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Search Engine Optimization and Analysis for Small Banks and Small Businesses

To prepare for a sales call on a bank in a small Texas town, I plugged the bank’s name into Google--I got a list of many banks, but the one I wanted didn’t appear on the first page, or the second. I couldn’t find anything on this bank until my third Google query. Clearly, this bank had not done the basics of search engine optimization (SEO). Most Texas banks rank at the top of the page for a name query on Google, Bing or both. Unfortunately, some Texas banks cannot be found when searching for them by name on Google and Bing, let alone by “bank city.”

This article is for executives at these banks, for business owners whose business doesn’t show up on a name search in Google and for loan officers trying to help a borrower improve a business’s marketing. The steps outlined in this article would be useful in formulating the tasks in a Statement of Work for the development or maintenance of a web site.

For professionals and businesses that have blogs on other web sites, there is a short discussion of Google Author Tools to help in getting information on your off-website blog postings.

Search engine optimization is one of those things that is easy to do--if you know how to do it. There are thirteen basic steps:

  1. Register your domain with Google Webmaster Tools
  2. Register your alternate or old redirected domain(s) with Google Webmaster Tools
  3. Install a site map on your site
  4. Register the site map with Google Webmaster Tools
  5. Set up the robots.txt file on your web site
  6. Repeat the preceding steps with Bing Webmaster Tools
  7. Review Google and Bing webmaster tools periodically to identify any errors and to see if the search engines have identified malware on your site (indicating that it has been compromised)
  8. Make sure that metadata is filled in
  9. Improve your site with structured data
  10. Set up Google Author structured data for off-site blogs
  11. Set up Google Places and Bing Places for Business
  12. Register with Google Analytics or another analytics provider
  13. Install Analytics code

Register Your Domain

Purchasing your domain name from Go Daddy, Network Solutions or one of the many web hosting firms does not register the domain name with the various search engine providers--a search engine provider won’t start to scan your website until you register the domain name with them. Registration must be done by someone who has the system authorities to put a small randomly named HTML file into the root web page of the server. The search engine uses this file to prove that the person registering the site is actually the site owner. Once the site is registered, the search engine will start to scan and index it over a period of several days. The sections that follow discuss thing that you should do to control what gets scanned and how to improve your web site to appear higher in search results.

When you register your domain, note that http://yourbank.com, http://www.yourbank.com, and https://www.yourbank.com are all different web sites as far as the search engines are concerned. Decide which one you want the search engine to use in presenting results and identify it as your canonical domain name during the registration process. If you force all traffic to https (a good idea), register only your https domain and make sure to redirect all http traffic on your web site to https.

Register Your Old or Alternate Domains

About ten percent of Texas banks have changed domain names and redirect to a new domain name. Make sure to keep both the new and old domain names registered with each search engine, and make sure to modify the settings on the old domain’s search engine registration so that the search engine knows to point old index references to the new domain name.

Make sure to update the domain name that is used for regulatory reports, as it will be used by third party bank analysis web sites. About 5% of Texas banks have obvious typos in the domain names that are present in the FFIEC database, and another 5% have old and unused domains listed with FFIEC. Part of the algorithm for search rank is based upon other sites linking to your site; if the link is based upon the web site that is listed in FFIEC data, it will point to the wrong location and you won’t get any benefit from the third party link.

Create a Site Map and Register it with Google Webmaster Tools

You’ve probably seen a “site map” link on many web pages and wondered why on earth people put this page out there. It isn’t for humans--it’s for the robots that scan and index your web site. Make sure to generate sitemaps for both text and images, especially if you have relevant graphs or photos of your buildings. Include information about how frequently each page is updated, as this will influence how frequently the search engines scan your site.

For instance, the page with your interest rates should probably show an update frequency of daily or weekly, while the page with your loan application probably would show a monthly or longer update frequency. Figure 1 below shows an example of an automatically generated site map that tells the search engine what URLs are present, the date of last modification, the expected change frequency, and the priority of each page.

