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 planning 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 commonly recognized by the SEO industry as being relevant.
Table of Contents
(Click on relevant link to go directly to a specific section)
How Does Google Work?
When a search occurs, the search engine algorithm evaluates all possible results based on the firm’s perceived relevancy and authority. If necessary, it will make additional adjustments based on signals reflecting the User Experience (UX) the site has provided previous searchers. It then ranks and displays all possible results based on these evaluations.
Google Ranking = (Relevancy + Authority) – Poor User Experience (UX)
Relevancy relates to the search engine’s understanding of the services or products that you deliver, and how they relate to the search query – your keywords.
Authority signals help Google rank the relevant sites in order. Backlinks are the strongest signal of authority.
User Experience (UX) signals are used in an attempt to understand the experience of previous visitors to the site – how long did they stay on your site, how many pages did they visit, did they find the answer to their query or did they go back and search again? In additions, UX accounts for mobile friendliness and loading speeds.
Ultimately, the goal of SEO is to highlight your relevancy, increase your authority in the eyes of the search engines, and optimize your site’s User Experience so that the search engines recognize your website/content/services as the best answer to the searcher’s query.
The Anatomy of a Search Engine Results Page (SERP)
Google’s SERPs are undergoing constant changes (mostly minor) as Google continues to test its algorithms and page presentation looking for the best way to provide answers to a searcher’s question.
Combined with dynamic search results based on the type of query, our location, and our search history, there is no shortage of page styles and data we may see. However, no matter how the display is formatted, there are currently 7 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 appearing in these ad spaces 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 Google’s “local” map pack . . .
2. Google Screened: Being screened by Google, allows you to run Local Service Ads – another form of paid advertising – which appear at the top of the SERPs.
Google Screened is only available for professional services, including Financial Planning.
Planning firms must first undergo a background check and verification of their licenses and insurance information, at which point they become Google Screened and cleared to advertise.
3. Local Map Pack: Google’s Map Pack appears for broad industry keywords (i.e. Financial Planner, Financial Advisor, Investment Management, etc.) 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 be the best answer to them. Being positioned by Google as the Featured Snippet can be influenced through SEO.
6. 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”
7. Answer Boxes: For some queries, Google also provides “People also ask” boxes with related questions that are clickable for more information.
Just as with Featured Snippets, SEO can influence whether your content is selected as a “People also ask” answer.
Rule the Rankings with SEO for Financial Planners
For clarity, I have broken the discussion of SEO tasks into 3 distinct sections connected to the ideas of relevancy, authority, and user experience. 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.
SEO Step 1. 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 creation, your location, business citations, 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 services. Then highlight that page’s keyword by using it in the page title, the URL, and throughout the content.
Note that your homepage will usually be your highest authority page, so should be reserved for your most important keyword.
2. Title Tags: The title tag is still your best opportunity to let the search engines know 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. Below is a title tag being written on the Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress.
3. H-tags (Headers or Headlines): Use H-tags (headlines) to break up and organize the content for your reader, and to highlight your subject area for the search engines – use keywords in your headers where it makes sense. Use your H-1 tag only once on each page.
Below is an example of setting an H3 Tag in WordPress.
4. Alt. Image Tag: The search engines are not great at seeing images, so where your visitors see a great graph of the most recent bull market, the search engines may only 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.
The above image shows the addition of alt. text in WordPress to a graphic representing a “bull market.”
Note: FYI, the actual alt. text for this image, as it is being used to demonstrate alt. text in an article about Advisor SEO, is “alt. text for SEO.”
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). Of course, you want to avoid “keyword stuffing.” Your content should always read naturally for your visitors.
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 longer (which is good for client acquisition and represents a good user experience – which can help your SEO), and helps the search engines crawl and understand your website more clearly.
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. Structured Data: Also known as Rich Snippets or Schema, Structured Data is not a ranking factor but it can improve click-through rates once your business appears on the SERPs.
Rich snippets are additional bits of information that allow the search engines to better understand, and therefore display, your content in the SERPs.
