6 Technical SEO Challenges for Financial Institutions

The number of banks is declining, so why is competition increasing? 

Research from the ILSR shows that banks have decreased from approximately 24,000 to just under 4,519 (in 2019). It seems like this would reduce competitive pressure, but it hasn’t. 

This is because of disruption. 

Pure-play internet banks are disrupting the status quo; a recent LendingTree study found that internet banks offer savings yields four times higher than traditional banks and credit unions. This disruption has trained customers to pursue banks offering the best deal. 

Customer loyalty is declining rapidly.   

The survival of your financial institution begins with SEO

A recent Think with Google post outlined the significant changes taking place in the financial services industry. 

“A big shift in the financial services industry is well underway. Consumer trust — the primary driver of brand preference — is no longer dependent on institutional legacy or brick-and-mortar footprint. Trust is now placed in companies that prioritize a user-first digital experience, invest in product innovation, and lead with transparency.”

What’s more alarming is the fact that: 

  • 78  percent of financial decision-makers in the U.S. already use disruptor brands; millions have made them their primary provider
  • 6.3 million primary provider adopters in payments
  • 6.3 million primary provider adopters in banking and investments
  • 2.5 million primary provider adopters in property and casualty insurance

Here’s the ten-year trend for the search query “open a checking account online.”

What does this tell us? 

Customers today are more sophisticated; slowly but surely, they’re moving all of their traditional banking activities online. Their implicit expectation is that their financial institution adapts to meet their demands. 

Remaining competitive starts with SEO. 

Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a tactic that’s exclusively marketing-focused. 

Take these branded search queries for Ally bank

  • Ally bank app
  • Ally bank savings rate
  • Ally bank customer service
  • Ally bank reviews
  • Ally bank address
  • Ally bank debit card
  • Ally bank routing number
  • Ally bank CD rates
  • Ally bank car loan 
  • Ally bank near me
  • Ally bank reviews
  • Ally bank wire transfer
  • Ally bank locations
  • Ally bank car payment log in
  • Ally bank vs. Capital One 360

A scan of these queries tells us that searchers are looking for content that’s educational, informative, transactional, logistical, or location-specific. This means organic search needs to play a multi-faceted role in your financial institution; your SEO campaigns should manage searcher overlap for various departments — sales, marketing, customer service, fulfillment, and more.  

That’s the problem. 

Many banks are either unaware of the technical requirements of SEO, or they’re not currently focused on it (for a variety of reasons). Left unchecked, these technical challenges will stifle your search campaigns, slowing growth, and decreasing rankings.

Let’s take a look at these technical challenges and their solutions. 

Read More: Recession Proof: Your SEO Playbook in Economic Uncertainty

Technical SEO challenge #1: Poor digital governance

Banks are required to maintain compliance with a variety of regulations. Different departments may manage various portions of your financial institution’s website. 

This makes organic search more difficult. 

This is why digital governance is an essential must-have for financial institutions. Here’s how Lisa Welchman, author of “Managing Chaos. Digital Governance by Design,” defines digital governance. 

“Digital governance is a framework for establishing accountability, roles, and decision-making authority for an organization’s digital presence.”

Digital governance outlines the people, principles, permissions, policies, and protocols needed to successfully manage your financial institution’s digital assets, content, and campaigns. This may sound obvious and intuitive, but it’s not. 

Here’s out that plays out. 

  • Financial institutions struggle with organizational silos; departments and various teams fight for control over digital properties, making it harder for the organization, as a whole, to grow consistently.
  • Each team or department has its own separate list of metrics and KPIs, so measurement is fragmented. As a result, teams are all focused on making their own changes. The organization stalls as internal groups sabotage each other.
  • Undefined or poorly defined protocols and poorly planned changes expose financial institutions to compliance risks (e.g., GDPR, Gramm-Leach-Bliley, ADA)
  • As corporate infighting stalls growth, the organization can be overtaken by more nimble competitors who have their internal ducks in a row. 
  • A steady loss of market share as conflicting messages create customer confusion and reputational harm; the more employees you have creating messages on behalf of the organization, the greater the risk of brand dilution.