Figure 2 below shows an example of the image sitemap for a web site. Notice that this does not include a listing of the logos and stock images for the web site--just the important images for the site. On a bank web site, this might include photos of branches but omit stock photos of office settings.

Figure 1: Example of an XML sitemap showing the URL, modification date, change frequency, and priority of each web page on the site.
Figure 2: Example of an XML sitemap showing the URLs of the important image references on the web site.

Once you’ve created the site maps, register them with Google Webmaster Tools. This will tell the search engine robots how often to scan each of the pages on your web site.

Set up the robots.txt File on Your Web Site

The root directory of each web site should contain a robots.txt file--try https://www.google.com/robots.txt. This tells well-behaved robots what parts of your web site to scan and index, and what parts not to scan. At the bottom of the robots.txt file, you should have URLs for your site maps--this tells robots for search engines with whom you haven’t registered where to find your site maps and how frequently to scan and index your site.

It doesn’t make sense for a robot to try to scan and index the Internet banking part of your web site, so that should probably be disallowed. Note: The robots.txt file does not provide security--badly behaved robots can still access any part of your site that is public.

Figure 3 below shows an example of a portion of the Bank of America robots.txt file where the bank has excluded search engine scanning and indexing for a number of login-based portions of the web site and for the mobile version of the web site--they don't want desktop users to stumble upon a version of a page that was designed for a cell phone. If you look at the bottom of the robots.txt file (not shown in the figure) you will find the reference to the sitemap and a comment about the Borneo content management system (CMS) that Bank of America apparently uses and which automatically generated the robots.txt file. The CMS software commonly used by small businesses (Joomla, Wordpress or Drupal) generally does not generate the robots.txt file.

Figure 3: Example of a robots.txt showing excluding a mobile device web site from search engine scanning and indexing.

Repeat the Preceding Steps with Bing Webmaster Tools

Once you’ve completed the steps to register your web site with Google Webmaster Tools, you will have covered the basic set-up for about 75-90% of web searches in the United States. To get most of the remaining searches, register with Bing Webmaster Tools. The process and mechanics are very similar, but getting the site map and robots.txt file set up for Bing is a slightly more tedious and error prone process.

Review Web Master Tools Reports

Once you have your site registered with the various search engines, someone should be assigned to review at least the Google webmaster tools each day, starting with the “Security Issues” section. If your site has been compromised, you will hopefully have found it before the Google robot does; if the Google or Bing robots do find malware on your site, you have an “all hands on deck” level problem.

Don’t be Target and discover the malware weeks after the compromise. Figures 4 and 5 below show the malware reports for Google and Bing webmaster tools respectively.

Figure 4: Example of a Google Webmaster Tools security issues report showing no detected security issues on the site.
Example of a Google Webmaster Tools security issues report showing no detected security issues on the site.
Figure 5: Example of a Bing Webmaster Tools security issues report showing no detected security issues on the site.
Example of a Bing Webmaster Tools security issues report showing no detected security issues on the site.

Both Google and Bing webmaster tools provide information on the number of times your web site’s pages were listed in a search, the average rank and the number of times users clicked on the link for the page. They both also list the keywords used in searches.

Make Sure that Metadata is Filled in

Once you have the basics set up, it is time to turn to the content of your website itself. Use the various webmaster tools to tell you what metadata is missing from your site. At the very least, each page should have a description tag, keywords tag and for images, the alt tag (this gives a description of the image). Use relevant words—don’t stuff in words that are unrelated to your site, as this will actually hurt your search ranking.

As your site is scanned by the robots, the webmaster tools will start to list the terms that the search engines are using to index the site; if there are concepts and terms that aren’t listed, look at the content of the actual pages and improve the copy to make sure that relevant terms are included in the text of the articles and product descriptions on your site.

