When SEO Was “Easy”
SEO, or search engine optimization, goes back to the earliest days of the internet. Even then, people wanted their content to be easily discoverable. They used a range of strategies to encourage, and sometimes trick, search engines to display their pages.
Of course, today’s SEO is a far cry from the original “Wild West”.
Back then, the rules were fast and loose, with keyword stuffing and directory listings a common way to gain more prominence. Early search engine algorithms looked to build accountability into their results. As the user, you wanted relevance, and that was harder than you might think.
At the same time, marketers tried to stay one step ahead and game the system, keeping their content at the top of the results.
When SEO Got Smart
For a while, their strategies worked. But over time, the world’s leading search engines (read: Google) got smarter. They built complex algorithms that reward quality, relevant content over keyword-stuffed pages that simply don’t help the searcher.
Enter modern SEO. It’s the practice of increasing the quantity/quality of web traffic originating through organic search results using ethical optimization practices and quality content.
Whew, that’s a mouthful! This article will help you understand this strategy and learn how to apply it for your financial institution. Put even more simply, we’ll help you attract people asking questions you’re perfectly suited to answer!
Before you dive in, make sure you queue up our description of Google’s Site Diversity policy. Come back to it after this article so you can get the most out of your efforts!
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The Language of SEO
Before diving into this guide, we want to make sure you know all the lingo that gets used. Here are some terms you’ll read in this article and other resources:
- SEO: Search Engine Optimization – The big picture of making your website, design, flow, and content well-suited to getting prominent placement on search engine results (we’re all looking for page 1)
- SERP: Search Engine Results Page – Literally, the search results listings
- Relevance: How well the website content answers the searched question or matches the language of a search term. In other words, if you only got one result (I’m Feeling Lucky), would you have to search again?
- Backlink: A link on another website that hyperlinks to your site
- Bounce rate: The percentage of visitors who leave your site after viewing only one page
- Authority: Ranking strength – This score predicts a website’s ability to rank on SERPs (It’s a combination of quality and relevant links to your content as well as other factors including traffic, bounce rate, and more.)
- AMP: A technology built by Google to create fast-loading pages. Most commonly used on social media and search results (look for the lightning bolt on the thumbnail). Not everyone’s thrilled with it.
- Note: Credit Union Geek posts have AMP active. Google search results should automatically route to that version, or you can just add “/amp/” to any post URL to see the difference.
How Do Search Engines Rank Your Content?
At its core, a search engine exists to help you find information. There’s a lot of stuff on the internet. Without something to help you parse it all, you’ll never find anything of specific use, short of asking someone else.
To organize this massive amount of data, they use a combination of proprietary tools:
- Bots scour the web for new content
- Algorithms process that collected information
- Massive databases organize that content based on quality/relevance
- Natural language intelligence systems display content to you that best matches your search
This comes down to three groups of tasks:
- Crawl: A bot will scour the Internet for new content, looking over the code/content for every new URL they find. These automated browsers are all over, able to learn about most of the internet in under a day.
- Index: All that new information collected needs to be easily accessible
- Rank: Score each piece of content so better (read: “ah, that was what I wanted!”) content shows up first.
These tasks run 24/7, constantly reassessing everything found so searchers get the best experience. This continuous process is actually what makes SEO such a great opportunity for your financial institution.
It’s never “too late” to implement better SEO strategies. Whether your website is 1 or 25 years old, you always have the chance to become a quality resource.
Why is SEO Important?
“This SEO thing sounds complicated. And we already do social media/search ads marketing. Why even bother?”
Fair question. Although paid advertising and social media will drive visits to your website, most online traffic is still driven by search engines and organic search results.
According to Moz, SEO has ~20X more traffic opportunity than pay-per-click (PPC) on both mobile and desktop. Sure, they’re everywhere, but fewer than 3% of people will visit paid advertisements.
So what’s the best way to get your content visible on search engines (and specifically Google)? SEO, my friend. It must be part of your strategy to establish your brand as a trusted resource online and help your traffic snowball over time.
“Our visitors know how awesome our content and site are! Why bother trying to convince a search engine bot?”
