Master Local Search Now or Your Financial Institution Might Disappear From Google

How easily can someone find your institution on the web, on mobile devices, or by voice command? Whether it's a "near me" search or a "Hey Siri" request, banking providers that want consumers to find them must first get noticed by the web's penultimate gatekeeper: Google. Is your institution becoming invisible? Or has it already vanished? Try this 5-minute search test now.

Advocates of branch banking speak of the “billboard” value of branches. There’s certainly value there, but when today’s consumers want something, they are likely to search Google. Probably using their smartphone.

Increasingly, they will be using their voice to search for things on a range of digital devices, shouting questions to their tablets and virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and Cortana. Will they find your bank or credit union any of those ways? Possibly not, if your institution hasn’t invested any time and money in “local search,” an increasingly important subset of search engine optimization.

“In days long gone, ‘local search’ meant an annual ad in the local yellow pages.”

In days long gone local search meant an annual ad in the local yellow pages. Today, local search is a search engine optimization specialty, with special challenges. Consider these statistics from Google as your wakeup call:

  • About one-third of all mobile searches concern location.
  • Proximity of a business address to the point of search is the top factor for ranking high in local search results, according to the search experts at Moz.
  • 87% of smartphone owners turn to search first in a “moment of need.”
  • Mobile searches for “best” grew 80% between 2015 and 2017.

Local visibility on the web isn’t completely in your control. Search engines like Google can penalize you for sins you didn’t even know you were committing. The public can boost you… or your more SEO-savvy competitors.

Local search is a continually moving target, and success requires curation. You may think that it’s a pain in the neck, but too bad — it’s Google’s world and we’re all just living it in.

“With local search, it’s not enough to just plant the seed,” says Michael Bertini, Director of Search Strategy at iQuanti. “You have to water it and fertilize it.”

Arvest Bank began getting serious about local search about five years ago, says Jason Kincy, SVP and Marketing Director. It’s so important, he says, that a member of his team is devoted to all search, including local search.

“We invest budget in this,” Kincy explains.

Beyond internal efforts, Arvest also works with a vendor that helps it manage its local search listings and quality. According to Kincy, one of the major challenges is getting clean data, and keeping it clean.

Can You Find Your Own Institution Via Local Search?

Local search has many best practices and there are helpful tips. But let’s begin with an experiment — two simple tests that will take you five minutes, tops.

First, have you ever done a Google “near me” search for banks and credit unions in the vicinity of your home? Not likely. You work for one, so you likely know where they all are. Not the case for everyone else in your community. For a moment, put yourself in their shoes, or rather, their fingers.

When The Financial Brand ran a Google “near me” search for banks and credit unions in a New York City suburb, results yielded a listing and a map. At first, what you see is mostly a collection of the closest institutions: some mega-bank branches — e.g., Chase, HSBC, TD, BofA, Citi, Capital One — and a regional bank or two. But you don’t see any community banks or credit unions until you increase the magnification or get past the first page of the text listing.

Now try a virtual assistant. Pull out an iPhone to test Siri for the same neighborhood. “Hey Siri, what banks are near me?” In The Financial Brand’s test, this brought up a more diverse listing, including several nearby credit unions. It also returned more irrelevant listings than the Google “near me” search — e.g., — personal financial advisors. When asked for “credit unions near me,” Google’s first choices were banks… go figure. The first credit union listed was actually the fourth choice, and that was after a financial planner!

Now you try the same tests — where does your institution come up?

What Was Going On With Those Searches?

When a financial marketer knows the territory and local search doesn’t resemble what was expected, it’s perplexing. The Financial Brand asked an expert to explain what’s happening.

The first view presented in a “near me” search consists of Google’s recommendations to you, according to Bertini at iQuanti. Google is not only looking for the search term and the factors that smart institutions have used to improve their placement, but also sorting possible results in synch with what it knows about your past search history.

Past the first view, Google will begin revealing other banking locations contained in its base, according to the search term used. ATMs will begin showing up. In The Financial Brand’s own tests, bank and credit union branches inside supermarkets and other retail locations didn’t show up.

“It’s quite possible that a bank or credit union branch that’s in the neighborhood will not show up at all, if it’s not been properly introduced to Google.”

But don’t count on consumers diving very deeply. Bertini, who has spent eight years in SEO working for financial institutions, says financial marketers must understand that “people are running on shorter and shorter timeframes.” It’s not unlike “classic” online search, where you want to rank highly, or at least on the first page.

