Interview with Christine Churchill

MARK: Search is really a pretty young industry, so you talk to anyone who’s been in this business ten years and essentially that’s instant “old school…”

CHRISTINE: Yeah, it didn’t exist before then.

MARK: And then there are trickles of it twelve years ago, that would be 96, but no companies; so what we’re going to do is try to understand what got Christine Churchill interested in search in the very beginning, if you can think back; your inspiration, maybe your first site or two, and then your transition into a company.

CHRISTINE: Well, what got me started… I’ve got probably one of the most bizarre backgrounds in search, I was a missile officer in the military and I did computer simulations of missile trajectories and deployment sites and things like that. I actually help pick deployment sites for Desert Storm and places like that in the Middle East.

MARK: Ok, that’s new.

CHRISTINE: Well, it’s all targeting, ha-ha… just a different kind of targeting. But, I was kind of considered a “techie geek,” and one time my boss – this was the early 90’s – he came in my office and said, “You’re geeky, we need a website, nobody knows how to do these things. Can you build a website?” Well I was clueless at the time; I had never built a website.

MARK: 91/92?

CHRISTINE: It was probably 93 or 94? It was pretty early on. So, I found some resources on how to write HTML, and I made a really hideous looking website. He needed it for a conference in a month, so I had to ramp up, learn how to write HTML and build a website – in very short order, so people could know about this conference they were hosting. And, I threw this thing together; it was in frames because that way I didn’t have to work with a lot of navigation and things like that. I could just put it there in this frame set and the navigation would be consistent, and I could throw it together really quick – it was the fastest way to do it. So, it was just a horrible looking website in frames. I’ll tell you something that’s really funny, it’s still being used today.

MARK: Oh my gosh… and you don’t want to say the domain name out loud…

CHRISTINE: NO, I do not! I don’t want to be associated with it. I go back every once in a while and look at it. It’s still there because it’s an annual conference and the same company does all of the logistics for it, so they actually just update the date, they have it in the same place every year, and that is about the only thing that changes is the actual date. And then they might change some of the internal text on the pages to describe the meals and stuff, but they still use it. I looked about a year ago, and it was still live and up to date for that year. It’s kind of a frightening thought; I think it even had spinning globes down at the bottom.

MARK: Oh, the spinning globe!

CHRISTINE: Oh yeah it had spinning globes, and it had the little “write us,” and have you seen that animated graphic that looks like an envelope that opens up?

MARK: Oh yes. Those are very creative!

CHRISTINE: Ha-ha! Hey, back then those were cutting edge! It was horrible. But somehow I got known as a web designer because I made this site, and then these people were coming to me that were working with us; next I knew I was building websites for these different divisions in the organization we were working in, and that was turning into my full time job. I probably made half a dozen websites over the course of the next couple of months. I started getting a little more sophisticated in it; I learned how to do the coding a little bit better, so then I realized that the frames were really hideous, but one of the things that really bothered me was having to maintain those sites. If I changed the navigation I would have to go into all of these different pages and this was before you could have a server side include – I didn’t know how to do those yet – so I was having to go in manually and change all of these different links, and I was breaking them, and sometimes they wouldn’t show up or funky things would happen; so I would complain to a couple of my friends and my husband, who were the programmers. They started writing me programs to fix these websites and to correct these sites and to actually go through automatically and check links and validate the HTML for me. Now we have all of these tools everywhere, but back then they didn’t have things like that.

MARK: Right. Your husband being a programmer would probably be pretty handy…

CHRISTINE: Husband programmer, best friend was a programmer, so they were building tools left and right for me. This evolved into a little internet start-up company that we founded in 95-96 time frame called Net Mechanic. At that time we actually got a lot of traffic to the site and we built tools, but it all came out of me complaining about how hard it was to maintain websites. So sometimes it pays to be noisy and complain, (ha-ha) that was my take-away lesson from that. I know it sounds terrible. That evolved into a company that we grew and actually sold to a publically traded company out in San Mateo, California, Keynote Systems in 2002. So it actually grew, and we got acquired, and then I moved to Dallas after that. I was actually responsible.