You can have the best content, but if search engines can’t read it easily, then it’s not really the best content. SEO helps present yourself in the best light to the bots and algorithms.
When you think of your financial institution, your prospects are people looking for a range of financial solutions. Think of search engines as potential customers as well. In their case, you must convince them (in their language) you are the best choice for those potential prospects.
Getting Started: The Tools
Like any task, it’s about having the right tools. Digging a hole is better with a shovel. A big hole is far simpler with a digger. Just like your garage, stock your SEO toolkit with the wrenches, pliers, and cabinets that make the most sense.
To build a long-term content strategy, here are a few of the tools considered industry-best by the experts:
- Google Search Console: Essential. This is Google’s view of your site, complete with traffic, performance, and potential errors. Use it. Listen to it. Check it regularly.
- Google Data Highlighter: Tell Google what parts of your site mean what. Enables your site content to display within the Google Knowledge Graph and other advanced features.
- Google Rich Results Test: Run your site through their scanner to determine if it’s eligible for all the cool SERP features (ie. The above data you just highlighted.)
- Note: This replaces the Structured Data Testing Tool.
- 10 Free Keyword Research Tools: Helps you plan search campaigns and research new keywords
- Google Webmasters: A learning center for SEO marketers with popular resources, courses, and guides to learn how to make great content
- Yoast: If your site is built on WordPress, you need this plugin. If it isn’t, their site has a number of resources to get best practices.
- Moz: SEO tools offering reporting, analytics, keyword research, and competitive insights, plus, a large content library you can use at any time
- Ahrefs: Similar to Moz, Ahrefs offers a variety of SEO tools and resources
- SEMRush: Another competitor in the all-in-one SEO space, SEMRush is considered a “swiss army knife” of SEO tools
- Backlinko: A blog where you can continue your learning on what you need to get higher search rankings
Together, these tools and resources will help you:
- Audit your existing content
- Determine your current ranking
- Identify new keywords
- Evaluate the competitive landscape
- Raise your standing across a range of search terms
But what about local SEO? Ok, here you go:
- On WordPress? Try this.
- Local search is part of SEO, but the main thing is making them consistent, accurate, and current. And ensure you’re in the right category!
- Go to the sites, update your business information, then respond to reviews and requests.
- The same strategies you use for paid social media/search efforts apply.
Creating an SEO-driven Content Strategy
Great, you’re ready to move forward on SEO. Time to attack those keywords people use all the time? Almost. But not yet. Let’s see where you stand right now, with what you’ve got today.
The easiest way to see this is to do an SEO site audit. It will tell you:
- How you compare to your competitors (and their weaknesses)
- What changes need to be made
- A general overview of the SEO efficiency of your site
- Your website’s technical weaknesses
These scans will identify big issues, like site titles that need some improvement. They will also show you technical, website-specific issues that are otherwise tedious to find. Like broken links or missing meta descriptions. And more:
- Optimize your internal and external links
- Add missing tags
- Optimize titles, meta descriptions, and HTML tags
- Fix or replace broken images and add alt attributes
- Find and erase error pages or broken pages
- Remove duplicate content
Once found and corrected, you’ll get an immediate leg up on SEO efforts. Some issues prevent search engines from crawling your pages, so they couldn’t rank you at all! Getting into the game is a big first step. And that’s before creating new content!
Finally, let’s see who’s already linking to your site. For that, a good tool is the Moz Backlink Checker. It will help you understand your domain authority and provide a list of sites linking to you. Reach out to existing referral sources to thank them and build the relationship.
What if you find sites linking to you that are low-quality and even harming your image? It’s ok, now that you know, you can do something about it. Google lets you disavow backlinks that can hurt your domain authority, excluding them from your scoring.
Since you’re already reading about Marketing strategies, this goes right with it. Tired of e-mails getting ignored? We put together 5 tested tips to get your e-mails read.
Get the Cheat Sheet
Congratulations on getting your site shaped up for SEO readiness! Now it’s time to start thinking about your keyword strategy.
First, what topics should grow your ranking? In other words, for what search terms do you want to appear? Keep this initial brainstorm broad. We’ll have a chance to sort your ideas into more specific keywords later.