Why is governance first? 

Because the success or failure of your SEO depends on your ability to get things done, these technical challenges won’t be solved if your fix is rolled back by a different team or department. 

Fixing digital governance

This requires political acumen. 

You’ll want to reach out to the appropriate leader or manager in your organization. This could be the director of digital banking strategy, specific department heads, or even HR if you’re unsure where to start. 

First, do your homework. 

Map the existing people, principles, permissions, policies, and protocols in place. Identify the areas that need adjustments or updates then, reach out to the people or team that can make the necessary changes. Not sure how to navigate organizational silos and turf wars? 

This guide will help. 

Be sure to identify the tools, training, support, and monitoring requirements you have ahead of time (i.e., site-wide internal link monitoring via tools like Screaming Frog). Create a plan that gets the organization working together, whether sharing roles and responsibilities, retaining control and dividing responsibilities, or something else. 

Technical SEO Challenge #2: Fixing broken internal/external links

“Internal Linking – “Most financial organizations struggle with SEO following a new product launch because they don’t realize the power of internal linking and the value they can spread from their homepage.”  – Colt Sliva, SEO Engineer at iPullRank

These “404 page not found” errors are common on large websites. 

Banking websites are no exception to this. For example, Ally bank has 6,600 pages indexed with Google. These errors are especially common when resources, apps, downloads, or educational content are moved or updated. And it happens a lot during a merger, acquisition, restructuring, or rebrand. 

These links should be fixed. 

It’s frustrating for your visitors or customers to click a link with a specific expectation, only to see a 404 page not found. It’s an easy way to lose traffic, lose revenue, and tank your reputation. 

The fixes are simple. 

  • If the destination page was moved permanently, use a 301 redirect to retain the link equity from the referring site to your new page. 
  • Use a redirect for temporary changes if you plan on restoring the currently broken link to working order. 
  • Identify orphan pages, pages that aren’t being linked to and don’t link to other pages; connect them to other pages, so the flow of traffic is uninterrupted. 
  • Find duplicate and redirect content; for example, make sure Google and Bing index a single version of your site (e.g., www.ally.com vs. https://ally.com vs. https://ally.com). Use the canonical tag to identify the “master version” of your site. Be sure to set up parameter handling in Google Search Console. 
  • Thin content is basically a soft 404; it’s content that provides little to no value to visitors, customers, or search engines. You can approach this by (a.) expanding the on-page content or (b.) redirecting (301) traffic to a page that’s more relevant and helpful. 

Fixing broken links

What about tools? Screaming FrogDeep CrawlseoClarity are three well-known options you can use to find and fix broken links. 

Fixing this is low-hanging fruit. 

It’s an easy way to improve link equity, organic rankings, visibility, and traffic as a result). Unfortunately, this can also be difficult as various departments aren’t eager to share their link equity, especially if the portions they manage have higher authority and equity. 

Technical SEO Challenge #3:  Ignoring sub-domain best practices

“Subdomains perform worse than subdirectory structures time and time again. More mature banking organizations may have vestigial parts of their site that are causing poor performance and can be optimized by merging subdomains.” – Colt Sliva, SEO Engineer at iPullRank

Does your organization follow sub-domain best practices? 

Elements of a domain

Source: Moz.com

Subdomains are commonly used for language or country-specific websites (e.g., en.example.com for English speakers and mx.example.com for Spanish speakers). 

It’s best to rely on subfolders and subdirectories (i.e., example.com/investing) rather than subdomains, as this avoids cannibalization. Here’s an example to show what I mean. 

  • invest.ally.com: This subdomain discusses Ally’s investment products, including money market accounts, brokerage accounts, CDs, etc.
  • ally.com/invest: This subfolder or domain also discusses the same Ally investment products. 
  • media.ally.com: Again, this subdomain discusses the very same investment products.   

Each of these pages discusses the same financial products and services. In fact, many of these will probably use the same copy — content that’s been approved by legal. 

