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June 4, 2014

SMX Advanced 2014 Series: Christine Churchill on Keyword Research Post-Hummingbird

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We’re a week out from SMX Advanced 2014 and Bruce’s one-day SEO Training Workshop (less than five seats remain!), and we’ve got two more installments of the SMX Advanced 2014 Interview Series. Over the past month, I’ve interviewed VIP speakers to get a preview of the tips they’re going to share at SMX Advanced 2014. I’ve delved into:

Christine-ChurchillToday, we continue with Christine Churchill, president and CEO of KeyRelevance. Churchill has been a leader in Internet marketing for more than a decade and is the co-founder of SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization). She will grace the SMX stage once again next week to share her keyword expertise in “Keyword Research On ‘Roids! Advanced Workarounds For Vanishing Keyword Data” at 11 a.m. on June 11.

Read on to discover Churchill’s advice for SEO newbies, her tried-and-true tools, her thoughts on “SEO is dead” and her keyword research strategies post-Hummingbird, and much more.

You’ve been in the ever-changing SEO industry since 1997. What advice do you have for those just starting out so they can infiltrate the field?

Most people will tell you to be a specialist, but the advice I would give to my own daughter if she were going into this field is to learn many skills so you make yourself indispensable. If you’re a one trick pony and that trick stops working, you’re out of luck. Being able to wear many hats and being skilled in several areas makes you more adaptable and gives you an advantage if you want to stay in this field for the long haul. I saw many early-day SEOs who were purely technical drop out as the search engines got smarter. They got stuck in the code and couldn’t lift their head to see what the user was doing. The successful marketer today has to have a good grounding in many fields including marketing fundamentals, psychology and usability to understand motivation and visitor behavior, plus some technical skills. I would encourage anyone wanting to go into SEO to learn HTML. I’m always surprised when some self-proclaimed SEO “guru” can’t understand basic HTML. You will always be limited in what you can do in SEO if you don’t have a basic understanding of the code. HTML is a markup language, it’s not hard to master and it comes in handy when you have to implement basic things like schema code.

As an experienced SEO and SEM speaker, you have to stay on top of the latest strategies. How do you make sure your presentations are up to date?

You have to stay engaged — I am still actively working in search (#firsthand experience), plus:

  • I read a lot
  • I’m active in my local search marketing organization
  • I attend industry conferences

This field changes constantly so you have to constantly learn. The conferences are a fast way to immerse yourself in the latest changes — they’re the search industry’s best place for professional development. You find out what is new, what’s changed, and what your peers have learned.

As for the presentations, I have to constantly update them – tools change and the algorithm changes, so even though I frequently speak on keyword research, how we actually do that the research changes — so my presentations need to reflect the changes. I’ve also seen the audience change over the years; it used to be all SEOs, but now it’s heavy with copywriters, content developers, and social media marketers. They need to learn the vocabulary of their target audience so they can speak the same language. The content needs to speak to the customer and the easiest way to do that is to use their words. That is the essence of good keyword research. It’s not stuffing keywords to trick an engine, it’s to communicate better with your customers: and if you do that, you’re helping the engines better understand the material as well.

Who would benefit the most from your SMX Advanced session on keyword research? Just the SEO-savvy or should some of the big dogs and CEOs be in attendance?

Anyone who is involved in building an online presence for a site needs to have an understanding of keywords. As long as there is a text box in which users can enter queries, keywords will have a role. The “how to get” and “how to use” keywords has evolved a lot in the last few years. The Hummingbird algorithm update and other algorithmic changes basically killed exact keyword matching. Now marketers have to develop a more expansive list – an ecosystem of related terms. Keyword research applies to all aspects of online marketing.

While they may not need to be down in the trenches, CEOs need to understand the concepts of keyword research to better understand the value of the online marketing work being done for them. Paid search managers and SEOs obviously need ways to evaluate phrases so they will know which ones to emphasize and target for the best conversions. Copywriters and content strategists need to have a grasp of keywords to gain insight into the actual words people use as queries. If writers use the words their audience use, there will be a mental connection from the start. Social media and PR folks need to consider keywords because their work will get better pick up if they use phrases actually searched on.