It’s quite possible that a bank or credit union branch that’s in the neighborhood will not show up at all, if it’s not been properly introduced to Google. The first step is to use the free Google My Business service. Users need to verify that they represent the organization they purport to work for. Once that is done you can begin feeding Google the essentials about your institution. And, as Google advises, expand on the basics by including information that answers the kinds of questions consumers would typically ask about your institution.

But don’t think it’s “one and done.” This is just beginning of a long road. At this point you are taking only the most rudimentary first steps. You can take similar steps with other services. For example, on the home page for Apple Maps, you can begin teaching that service about your company.

“Google is probably the biggest factor, but Bing and Yahoo are important as well,” says Arvest’s Jason Kincy. “Those three are the ones we focus on, but the things that we do there also helps inform other sites.”

( Read More: 5 Local Search Marketing Tips for Financial Institutions )

Banks and credit unions have had over two decades to build, improve, revamp, and rethink their digital experience — their website and app. But that’s no longer the center of consumers’ information universe, according to a white paper from Yext, which helps companies with local search.

“Google, Apple, Facebook, Bing, Yahoo, Yelp, TripAdvisor, OpenTable, Instagram, Snapchat, MapQuest, Waze, Siri, Cortana, Amazon Alexa, and hundreds of intelligent services form the universe of The Everywhere Brand,” explains Yext. “They are the places your customers seek instant information in the moments that matter. It’s up to you to ensure the information that appears about your company in each service is on-brand, accurate, and up-to-date.”

The white paper recommends undertaking the kind of exercise outlined earlier — test your brand. Marketers for today’s brand, the paper states, should set out to “experience exactly what the consumer sees about their brand across every device and service that matters to their customers.”

Getting Started? Don’t Get Disheartened

“The beautiful thing about SEO is that it gives the little guy a chance to compete.”

Bertini at iQuanti offers advice for community-based financial institutions looking to master local search. First, financial marketers in institutions led by older executives may find they are battling dated ideas from those stuck in the past — yellow pages, print and direct mail. Trying to explain concepts like local search and why the organization needs to allocate staff time and budget for it may be difficult until top officers understand what’s at stake.

Second, Bertini advises smaller institutions not to worry that their visibility will be eclipsed by much larger institutions. To begin with, he says, very large players are often much more interested in national-level visibility, not caring as much about being found in local search. And, then, he says, often large institutions barge into local search thinking that they can spend huge sums and buy visibility.

Things don’t work that way with local search, Bertini explains. Google is looking for local credibility and trustworthiness. This is where smaller, local players can win.

“The beautiful thing about SEO is that it gives the little guy a chance to compete,” says Bertini. “No matter how much money you throw at this, it does not guarantee that you’ll get top placement.”

But Bertini says you must go beyond the basics. Like a garden or lawn, everything you put up is going to take weeding and maintenance. Google and other online players will penalize institutions whose information becomes dated or plain wrong. Experts say that having different hours for the same location in multiple places, for example, will erode your institution’s local search credibility.

Be prepared, and realistic. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Jason Kincy of Arvest.

( Read More: Google Says Financial Institutions Need Better Content on Their Websites )

Get It Right … and Keep It Right

MomentFeed notes that some web directories require between 70 and 80 unique points of information for a business, plus visual media and menus. Not managing that ushers in chaos.

“Centralizing location data in a single database or ‘system of record’ makes maintaining location data easier over time,” the MomentFeed paper states. “It’s also the only way to ensure consistency after publishing. Inaccuracies keep locations invisible.”

That gets at the issue of trust. Consistent and accurate data assures algorithms that sound information will be passed on to users. Remember the adage that when something on the web is free, you are the product. Search engines and directories want people to come back. Someone who has gone to a bank branch that is supposed to be open until 7 p.m. is going to blame you if they arrive and the place is dark.

With the pace of consolidation occurring among banks and credit unions today, mergers can create a rat’s nest of disinformation if not managed with local search in mind.

“Mergers and acquisitions often result in legacy branding on maps and publishers as well as missing and duplicate records of branches online,” a white paper from Harland Clarke warns. “This ‘dirty data’ not only confuses searchers but can negatively impact search results and the overall customer experience.”

The challenge will only grow as more services, some driven by artificial intelligence, debut, the Harland Clarke paper advises. You might say the traditional “garbage in, garbage out” will be updated to “garbage in, garbage gets shredded.”

To Be Seen Locally, Provide Localized Information

Experts stress the importance of organizing data in ways to make it easy for search engines and services to find it, and see it for what it is. One best practice is setting up web pages for every office location.

