Considering millennials' proclivity to use Internet search tools to find just about anything or everything – including a mortgage – lenders today would be well advised to put a strong emphasis on website design, functionality and content, so as to rank as highly as possible on the leading search engines.
It has been said many times before, but it's more true now than ever: If you're not on the first or second page of the search results for the term ‘mortgage,’ there's a good chance you're missing out on some prospects.
Consider, also, the push for ‘ease of intake’ in the mortgage process – that lenders are striving to make the process of filling out an online application as smooth and as fast as possible – and that a lender's website typically includes the portal through which these automated transactions take place. Lenders need their websites to not only achieve high rank, so as to get as many views as possible, but also to feature compelling calls to action in order to engage with prospects and get them to click on the ‘Apply Now’ button.
But how many lenders today have a strong search engine optimization (SEO) strategy? For most, it is ‘largely an afterthought,’ according to Todd Ballenger, executive vice president of business and product development for Vantage Production, which offers fully branded ‘turnkey’ websites for lenders that can be readily integrated with the leading loan origination systems.
‘Unless they hire experts or outsource to specialists, it is more often the function of the marketing department, which lenders often don't have,’ Ballenger says. ‘Or if they do, they keep it operating at 120 percent of capacity or more, leaving little time for SEO concerns.’
Considering that the mortgage process is moving online and is becoming almost entirely automated, one would think that SEO would be of the utmost importance to mortgage lenders. Further, one would think that website design, functionality and content would be paramount, as each plays a huge role in the customer experience.
‘SEO is vital – and a driving force in beginning the conversation between lenders and potential customers under the age of 35,’ says Jay McCarthy, chief marketing officer of Churchill Mortgage. ‘In a recent focus group, a millennial volunteered that she had purchased two homes in the last three years and had no desire to have a relationship with her lender or, more specifically, her loan officer. Drilling deeper, we learned that she really meant that face-to-face contact and phone calls didn't add value – in fact, they could be detrimental – to the process.’
This borrower added that, in her opinion, interaction with a lender via text and email was generally better, as it allowed for regular updates on the process and the delivery of content focused on the mortgage process and moving. This expediency of communication, in turn, increased her comfort level, which, in turn, improved her evaluation of the lender.
What Churchill Mortgage learned was that this borrower ‘had done extensive Web research on lenders before deciding on one’ and she ‘placed great value on where a lender's website ranked in searches.’ Perhaps more importantly – and this is the killer – she ‘ultimately decided to go with a company that had appeared high in every search she conducted,’ McCarthy explains.
Of course, as Ballenger points out, not all lenders are ‘found’ by way of the major search engines. Many prospective borrowers start the mortgage shopping process at their present bank before conducting a Web search. And, after narrowing their search, most borrowers ultimately end up going with a lender that focuses on the specific market where the home is being purchased.
‘SEO is more critical at the local level, as all search starts global and ends local,’ Ballenger says. ‘Consumers are looking at everything, and you don't know what they'll find first. Whether it's the loan officer's Facebook page or a glossary of mortgage terms on your corporate website, SEO helps to provide direction as to the consumer's initial experience, which is critical.’
As Ballenger explains, what borrowers see when they first land on a lender's home page is almost as critical as getting them to land there in the first place.
‘You want to have what the consumer is looking for so you get to engage with them as early in the process as possible,’ he says. ‘If they have an existing trusted relationship, they are going to use that person unless they search and find someone they believe to be more valuable or credible – so it's your opportunity to lose as much as it is to gain.’
So, what can lenders do to achieve higher SEO?
‘The first step is awareness: Are you paying attention to where you rank in the overall search?’ Ballenger says. ‘That's the first question, as second and third pages of Google searches are where good companies go to die. Then, as Steve Jobs said, 'Start with the end user and work backwards.' What are they searching for? Walk in their shoes and then think on how you'll position yourself as a trusted advisor, an information guru, etc.
‘Most consumers vote their confidence when they share their contact information, and when you have that information, you have to have an automated system that begins to lock the engagement with that person down immediately,’ he adds. ‘You can't leave it to an individual to call them; have drip campaigns and things going out immediately.’
Ballenger says recent research shows that most consumers start their search using the terms ‘payment calculator’ and ‘mortgage payment estimate,’ which is why those keywords are the most expensive on Google Adwords.
‘You can buy your way to the top – or earn it with great content and relevance,’ he says.
As mentioned, the design of a lender's home page is critical.
‘The first impression is the key to whether a consumer feels comfortable,’ Ballenger says. ‘The messaging should be inviting and graphically pleasing – every bit as much as it should be relevant.’
Although a lender may offer many types of loans, it's important that the home page not overwhelm borrowers with too much information about the products being offered.
‘It shouldn't,’ McCarthy says. ‘Amazon.com is the most visited retail website in the world, and it carries well over 200 million products. Obviously, they don't list them all on their home page.
‘The majority of our customers need the counsel of a well-trained expert who will guide them through the process and assist them in choosing the right solution for their needs,’ McCarthy adds. ‘Home pages that create a sense of security and trust will open up a conversation that will hopefully lead to a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship.’
‘People don't want loan products, per se – they want the results of those products, so I would rarely put loan products themselves on the main home page,’ Ballenger says. ‘I would speak to your ability to simplify the complex options associated with so many loan programs, lest you confuse the consumer and lose the battle before it begins.’
So, what calls to action on the home page work best for lenders in order to get leads and engage with prospects?
‘I know from a very expensive experiment we did over several years with keywords that more than 90 percent of our traffic for leads came from mortgage calculator-related searches,’ Ballenger says. ‘It doesn't have to be the central feature on your home page, but the page should clearly lead to some kind of opportunity for the consumer to convert information to wisdom and actionable intelligence.’
One thing many lenders fail to do is provide compelling and informative content to website visitors. With the new regulations, and the need for borrower education, lenders have new opportunities to post quality original content to their websites – content that, in turn, can help boost rank.
‘Achieving a balance should be the primary strategy,’ McCarthy says. ‘If a lender has a large content library, but it's of poor quality, visitors won't stay, won't return, and the likelihood of gaining their trust and their business will decrease exponentially. Just as mortgage companies are becoming more sophisticated in how they communicate with customers, those customers – millennials, in particular – are becoming better educated on evaluating the businesses and products they use.’
‘I think we are going through a renaissance of trust in all financial offerings,’ Ballenger adds. ‘The consumer is looking to see whom they can trust, and there should be a powerful statement on your site to engage them. Lenders can do well by doing good, and that sort of information can involve borrower education, adherence to new rules, etc. Considering all the news about the regulations and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, adding thoughts that instill confidence into your key words, tags and messaging can help to increase your credibility when a consumer is seeking to find a trusted advisor to help them.’
One of the biggest mistakes a lender can make today is failing to have a strategy when it comes to mobility. Surprisingly, Ballenger says, most lenders today do not even have true mobile versions of their websites.
‘To test this, go to a lender's site on your phone and see if it is responsive and adapts for mobile,’ he says. ‘More consumers start their search on phones than most people in the industry realize, and that is a growing trend. You must engage that consumer at the mobile and tablet in addition to the desktop, as these are the new 'location, location, location' of SEO and lead capture.
‘If the technology is responsive, the content and related functionality should work, but you still have to design sites to work for mobile,’ he adds. ‘For example, you have to assume that a consumer may start with a mobile device, so you should put your top message first. This is because what they may see on a Web page from a desktop screen would be four thumb-scrolls down on a mobile device – so plan for this and put your best thumb forward.’