Revolution: Search Special Report - Battle of the brands

The reputation of banks remains poor, so how are financial services brands approaching customer acquisition? We compare the search tactics of First Direct and Lloyds TSB.

With financial institutions still very much in the news following the banking crisis, communicating with searchers can be a great way for them to increase engagement and perhaps even trust.

For brands, search is a particularly cost-efficient channel. It is also acutely measurable, meaning that organisations can see the effectiveness of activity at a granular level. What's more, search can be easily scaled up or down, depending on business needs.

Search is also widely used by brands for acquisition purposes, and financial services is no different. In a market where relevancy is king and choice is abundant, a number of aggregators and affiliates are starting to dominate some finance categories, meaning there are many brands vying for a finite number of spaces in the search results. It goes without saying that it is imperative for brands to rank highly for the right people, at the right time, as well as choose the right search terms to be presented against.

Revolution asked Mark Iremonger, chief strategy officer at agency iCrossing, to compare the search marketing - search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) - strategies of two of the biggest financial services providers, First Direct and Lloyds TSB. He assessed them based on the following 10 criteria: consistent journey; relevance; website optimisation; social signals (which play an increasingly important role in influencing search rankings); needs-based searches (are they picking up long-tail searches, such as 'overdraft charge', to pull in unhappy competitor customers?); SEO and PPC synergy (evidence of efficiencies in search results between the two); mobile; local search services; brand coverage in paid search; and core term product search.

First Direct narrowly emerged as the winner, scoring particularly highly for its creation of a consistent journey and the relevance of content from a PPC point of view using the search term 'current account'.

Jo Thornton, campaign media manager at First Direct, says search is a key part of the brand's marketing strategy and is treated more broadly than a standalone channel. 'Consumers are always actively looking for products and services, and search allows First Direct to be at the forefront of those searches, delivering results that are relevant to those consumer needs,' she says.

Thornton adds: 'We try to keep the customer at the heart of everything we do and ensure that our search media is relevant to what we think consumers require, focusing on areas where we can build relationships rather than offer an ad hoc product.'

For First Direct, search is a highly controllable channel that proves cost-effective in lead generation and driving brand awareness, which is particularly important, says Thornton, as the brand does not have visibility through high-street branches. 'Search allows us to have an online presence and remain competitive among the bigger financial providers while delivering a great return on investment,' she explains.

The brand works with Mindshare across its search activity. Cathryn Foster, business director at the agency, says search can act as a barometer for the marketplace, helping to inform and guide the rest of the marketing strategy. She adds that the agency has recently seen a shift in tone following the banking crisis and subsequent scandals. Foster explains that from a PPC perspective, First Direct has put a lot of effort into keyword selection and ad copy to ensure the brand stays top of mind during both research and consideration phases. It also leverages the 'Satisfaction Guarantee' in ad copy and maximises the exposure of positive reviews.

'We are able to leverage the positive brand sentiment and take on larger brands based on merit rather than spend,' says Foster. 'A big challenge is to keep ahead of the marketplace in terms of the finance vertical and the ever-changing search market environment. Google, for example, is constantly altering its position. We need to be quick to respond to these changes and be in a position to take advantage of new offerings.'

Lloyds TSB, which scored highly for areas including its use of social signals and brand coverage in paid search, works with MEC for its search marketing activity. David Cowling-Cass, performance activation director, search at the agency, says it has planned and activated numerous micro campaigns for Lloyds TSB. These use targeted keywords designed to pinpoint granular searches and provide users with an answer to their queries. This includes reassuring existing customers about the safety of their money at a time of economic uncertainty, and making sure that Lloyds TSB provides them with the best route to find help when they need it, through search activation focused on customer service.

'We work closely with Lloyds TSB to make sure it gets the best incremental benefit from all search campaigns, meaning that we look at the benefit of SEO versus PPC over time and derive a search engine marketing strategy at a keyword level for both paid and natural search,' explains Cowling-Cass. 'This allows us to target the costly generic keywords via SEO and to only pay for these keywords when they provide a measurable incremental benefit over the base natural search volumes.'

He adds that the bank has had some real success in measuring the incremental benefit of each search channel down to individual keywords. In a market where clicks can be highly priced, it is important for Lloyds TSB to be able to understand the benefit that a certain keyword might bring to the business.

Lloyds TSB says search marketing's strengths are two-fold. Primarily, it is one of the most effective channels for turning prospective customers into new customers. The bank says it is able to deploy paid search campaigns very quickly to coincide with market demand or market fluctuations, and paid search gives it the flexibility to increase focus on certain areas of the business when it has a need to do so.

'While SEO is a more long-term, strategic investment, it can bring new customers to the bank at a cost efficiency that most other channels find hard to match,' says a spokesperson for Lloyds Banking Group. 'However, search marketing does not just act to drive sales - we use it to facilitate a great user experience, and the use of deep links throughout the campaigns enables searchers to quickly land on the exact page they require within the site.'

The spokesperson adds that the trackability of search means that every click can have a value attributed to it, whether that is in terms of a sale, an onsite metric or its contribution to consideration. Search is also used not only as a channel to convert demand and deliver new customers, but also as a way of supporting communication campaigns and aiding consumers with research.

In an ever-changing and fast-moving market such as financial services, the ability to deploy, alter and optimise messages almost in real time through search marketing means that brands can strive to deliver the best user experience, while deriving the greatest media value.