Unsure where to start? For a financial institution, here are some potential broad strokes. Note many of them are local keyword ready:
- Bank near me
- Best local bank for credit cards
- Nearby credit union
- Best bank for debit cards
- Best credit union in your serviced cities/state
- Lowest auto loan rates
- Highest savings rates
- Best checking account
- Where should I bank in city/state
Now it’s time to make groups. What are your best services? Be honest. Also, are there any you are specifically looking to grow? Use these to create “buckets” to hold your keyword ideas.
A bucket can be car loans, mortgage loans, small business checking/lending, or other product category. These will be what’s called “long-tail keywords”, three and four-word keyword phrases that really can boost your search traffic.
Long-tail keywords receive far lower search volume, mainly since they’re much more specific. However, that also means they’re easier to earn a great ranking. Consider the difference between “credit union” and “best credit union auto loan rates in Miami“.
In addition, you can target directly to these search phrases with content you create.
Sure, you can use the keyword research tools above for ideas, but search engines like Google and Bing also make it easy. Just look at their related searches. Many can be close to or spot on for ideas. Take a look at this sample we ran for you:
Once you have a list of specific keywords, you can use Google Keyword Planner or other popular tools to check the monthly search volume. While you’re at it, run a competitive analysis to see if you (or your competitors) rank for any of the keywords.
It’s possible you already have a good ranking for a particular term. If so, you can get yourself to a prime position with fewer optimizations. Consider those your low-hanging fruit that drive initial SEO results while you create new content for other terms.
When your list of target keywords is finalized, you can start planning out the content you’ll need to create in support of those keywords.
New: Get Highlighted
There’s a new (as of June 2020) feature Google and Bing offers for visitors that can make a huge difference in your SEO efforts. They now highlight and scroll to results when using Chrome and other Chromium-based browsers.
Ok, what does that mean? Let’s take a look. (Click images to see larger)
In these images created by The Verge, you can see it in action. When a user searches, they may see a “featured snippet”. This is text from your site that Google thinks will answer their question. Here’s where the new stuff comes in.
When they click to visit your page, if they’re using Chrome (or related browsers), it will automatically scroll to that featured text and highlight it! The goal is to get to your answer fast. Of course, it means you need to rethink two things.
First, do you have text on your page that directly answers a common question? Great. That was good for SEO before, and still is. Second, if someone comes to your site and scrolls straight to that answer, is the site still useful?
In other words, are you trying to drive visitors to take an action? Have they now scrolled past any call to action links?
This could create a major change to how people navigate your pages (especially if they arrive by search engine). My advice? Make sure your CTAs and other important links are spread throughout the page. That way, it won’t matter where they “drop”.
You don’t need to do anything to your site to enable it. So long as you already get featured snippets, it will work.
As this feature becomes more common, people will expect it to happen when they visit your site. If Google cannot find their answer, they’ll be stuck scrolling through your site. Oh, the agony! But seriously, you know people will be lazy.
Capture them with quality content that addresses the topic with clear language. Google will handle the rest.
Creating Keyword-Friendly Content
In the past, search engines weren’t all that smart. So they could be fooled. One way marketers did that was with “keyword stuffing”. It’s what you think. The exact search term was put into every area possible, from the title, headings, meta descriptions, body, and sometimes even just in white text at the bottom.
That doesn’t work anymore. In fact, if search engines see you trying to manipulate their results like this, they’ll punish you with lower ranking. So definitely skip on this bad advice.
“So we don’t use the keywords in our pages? Then how will we talk about it, or even make it clear what it’s about?” Hold your horses. If you’re not stuffing, it’s not barren, either. Search engines have an answer that works more like how we think and speak.
It’s called natural language processing. This lets their system recognize variations and descriptive aspects of a term so you can avoid keyword stuffing. The experts of SEO encourage you to embrace the NLP! (Bonus: It may help you rank for more keywords!)
A Bit More On Natural Language Processing (NLP)
NLP means a lot more than you might first realize. Imagine someone searching for a credit card. Obviously, your content would have “credit card” included. What else would you want to rank for on that topic?
