Analysis of consumer search data for personal finance services in the US has revealed that NerdWallet outperform all mainstream banking and credit institutions with the greatest share of organic search.
- 1 Our Research
- 2 Our Findings
- 3 Winning ‘comparative search’
- 4 Further website analysis
- 5 Supplementary research
- 6 Final thoughts: Understanding the market
- 7 Key takeaways
- 8 Final note
- 9 Methodology
- 10 References
A key finding of our research found that NerdWallet, a finance information and product comparison website, have a market leading position in the US organic search results, attracting share from 22.3 percent of all searches across our personal finance keyword set.
Our research, which explored 5,000 keywords representing over 7.5 million monthly searches in the US across 2015, and focused on popular financial keywords (“bank accounts” and “credit cards”), variations on those topics (“best student bank accounts”), and also longtail searches (“best 0% credit cards for travel”), placed the financial affiliate in the top position across the overall market.
To focus our analysis specifically around personal finance, our research included only keywords relating to ‘bank accounts’, ‘savings’, or ‘credit cards’ — in other words, matters of everyday finance. We excluded keywords related to ‘loans’, ‘mortgages’, ‘tax’, ‘investment’, ‘insurance’, and ‘business’ and ‘commercial’ financial products from our keyword seed lists (as these products warrant their own analysis) and skew the dataset relating to everyday financial products.
Our resultant keyword set is modelled below (with each term weighted by its monthly search volume, and then normalised to assist in visualisation). This report highlights key statistics, explores our findings, provides some observations, and details our methodology in more depth.
Overall Market Winners
In total, NerdWallet have 22.3 percent of the overall share of search. Second placed competitor creditcards.com possess 15.03 percent of the overall share of search. Credit Karma who operate a similar service to NerdWallet, have 3.23 percent in fourth place.
Bank of America is the best performing financial institution with 6.12 percent of the overall share of search, the only bank to place within the top five. Wells Fargo, US Bank, and Suntrust were the other banks to place in top ten (with 2.47, 2.09, and 2.05 percent respectively). The relatively poor performance of banks in winning share of search was a noteworthy discovery and will be discussed in further detail later.
Financial publishers thesimpledollar.com (3.45 percent), and forbes.com (2.51 percent) both perform well within their niche with editorial content for personal finance.
Analysis: Page-level insights
Closer examination shows that NerdWallet’s organic performance is built, at least in part, across a breadth of pages on their website which are highly visible for a range of popular keywords.
The following graph represents the ten most visible pages in the sector; those with the greatest share of search.
Pages serving “credit card” related searches, including high volume phrases such as “best credit card”, and “credit cards for bad credit” account for six of the most visited pages in the sector. Serving these kinds of searches, the creditcards.com homepage takes the greatest share of search for an individual page with 5.63 percent of the overall share of search.
In total, NerdWallet have four of the ten most valuable pages catering for personal finance. One in particular, a comparison page listing the “best credit cards” on the market wins a noteworthy 3.6 percent of the overall share — in other words, if this page were a website in it’s own right, and all else being equal, it would place fourth amongst the overall websites.
Winning ‘comparative search’
So what makes websites such as Nerdwallet and creditcards.com so successful? One factor has been their ability to adeptly provide comparative information on numerous financial products, spanning multiple brands. It is perhaps, something that perhaps gives them a natural advantage over financial brands who only offer their own financial products.
Organic search is the most trusted source of information for consumers 1, and many rely on the channel for comparative information about products. When users search with the intention of comparing various products, we define this type of search as ‘comparative search’ because certain nuances and variation of keyword language imply the seeking of comparative information (e.g. queries which quote “best”, or“rates” modifiers, plurals including “savings”, “accounts”, and also “for x” terminology in searches such as “best credit cards for travelling”).
Significantly, these kind of comparative queries command higher search volumes than those that do not.
The following scatter graph shows distribution of comparative and ‘non-comparative’ search for keywords according to our segmentation, as well as the equivalent media value for each keyword (CPC multiplied by search volume). The distribution shows a greater number of comparative keywords in outlying areas, where searches that elicit comparison command higher search volumes and have a higher equivalent media value than those that do not.
The affiliate advantage?
As a financial affiliate, in some ways NerdWallet (and the same is true for creditcards.com, and creditkarma.com) have an advantage in that they are better able to cater for the high-volume search phrases in which consumers are seeking to compare products. In these instances, NerdWallet is able to meet the need of consumers who are looking to find the most competitive product on the market.
In this way affiliates and comparison services, and also to an extent publishers, are able to naturally capitalize on the full range of products that brands are making available to market.
Brands on the other hand are somewhat restricted in that they cannot offer whole-of-market information, but this is not to say that there isn’t opportunity for them to expand and optimize share of search within the keyword sets with which they are operating.
