Site Search: Digital’s Last Mile

By Mark Ryan

Recognizing the intrinsic marketing value of a digital banking environment, financial institutions continue to invest heavily in digital channels. But how can bankers quantify a true return on their investment? What are the factors that actually drive new customer acquisition and customer engagement?

We recently conducted a study of more than 70 organizations in multiple industries to determine which specific features and functionalities within a digital environment (mobile and online) actually produced the greatest lift in terms of customer engagement and overall experience. What we found is that the most impact might not be found where you would think to look.

The results will surprise you.

We all are familiar with site search, but how much thought is it really given? Often overlooked, site search, or the utilization of the search component on a website, turns out to be a key ROI driver that most financial institutions fail to utilize to its fullest potential. Most organizations downgrade its importance and simply relegate site search to a standard icon on a website. However, when properly designed and executed, site search can decrease bounce rates by an average of 95% and increase engagement rates by as much as 300%. When optimized correctly, financial institutions stand to gain not only a stronger ROI from their entire digital banking environment, but also a deeper relationship with customers.

Who’s using your site search?

In order to best utilize site search, financial institutions need first to clearly understand the preferences of the users who view their web content. Users typically fall within two categories: “searchers” and “browsers.” Searchers are more likely to go directly to a search box and input their query, while browsers are more likely to sort through menu items on a homepage to determine where information is located.

Searchers by nature are usually interested in finding information about a specific item. They aren’t looking to spend copious amounts of time sorting through information. As a searcher lands on a homepage, they tend to quickly glance at the homepage and turn to the search box if their query is still unresolved. A browser, on the other hand, is willing to take the additional time and steps needed to sort through pages of information to find what they are looking for. The majority of business sites and B2C sites are actually set up best to suit a browser. This is particularly true among financial institutions’ mobile and online sites. Strategically, bankers should design their digital environments to favor searchers who, while small in number (5 – 15% of the total viewing audience), are much more likely to convert into new customers or present cross-sell opportunities among existing customers.

The components of well-designed site search.

When paired against other industries’ digital customer service experiences, financial services often fall short. Retail, for example, has mastered the art of effective site search in order to curb cart abandonment. Retailers have found “suggested search” to be to be a powerful tool in achieving this goal, while also driving cross-selling by intelligently suggesting similar items that may be of interest to the customer.

Successful site search fulfills the user’s request and draws them to related content that may expand their initial query. Bankers can determine the effectiveness of their site search by evaluating how well it converts searchers into customers. Strong site search can be measured by the following:

  • Are your site search return results bringing users to the content you have created?
  • Are you implementing suggested searches and are users taking your suggestions?
  • Are users going to multiple pages within your site from your site search?

Many financial organizations have decided to use the Google Search Appliance, which can be an effective search tool when customized properly. However, when there is no customization, the application acts as a general Google search engine, which may or may not include information from the organization. A lack of customization creates a disjointing and disorienting user experience and can even direct a customer (or prospective customer) to a competitor’s website.

Financial institutions that seek to leverage a better digital customer experience can begin to optimize their site search through a range of methods. That may mean simply implementing targeted results for popular phrases—or it could involve some of these more progressive features:

  • Predictive search – Allows the user to see popular search phrases based on their input. For example, if the user starts to type “auto lo” predictive search might show “auto loan” and “auto loan refinance.”
  • Search Suggestions – Enables the onsite search engine to make suggested phrases based on known results as the users start to type a phrase. Search suggestions have been shown to increase user engagement dramatically, and when implemented, our study indicated 89% of users selected the suggestion to help guide their search.
  • Dynamic Prioritization of Results – Google will change its relevancy algorithm based on the type of phrase you search for. For example, if you search for restaurants it will give high significance to the proximity of restaurant website to your current location. If you search for presidential debates it will give high significance to the freshness/recency of the website that matches your search results. You can implement the same type of dynamic prioritization on your site for common search categories such as support, branch locations, products, etc.
  • Filters/Sorting – Simply providing the searcher with the ability to filter (by content category) and sort (by date or popularity) search results can further drive user engagement.
  • Personalization – If we know a little bit of information about the user performing the search we can provide more relevant search results. For example, can you glean product interests from previous web visits? Can you determine the user’s experience level from their nomenclature (e.g., home loan vs. mortgage vs. real-estate financing)? Can you see that the user is revising their search phrase because the previous results did not interest them? There are many algorithms for delivering highly personalized and satisfying search results.

Smaller banks tend to have a functional advantage in implementing successful site search. Their limited number of service offerings better equips them to provide clearer and easier-to-find information than larger financial institutions, where websites tend to be bloated and difficult to comprehend. Larger institutions must also contend with outdated search engine optimization (SEO) tactics, due in large part to industry regulations that limit banks’ ability to leverage SEO as effectively as other industries (like retail). In general, the larger the institution, the more difficult it tends to be keeping up with the latest tools and technology.

When fully optimized, site search is a proven tool for financial institution to build a strong digital presence and generate a positive ROI from that digital experience. As the financial industry continues to explore digital offerings, bank marketers must be able to leverage the digital channel to its fullest potential. And that might mean looking for the greatest impact in a place that they had not yet considered.

Mark Ryan is chief analytics officer for Extractable, a digital design agency specializing in delivering digital transformations for financial services. Email: mryan@extractable.com

Online training in digital, mobile and social media from ABA.

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