- Card benefits: Accidental damage, loss reimbursement, warranty extension, etc.
- Easy-to-grow and redeem rewards program (A common complaint is that rewards programs are difficult to redeem your points)
- Low or no fees on common things like late payment or insufficient funds
This doesn’t just mean you want to include these words in your content. It also means you’ll want to talk about them with language the experts use. Perhaps that means including examples and explanations of your low APR on a typical balance.
You’re the expert. Be creative and clear. Searchers want to get their questions answered, not be sold or feel like they’re being patronized. Maybe include a piece about “what are common credit card terms and what do they mean?”
In that article (or video), you can link to your own card descriptions, which make this extremely clear for the visitor. Just make sure your content is informative, not sales-y. The search engines will notice the linked pages and understand their association.
Keywords are important. They’re not always the ones you expect.
Building Topic Groups
Your keyword strategy needs organization. Just like you organize your site by Bank, Borrow, Save or some similar goal/product-based structure, the same is necessary of your keywords.
Build your content based on topic clusters in lieu of creating blogs or pages for individual keywords. The latter makes disorganized websites. And that’s not good for SEO or anyone’s enjoyment!
What are topic clusters? Hubspot describes them as, “choosing the broad topics you want to rank for, then creating content based on specific keywords related to that topic that all link to each other, to create broader search engine authority.”
Here’s a visual representation that gets it across more clearly (at least for me!):
These cluster pages should all be organized around one main topic, which will be housed on a pillar page (that’s the middle circle of each cluster).
Not all content is the same. Your 1,500 word blog post is fabulous. Make more of them! However, it cannot possibly cover the full range of ideas on a specific topic. It will help your ranking, but it isn’t the sole place people will go.
Regular content is simply too short. You need more time to cover it all. That’s where pillar pages come in.
Pillar pages are long. Sometimes 10,000+ words long. Sometimes more. They’re your “Ultimate Guides” on a topic, the only destination you need. That doesn’t mean everything you need to know is covered in its expansive content, however.
That’s why your cluster pages exist. Those are the 1,500 word blog posts. Your pillar page provides the starting point for all journeys into the topic. Your cluster pages, in turn, will all link back to one another (and the pillar page), boosting your domain authority and increasing traffic each aspect of the topic.
In other words, a pillar page with surrounding cluster pages tells a search engine, “these guys get that topic, so when someone’s searching, we should consider sending them there”.
For example, you can create a pillar page that provides visitors with “everything they need to know about small business loans”. Then, you can create and link to individual cluster pages on topics including:
- Types of small business loans
- How to apply for a small business loan
- Small business loans: credit unions vs. banks
- Pros & cons of small business loans
- Best lenders for small business loans
Follow this system of ‘pillar page + cluster pages’ for all of the keyword groups you identified earlier. Just make sure there’s enough traffic to the topic to justify the resources needed to get all that content created, edited, and published.
Maximizing Local SEO
As a community financial institution, you likely rely on local business. Step one to that entails making sure people in your area 1) know you exist and 2) can find you. Local SEO is critical because it allows you to rank for geo-specific keywords (e.g. “best credit unions near me”).
People don’t just search Google for answers, they ask for recommendations. And showing up in the top 3-5 results of a local query means you’ll likely boost online and in-person traffic.
If your institution is the only one in your area that has their Google My Business page current with hours of operation, phone number, and website, chances are, people will be more likely to visit your site or branch.
Essential Task – Local SEO & Reviews
Also, I have a task for you right this second. Yes, stop reading the rest of the article, hold your calls, and put off upcoming meetings. Go to your Google and Yelp business listings. Easiest way is to just search on both platforms.
Find them? Great. Now, take a look at your existing reviews. Are there any? If so, are they positive? Negative? Most financial institutions I see have a number of reviews and most are poor. Yet none have a response.
Answer them. Now. If you don’t have authority, find the person who does.
The vast majority of businesses don’t answer online reviews. Which is just stupid. But it also means that when you do, you stand out. And it can help you turn someone’s negative experience into a positive one. While creating a possible referral source.
