you’ll be taken seriously.  One of my favorite tag lines belongs to my dear friend and SEO super star Rae Hoffman.  Rae is one of the most amazing and inspiring people I know, on or off the web.  Rae’s tag line sums up the essence of the strong capable woman who can hold her own in any world.  It reads “never mess with a woman who can pull rank.”  I still smile every time I read it.

Q: How do you like being a Ninja?

Well, it is always nice to be recognized.  When my daughter found out I was an Internet Marketing Ninja, she wanted to know if I was going to get one of those cool ninja uniforms.  So, Jim Boykin, if you read this, I’m still waiting for my ninja outfit to arrive.  Oh and Jim, I need it in Tall. 

Q: You’ve taught SEO classes before. You’ve probably also worked with people who haven’t been schooled in SEO. Do you think that SEO is something that can be learned, or do you think that you also need to possess an innate ability to do it well?

The old nature versus nurture question applied to SEO.    Taking a training course in basic SEO techniques and thinking that’s all you need to be successful in your new career, is akin to someone handing you the first ingredient in an award winning recipe and not telling you the amounts, the other ingredients, nor the techniques needed.  SEO, by itself,  is not rocket science and while there are a number of basic tenets that should be followed for all sites, there are many other essential ingredients that you need in the mix to cook up the tastiest dish.  Basic SEO tenets can be taught pretty easily, but there is definitely an art to the process and a finesse that takes time and experience to develop.

Here’s the essence of the problem.  You cannot simply and blindly follow formulas (X% Keyword density, Y # of out bound links per page, etc.) to make SEO work.  SEOs that follow this mechanical technical approach will get limited results.  Those techniques might have worked in 1999 when SEO was more formulaic, but today the SEO needs to be a marketer – they need to think bigger picture and more holistically.

Today you obviously still need to know the technical mechanics of optimization, but to be really successful you need to have many skill sets.  To stay successful in online marketing you have to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to force yourself to learn new techniques and expand your abilities.  If you’re not actively out there developing new skills, you’ll wilt on the vine.  This drive to excel requires passion….it’s a characteristic I’ve seen in all successful search marketers.  Those who don’t have passion don’t stay in the industry long.

In addition to having a passion for search, there are some important skills sets that a good SEO needs to acquire.  First, an SEO needs to know HTML code.  You don’t necessarily have to be a coder, but  I would encourage anyone coming into the industry to at least learn a smattering of basic HTML….if they can’t do that, they will always be limited in how far they can go with SEO.  You need to be able to at least look at code because you need to be able to see a page as a search engine sees it.

Something else a good SEO needs to develop is persuasive copywriting skills.   Again, you don’t have to be Pulitzer Prize-caliber writer, but learning how to write for the web is a conscious effort that pays off many times more than the effort required to learn it.   Writing is something that improves the more you practice.

Another skill set a good marketer should acquire is a solid grounding in usability – the ability to know what makes a site easier to use.  There is strong synergy between SEO and usability.  The very things you do to make a web site easier for the user, is often the same things you do to make it easier for the search engines to crawl the site.   Visitors are like a search engine spider – if they don’t see an easy way to navigate and extract information from your site, they leave.  Having a good understanding for what makes a site usable and convert requires knowledge in motivational and behavioral psychology.  We are all complex beings motivated by different needs.  Identifying what a visitor needs and wants is the first step in satisfying them.  This is one of the reasons I’m a big advocate for live user testing.  I love data to identify a problem area on a web site, but there is nothing as effective as feedback straight from a user to tell you the “why” behind a problem.

A practical skill a good SEO should cultivate is the ability to see creative ways to get links.  Because the engines weigh linkage data so heavily in their ranking algorithms, linking is an essential ingredient for online success and being able to locate and secure topical links from high quality sites is a requirement.

Finally, a good SEO needs to be an expert in analytics.  This is where the SEO gets their feedback.  It’s the report card that tells the SEO whether the campaign worked or didn’t.  Analytics guide the search marketer on which direction to take.  It provides the search marketer the information they need to make good marketing decisions.

I hope my comments don’t make someone new to the industry feel overwhelmed.  What I’m really saying is that the basic SEO training is like learning the alphabet.  You grow and learn the power of words after you master the alphabet.  SEO training will help, but it by itself will only take you so far: you also need the passion and drive to keep pushing yourself to be a lifelong learner.

The appeal of search marketing is that it is complex and meshes together many disciplines.  My advice to anyone entering the industry is this:  fall in love with search, and let that passion ignite a fire inside you that will motivate you to commit to yourself to continually learn and grow.   If you take the learning in digestible pieces, it’s not overwhelming.  And this continual need to learn more has a great side effect – it will make the industry fascinating and will keep you engaged for years to come.

Q: How do you feel about the current trend of loads of people going to conferences but not actually attending them, only going for the networking aspect? How important IS networking to you?

From what I’ve observed, there are four main reasons people attend conferences:  1) advertising (on the part of vendors), 2) training (for those new to SEO or looking to expand/update their breadth and depth of knowledge, 3) renewing/maintaining friendships/business relationships, and 4) making new contacts/networking.  Most attendees have two or more of these reasons in mind when attending the conferences.

The search landscape is always changing (look at universal search, PPC changes, the emergence of social media, etc.), so keeping in touch with the changes in the landscape is important.  Personally I feel conferences are the best professional development opportunities we have.  Due to the rapid changes in the search industry, it is VERY difficult to stay current on your own.  Conferences are one way to be immersed in all the changes all at once.   Even if you work full time in this industry, you can’t keep up to speed with all the massive changes that occur on a regular basis in this industry, but conferences can at least alert you to the most important changes and give you the opportunity to talk directly with the people instrumental to the changes.  From my perspective, the benefits derived from conferences outweigh any monetary costs associated with them.