MARK: Are you in Dallas now?

CHRISTINE: I’m in Dallas now, but those years that I was with Net Mechanic I became the search person. We had absolutely no marketing dollars. We were doing this literally out of our spare bedroom, it was our computer room, and we built all these tools and we started getting phenomenal amounts of traffic back around the 2000 time frame; we were regularly written up in PC Magazine. We were fairly high-volume traffic for the time; we were a very popular website because we had all of these free tools. So we actually started charging very minimal amounts for it, and it didn’t even slow our traffic down, in fact it went faster. Then we started to get some angel financing and some venture capital came in and we actually would do a little bit just because we were getting a little bit better finances. I was responsible for driving traffic to the sites, so I learned search basically out of necessity because we had no money, and it was like “instant loaf” it seriously was; I’ve done a lot of different things in my life, but the first time I learned search it was like I was never going to look back, I fell in love with it, it was fun; maybe because it was a big game, and I like games. It was back then especially when you could do things and get multiple rankings on multiple keywords, and you could own the results page, and it was just a real challenge, “How many places can I get this time?”

MARK: Do you remember what year that was?

CHRISTINE: Oh, it was in the late 90’s – I don’t remember – I got better as I went along. I know I went to Danny Sullivan’s first SES; I was an SEO at the time, and I remember thinking, “This is great! There are other people like me that speak this language. This is cool.” That was the first time I realized that there were other people like me out there, because before that you just didn’t hear much about it.

MARK: Some folks recall bumping into the Bruce Clay relationship chart as one of the…

CHRISTINE: Actually as I recall, I don’t remember his chart until later. This was actually before the chart. I don’t know the date he started the chart off hand, you may know that if somebody has told you that…

MARK: Yeah I have that date somewhere.

CHRISTINE: Yeah, I remember seeing Bruce Clay fairly early; he was pretty prominent even early on.

MARK: And everyone remembers Danny; he was one of the earliest voices.

CHRISTINE: The SearchEngineWatch site was the first place, I think, where I found real concrete information about what I was doing, because before that I was doing a lot of testing on my own and I had a lot of theories, and when I went to his website and saw – “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I thought was happening.” There was a consensus there; I saw that he had already tested this as well and it was like, “Oh this is great, there’s somebody else out there doing the same thing.” He had it for all the different engines, and back then AltaVista was the real big dog… and Lycos… you know, these other engines that you never hear about anymore. It was a very fast-paced environment back then, as far as search and the changes that were going on – it’s still going on fast but nothing like the early times.

MARK: Yeah, with Google dominating it’s a little less…

CHRISTINE: Yeah, I still remember that very first Search Engine Strategies in San Francisco, and they were saying how Google was unspamable; and you could just see everyone in the room going, “Cough, cough,” just like challenging all of these black hat folks; all of these rebels out there to go out and spam Google. They actually made that statement. I think they’ve probably regretted that since, being overly confident there.

MARK: Right. So you met some people at these conferences? Danny was there… who else?

CHRISTINE: Yeah, when I started going to the conferences, I started meeting a lot of people in the industry. Jill Whalen and Heather Lloyd Martin were some of the first people… I guess I remember the women because we were a rarity. Actually, Jill and I became very good friends, and later on when she started her forum I was one of her moderators, but Jill and I go pretty far back; we’ve been pals for a long time, we’ve actually done a lot of work together over the years, so it’s kind of nice.

MARK: When did Key Relevance come into play, or how did the transition go from Net Mechanics to what you’re doing today?

CHRISTINE: Ok, when we sold Net Mechanic and were acquired, they co-located us in Dallas with another company. Key Note Systems was the parent company that bought us, but they bought several companies at the same time, and they wanted to co-locate the companies that had to do with servers and server monitoring, and we sort of fell under that to them. So we got co-located there, and that was in 2002. I started Key Relevance in 2003, I stayed there for a period of time, but once you sell your baby, once you sell the company that you kind of grew from nothing, it’s really difficult to stay there. I needed to get out on my own, so I did; I went and started Key Relevance and it was actually the best decision I’ve ever made. I was actually scared to death, because even though we had gone through the Net Mechanic experience, I actually started Key Relevance totally by myself, and with Net Mechanic there was a group of us so there was kind of like…..

