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SEO or SEM: What is the best search channel for your financial institution?

  • May 25, 2023

In This Article

Guest Author: Brian Reilly, Managing Director of BankBound

Are you utilizing search channels in your financial institution’s digital marketing strategy? In a competitive landscape, acquiring and retaining customers is essential to local banks’ success. Digital marketing tactics such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search Engine Marketing (SEM), also known as Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising, can help you create a strong online presence (aka your 24/7 bank branch), reach your target audience, get the most out of your advertising budget, and use data to measure your success and increase engagement.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about SEM/PPC and SEO for financial services. Learn how optimizing SEO and paid advertising on search engines can help you reach your FI’s marketing goals.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

SEM is a form of digital advertising that allows businesses (including financial institutions) to display ads on search engine results pages (SERPs) and other websites.
When people say “SEM,” they’re usually referring to PPC via Google Ads. PPC ads let you pay to show up at the top of the search results for certain queries or to show display ads on relevant sites. Technically, SEM is a broad category that contains both SEO and PPC. The overall purpose of SEM is to make your bank’s website easier to find in search engines through both organic and paid results.

How does SEM work?

Essentially, SEM is when you pay Google to get clicks. SEM works by targeting specific keywords and phrases, creating ads to appear in search engine results pages (SERPs), and bidding on your target keywords to ensure your FI’s ads appear at the top of SERPs.

Pros and Cons of Search Engine Marketing

This digital marketing channel provides many advantages such as quick results, the ability to target an audience, and control over your budget. However, the potential downsides of PPC advertising include cost since you will only receive clicks so long as you continue to pay for them. Paying for clicks does guarantee positive results. Follow these best practices for SEM optimization:

● Conduct thorough keyword research.
● Create compelling ad copy.
● Optimize landing pages.
● Use ad extensions.
● Set realistic budgets and bids.
● Continuously analyze targeting.
● Test and optimize campaigns regularly.

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?


SEO is a digital marketing strategy that optimizes a financial institution’s website and content (webpages, blog posts, etc.) to improve search engine rankings and generate organic traffic. With most people’s research process starting online, you want to create content that answers the questions your prospective customers are searching for such as, “how do I apply for a mortgage?”

How does SEO work?

When you conduct a web search for a certain topic or question, you see paid search results first (PPC) and then organic (non-paid) search results below the ads. To rank well in organic search results, there are no shortcuts. But if you put effort into SEO over time, you can see your bank’s webpages and blog posts move up in the SERPs. You can do this by making sure your site is crawlable, indexable, and has great keyword-driven content. And, while it’s not completely in your control, you can work on getting quality backlinks from other sites. One way to do this is to publish guest posts on reputable websites in exchange for a link back to your FI’s website.

Pros and Cons of Search Engine Optimization

SEO can be a cost-effective way to drive traffic to your bank’s website, especially when compared to other forms of digital marketing like paid search and social media advertising. Improving your organic rankings can help your FI increase brand visibility and attract more prospects to your website. In addition, higher ranking can help with your brand credibility and authority, helping to establish trust among prospective customers. Unlike paid search and social media advertising, which stop driving traffic once the campaign ends, SEO strategies can provide long-term results. By consistently creating valuable content and optimizing your website, you can maintain your rankings and continue to drive traffic to your website.

On the other hand, SEO does require a significant amount of time and effort to be effective. It typically takes months to start seeing initial results from SEO efforts. Since many financial institutions offer similar products, competition for certain keywords can be stiff. However, as a community bank or credit union, you can focus on local SEO and the unique value proposition your bank offers, such as customer service or a focus on ag lending.

The most challenging aspect of SEO is the fact that search engine algorithms can change, and no one knows exactly how they work to begin with. However, some tried-and-true SEO tactics, such as focusing on quality content, are likely to be helpful no matter what.

How To Choose The Best Search Channel For Your Financial Institution

Choosing between SEM and SEO depends on your specific objectives and current performance. Here are some things to consider:

Marketing Budget

Your FI’s budget is an important factor to consider. PPC ads can be expensive, especially in the competitive financial industry, but SEM is also the easiest way to reach your target audience quickly.

Marketing Goals

SEO may be preferrable if you want to drive long-term growth. SEM (PPC) can be a good option when you want to generate quick traffic for a promotional offer.


When considering SEO vs SEM, you need to think about how a first page placement will generate results for your products or services. For SEO, competing banks and FI’s with higher domain authorities and more brand awareness can make it difficult to rank on the first page for target keywords.
For SEM, competitors with bigger PPC budgets drive up pay-per-click advertising costs and can make it more expensive to acquire leads. An effective SEO strategy or SEM strategy is one that identifies overlooked opportunities. For example, SEO title tags and meta descriptions might target localized keywords (new mortgage applicants Miami), or specific use cases (i.e.., rate discount for new mortgage applicants).
Meanwhile, an SEM strategy could geo-target searches within a specific location, while utilizing negative keywords to help the budget go further (i.e.: excluding the word “Fort Lauderdale” if you don’t service a particular area for your promotion).

Team Resources

Do you have staff on hand with digital marketing expertise to run SEM and SEO campaigns? If not, these channels will require a dedicated internal resource, or an outside agency to ensure you have the expertise and tools necessary to generate impactful results.

Final Considerations

Ultimately, a good digital marketing strategy should incorporate both SEO and SEM. Whether you already have an SEO or SEM strategy in place or are looking to create one from the ground up, the reach and measurability of these channels offer financial institutions tremendous opportunity. If your goals include awareness, engagement, or acquisition, search marketing should be a big part of your marketing mix!


About the Author

Brian Reilly is a self-proclaimed financial marketing nerd and managing director of BankBound, a specialized digital marketing agency focused on financial institutions. 

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