How SEO in Banking Must Adapt to the Sales Journey

Three distinct stages of the online version of the sales funnel must be understood in order to give your bank or credit union the strongest advantages when people set out to find a financial institution for banking needs. It's critical to know what you do control, what you can control — and what's out of your control.

Most financial marketers, regardless of industry, understand that organic search is an important channel for reaching potential customers. But there are a few particularly compelling reasons to have a solid search presence as a bank or credit union.

First, Google search provides a unique opportunity to meet consumers at every step of their journey, from the earliest stages of nascent pre-awareness all the way through conversion and advocacy. This is especially true in an industry like banking, where the financial stakes are high and most people want to thoroughly research the solution to a problem before committing to a transaction.

Second, search is an essential avenue for building (or, if you aren’t careful, undermining) trust with current and prospective customers.

Now that we’ve set the stage, let’s look at how search maps to the customer journey. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll look at a simple marketing funnel and how you should be thinking about search at the top, middle and bottom of the funnel. (Or ToFu, MoFu and BoFu, as the kids are evidently saying these days.)

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what framework you use, how many stages it has, whether it’s linear or branching. Anything that helps you focus on the right thing without overlooking anything important is fine.

1. Top of Funnel: Matching the Research-Based Search

Sample searches: how to improve my credit score, bank vs. credit union, how much to put down on a house

Top-of-funnel searches are entirely research-based: people looking for general information about a concept, or beginning to investigate solutions to a problem.

For example, the researcher might be a prospective homebuyer trying to budget and understand various assistance programs or a recent college graduate who wants to improve their credit score. Or it could even be something more general like someone who feels they need to get their finances in order, but doesn’t quite know where to begin.

These search results tend to display content like news articles, in-depth educational content, and visuals such as infographics.

Google tends to favor publishers here, but that doesn’t mean that you as a financial institution shouldn’t provide this type of content.

It’s helpful to establish the relevance of your brand, as well as providing information that’s inherently useful to your existing customers. (That’s generally a decent litmus test for whether something’s worth pursuing, anyway.)

If you aren’t able to compete directly with large publishers, this is also an area where cultivating thought leadership and/or working with a PR company can be beneficial. Interviews and quotes in news stories and other ways in which your employees can lend their expertise can get your institution visibility on big publishers that rank for a broad range of informational searches. Plus, backlinks from established sites will help your own site perform better in search, too.

The top of the funnel is largely about establishing trust and building a relationship with prospects. Trust is, of course, critically important in the banking industry, but it also happens to be a core component of Google’s search algorithm, particularly in this space.

A Key Tip: Google designates searches in the finance space as “Your Money or Your Life”, meaning the quality and accuracy of search results it displays could have a material effect on people’s health, finances and overall quality of life. In these spaces, Google may weigh certain ranking factors differently, placing extra emphasis on certain signals that correspond with a high degree of expertise, authority and trustworthiness (often referred to as E-A-T).

Read More: Supporting Digital-First Banking Models with the Right Website Strategy

2. Middle of Funnel: When Consumers Begin Actively Shopping

Sample searches: checking account, small business loan, mortgage

Further down the funnel, consumers have started looking for information about specific products. They may be interested in opening a checking account or taking out a small business loan, for example. These searches are still highly informational, but the nature of content that shows up in search results can vary widely depending on the product in question.

Compare the search results for “checking account” with those for “mortgage.”

• The checking account results are dominated by product pages, relatively minimal in terms of content and are focused on conversion (new account signups).

• The mortgage results, by contrast, are, as you might expect, heavily informational: overview articles, calculators, one or two product pages from large banks.

The lesson here is that “middle of the funnel” means something very different depending on the type of product, and a searcher’s distance from conversion varies correspondingly.

It also underscores the importance of analyzing search results as a source of consumer insight. Google’s algorithm is extremely sophisticated in its ability to match search results with the intent of a query, that is, i.e. the thing(s) people are actually looking for. This can help you understand what potential customers want at every stage of the funnel related to a particular product, and ensure that you’re providing a solution.

Read More: How to Turn Your Financial Institution’s Website Into a Lead-Gen Engine

3. Bottom of Funnel: When Consumers Come to Their Decision Point

Sample search: [BRAND] reviews, [BRAND A] versus [BRAND B], [BRAND] fraud

As people move closer to opening an account or taking out a loan, they likely will research the bank or credit union they’re considering. They might look up reviews or compare one bank to another, see which branches are most convenient to them, or explore a bank or credit union’s involvement in their local community. These searches may also be existing customers trying to find quick information about their institution’s products.

Branded search results are somewhat different from searches further up the funnel. The content Google serves up is broadly consistent from brand to brand, but what does or doesn’t get displayed in branded search results varies.

Here’s the type of content Google displays in branded search results:

  • The Knowledge Panel, the pane to the right of search results that includes company information, links to social media profiles, Wikipedia, and other information.
  • Corporate website, including sitelinks.
  • A localized map showing a financial institution’s physical locations near the searcher.
  • People Also Ask, an algorithmically generated list of questions related to the original search; this can be especially problematic during a scandal or other reputational problem, as it often reflects searches related to current news cycles.
  • An embedded Twitter stream from your corporate account.
  • Articles, reviews and other third-party websites you have no direct control over.

Try searching for your own institution and see how the results come up. Then try your competitors.

For institutions that depend so much on the public trust, proactively managing your branded search results is absolutely critical, as these searches are generally a final step before someone makes a transaction. A single negative article can linger in branded search results, turning people away just as they’re ready to commit to you.

It’s important to understand that you can affect your branded search results both directly and indirectly. Control the things you can control, such as your own website and your social media accounts, and know how you can influence the things you can’t directly control, such as reviews or related questions.

For example, a cohesive and responsive PR strategy will help influence news stories that get pulled into search results and can potentially affect People Also Ask queries, while improving customer service can indirectly affect star ratings and reviews that are displayed directly in search results or as part of the Knowledge Panel.

It’s critical to keep an eye on how your bank or credit union shows up for each stage of search. As so much of daily life moves online in the current moment, a cohesive end-to-end digital presence is table stakes for playing the search game —and organic search is essential to building that presence.

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