MARK: Safety in number maybe?

CHRISTINE: Absolutely it wouldn’t just be me failing – it would be a group of us failing. But Key Relevance didn’t, I mean, I took everything that I had learned over the years doing the in-house SEO for Net Mechanic, and back then Net Mechanic ranked for just about ever term we tried for; we were a PR8 site, we had actually built the site up to be a very strong site on the web and really I could rank on anything I wanted back then. In those days it was just killer. We were number 4 for “Search Engine Optimization,” things like that; it was killer. When you have a powerful site like that you can do all kinds of things, and go after just about any term you want and get there and be very successful. But it was a great training ground for me because one of the things we had was a newsletter and I was actually the editor of the newsletter, and we had a hundred thousand subscribers. So every time we would put a newsletter out we’d have multiple articles, and we would put that out twice a month, and we’d email it; it was a great source of bringing traffic to the site and kind of reminding people who we were, but it was also great for me from an SEO perspective because it constantly gave me new pages and new subject I could optimize on. So we had huge amounts of traffic, and every time our newsletter came out our traffic would grow because I would have new pages out there and I was really good at doing keyword research back then, I still am, but it was a learning process; I think the more you do that, the more insights you kind of get – you could tell if things are going to work even with all of the keyword tools you still have to have a certain amount of subjectivity, and you get a feel for things, and also the psychology factor, one of my big interests is psychology; I have a Masters in Business but, I actually have a number of hours in psychology and motivational psychology; what makes people tick, I like to figure it out, the user intent or why they’re putting key words in, things like that; it just fascinates me.

MARK: That connects to search directly.

CHRISTINE: It does; it really does. It’s a huge component and I think that’s probably one of the things that’s helped me a lot because I’m always asking, “Why did they put that term in? What are they looking for?” and I’m looking at the “Why’s” behind it, not just the mechanics. I think there are different kinds of SEO’s out there, a number of them are what I call “Mechanical SEOs” they take the formulas of what works, and they just plug key words in; but SEO is more than that, it’s actually an art and you have to pull in the human psychology element in there or it doesn’t work as well and I think that’s something that is not brought out very often, but it’s a really important component of doing SEO well, is working in the motivation – the psychology of it – and how you pick the key words, and which pages you should go to. It’s vital; it’s one of those things I consider half of it. Half of it is know how to use the key words, but the other part is knowing what people are expecting and how you do the page layout, and what’s on the page and the content to provide.

MARK: And get the science right, but without the art…

CHRISTINE: Exactly! It’s both a science and an art; you hit dead on. That’s exactly correct.

MARK: So what kinds of services… what is your company about…

CHRISTINE: Key Relevance? I call it the full service search engine marketing company. We’re not a huge company, and my intent is never to be the biggest; in fact we don’t take all of the clients that come to us. We’re in a good position; we’re actually able to be – not discriminating, not that I wouldn’t want to work with as many as I can – it’s mostly because of resources honestly. I’m a small company; I can’t take everybody that comes to the door.

MARK: How many employees do you have?

CHRISTINE: There are about 10 of us. I have some part-time folks as well. I have full time employees, and then I’ve also got part-time folks. Then I have some other people that we pull in as we need that don’t necessarily want to work full-time, which is kind of nice because it means that they’re always fresh, they don’t get burned out. Of our core employees we have about ten folks that work with us. We do quite a variety of services. We do, obviously, search engine optimization – that’s kind of our core area that we specialize in, but we also do a tremendous amount of paid search management. I would say about 50% of our business is on the paid side. We also do some social media work; I think you know Li Evans; she does a lot of that for me.

MARK: Yeah, she’s fun.