You asked specifically about how important is networking to me.  I’d say it ranks fairly high for me.  Online marketing today requires you to often reach beyond your own agency.  The conferences are opportunities to meet face to face and develop new friendships or explore new working relationships.  I’ve partnered on different contracts with a large number of people and companies over the years.   And with the growth of social media, I think the need to maintain and expand our networks has grown, so I see the networking role of conferences growing in the future.

Q: What voids need to be filled in the industry? Some people want women-only conferences, or blackhat conferences; some people think that we need a set of industry standards, or professional certifications. What do you see as being the next big steps that we take as a group?

I’d have to better understand what you mean by a women only conference.  I wouldn’t want to be part of a conference that excludes anyone.  A conference that excludes men is just as sexist as one that only allows men.

That said, I am in favor of woman-focused conferences that focus on women related subjects so long as the conferences allow men.  Women are nurturers and often only another woman can understand the struggles another woman is facing.  Women often get societal and familial pressures that aren’t exerted on men.  There is a sisterhood of support that often develops between women as a result.  I know other women have helped me along the way and I’m happy to help other women as well.

You asked about industry standards and certifications.  Most professions have standards to maintain quality and to control entrance into a profession.  At some point I do see the search industry moving to standards, but currently I have some heartburn with many of the certification programs I’ve seen.  With the exception of Google’s professional certification which offers a free Learning Center, most certification programs require you to sign up for an expensive training program before you can take the certification test.  If I were a cynical person I might say a certification program that first required you to pay for expensive  training gives the perception of a money making scam.  I think you should be able to take the test without having to buy the training program.  This would take experience and prior knowledge into account.    I think for someone new in the industry who doesn’t have years of experience that getting certified is one way to show that you have some knowledge of SEO.  However I have to say, years experience and past SEO success rate are a better metric for future SEO success than a certification paper any day.

Q: How have things changed for you over the past 10 years? I’ve only been doing SEO for 5 years and the changes have been dramatic. Has it gotten more difficult? Or have things become more interesting?

Nothing remains so constant as change.  Since I became involved in SEO back in the mid 90s, there have been tremendous changes.  I’ve seen engines come and go in importance.   AltaVista, Lycos, and Netscape were the big targets back then.   Google didn’t even exist back then, except perhaps in the minds of Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Over the years, the changes have fortunately been more evolutionary than revolutionary.  For those of us who have been in the industry awhile have been able to learn gradually and adapt to those changes.   I think the width and depth required for a new person coming into the industry can be intimidating.  Their learning curve is certainly larger than ours, but still very achievable.  I think my earlier comments about SEO training as a starting point express my philosophy on how someone entering the industry should approach it.  I am in the camp where if you’re going to do something – do it the best you can.  And it’s easier to do your best if you love what you’re doing.  So cultivate a love for search.  It has to be more than a job.  Embrace it with unabashed passion and you’ll go far.

Q: How do you feel about social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter? Useful, or timewasters?

I have mixed feelings on social media.  I like connecting with my friends via the social sites, but I’m a very private person, I am not one to twitter about what I ate for breakfast.  The internet has made us all live hybrid existences – there is a blurring of our online and offline selves.  This brings with it a bit of a danger.  Sometimes we reveal more than we should online – so there may be privacy issues at risk.  Also, and blame my years of working in corporate America for this, but I think professional image can be tarnished by the informality that people adopt on social sites.   People need to stop a minute and think more about what they are transmitting on the live web.  Sure you’re friends are reading your online rant, but so are your clients, competitors, potential investors and others…..  I think if people slowed down and proof read their post before pressing enter, it might save them some embarrassment and heart ache.

On the positive side, social media is a valuable way to communicate and open a dialog with your customer base.  The breath of social media and the ease of using it make it an effective way to get direct feedback from users and to learn what users want – so from a marketing perspective it is a powerful tool.  That back and forth exchange of information also makes social media a great way for companies to let their target audience know about what the company is doing and about new products or services it might be offering.  So, from this relationship building point of view I’m very pro social media.

Q: Lastly, what are your hopes for women in this field? How can we continue to gain the respect we deserve without it being a women’s issue?

I am optimistic about women in search.  Because it’s a new profession, you don’t have the long-time glass ceilings you have in other industries.  The skill sets required for search are in high demand, so companies are vying to hire and keep search skills.  They don’t care the gender; they want to attract the best talent.

I think search offers a special appeal for women.   Because you can do a lot of search related work over the Internet, all you need are the skills and an Internet connection.  I think for women juggling the demands of a family and a job, the ability to work from home holds extra attraction.  I originally started KeyRelevance so I could be at home when my daughter arrived from school.   I had worked in the corporate world for years and was tired of the long commute each day – I couldn’t find a job that allowed me to work from home, so I created one.

The Internet has changed the work environment.  Twitter and IM are the online equivalents of the watercooler.   I think for people with a strong work ethic and who can work independently, working from home is ideal.  That is a plus for both men and women.  Many people who work from home tell me they are more productive at home and really enjoy the benefits.   So as long as people work hard and do their job, I see the work at home option growing for both genders.

Note from Julie: I’m including this last bit so that it’s on record and I can refer to it whenever I am having a bad day…

Julie, it was a pleasure talking with you today.  I’m honored that you deemed me worth interviewing.   I’m also glad I had the opportunity to meet you in person at SMX London.  I will attest that your warm personality is as delightful in person as it comes across in your writing.  I hope to visit with you again very soon.

Tags: Christine Churchill, Key Relevance, KeyRelevance, SEO