Below you see two results for a Chocolate Cookie Recipe. The first is a traditional Google SERP, 3-lines including a title and description. However, the second listing includes a picture, star rankings, time to cook, and how many calories they are – which are you more likely to click on?
Structured Data is not quite as exciting for financial advisors, but it can still include stars, event information, additional company or individual profile information, and more descriptive links to click on.
9. Keyword Tag: Most SEO programs will still 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 still included in 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).
I(b). Local SEO (Google Map Pack)
Local SEO rankings are heavily influenced by your overall on-page and off-page SEO, however, there additional are steps that are more central to “Local SEO.”
1. Location: Local Search is now “searcher-centric,” meaning that for many searches, the search engines give extra consideration to the results that are nearest the searcher’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 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 office, however, it helps if you include some information about that area (city, neighborhood, etc.) a Google map, a distinct address, and a unique “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, Financial Planner, etc.). It is important that your website includes pages that are optimized for those few search terms. The 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).
These groups send your information out to other business directories and have an extensive reach throughout the Local Search Ecosystem.
7. Build relevant 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 than 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.
Learn more about building citations.
8. Collect Client Reviews: Reviews, especially on Google My Business, are a strong Local SEO ranking signal. Beyond Google, you can also collect and display reviews on 3rd-party sites such as LinkedIn, Yelp, Facebook, and many others. Decide which platforms are most important to your business and focus on collecting reviews on those platforms.
For most industries, collecting reviews and testimonials for their business has been an important part of Local Optimization for several years.
As of May 4th, 2021, with the SEC’s latest changes to the marketing rules, this has become a Local SEO best practice for many advisors as well.
As a side note, some state Administrators already allowed 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 in your area.
II. Authority (Off-page SEO)
Off-Page SEO is the most challenging aspect of the optimization process as it requires people outside of our control to get involved.
The strongest “authority” signal, actually the strongest SEO signal, comes from your backlink profile – the quality and number of links from other websites that direct visitors to your site.
For Local Search Rankings, client reviews on Google (and some other sites) are also important contributors to a site’s authority.
In order to take advantage of the authority you build, you must first establish your relevancy to your target audience (for local and/or organic SEO)
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 (and all the ‘experts’ online), 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 and the depth or expertise displayed in the content available on the site.
III. User Experience (UX)
Search Engines use performance metrics and data to determine how users engage with your content or website, and website performance data. They use these impressions to determine if the searcher was engaged with your content which would indicate that it was a good answer (or not) for that query.
1. 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 is 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.
2. Loading Speed: It is important that your site loads fast – for both search engines and your visitor’s user experience.
Recent studies show that on average, the number one ranked website loads 20% faster than the number 6 ranked website.
As it stands now, 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.
User Experience Signals: can be found in Google’s Universal Analytics, and include:
1. Bounce Rate: A bounce occurs when a searcher clicks through to your page, and without spending much time on that page, clicks (or bounces) back to search again. Although not always the case, it indicates that they didn’t find the answer to their query on that page.
2. Dwell Time: Similar to Bounce Rate, it measures the time they were on the page before clicking back to the search results.
3. Click-Through Rate: The more searchers click on your listing on the search engine results pages, the more Google identifies it as offering a good answer to the search query.
4. Pages/Session: How many pages is the average searcher visiting once they land on your site?
5. Session Duration: How long does the average visitor remain on your site?
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. Nor do social media accounts, posts, or shares, count as backlinks that help to build authority.
In today’s world, more searches are being completed through voice search on smartphones, computers, tablets, and smart speakers. Voice search benefits from traditional SEO signals, as well as a few strategies that specifically apply to voice search.
- Focus on common questions that prospects or clients ask related to your services and provide answers to these questions.
- Use the question as your title.
- Provide a concise answer or definition to the question right after the heading. Use the rest of the article to expand on the answer.
- Use Schema to mark up your content.
- Optimize for Local Search.
- Make sure your site is mobile-friendly.
- Improve page speed and load times if your site is failing to measure up to your competitors or Google’s expectations.
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 4/28/2022