CHRISTINE: Yeah, she’s “Miss Energy,” that’s what I call her. You can’t be un-energetic around her, she just exudes it and it’s infectious, and you just get energized being around someone like that, so she’s very creative.

MARK: Not everyone knows her as “Eagles Chick.”

CHRISTINE: Oh yeah, that’s one of her blogs; she has a number of blogs. I don’t know where she gets all of the time to write all of these blogs, it just kills me, but she does and they all stay up-to-date. So we do social media, we do press release authorization, we do a lot of analytics – in fact for most of our paid clients, if they don’t have analytics we actually encourage them to do that because if they’re spending money in search on every click like that, they really need the quantity to feed back on the performance data on how that money is being spent. I just don’t feel right managing an account unless I’m getting the feedback that it is actually performing for them, and that they’re getting a good return, so I’m a really big advocate of analytics. My company is actually partners with Omniture and ClickTracks both. We actually use ClickTracks as a diagnostic tool, we do some analytics with it, but because of its ability to segment data down to nitty-gritty, it’s great for deciphering really obscure usability issues or conversion problems that you’re having on a site – on how the user does a path for the site. It’s a very valuable diagnostics tool from our perspective, so we encourage clients to use it as well.

MARK: What about Google Analytics?

CHRISTINE: We use that too, that’s a neat thing. I say we’re partners with those two analytics firms, but the reality is we use a variety of analytics programs. We actually call ourselves “Analytics Agnostic,” in fact, my biggest client uses WebTrends; my hotel chain uses WebTrends. A number of our clients do use Google Analytics, it’s free, and so it’s hard to beat the price there.

MARK: Do you just do the consulting work, or do you also implement the suggestions that you come up with.

CHRISTINE: For most of the clients, they’re bigger clients, in those cases they usually have an IT department; we give them very detailed recommendations on what changes need to be made, and then they actually do the implementation. On some of the smaller clients I have done the work itself and implementation, but normally we work with their IT departments.

MARK: So let’s say you recommend 10 things to be done, how many of the 10 things actually get implemented exactly the way you’d like to see?

CHRISTINE: Well it’s a funny thing, the bigger the client the more difficult it is to get a change implemented. There are more levels of bureaucracy, more approval processes that have to go through, and a lot of times there is a lot of resistance, it might be that we have to whittle away on those ten things, and get one done, and it’s usually something that’s not as visible to the user, so maybe they’ll let us do the title and the meta tags one month and then over a series of months they might let us make the other changes that we might have requested. The smaller clients most of the time they’ll take it and run with it; in fact, I love working with a small to medium size range client because you can get things done quickly they see results, they’re motivated, they get excited about what you’re doing for them, you don’t have this bureaucracy, and they are fun clients to have. So I actually like to have a mix of some small and some big clients, not just one or the other.

MARK: Right, over here you keep chipping away at the list; over there we’re measuring results…

CHRISTINE: Oh yeah that’s exactly right! It’s inspiring to me and that’s why I stay in this business because I like to see the changes coming out, and I know what it takes to make those changes and if it helps the company… I always shake my head when they question real obvious things to us, because they don’t understand this; they call it a black art and they have all of these names for the optimization stuff, and it’s like, “Oh now it’s very transparent if you just see you have to understand the algorithm.” Ha-ha.

MARK: So, let’s say you have this small to medium size company, they don’t have a site yet, they’re starting out from scratch, and they’re going to build a fairly extensive site. Do you ever find yourself in a position to recommend everything from the beginning?

CHRISTINE: Um, I’ve had a couple clients like that; because of the way that the engines discriminate against new domains, that’s a little more of an up-hill battle, so if we are going to take a client on like that I usually try to manage their expectations up-front and kind of tell them, “This isn’t going to be an easy process. This is what it’s going to take to get you there, and this is the time scheduled that it’s going to take…”

MARK: “Be prepared.”

