Jonathan Moore, head of SEO, equimedia
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the internet on financial services. With new mobile-only banks entering the market, and estimates that one fifth of banking customers only use online services, this technological transformation of the financial sector will only continue. The way that people find, compare and select their financial products has been forever transformed by Google and by price comparison sites. However, this landscape is constantly changing. Google is continually enhancing how it delivers search results back to users to make sure they remain relevant. This results in changes to their algorithms which can have major impacts on a financial product’s search results – and therefore sales.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) in financial services is a longstanding challenge. The rewards – and sales – for those who get it right can be tremendous. However, get it wrong, and a brand can easily find itself languishing five or ten pages into returned results. This is why we have undertaken a project to investigate the changes which have occurred in financial services natural search rankings in the past nine months. To do this, we compared the current rankings achieved by brands, aggregator and consumer advice sites for over 3,000 of the most popular financial services keywords and search terms, across insurance, credit cards, investments, mortgages, and other consumer banking products, with their rankings in April 2016.
For those who consider financial services search rankings to be a largely static space, there are surprises in store. Google’s tweaks to its service have shaken up the sector dramatically. The research covers a period which saw it issue a Penguin algorithm update, roll out its mobile-first strategy, and launch expanded text ads, among other enhancements to its service.
The impact of these tweaks? First things first: in organic search returns, the very top results remain dominated by price comparison sites and consumer advice pages. This is unlikely to change any time soon. However, their dominance has been impacted in the overall rankings. By December 2016, organic search results were delivering more variety back to users, with a significant decline in the numbers of all-price comparison, or aggregator-saturated search results pages although the top two spots in organic search are now more likely to be occupied by an aggregator than before. The positive change in the variety of results pages overall means that brands can seize the opportunity to rank more highly than previously – including in the coveted top half of the first page of Google results. Brands should seize this opportunity, as other changes made by Google to the size and space dedicated to paid search ads means that the amount of space dedicated to natural results on the top half of the page has shrunk.
Another notable finding in the last six months is that some well-known brands saw their rankings drop due to poorly managed site migrations to the https:\\ format and other brands lost ground due to the latest Penguin update catching up with their poor quality legacy links – highlighting just how crucial it is to monitor a site’s performance on a continual basis. Others, who managed their transitions well and sorted out poor links, moved further up the page.
When it comes to specific product focus, the impact of ranking changes are variable for each brand depending on the product. Over our period of monitoring, bank brands made small gains overall, especially HSBC who freshened up their content and increased their search rankings for mortgages. The loans space was marked by a loss of brand visibility, with some major UK financial brands losing ground thanks to poor legacy links or https:\\ migrations. However, Sainsburysbank.co.uk made major gains by migrating successfully.
Other opportunities opened up in other categories – insurance brands, who had previously been penalised in rankings, have put more focus on tidying up SEO and have reappeared further up the page as a result. Tescobank.co.uk in particular has made gains around ISAs, with a focused content development strategy which answers users’ specific queries and features landing pages for niche terms such as ‘fixed rate cash ISAs’.
Investments remains the area of search least dominated by aggregators, and there is potential here which new market entrants such as thebalance.com and cisi.org have made the most of. Finally, brands with strong social strategies are also ranking well, fueled by a balance of content being shared through a mix of organic and paid for techniques to boost visibility and engagement.
Most importantly, there is an increased opportunity for brands to rank more highly for search terms that directly relate to their products and services unique features. A big focus for Google is the provision of content which addresses users’ information needs effectively. To take advantage, brands need to continually focus on identifying their specific opportunities in the search landscape based on who their customers are and the questions they need answering; understand the key role organic search plays in sales journeys; create a content strategy to give users well-crafted information on opportunities created by their product features and which are ignored by competitors; and ensure their technical SEO performance does not undermine good work elsewhere.
So, what can financial providers learn from these findings? Even smaller providers can compete on the right terms, and with the right strategies. Google has gone some way to level the playing field when it comes to the utter dominance of aggregator sites, so FS providers should seriously consider testing content ideas using paid search, measuring search volumes and results. Customer profiling, keyword research tools, competitor content analysis, Google analytics and attribution modelling make it easy for advertisers to establish a control, devise a hypothesis for new content, and predict and analyse the potential results before investing in content creation. This approach can provide data to justify the investment needed for a focused content development and social media strategy. It will show a brand what the important trends are in search volumes, identify the needs of their target customers, help identify content needed to answer users’ information needs and boost organic results and sales, even in competitive markets.
The upshot of our findings (which are detailed in greater length here) is that there are any number of opportunities for financial services businesses to rank well, in any category. It simply takes a focus on identifying target customer’s needs, and your product advantages, assessing what information customers need to make a decision at any point in their purchase journey, and understanding how they will search.