Which one should Google display? 

It’s a difficult decision for search engines; believe it or not, this is a common problem in many financial institutions. Operational silos, turf wars, or a simple lack of inter-departmental communication is all that’s needed to create this problem. 

What’s worse, legacy systems and rigid governance make this hard to change. 

What about site architecture?  

If you’re going to use subdomains, use the filing cabinet theory for site architecture. 

Scott Willoughby, in his post for Moz, describes it as follows: 

“Let’s first look at how a standard filing cabinet is organized: You have the individual cabinet, drawers in that cabinet, folders within the drawers, files within the folders, and documents within the files.

There is only one copy of any individual document, and it’s located in a particular spot. There is a very clear navigation path to get to it. 

This sort of information architecture provides a simple, straightforward way for your visitors to find individual items or content. It’s the way we all learned to organize information growing up, and the way we naturally want to navigate down through a site.  It’s also an excellent architecture style for SEO purposes. It’s shallow, easily crawled, and if you remember to think of individual content items as documents in a filing cabinet, there will never be more than one copy and you’ll avoid duplicate content problems.”

This method is ideal, but it’s not exactly easy, especially if corporate governance is a problem. 

Following subdomain best practices

Here are a few steps you can follow; first, you’ll need to inventory your website content. You’ll want to identify the content I’ve mentioned previously. Duplicate content, cannibalization, thin or orphaned content, etc. 

Next, work with your team to optimize the content on your website around the filing cabinet theory. This doesn’t mean you have to delete duplicate content. You can also change, edit, expand, or update this content —  so it supplements the original. 

Then link each of these content pieces together. 

Following website architecture best practices

Moz has several important takeaways if you’re looking to improve site architecture. 

  • Don’t make the user think
  • 3 – 4 clicks to any page
  • Use consistent standards (navigation, design, style, content, etc.)
  • Leverage standards and familiarity 
  • One unique URL per unique piece of content

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of website architecture and internal links. 

Technical SEO Challenge #4: Inconsistent interlinking

According to a study by Intelligent Positioning, Wikipedia appears on page one for 99 percent of searches. They’re first for 56 percent of searches; 96 percent of search results had Wikipedia in the top five positions. 

Not bad for a free encyclopedia.  

Eric Enge analyzed these results in 2015 after Wikipedia saw large decreases in traffic. Enge found that a decline in rankings was responsible for the slight traffic drop. However, Google is still ranking Wikipedia higher in search results than its own properties!

What does this have to do with your financial institution? 

The Wikipedia model of interlinking is an incredibly effective way to boost rankings and visibility. Initially, Wikipedia’s strategy was built on natural linking; every page linked two or more Wikis to each other. 

This is a challenge for many organizations. 

If a particular department (home loans) receives a significant amount of authority and traffic, they’re far more likely to hoard link equity. In other cases, some departments aren’t as sophisticated as other departments and are less willing to interlink content liberally. 

Fixing interlinking

Use best practices and the steps covered in challenge #1 above to improve internal linking. If you can get everyone singing from the same song sheet, interlinking doesn’t have to be a technical challenge. 

Best practices: 

  • Use keyword-rich anchor text
  • Link to important (i.e., high pagerank/mozrank) pages
  • Don’t use the same anchor text (i.e., Ally Home Loans) for two different pages
  • Use Google’s Search Console for auditing internal links
  • Add links above the fold, high on the page
  • Use the DoFollow attribute to share link equity 
  • Don’t automate internal or external link building
  • Add internal links to content that’s older than one year
  • Verify mobile versions/performance

Here’s a detailed breakdown of these best practices if you’re looking for more. 

Technical SEO Challenge #5: Keyword Salience

“The way you refer to your fintech products may not be the way your customers refer to them. Keeping a breadth of complete keyword coverage is the best way to combat this problem.” – Colt Sliva, SEO Engineer at iPullRank

What’s keyword salience? 

This refers to keywords that are relevant, noticeable, and important. Google’s Natural Language API enables you to compare your existing content with the content ranking well in Google to measure its relevance or salience. 

