What is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a set of strategies that are created to relay signals of relevancy and authority to the search engines. When implemented properly, these strategies will help your advisor firm to rank for your desired keywords.
While there are hundreds of known, suspected, and unknown factors that Google measures, this article will focus on those signals that are recognized by the SEO industry as being relevant.
How Does Google Work?
When a search occurs, the search engine algorithm evaluates all possible results based on the firm’s perceived relevancy, authority, and signals reflecting on the experience of past website visitors for similar searches (User Experience or UX).
Relevancy relates to understanding the services or products that you deliver, and how they relate to the search query.
Authority signals help Google rank the relevant sites in order.
User Experience (UX) signals reflect the experience of previous users that have visited that site and may cause some of the otherwise relevant and authoritative sites to drop in the rankings.
Ultimately, the goal of SEO is to highlight your relevancy, increase your authority in the eyes of the search engines, and optimize the User Experience your site provides, with the expectation that this will lead to an increase in the number and quality of visitors that will reach your website.
The Anatomy of a Search Engine Results Page (SERP)
Google’s SERPs are constantly undergoing changes (mostly minor) as Google continues to test, always looking for the best way to provide answers to the searcher’s questions. In addition, the SERPs are dynamic – depending on the type of search, the results page may display differently (i.e. Google maps appear for some searches, but are inappropriate for others). However the display is formatted, there are currently 6 ways to appear in the search results.
1. Paid Advertising (Pay-Per-Click, or PPC Ads): PPC ads are a part of the Search Engine Marketing (SEM) family, but are not directly related to SEO. These ads generally appear at the top and bottom of the SERPs. Companies bid to have their ad appear for specific keywords, then pay Google each time their ad is clicked on.
As seen below, ads may also appear in the “local” map pack.
While not common for the financial planning industry, ads can also appear in a carousel.
2. Local Map Pack: Google’s Map Pack appears for broad industry keywords and usually shows up directly below the PPC ads, however, it is sometimes placed farther down the page.
The Map Pack is influenced by the position of the searcher relative to the available businesses, and the perceived relevancy and authority of the business – which are both influenced by search engine optimization.
3. Organic Listings: Organic listings look similar to PPC ads except that they are not labeled as an “Ad.” These listings are not paid placements, rather they are a result of being perceived by the search engine as a relevant and high authority answer to the search query.
4. Featured Snippets: Google has started answering many questions by presenting content directly on the SERP. This is known as Position Zero and is called a Featured Snippet. The following image shows part of the SERP for the search “When should I start social security.”
The searcher can then click on the link for more information or continue to select one of the other listings if the featured snippet doesn’t appear to answer their question. Being selected by Google as the Featured Snippet can be influenced through SEO.
5. Knowledge Graph: the Knowledge Graph is a panel of information related to the search that appears on the right-hand side of the SERP. It is generally Wikipedia type information on a broad subject area, a big company, or influencers.
i.e. “What is a financial plan?”
i.e. “TD Ameritrade”
i.e. “Michael Kitces”
6. Answer Boxes: For some queries, Google also provides “People also ask” boxes with related questions that are clickable for more information.
Like Featured Snippets, SEO can influence whether your content is selected as a “People also ask” answer.
There are 3 primary components to Advisor SEO:
For clarity, I have broken the discussion of SEO tasks into 3 distinct sections connected to the ideas of relevancy, authority, and user experience. However, in reality, it’s important to realize that the benefits of any one specific SEO step often overlap and impact the other areas as well.
Click on the icon on the right to learn more information about that particular strategy.
I. Relevancy (On-page SEO)
Relevancy has to do with what your business does, who it does it for, and where it is located. Relevancy signals are generally elements that you have more control over – keyword selection, content created, your location, citations built, etc.
1. Create a Page for Each Keyword:
In order to rank for competitive industry and location-based keywords, you will need to create a unique page around that keyword. In this case, “page” is generic for content, it could be a web page, blog post, video, or other suitable forms of content. For example, have a distinct page for each of your services, rather than one page listing all of your servcies.
2. Title Tags:
The title tag is still your best opportunity to tell the search engines what your page is about. It usually defaults to the title of the page or article, but from a straight SEO perspective, sometimes can benefit from a manual overwrite.
3. H-tags (Headers):
Use H-tags to break up and organize the content for your reader, and to highlight your subject area to the search engines – use keywords in your headers where it makes sense. Use your H-1 tag only once on each page.
4. Alt. Image Tag:
The search engines do not see images, so where your visitors see a great graph of the most recent bull market, the search engines see wasted white space. Alt. Text is your opportunity to explain to the search engines what that picture is about – all the better if that description includes your keyword.
While you’re at it, it is a good idea to also include your keyword in the title and file name of the image.