While it can be a challenge to keep up to date with the latest advances, those brands that do so are likely to reap the most benefits at a particularly challenging time for the industry.

SEARCH PERFORMANCE: FIRST DIRECT

Consistent journey (is the right content easy to find, using search term 'current account'?):

Clicking the PPC link takes me straight to an apply page that reconfirms the main benefits that attracted me to the PPC ad. This is a great, very simple and reassuring user journey.

8/10

RELEVANCE (search term 'current account'):

PPC Appealing propositions are more benefit-led, such as 'Get £100 when you switch'. SEO No result. On site Text-based information, alongside Which? accreditation.

7/10

WEBSITE OPTIMISATION:

A duplicate content issue seems to throw up mixed search results and confusing URLs. Meta descriptions are missing from 9,000 pages, and the site has 9,739 broken links.

5/10

SOCIAL SIGNALS:

On site Social buttons and content on main site encourage users to interact. Social A permanent Facebook page with engaging content and several active Twitter feeds.

6/10

NEEDS-BASED SEARCHES:

Appears to cover middle and long tail, for example 'get a current account' with generic ads that means little keyword relevance. This can produce less results at a higher cost.

5/10

PPC/SEO SYNERGY:

First Direct is not visible in generic natural search results, for example 'current account overdraft', so must rely on PPC and brand searches.

0/10

MOBILE:

Recognises device and offers choices: an app, the site, or mobile banking login. The website is the 'full fat' version, but makes it known there are apps available.

5/10

LOCAL (are they responsive to my location?):

No search results appeared to be location-aware.

0/10

BRAND COVERAGE IN PAID SEARCH:

Covers the basics well. Appears to be ignoring mobile and tablets from a paid search perspective.

5/10

CORE TERM PRODUCT SEARCH (for example, 'current account'):

Top position on right-hand side, 4.5 out of 5 stars displayed based on 65 customer reviews. Reviews plus benefit-led copy promising £250 to switch and an interest-free overdraft. No natural result.

6/10

OVERALL TOTAL (analysis provided by Mark Iremonger, iCrossing): 47/100

SUMMARY - FIRST DIRECT:

According to Hitwise, the First Direct site attracts 6m visits a month, but only 2% of these come via search, says iCrossing's Mark Iremonger.

The brand hasn't got some of the SEO basics right. For example, its page titles are not optimal and there are some unusual URLs. Beyond main product pages, meta descriptions are patchy, missing the opportunity to push product benefits over dry facts. PPC is a different story. User reviews work well, helping it to stand out from the crowd.

Developing strong social signals to support ranking position continues to grow in importance. It's good to see a permanent Facebook page, and First Direct offers customer service through Twitter.

SEARCH PERFORMANCE: LLOYDS TSB

Consistent journey (is the right content easy to find, using search term 'current account'?):

Clicking the SEO link takes me to the current account page. No obvious signposting to the original offer clicked on in the ad.

I can't be bothered to 'find' the offer shown in the search result.

3/10

RELEVANCE (search term 'current account'):

PPC Small number of generic variations that are often about a single product.

SEO Takes me to an overview homepage that is quite dense.

Some useful comparison tables.

6/10

WEBSITE OPTIMISATION:

Lloyds TSB has blocked search engines from indexing main categories on its website. Meta descriptions are missing from 4,700 pages and it has 190 broken links.

6/10

SOCIAL SIGNALS:

Lloyds TSB leads in the quantity of social signals. Google+ is becoming a strong SEO signal for Google and Lloyds has significantly higher engagement.

On site No buttons/content.

7/10

NEEDS-BASED SEARCHES:

'Get a current account' in PPC and SEO returns Vantage links (a niche product) rather than better links to a destination that allows users to view the range of current accounts available.

4/10

PPC/SEO SYNERGY:

Product searches appear in PPC and SEO results, but there is no obvious synergy: with a 'Lloyds current account' search, PPC promotes only Vantage, but the SEO result is comprehensive.

4/10

MOBILE:

Serves the 'full fat' website that is hard to use and navigate on a small screen. Does not recognise device, offer optimised content or help me find mobile services (which are available if you hunt).

2/10

LOCAL (are they responsive to my location?):

I know Lloyds TSB has run geo-targeted ads on Facebook before, however no search results appeared location-aware. This is a surprise given the strength of its branch network.

0/10

BRAND COVERAGE IN PAID SEARCH:

Also covers the basics well.

7/10

CORE TERM PRODUCT SEARCH (for example, 'current account'):

Ranked eighth on right-hand side, with a 3% interest offer. Number eight in natural search. Linking to the current account homepage is informational rather than drawing me in.

5/10

OVERALL TOTAL (analysis provided by Mark Iremonger, iCrossing): 44/100

SUMMARY - LLOYDS TSB:

Hitwise figures suggest Lloyds TSB's search traffic has fallen from 11% to 8% over the past three months, says Iremonger. It has got the basics of SEO and PPC working well, but the ads and natural search results don't reflect the empathy and simplicity you expect from the brand.

The objective of search activity should be to meet the expressed need of a consumer, so it is a surprise to see user journeys that are not consistent. Content is sometimes not immediately findable on the pages that links connect to, which can lose a lot of prospects. There is no obvious effort to meet the needs of mobile searchers, and Lloyds TSB is another financial services company finding its feet with social media - it has some good isolated activity, but no permanent presence.

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