Google’s Hummingbird Triggers SEO Bedlam for Banks and Credit Unions

Google’s new ‘Hummingbird’ update could systematically torpedo search rankings for both banks and credit unions. Here is what to do about this Angry Bird.

google_hummingbirdTo most bankers, pandas, penguins and hummingbirds are cute animals. But for professional marketers however, these beasts represent the biggest challenges in the history of search engine marketing. Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird are all updates to the Google search algorithm, and these updates have changed how Google — the gorilla of search — ranks websites… including yours.

What is a ‘Search Algorithm?’

Google’s algorithms are computer processes and mathematical formulas that turn search inquiries into results. Rather than serving up every page with your search results in no particular order, algorithms allow Google to prioritize and rank these pages in order of relevance. This makes finding the information you need more easily accessible.

Why is it Important to Understand the Hummingbird Algorithm Change?

Hummingbird, unlike previous updates like Panda and Penguin, is not about penalizing websites. Rather, this algorithm Google’s attempt to improve search results using a more complex and robust understanding of human language. The algorithm reduces the search engine’s dependence on “keywords.” Now, search terms are taken into account according to syntax, word order and other variables. In other words, this algorithm is going to look for the meaning — the context — of the words in a search, and their relationship to each other.

Wide Reaching Effects

Google’s SVP of search, Amit Singhal, told reporters on Sep. 26 that the company launched the Hummingbird algorithm a month ago and that it affects 90% of worldwide searches via Google.

Ninety percent!

Let’s put that into perspective. Imagine that 90% of the new checking relationships your financial institution open online originate through Google searches. One day your website was ranking high compared to your local competitors. Then all of a sudden, your rankings shift because your SEO strategy (also known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO) is now outdated thanks to the new changes in Hummingbird. This means you could lose 90% of the keywords you once ranked strongly on. And it isn’t that farfetched.

Staying Relevant

By October 2014, if you want your banking website to stay relevant in Google’s eyes, it will need to look more like a hybrid of a traditional banking site and an informative, engaging blog focused on user experience. This quasi-blog format will require new, fresh and conversational content that’s published on a regular basis.

Why? Well, Google believes consumers want the most engaging content when they search for something. When someone searches for checking accounts or mortgage products, Google assumes the right financial institution that has the right products for them is the one with the most engaging content (i.e., blog-style posts published consistently). Yes, your website will still need to have informative product details, with an intuitive sales funnel and calls-to-action, but above that Google wants to see engaging content… material that gets clicked.

Challenges for Banks and Credit Unions

The challenge, of course, is that financial institutions aren’t wired this way. Secure online banking is a key focus for banking sites, as is providing information regarding rates, products and services. People need to know that their investments — the money they’ve worked so hard for — is safe. They need to know how your products fit into their lives and how you’re different from the other banks. The difference is that now, banks must focus heavily on generating great content and building a user-friendly experience across all platforms (mobile, tablet and desktop).

This is a huge shift: from static and staid to dynamic and lively.

With platforms like Facebook, your financial institution’s paid and organic posts can’t compete with a picture of someone’s child, a viral video, a hilarious meme or an emotionally touching post. Stiff, cut-and-dry messages aren’t going to pique the interests of your audience if they’re not personal and well executed. In other words, your current material isn’t going to cut it if it isn’t engaging.

Creating Compelling Content

Your content will likely need vast improvements. Banks and credit unions looking to rank high in Google will need to retool their online marketing strategies around unique, humanistic and compelling content. A bank isn’t just a bank; if anyone can spot the differences, it’s Google. Google is looking for financial institutions that appear to be part of the community — a place where real, live, emotional people interact with real, live, emotional people (i.e., communication, dialogue, vibrant activity and an exchange of ideas).

In Google’s eyes, it’s not about money; it’s about making connections and building relationships. Your content must appeal to people on an emotional level and across all platforms. It can be funny, touching, happy, provocative, thought provoking, inquisitive or even silly. However, the one thing it cannot be is ordinary.

Better Management of Content Distribution

Banks will need to become experts on organic and paid content distribution. The world of content distribution looks vastly different today than it did a year ago, or even one month ago. Financial institutions must now have a content distribution system built around Facebook ads, Twitter ads, display ads, retargeting/remarketing, regular posts, original tweets and organic search results. Distribution of this content must be consistent, engaging and (above all) strategic.

Let’s face it, banking products and services aren’t really made to be thrilling or exciting. Banks, after all, have built their reputations on stability and reliability. However, that doesn’t mean your content should read like a dry ad about your services. People don’t want to see electronic versions of billboards on their computer screens or mobile devices; they are largely online to enjoy themselves — even when doing chores — and Google knows this. Whether the content is paid or organic, it must appeal to the human, emotional side. Your hybrid blog/banking website will need to be the primary vehicle for delivering this unique, engaging content, and the social media profiles will be used to strategically share and distribute that content.

If there’s reluctance to implement these changes at your institution, keep this in mind: many companies — entire industries even — have fallen by the wayside because they refused to keep up with technology. Consider Blackberry phones. For a few years, they were the frontrunners among smartphones. People fell in love with touch screens, though, and (until the Z10 last year) Blackberry failed to jump on the bandwagon. Now it’s too late. The company laid off a large portion of its staff and sold itself for only a fraction of what it once was worth. The point is you need to embrace the future of online marketing and technology… wherever that may take us.

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