5. Content Mark-Up:
Your content should include primary keywords (more than once, but not in a forced or unnatural way), plus popular synonyms. Emphasize keywords (or synonyms) by including them in the headers, using bold or italicized text, or by creating a bulleted list. Try to include your keyword early in the content (first sentence if possible, but first paragraph if not).
6. Internal Linking:
Strategic internal linking – linking from one of your pages/posts to another of your pages/posts – can help boost the authority of targeted pages, may encourage visitors to stay on your site (which is good for client acquisition and can help your SEO), and helps the search engines crawl and understand your website better.
7. External Linking:
Linking out to related high authority sites may improve the search engine’s perception and understanding of your website and business, and therefore help with your SEO.
8. Featured Snippet (See #4 from The Anatomy of a SERP section above):
If your post, or part of your post, answers a specific question and you want to have a chance of appearing in Position Zero – as Google’s default display answer for that question – you should format your blog article so that the question and answer appear near the top of your article like I did with What is SEO?
Although we are not likely to show up for that broad term, at the time of this writing, if you search What is Advisor SEO our answer does appear as a featured snippet.
9. Keyword Tag:
Most SEO programs will often provide a space for you to include a list of more keywords (in addition to the one in your Title Tag). While this won’t have any negative consequences, the Keyword Tag is no longer an SEO signal.
10. Meta Description Tag:
Another option included in most SEO programs is the Meta Description (or sometimes just “Description”) tag. While no longer an SEO ranking signal, it is still an important marketing component in that the text that you include in the Meta Description is often the text that the search engines display as the “description” in the SERP listing.
You can see in the SERP image below, that the Title Tag (underlined in red) actually becomes the first line of the SERP listing, and the meta description (outlined in blue) are lines 2 and 3. This means that you MUST write your Title Tags and Meta Descriptions so that they are engaging for your potential visitor as they will be your first opportunity to “sell” to them (convincing them to click on your listing).
12. Broken Links
Broken links happen – a site you were linking out to moves, or content gets updated with a new URL. These links may prevent Google from finding all of your content and provide a bad user experience for your visitors. Make sure to check for broken links occasionally and to repair or remove any that you find.
I(b). Local SEO (Google Map Pack)
Local SEO rankings are heavily influenced by your overall on-page and off-page SEO, however, there are still steps that are specific to “Local SEO” if you want to be fully optimized.
Local Search is now “searcher-centric,” meaning that for many searches, the search engines want to show results for the searcher’s query that are near that person’s current location.
This means that if there is a specific community that you want to rank for, you would do well to have an office space in that community. If you are trying to serve a nearby city from the suburbs, it’s going to be very challenging (if not impossible) to show up in the map pack for that city. However, depending on your competition, it may still be realistic to show up in that area in the Organic search results.
2. Create a Specific Page for each your Location:
If you have multiple locations, you will want to optimize for each, including creating a page for each location. Often this can be the “Contact Us” page for that location, however, it helps if you include some information about that area (city, neighborhood, etc.) a Google map, a distinct address, and a “local” phone number for each location.
3. Create Pages for Local Search Terms:
The “Local Map Pack” is only displayed for a few broad industry search queries ( i.e Financial Advisor). It is important that your website includes pages that are optimized for those few search terms. Those pages should also include location-based keywords (i.e. city, state, zip code) with your primary keywords (i.e. Financial Advisor, Boise, Idaho, 83706).
4. Name-Address-Phone Number (NAP):
Settle on a NAP for your business and use it consistently across the web. If some part of your NAP changes (i.e. you move to a new location) make sure to update your NAP wherever it appears. It is recommended that you display a “local” phone number for each location.
Your NAP should appear on every page of your website (i.e place it in the footer, header, or sidebar).
5. Local Search Engines:
Register with the Local Search Engines – Google My Business, Bing Places, Apple Maps, and Yelp.
6. Data Aggregators:
Register with the “Local Data Aggregators” – InfoGroup, Factual, Neustar Localeze, and Foursquare. These groups send your information out to other business directories and have an extensive reach throughout the Local Search Ecosystem.
7. Build Citations:
Citations are online business listings or directories where you can list your business. The Local Search Engines and the Data Aggregators are basically citations, but are more influential then most.
The more often your business is “cited” consistently across the web, the more confidence the search engines have in listing it on the SERPs. There is also the potential benefit of the directory sending you traffic directly.
For most industries, collecting positive reviews or testimonials for your business is an important part of the Local Optimization, however, while the SEC’s Testimonial Rule allows for use of some sites that accept reviews, advisors that fall under the SEC are not allowed to solicit reviews.
There are some state Administrators that allow advisors to ask for reviews as long as those advisors ask all of their clients, not only the ones they think will provide positive reviews.