Think about this from a banking standpoint. 

If a customer enters the query “loans” in Google, are they looking for a personal, home, automotive, or business loan? Keyword salience makes finding the answer to questions like these easier. 

Here’s why this is a problem for financial institutions. 

When it comes to integrations, pure-play internet banks are all about keyword salience. Take a look at Novo. 

See those navigation options? 

Novo understands that people are looking for a bank that works with the digital-first platforms they’re already using — PayPal, Stripe, Xero, Venmo, Square, Gumroad, Zapier, etc. Novo takes it a step further by integrating its platform with Zapier. Take a look at Novo’s Zapier page. 

Novo creates documentation for each of the major integrations they’ve added to their platform. Even large bricks and mortar banks like Wells Fargo have started to see the importance. 

Each integration has its own documentation. 

And FAQ. 

Not only is this beneficial from an SEO standpoint, but it’s also an easy way to decrease customer friction, increasing the likelihood that customers will choose you over a competitor. This is problematic for established, multi-location banks, credit unions, and single-branch banks. 

Improving keyword salience

Solving this technical challenge is straightforward as well. 

  1. Identify the platforms, products, and services your financial institution integrates with. 
  2. Assess your documentation: what people want, what you have, and what you need. 
  3. Work with the various departments and teams in your organization to fill the gaps in your documentation. 
  4. Request feedback from customers to assess content performance (e.g., did this answer your question?).
  5. Create an integrations hub that showcases all of the integrations available on your platform. 

These steps will take time, especially if you’re required to clear content with product managers and legal. As an SEO manager, you’re going to need a significant amount of social capital. You’ll need to navigate the internal politics present in your organization to get this done in a reasonable amount of time. 

Technical SEO Challenge #6: Managing international SEO

“Finance is global. We need to meet customers wherever they are going to be and however they’re searching. There are key technical steps that Google expects to properly serve your content and services in different geolocations and languages.” – Colt Sliva, SEO Engineer at iPullRank

Multiculturalism is an essential component for many banks, particularly those in or near a major metropolitan area. If your financial institution is international, this is even more important. 

Here’s the problem. 

Many financial institutions take a narrow approach to multicultural business. Most SEOs focus on the hreflangs attribute. 

This makes sense. 

You want search engines to show users the most appropriate version of your website. Both Google and Yandex use the hreflang tag to do this. Here’s how Ahrefs breaks this down

“Hreflang tags use simple and consistent syntax:

<link rel=”alternate” hreflang=”x” href=”https://example.com/alternate-page” />

Here’s what each part of that code means in plain English:

  1. link rel= “alternate”: The link in this tag is an alternate version of this page.
  2. hreflang= “x”: It’s alternate because it’s in a different language, and that language is x.
  3. href= “https://example.com/alternate-page”: The alternate page can be found at this URL.”

If you’re looking for a detailed breakdown, check out the post by Ahrefs. 

Addressing international SEO

If you’re looking to improve multicultural content and languages, you can take some steps to get started.  

Create site symmetry between country/language sections; make sure the design, UI, content depth, number of links, etc., are comparable. Prioritize the canonical version of your site (via the canonical tag) but work on mirroring the content in the terms listed above. If English is the focus, prioritize that as well as important content focal points. 

Your financial institution needs SEO to maximize customer trust

A user-first digital experience begins with good SEO. 

As Google stated, a shift in the financial services industry is taking place rapidly. Consumer trust no longer depends on institutional legacy or a brick-and-mortar footprint. Customers trust brands that prioritize the user experience, invest in product innovation, and lead with transparency. 

Technical SEO is an essential step forward. 

Searchers are looking for content that’s educational, informative, transactional, logistical, or location-specific. Many banks are either ignorant or unaware of the technical requirements of SEO. It doesn’t have to be this way for your financial institution. Lead with governance, embrace these challenges and you’ll find your search campaigns, increase your firm’s rankings, visibility, traffic, and growth.

Andrew McDermott

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