CHRISTINE: Yeah, if they know that in advance they can budget for it, maybe we ramp things up in a certain way, if we know that because of the engines prejudice against domains we might recommend that we do the pay-per-click initially until we can get some links and some traction on the SEO side, so that they’ll still be getting a return on their investment right away, from the paid search traffic, while we’re working on fixing the SEO side, and that way they’re not standing idle.

MARK: Would you ever recommend a design company to work with or a CMS package to run with, or do you just kind of let the clients choose, or do you have some favorites that you know that you could probably get your work done a little bit faster if they went this way or that way?

CHRISTINE: Well, we have some design companies we’ve worked with on repeat basis, but that’s not always the case. A lot of times a client, because it’s the internet, aren’t local to me. So, a lot of times I may be consulting with a client across the country, and in some cases I’ve never even met some of my clients until a conference or something, I know that sounds funny, but they see me at a conference and they may know me, but I haven’t met them until later or something.

MARK: And you have a name badge and you’re sitting on a panel.

CHRISTINE: But we’ll do a lot of talking and get to know each other on the phone, but they might prefer to have their designer close by. I find that that’s kind of something they do tend to like.

MARK: Geographically.

CHRISTINE: Well, maybe it’s that they want to go over and look at the comps in person, I don’t know what it is, but I find that it’s harder for them to accept somebody across the country when it comes to a web designer, than it is from somebody down the street for whatever reason. That’s not to say that everyone is like that, but I tend to find people who like a local web designer.

MARK: I think you’re right.

CHRISTINE: We’ve worked with a lot of different web designers. If someone comes to me and they haven’t picked a web designer first, I might ask them which ones they are looking at and maybe go look at some of their portfolio and see how the sites are constructed and…

MARK: 200 flash sites, or…

CHRISTINE: You got it. I might come back to them and say, “For your site, this particular designer I wouldn’t recommend from an SEO perspective; this other one has beautiful sites and has very clean code – this one you would get a lot more mileage down the road for your money.” Maybe they use flash inserts instead of total flash.

MARK: Do you find that when you are coming from that search perspective that the customers willingness to listen to those types of recommendations is strong or weak?

CHRISTINE: If you explain the problems that are inherent with a total flash site, what they’re giving up, they usually listen to you. I have had a client who decided to do a re-design and the marketing department was totally bent on going toward an all-flash site. I told them what they were giving up, what they should do was budget for a lot of pay-per-click because it was going to affect their SEO traffic. They didn’t care. They went forward with this flash site. That thing lasted about two months. Their traffic started crashing on the organic side, because they had made the site completely invisible. It was just hideous. They put all of these barriers in, and they didn’t want to listen to me. It was one of those things where I was just knocking my head against the wall, but I was also doing the pay-per-click so I said, “Ok, I’m not going to battle. I’ve told you my professional opinion. I’ve told you what I expected was going to happen and it’s happening. When you’re ready to do SEO the right way, we can go back and we can fix the site. Meanwhile, let’s make sure we have enough budget on the pay-per-click to not kill your traffic.” And that’s what we did. They actually ended up increasing their pay-per-click traffic, and then we went back and we fixed the site and made it a search friendly site over the next few months, and everyone was happy again. Sometimes they have to go through that whole painful process before they really believe you. Now I’ve had this particular client for over five years. When I tell them things like that now they believe me.

MARK: We’ve observed sites where flash is used very tastefully and it has an HTML wrapper around it, and marketing can get their “emotion” that they are trying to obtain with flash or “that look,” but done wisely I think it can be done well, and be search friendly.

CHRISTINE: Oh it’s gorgeous. There is no reason you can’t do both. I totally agree; if it’s done right.

MARK: That was almost like a leading question before because with the conversations we get into where the customer is already aware of search, and they’re coming at the site design from a search perspective, they have the right image on how to go forward and everything else kind of comes after keyword research, they get that first, and then it just seems like their success rate is just better.

CHRISTINE: The more educated the clients are on search, a lot of times the better they are. They know how much work it is they don’t necessarily do the work themselves, they don’t have time, it takes away from their core functionality, so they would rather pull in an expert that keeps up to date with all of the rapid changes in this industry, that’s familiar and can explain to them why things are happening the way they are, that has connections in the industry if something does go crazy, so they would rather have somebody like that than try to do it all themselves; plus all of the other hats that they’re wearing.