Contact your compliance officer or State Administrator for specific information regarding your use of reviews.
II. Authority (Off-page SEO)
Off-Page SEO in the financial industry primarily revolves around acquiring quality and relevant backlinks – links from other websites that point to your site (it would also include reviews in most other industries). Although you must first establish your relevancy (Organic and Local SEO) to enjoy the full benefit of any backlinks that you develop, they are generally accepted as being the most important and powerful sign SEO signal. You can use this “Link Explorer” tool to get an idea of your site’s backlink profile (or that of your competition).
Despite Google’s best intentions, a strong backlink profile does not usually occur naturally.
Google’s theory is that if you publish good content, others will find it, link to it, and the best content will rise to the top of the rankings. It does occasionally still work this way, however, because most industry bloggers don’t link out to other sites, and there is so much content created, most blogs go unnoticed by the link creators.
Instead, today’s successful content creators must actively plan and work on a backlink development strategy – specific content, specific connections, and specific sharing strategies – if they want to develop a position of online dominance in their market.
Other factors considered for authority include the age of the URL, the depth or expertise displayed in the content available on the site, and reviews.
III. User Experience (Technical SEO)
Technical SEO elements have become more important to the search engines – and therefore to SEO – in recent years.
1. Web Design - User Experience (UX):
The visitor’s “User Experience (UX)” has become a point of emphasis for Google the past couple of years. This means that your website as a whole impacts your SEO – is it easy to navigate, does it engage your visitors and answer their questions? How long are they staying on your site? What actions are they taking?
2. Mobile Friendly:
With the roll-out of Mobile-first indexing, your mobile website has become the default version of your website – the version Google is measuring. Does the mobile version of your site load quickly? Is all of the content accessible by mobile? Are the links and buttons clickable (not too small or too close together) and the text readable? Have you removed “pop-ups” from your mobile site? Test your pages using Google’s Mobile-Friendly test tool. Even if you’re using a responsive theme, don’t assume that your site is formatted for mobile, test its functionality yourself.
3. Loading Speed:
It is important that your site loads fasts – for both search engines and your visitors. Even though Google only punishes very slow sites, more than half of web visitors expect your site to load in 2 seconds or less and will start abandoning your website after 3 seconds. Analyze your site speed here.
4. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP):
While not a ranking factor of their own, Accelerated Mobile Pages were introduced by Google to allow your mobile content to load faster – which is a ranking factor. This format has to be specifically added to your website through a plugin or custom design.
Google wants the internet to be more secure so they provide an SEO boost to sites that are HTTPS (rather than HTTP). You acquire the HTTPS status by adding a security certificate to your website. Sites that are not HTTPS will display a “Not Secure” message in the browser which will also likely deter visitors from spending much time on your site.
6. Structured Data Mark-up:
While not a direct ranking signal, this is code that is added to your website that allows the search engines to better understand and display your content. It also can improve click-through-rates on the SERPs.
7. Bread Crumbs:
This is part of site design. They are Internal Navigation links that allow visitors to more easily navigate your website, and helps the search engines see how a page fits into your site structure.
8. XML Site Map
A site map helps the search engines find and index all of your pages, and helps them to understand your website and content better.
9. Use of 301 Redirects and Canonical Tags
SEO is often lost when replacing an old site or updating old content because designers fail to properly use 301 redirects and canonical tags. Make sure your web designers know how to preserve your hard-earned SEO gains.
The Role of Content Marketing in SEO
The regular creation of high quality, unique content is vital to SEO success. “Content” is most often thought of as being a blog article, but can also include video, audio or visual content. It is important to remember that Google understands “text” better than any other format, so you should also include a text-based version/description of whatever type of content you’re creating.
Content creation allows you to introduce and rank for new keywords, provides assets for link building, signals to the search engines that your site is actively being updated (meets Google’s “freshness” requirement), and helps develop your expertise in the eyes of the search engines and your website visitors.
Social Media and SEO
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the role of Social Media in an SEO campaign. Social Media definitely does indirectly impact your SEO in a number of ways.
- Your social media accounts do act as citations and may be the highest-ranking outcome when someone searches for you or your company by name.
- It is also a great tool for sharing your content, and can help with link building by making it easier to connect with influencers and link creators.
However, Facebook “likes” or “shares” or Twitter “re-tweets” do not directly influence your search rankings. Additionally, social media accounts, posts, or shares, do not count as backlinks that help to build authority.
In today’s world, searches are regularly being completed through voice search on smartphones, computers, tablets, and smart speakers. Voice search benefits from traditional SEO signals, as well as new signals that are specific to voice search.
We will continue to update the steps in this article as the search engines make changes to their algorithms.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness. The most recent update was on 10/12/2020.