What do you think is the search marketer’s biggest misconception when it comes to SEO and what advice would you give?

People love to grab headlines by proclaiming SEO is dead, but done right, SEO is timeless. SEO is about communicating to the user and search engine what your site is about and doing things right so the site becomes an authority in its niche. There are many components of SEO including site architecture – making sure search spiders can crawl your site. I still see so many sites with architecture issues. Designers love to use the latest and greatest technology, but that can slow down or stop a search engine from indexing a site and might require a user to download a new piece of software.

To answer your question, the biggest misconception marketers have is that SEO is just keywords on the page, but it is really about improving the overall quality and usability of a site. SEO covers a lot of ground and includes a lot of technical “behind the scenes” stuff that can help your site with the engines. Simple but often forgotten things like making sure the proper redirects are set up when a redesign is done, or looking for ways to speed up your new responsive design web site which are often painfully slow. On-page optimization still has a role because search engines still need context to be able to figure out when the page is relevant. Using the phrases that people are searching for helps readers make a mental connection and reaffirms your page is answering their questions. With engines looking at user interaction metrics, SEO also encompasses usability and conversion. Improving long click behavior is a signal to the search engine that your site answers the user’s query. And of course, links and social signals are important.

Without giving away the meat and bones of your session, do you have any favorite tools that make the search marketer’s life easier in regard to SEO?

I use MANY tools, including a number of in-house tools we have developed at KeyRelevance. The commercial tools I use frequently are Screaming Frog, Google Trends, Rex Swain’s HTTP Viewer, SEMRush, AHrefs, Majestic and Searchmetrics.

What tools for SEO worked last year that do not work today?

The old Google Keyword tool was replaced with the Keyword Planner, which I don’t like nearly as much. Google Sets was good for creating related lists; alas, it is also gone.

The loss of detailed keyword analytics data for organic searches (and more recently Google paid search keyword data in analytics) was a major blow. Google Webmaster Tools keyword data partially makes up for the loss, but Google has severed the information flow between the search/click and later actions so tracking keywords that perform is much harder now. Google AdWords still reports clicks and conversions (e.g. the first and last step), but page flow (all those steps in between) and other analytics data can no longer be analyzed at the keyword level. This is a major loss in understanding visitor behavior from a keyword perspective.

Clients say the darndest things. What’s the most ridiculous expectation a client has voiced to you?

I have had prospective clients call me up and tell me they want me to get them to the top position for some highly competitive term, but they don’t have a webmaster, they don’t want to hear it’s going to take time, and they don’t want to do any work.

What are three of your favorite industry-related books?

  • “Epic Content Marketing” by Joe Pulizzi,
  • “Market Your Way to Growth” by Philip Kotler
  • “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely (I especially loved Dan’s book – it will make you rethink motivation and user behavior, and it’s based on scientific experiments he actually conducted)

What are some of the best articles on Internet marketing you’ve read (besides the ones on this blog and in the SEO Newsletter, of course)?

I find myself nodding in agreement when I read Jordan Kastler’s articles. He is spot on in his advice. One of my favorite articles he wrote is “The Hidden Cost of Cheap SEO and Social Labor.” Another favorite is longtime conversion optimization leader Bryan Eisenberg’s “Developing a High Converting Landing Page.”

Thanks Christine! Can’t wait for your session at SMX Advanced 2014.

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One response to “SMX Advanced 2014 Series: Christine Churchill on Keyword Research Post-Hummingbird”

  1. Jason writes:

    I always love the idea of discussing keywords with clients because they have this view in their head of what a keyword is and how using it throughout content on their website will boost their site and then you have to sit down with them and say ‘yes, but that’s not the only thing you have to do’. They seem to forget that every other company in the area selling the same products are going to be doing exactly the same thing so getting them to the top of the list on Google requires a little bit more!



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