“For each of these location pages, provide relevant information about the location and address, phone number, and hours of operation. Make sure you include a map!” recommends Rio SEO, a local search consultancy.

Arvest Bank is a good example of how to carry out this practice. The bank maintains hundreds of individual landing pages for its branches in four states. Each includes such information as the following:

  • Address, phone number, a button leading to directions, a mini map.
  • Hours, including the status of the lobby right at that moment, the full week’s schedule, and the day of the week the page is accessed highlighted with darker type as a spotting aid.
  • A customized capsule about the bank.
  • A list of available services.
  • Current weather.
  • Tiles leading to specific product pages.
  • Social media feeds of the bank.
  • Additional locations near that branch.

For instance, check out this example, for Bentonville, Ark.

Mike Bertini stresses the importance of populating such office-level pages with more than just accurate data. Photos count — of the branch and the branch manager. The richer the source, the more attractive it is as search engines crawl the web.

( Read More: 5 Ways to Optimize Banking Websites for Lead Generation )

Build Credibility With Customer Reviews

Consumers love reviews, whether they are shopping on Amazon, choosing a hotel, or looking for good Chinese take out. Guess what? Local search loves reviews too. Reviews, testimonials, and related references to your brand are referred to generally as “user generated content.”

“Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yelp continue to get better and better about making recommendations,” writes MomentFeed in its white paper. “In fact, they’re competing with each other to make the best recommendations because they know that if they do, a consumer will use them again. And that means relaying on all the information that’s available to them. Sometimes the information deemed most useful is actually created by consumers, which leads to ratings and reviews being assigned particular weight.”

“You can request that someone write a review. You just can’t ask them to write a five-star review.”

Good reviews — especially compared to competitors — can push your institution toward the top listings in local search.

The question is, how do you get any reviews?

There are two challenges here. One is mechanical — where can people post reviews? The other concerns stimulating the writing of reviews.

Regarding places to post, the bank can obtain review plug-ins for its own website, according to Bertini, that would allow consumers to write review and pick a star rating. Institutions need to be sure they are using a trusted plug-in, and what’s posted there had better be kept kosher.

If an institution goes that way, Bertini stresses the importance of keeping things simple. He loves his Triumph motorcycle, but he found a request for feedback from the company so painful and long to fill in that he won’t comply anymore. His advice: Confine your request to something that can be done in three clicks, no more.

However, he continues, more credible than maintaining your own review function is encouraging reviews on Google, Yelp, and more.

So, how to do that? First, ask for reviews. Bertini recommends that these requests come from branch managers, rather than all front-line staff, in part to keep the requests from becoming rote lines.

Second, the institution should work to encourage reviews by taking proactive measures to give back to its communities. Bertini says one good step is to hold a customer appreciation event, like a barbecue. This friendly act helps encourage people to comment about the bank online.

“You can request that someone write a review,” says Bertini. “You just can’t ask them to write a five-star review.”

Another avenue similar to reviews can also boost local search rankings, adds Bertini. Often a community has local bloggers who can be invited to events hosted by a community bank or credit union. They are always looking for fresh things to talk about, and chances are good that they will reciprocate the invitation with a post. Typically postings will include a backlink to the institution’s site.

That does you great good with search engines. “That backlink is probably the most authoritative thing you can get,” says Bertini.

A little trade secret he adds: Even bad press is good press for search engines. In the most recent presidential campaign, he says, every negative story about candidate Trump boosted him in online rankings. Mentions count — what the mentions say doesn’t register, so much.

In the same vein, social media engagement by your brand can also help your local search rankings. But experts say that for this activity to matter, the brand must be engaged consistently. Every 30 days is not nearly enough.

Voice Search: The Next Frontier

“Hey Siri, what banks are near me?” That’s more than a test, that’s what’s going to be happening more and more. “With voice search, you’re not seeking a page of results with ten blue links,” The Everywhere Brand paper says. “You’re seeking answers.”

There’s art as well as science in building information feeds in ways that work best with the different ways that people search. Mobile search differs from computer search and voice search differs from mobile search.

Voice is still a leading-edge activity, but with voice-driven devices becoming ubiquitous, it won’t be long before it is mainstream. Already over 40% of U.S. adults use voice search daily, and most mobile users have given it a shot. As voice search begins to play a larger role in local search, a key differentiator from other forms of search comes from Yext’s white paper How Voice Search Changes Everything: “Unlike traditional web-based search, where many results are displayed as a list — encouraging exploration, engagement, and choice — voice search is all about the one best answer.”

The bar for financial marketers just keeps on rising.

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