The recipient is happy. Other searchers see these replies and gain confidence in your care towards customers. You learn what people love or despise about your institution. Everyone wins.
This may sound silly, but it gets ignored by most. So be the one who does it right.
Ok, back to the article. And your phone notifications.
Places to Build Local SEO
Here are the places you need to go for local SEO consistency and completion:
- Google My Business page (and encourage reviews)
- Update Yelp listing (and encourage reviews)
- Create a listing on relevant local business directories (that includes chambers of commerce)
- Create a listing on relevant finance directories (perhaps your CU league or regional banking association)
- Ensure your business information is accurate (e.g. phone number, address, hours of operation)
- If on WordPress, consider a plugin to make this simple
- Create content for local keywords (“best credit union in city”)
Backlinks and Guest Blogging
Guest blogging is a popular strategy that helps you build domain authority and drive traffic back to your website. It works two ways:
- You write and publish content on another site that links back to your financial institution
- Invite others to write and publish content on your site. They’re driving traffic to your site to consume their content.
Search engines like to see this practice as it helps them determine what is of value for their users. If there is a known authority in the industry answering questions, seeing you connected to them gives confidence that you can do the same.
How do you find good guest bloggers? First, make sure they have a history of addressing real questions in your world! Then, ensure their content matches your standard of voice, grammar, honesty, and any other factors needed.
Ideally, you’ll want to work with sites that already have a high domain authority. Even better if they’re also well-regarded within the industry (say, one of the publications). Finally, ensure anything is written such that there’s a reason to continue learning on your site.
Speaking from experience, putting these relationships together can take time. However, once you have those connections established, make the most of it for all parties. Use your social media to share it and connect them with the topic cluster concept.
Guest blogging is awesome, and can benefit all parties. Talk to your industry connections to see where you can best engage in some “people-helping-people”! Dive deeper with lessons from Backlinko and Hubspot.
Invest in Long-Term SEO
Essential disclosure: SEO doesn’t provide immediate returns.
I wish it did. Really. Our own work takes months to see a change. You’re playing a long game that builds on its previous success. The “quick fixes” like deleting broken pages and fixing configuration errors simply get you into the search index, not on page one.
The key to success is continuously dedicating time and energy to:
- Creating high-value content
- Cultivating your topics into organized clusters
- Optimizing it for search engines
Not “post sometimes and take a few months off because we’re all busy in annual planning”. You wouldn’t do that for any other initiative, right?
To make the most of your SEO efforts, invest in a reporting tool that gives easy access to:
- Web traffic
- Keyword rankings (especially over time)
- Competitor rankings
- New keyword opportunities
With this information, you can track if your efforts are working, and to what degree. Otherwise, you’re flying blind and probably wasting time and effort on things that don’t give great results.
Besides your own efforts, you have to consider that what worked yesterday may not tomorrow. Google updates their algorithms all the time (sometimes they post updates about the bigger changes). This may mean changing how you create and optimize your content.
How Long Until We See Results?
Typically, you will see SEO results within 4 to 6 months. If nothing changes in that time, you’ve done it wrong, or there is some larger issue everyone missed. After a year, you should see dramatic improvements in website traffic, keywords, bounce rate, and more.
Of course, it all depends on how well you’ve done creating valuable, informative content focused on your customers. Your customers, prospects, and market are looking for answers. Help them get them and more!
SEO Is Just The Beginning
We believe in the basic premise of inbound marketing; that you have questions and we’re here to honestly answer them the best we can.
Search Engine Optimization is your tool to ensure people can find what you’re creating.
There’s a lot more to inbound/content marketing, and we invite you to read our other articles (it’s part of our topic cluster!) to get the whole picture. First, learn what content marketing even is. Then, get guidance on building an inbound strategy.
And, if somehow this wasn’t sufficient explanation of SEO (there’s always more to learn!), be awesome and read our Essential Guide to SEO for Financial Institutions.
In fact, the easiest way to keep all this in order is to just Subscribe to the Learning Library!
Blogger. Speaker. Part-time Jedi.
Focused on helping your bank or credit union grow in the face of emerging challenges.