The description may be used for the synopsis of the web page that Google presents. For example, the search query “loan fee amortization” will probably show the entries in Figure 6 somewhere in the search results. The second item references an article on this web site. The full description tag reads:

This page describes the procedure for calculating the fee amortization and effective yield for loans that involve up-front fees. This is also sometimes called level yield.
Figure 6: Example of description metadata in Google used for site synopsis in search results.
Example of authorship display and description metadata in Google search results.

Improve your Site with Structured Data

Once you have the content on your site set up and the basic metadata in place, you can start to enhance how your site is displayed by the search engines. To do this, start to set up structured data which is sometimes referred to as microdata. If you Google “bank of the west” you will (probably) see a well organized search result for a Bank of the West web page as the first result, as shown in Figure 7. You may get a California bank or a Texas bank, depending upon what Google thinks you want. In either case the display is probably due to a good implementation of structured data on this web site.

Your structured data should include implementations for the bank, branch locations, hours, key people listed on your web site, products and promotional offers.

Figure 7: Example of display generated by structured data with branch locations.
Example of display generated by structured data with branch locations.

There are three ways to mark up pages--microdata (recommended by Google), microformats and RDFa. A discussion of the differences is beyond the scope of this article. For small business web sites, the format will probably be determined by the plugin that you select with the exception of the About, Contact and People pages on the site which will probably be coded by hand. For more examples, use the search terms rich snippets, microdata, and structured data.

Set up Google Author Structured Data for Off-site Blogs

Small business owners and professionals who maintain blogs on other web sites should consider setting up Google authorship links. This will alter the search results display to give the name of the author and potentially a photo of the author. Through Google Webmaster Tools, you can get some basic impression and click-through statistics on blog entries where you might otherwise have no meaningful information. To set this up, follow these steps:

  1. Create a Google+ profile
  2. Add the sites where you blog in the “Contributor to” section of your profile
  3. Somewhere in each external blog post, add <a href=https://plus.google.com/u/0/xxxx?rel=author>A link to your Google+ profile</a> where xxxx... is your Google+ profile ID.
  4. On your website, install the necessary plug-in to your Joomla, Wordpress or Drupal web site to automatically generate the Google+ link for the author

Once you have this set up, you can use the author stats in Google Webmaster Tools to keep track of the number of times your external blog appears in a Google search, its average position in search results and the number of times people click through to the blog entry. This will help you gauge the effectiveness of your marketing efforts on external web sites, but it will not give you information on the search terms used.

To understand how Google uses authorship in display, Figure 8 below provides an example from the query “loan fee amortization” and the resulting article on this web site. Note the author prefix and the name of the author. In some cases Google will display the photo from the Google+ profile. Note also that in this case, the display synopsis is taken directly from the description metadata tag.

Figure 8: Example of authorship display and description metadata in Google search results.
Example of authorship display and description metadata in Google search results.

Set up Google Places and Bing Places for Business

Once your web site is in order, you should begin to look at locality improvements to search and set up Google Places and Bing’s counterpart, Places for Business. This will help for queries like “bank grapevine texas.”

Sign up for Google Analytics or Another Analytics Provider

Once you have the basics of your search engine optimization done, you should sign up with an Analytics provider like Google Analytics, which is free. The steps to authenticate ownership of the site are similar to the steps for setting up Google Webmaster Tools. Once the webmaster has enrolled your site, have one or more people in your marketing department set up to use the web analytics tool to understand how your web site is used.

The web analytics tool should inform your product development and product bundling—the order in which people view the articles on my web site has absolutely influenced my product development plans. How to use web analytics is beyond the scope of this article.

Install Analytics Code

To use web analytics, you will need to install Javascript code on each page of your web site. For small businesses that have built a web site using one of the major content management systems (Joomla, Wordpress or Drupal), this is as easy as installing an extension and turning it on—about a 5 minute process. For a bank with web site code provided by a core system vendor, or custom written code, this will be a more involved project.

Summary

The steps in this article provide the basic search engine optimization steps that will get your bank or business listed at or near the top—when someone is looking for your organization by name. The steps in this article should be viewed as a starting point for search engine optimization.

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