MARK: What about in the area of CMS recommendations? Do you ever help them select a platform?

CHRISTINE: Yeah, actually we do. My CTO at Key Relevance – we’ve helped a number of clients select a CMS. Both open source ones as well as proprietary ones. We can kind of tell them what to look for and what things are good to have in a CMS, the ones with flexibility allow you to customize title and metatags and some of these things that we think are obvious now, with many of the CMSs you still can’t do it very easily; they have very canned ways of generating the titles and the metas, even the page names.

MARK: If you had a written list of those recommendations, I would love to get my hands on that.

CHRISTINE: Write me after this. We actually have something that we wrote up for clients when they’re doing a CMS evaluation.

MARK: Excellent, do you have any favorites?

CHRISTINE: I try not to. I tell you, my favorites are the open source ones because it allows you a little more flexibility. When I send you that sheet I can share that with you as well.

MARK: OK. Well, this has been great. I think we’ve learned a lot more about you and your beginning. You’re right, you have a very interesting beginning. I’m pretty sure no one has missile targeting as their background.

CHRISTINE: Well I also have a Masters in Business, but missile targeting was my primary job. Ha-ha.

MARK: So people can understand more about what you’re doing, who’s the perfect client who comes walking in your door – and I know there’s no such thing – but I mean, we would need a 12 month agreement, that’s typically how we like to work, the type of commitment’s we’re looking for, mixed PPC and/or organic, PPC budgets X dollars per year or SEO budgets of X dollars per year. What is the key factor where you say, “this is a really good fit for our business,”?

CHRISTINE: You know, I don’t know if there is a perfect client, because we have client’s that are all over the map, everything from fortune 500 type clients… in fact the other thing is, we do a multiple variety of verticals. I do a number of clients in the travel industry, in the education industry, business, retail; I mean we have a lot of different variety, so I’m not sure I have a favorite. I actually like the variety. I like working on different types of sites, partly because I think it’s stimulating. There is a lot of cross-over. If you get stuck on only one, I think you get a little bit myopic; you don’t get to see what’s working in other industries that might be effective in another industry.

MARK: A great question came out of that. This is a tough one; I’ve gotten different answers. So you have this travel customer, and another customer, or let’s say a near-by competitor knocks on your door or makes your phone ring. What do you do?

CHRISTINE: Well, I’m not a very big company. So I adhere to a pretty strict policy on this – we don’t take them. I actually turned one down last week that was a direct competitor to one of my travel industry companies.

MARK: What if one was like, this is going to be a bad example – but I should be able to exaggerate my point here, Motel 6 and The Hyatt.

CHRISTINE: Oh, so you’re talking about different demographics of targeting?

MARK: Yeah, so you’re saying, “It’s true they’re both hotels, but they’re after totally different customers.” They would actually probably not even consider each other a competitor, and yet, clearly they’re in the same industry.

CHRISTINE: …(pause)…

MARK: Ooh, she’s pausing folks.

CHRISTINE: I’m pausing. I can see where you’re going on this, because you’re saying that the key words would be different with different demographics, but in our case because of our size, we wouldn’t scale to take two clients like that with that close of an overlap. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable taking something on like that. I would just prefer to take somebody on a cruise line, or something in the travel industry, I love travel because I like to travel myself, but that’s too close for my comfort range.

MARK: Would you ever consider an SEO conference on a cruise ship?

CHRISTINE: Absolutely. I’m there. When is it? Ha-ha.

MARK: I will let you know.

CHRISTINE: I’ll book my ticket!

MARK: I think it would be great. This has been really fun. I may have some follow up questions, and maybe we could do that over the telephone.

CHRISTINE: That’s fine; yeah no problem, that was fun.

MARK: Thank you very much I appreciate it greatly.

CHRISTINE: You’re welcome it was my pleasure.