Banking

How banks can climb higher in Google search rankings

When consumers trawl Google for bank products, they aren’t just searching for deposit accounts or credit cards.

People want the best rewards cards, the highest-yielding savings account, or a mortgage lender located in their town. Or perhaps their needs are more complicated, such as advice on how to refinance student debt or how to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

Banks need to be at the forefront of such searches, but too often, they’re not. Aggregator sites like Bankrate and Nerdwallet and the largest banks rank highest in Google searches because of their authoritative content and well-known brands, respectively. For others, search engine optimization takes effort.

Banks can improve their standing in Google without paying for ads by enhancing their content and interactive tools, improving website functionality and creating web pages for local communities, experts say.

Competing on content

Providing content as a hook to reel in website visitors is one strategy. This is where nonbank financial services websites like Bankrate and Nerdwallet shine. Their product comparisons and lengthy guides rise to the top of Google search results, pushing banks deeper in the search engine’s rankings and losing visibility among potential customers. (At the same time, some banks pay these sites to feature their accounts.)

“From talking with so many of our financial services clients, it is one of their top challenges with search engine optimization — how do we compete against those aggregators?” said Collin Colburn, a senior analyst at Forrester. “The banks want to have the answers people are looking for to instill trust and drive awareness.”

Terakeet, an enterprise SEO firm in Syracuse, N.Y., recently analyzed 501 nonbranded personal finance terms that account for more than 6 million monthly Google searches.

The five brands with the highest market share of monthly organic search traffic for those keywords (Bankrate, Nerdwallet, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank and Mortgage News Daily) shared several traits: an abundance of long-form content organized by topic; a range of free online tools including calculators and interactive quizzes; and backlinks from tens of thousands of other websites.

“We don’t see a lot of banks investing in this longer form, more information-based content,” said Patrick Daniel, chief technology officer of Terakeet.

Banks can’t compare products from multiple providers the way aggregator websites can, but they can address common questions and concerns with a mix of long-form and how-to articles, infographics, videos and frequently asked questions.

To start, banks should figure out the steps people go through to form financial decisions, such as refinancing debt, and the right type of media to address particular questions. Sometimes a video or image is more suitable than a long-form article. Tools such as calculators are also useful because they are interactive and may catch the attention of other websites, said Daniel. If another company links to the bank’s calculator, it signals authority and can boost the bank website in Google’s rankings.

Companies can use Google Trends, a website from Google, to learn which terms people are searching for (all data is anonymized) and Google Search Console, a resource for webmasters to analyze their site’s traffic and performance. Search engine optimization tools, such as Moz or Semrush, can help them track their rankings against the competition. They can also consult with frontline staff to learn what queries are on people’s minds, use social listening tools to monitor concerns that come in via social media and deploy analytics software to surface popular questions in the contact center.

Lincoln Parks is strategizing on several fronts to improve the online visibility of Heritage Southeast Bancorp., which is based in Jonesboro, Ga.

To start, “I do research to find out what people are searching for, and we write content or try to create a tool or video that can resonate,” said Parks, the innovation officer at the $1.5 billion-asset Heritage Southeast Bank. He uses Semrush to check what keywords his competitors are ranking well for and identify others that he can capitalize on before his competitors do, as well as Google Search Console to gauge where his site ranks for certain keywords.

The bank has shot several videos related to PPP, and Parks is building a feature on Typeform that will give site visitors a list of topics, including mortgages and commercial lending, and use a conversational tone to narrow down what they need so it can direct them to resources on the Heritage website.

The more time they spend there, the better. Google considers sites more authoritative when people linger.

Other factors that nudge websites higher in the rankings are the user experience, or navigation; the speed at which pages load; and site security. Parks plans to revamp the Heritage website, doing away with elements that visitors rarely click on (for instance, long drop-down menus) and integrating more popular content into prominent spots.

Regions Financial in Birmingham, Ala., draws from publicly accessible tools such as Google Search Console, works with other providers for more competitive insights, and analyzes customer interactions with front-line staff and on its website to inform its strategy.

“We consider our job to help more people discover Regions,” said Marilyn Bonner, digital search engine optimization strategist at the $147.4 billion-asset Regions. “Part of how we do that is an understanding of what motivates them, what answers they are seeking, what financial topics are on their minds and what might be most relevant to them, and then creating content and experiences that help us build or deepen those relationships.”

In 2020, that meant publishing content related to the pandemic and the PPP, as one example. And, like Heritage, Regions has expanded its focus beyond content and paid more attention to its website architecture in recent years to ensure it can be easily crawled and indexed.

Capitalizing on community

Banks with brick-and-mortar locations have a natural advantage over Bankrate and the like in one key area: local SEO, or positioning the website around a specific geographic market.

Financial aggregator websites tend to stick to generic advice that is relevant to a large swath of people. “Local banks are better positioned to rank if someone is searching something like ‘best mortgage lenders in Jamison, Pennsylvania,” said Brian Reilly, director of BankBound, a digital marketing agency in Newtown, Pa., that helps local banks become more competitive online. BankBound works with 40 community banks ranging in size from $50 million of assets to $5 billion of assets.

The content, metadata and visuals on a bank’s website should all be localized, Reilly said. For example, banks can parcel out their branch locations onto individual web pages rather than collecting the locations on a single page, and integrate their geographic markets into web copy (“we have locations across X counties”). This all gives Google reference points for understanding the website’s relevancy.

The same tactic applies to publishing content. Instead of a generic article about how to start a business, a bank can drill its advice down to the local level, such as how to start a business in a particular city — something that may be more relevant to its readers.

“Google values content length a great deal because it demonstrates expertise and authority, so long-form content is especially effective when written for a specific market,” said Reilly. But he still suggests banks use a variety of formats, from easily digestible FAQs to long-form pieces that people can skim.

There is also a place for paid ads in a well-rounded Google search strategy.

Parks buys Google ads that will shoot Heritage to the top of the search results if someone enters the names of any of its divisions within one to three miles of a branch.

“If you’re not seen, especially in that one- to three-mile radius of wherever your branches are, you are invisible,” said Parks.

Finally, banks need to monitor the accuracy of details in their online listings (the hours and contact information that appears in Google Maps listings) and, where possible, increase online reviews. More online reviews increase visibility, said Parks.


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