“This is a fascinating market to examine. With the incredible volume of consumers who are searching, and the cost of advertising around those searches, it becomes apparent that the stakes are enormous. There’s a huge amount of money being fought over by some of the world’s biggest brands in a very narrow space — yet the landscape is changing, and players like Nerdwallet are demonstrating how simply having a strong content strategy and good SEO can disrupt an entire market. The banks and traditional institutions in the space will need to carefully consider — and potentially radically transform — their long-term digital strategies if they want to maintain market share.”
Rest of the market
The findings above show that the financial affiliates have an inherent advantage when it comes to the overall market, and especially when consumers are making comparative searches.
To see what the landscape looks with a more level playing field, we graphed the most visible websites for keywords excluding those that imply comparison from the search results. The remaining keyword set was left with phrases that do not specifically imply a need for comparison, such as “online banking”, “checking account”, and “apply for a bank account online”.)
Whilst NerdWallet still figure at the top, their lead is greatly diminished, with just 15.38 of the overall non-comparative share of search. Bank of America, already established as the best performing bank, follow close behind with 14.75 percent.
As expected, banks perform much better when comparative search keywords are excluded, and in total there are six banks in the top ten websites, Bank of America, Suntrust, Wells Fargo, US Bank, Chase, and Ally.
Analysis: Page-level insights
With comparative search keywords filtered out product and service pages catering for checking or savings accounts come to the fore, with Bank of America and Suntrust winning the greatest share of search for this particular keyword segment. Wells Fargo, US Bank, and Chase also feature in the top ten pages with their checking and savings account landing pages.
It is interesting to note that NerdWallet still perform strongly with two pages here, a blog post detailing the “best savings accounts” and a page advising on “balance transfer credit cards”. The fact that they have pages able to win share in this segment even with comparative keywords excluded is a testament of the health and robustness of their overall organic search position.
Further website analysis
To take a closer look at NerdWallet’s performance, we plotted their performance for both comparative and non-comparative keywords, showing distribution and equivalent media value for all of the keywords with a top three ranking position.
Immediately visible is the large number of comparative keywords for which NerdWallet have a top three ranking position, including the highly searched-for term ‘best credit cards’, and a number of keywords which each attract between 12k and 35k monthly search volume. Using an estimate of media value (CPC multiplied by search volume) we calculated that in total NerdWallet gain 81.5 percent of their overall media value from comparative keywords.
However the most distinguishing feature of their profile is the number of keywords for which they have a top three rank on lower (sub 10k) search volumes. Shown by the dense cluster of comparative keywords in the lower left — low-volume keywords form 99.3 percent (all but 17) of NerdWallet’s 2,598 ranking keywords covered by our report. Such searches, typically longer-tail phrases with lower search volumes, are perhaps not as valuable as more popular head terms individually but the sum total of all these terms can be worth a great deal.
NerdWallet’s longtail (loosely defined as the keywords they have in a top three position for our personal finance keyword set with sub 10k search volume) accounts for $2.45 million of the website’s overall media value (where value equals CPC multiplied by search volume); 65.7 percent of the total estimated value of NerdWallet’s entire keyword set ($3.73 million).
These points are the defining elements of NerdWallet’s success. Winning these niche moments is no easy task, and NerdWallet’s ability to create content for both high and low volume search queries, at volume and at scale, is what gives them such a strong position in the market.
Bank of America (bankofamerica.com)
For contrast, looking at Bank of America’s keyword distribution, it’s possible to see how the keyword distribution and value differs to that of NerdWallet.
Immediately clear is that Bank of America earn a great deal of value from two key high-volume keywords, namely “online banking” and “checking account”. In contrast to NerdWallet, comparative keywords are few and far between, and in total, just 40.4 percent of Bank of America’s estimated value is derived from comparative search.
An area they clearly fall short of the market leaders, is in the number of keywords for which they are winning a position 1–3 ranking, for keywords with sub 10k search volume. Here, Bank of America’s longtail provides an estimated value of $610,677 from all keywords with sub 10k search volume, which amounts to 57.6 percent of their overall value from all keywords.
The ten banks with the greatest share of search:
Affiliates and publishers
The top ten affiliates and publishers with the greatest share of search:
Final thoughts: Understanding the market
From a search perspective, the US personal finance sector is a unique and highly nuanced market. As a utility service with heavy legal constraints around product classifications and naming conventions, search behavior is atypical.
In most large verticals, keyword usage is broad. Searchers use diverse, varied language to describe their needs, interests and priorities (often over multiple searches). This drives them towards particular products or services, and gives marketers clues into preference and intent, which they can use to segment their activities and targeting. In personal finance, this is frequently not the case.
For example, keywords such as ‘bank account’ or ‘best credit card’ represent the majority of search behaviour in the industry, and do little more than functionally describe a product. In other sectors, keywords in other sectors like ‘summer dress’ or ‘holiday ideas’ provide marketers with more scope to engage, and thus in turn widen the playing field.
This lack of diversity in search language makes personal finance a very narrow sector for brands to compete in. Search marketing as a result is highly targeted, and limited to focusing on relatively small set of keywords and topics.
Whilst a longtail does exists (people have questions around product types, require advice on general topics such as savings, and explore specifics around brand offerings) the vast majority of search in personal finance aligns to specific keywords which relate to specific products or service offerings.
Content produced by brands in this space tends to target the same narrow bands of keywords, topics and user. It is largely utilitarian and generally undifferentiated. Brand and campaign activity typically focuses on marginal benefits on similar products (APR, balance transfer rates, benefits and air miles, etc) in lieu of being able to target the specific customer need states and preferences which the usage of a broader set of keywords and topics would infer.
As a result it’s hard for individual websites or pages to stand out, or to acquire the kinds of equity and ranking signals which would result in them performing better in search.
The cost of competition
A further consequence of the sectors narrow terminology is that levels of competition and costs within paid search, offline and above-the-line advertising are heavily inflated. Brands fight to win lucrative new customers, but marketing in this space is hugely expensive.
The notoriously high CPC values for personal finance keywords are a testament to an enduring need for financial institutions to maintain visibility and presence in the space. In finance, where highly sought after terms can demand dozens of dollars in CPC value, the pressure has been building for other opportunities for brands to gain traction on more cost effective channels.
“Nerdwallet have set a precedent in how content can be used to win crucial organic search share, disrupting a highly competitive market, and one where authoritative, trustworthy touchpoints are highly sought after by brands. Especially on comparative search terms, their performance proves that they have understood the opportunity, and created processes that can create and scale content to fit consumer needs.
When it comes to search, brands should look to their example and use their own budgets and resources to mobilize their own SEO strategies, especially with regards to capturing the largely untapped longtail, where providing niche information at scale can add huge value to overall organic search share.”
- Seize cost-effective opportunities to market: inherent narrowness of language and terminology in personal finance has skewed focus towards high-volume terms, and this drives heavy competition and advertising cost in the sector. However, opportunity still exists. Disruptive startups such as NerdWallet prove that powerful organic search strategies that capture both higher and lower search volume queries can be a market-winning formula for success.
- Follow the lead of market disruptors, affiliates and comparison sites: affiliates and comparison sites have set a formidable precedent, disrupting an established industry on the strength of informative content tuned into consumer needs. However, this should not be discouraging for brands as opportunity still exists to fight back. Effectively, the strong performance of comparison sites can act as a proof of concept, and brands should now look to emulate success within their own models.
- Utilize superior resources, budgets, and brand equity to compete: brands and financial institutions often command huge marketing budgets, and they should use these superior resources to get a head start in remobilizing organic search strategies to identify and capture opportunities.
- Understand and use data to contextualise the nuances of search language: a key strength that differentiates digitally native financial startups, from established financial institutions, is in their ability to understand and leverage the nuances of search language to inform content. The language consumers use can imply a desire to compare, but this is just one way to infer intent. Building a sophisticated understanding of search data within a market can bring invaluable insights which inform content, and also greater knowledge of a brand’s audience and market.
It’s worth noting that nothing explored within this report is static, share of search can change on a weekly basis, and the nature of the competition means that results can often change. The longer-term trends however are clear — powerful data-driven search and content strategies will continue to be effective in winning consumers at individual moments, and disruptive startups are, for now at least, better mobilized to identify and leverage these opportunities.
Any cursory look at the website of any major financial brand reveals highly utilitarian, functional pages, copy and content. In contrast, the affiliate pages are much more ‘human’ — full of content that is emotive, responsive, supportive, in-depth and comprehensive in it’s coverage, and also exuding trust and authenticity signals that users are seeking. Brands will need to respond in kind if they are to continue to win a sought-after and lucrative share of search.
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The data and contents of this report were produced by the Linkdex team, using our proprietory SEO platform and data.
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Linkdex identified and categorised relevant keywords relevant to financial search, and used search volume data from Google spanning from January to December 2015 to quantify demand. Keywords related to ‘loans’, ‘mortgages’, ‘tax’, ‘insurance’, and ‘business’ and ‘commercial’ financial products, were excluded from the seed lists to maintain the focus on personal finance, and as these areas represent niche markets in their own right.
Topics were chosen by analysing a pool of major US financial organisations to identify the types of keywords which they are most commonly visible for, and expanded via research of publicly available Google search data.
The Linkdex SEO platform was used to measure each of the websites which appear in Google’s (US) organic search results for these keywords, and calculated an estimated share of search based on proprietary clickthrough-rate calculations, based on ranking position for each keyword.
As well as search volumes, the equivalent ‘media value’ for each keyword – the cost per click value from Google AdWords for each term multiplied by its search volume – was also collected, so as to enable us to understand the relative commercial value of each keyword.
This data was then aggregated to allow us to identify the most visible and most valuable websites overall, and within specific category.
Overall share of search is intended to be representative of a retailer website’s organic search visibility, and not of overall multi-channel or financial performance.