Problem for reopening branches: Does Google know when you’re open?

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When trying to find out when a local bank branch is open, what could be easier than opening the institution’s branch locator, entering a city or ZIP code, and scrolling through the list of results?

Googling it.

But that’s where things get messy. If a bank doesn’t diligently update the hours that show up on search platforms, directories and navigational tools such as Google Maps and Apple Maps, customers who rely on those listings may be confused — and worse, inconvenienced — when the details don’t match reality.

This task has become even trickier during the pandemic, as banks have temporarily closed branches or reduced their hours. As different swaths of the country reopen at different rates, there are additional challenges for large banks, whose branches sprawl across multiple states, as well as small banks, which may not have the resources or know-how to track all of their data points scattered across the internet.

Ideally, a customer would go straight to the bank’s website or app to verify service hours. But in reality, Google is the first thing many customers consult.

“A lot of people never get past that listing information, so it’s critical that it be updated on a regular basis,” said David Turner, vice-president, listing management solutions at Neustar, a global information services provider. (Listing information typically refers to summaries of a business’s contact information, hours, photos and more.)

Through spot audits, Turner has seen discrepancies among banks of all sizes. But he has found that smaller institutions that lack robust marketing departments are likelier to let this endeavor fall by the wayside.

Lincoln Parks, marketing director at the seven-branch Heritage Bank in Jonesboro, Ga., methodically devised a strategy to ensure that didn’t happen at Heritage when he joined three years ago. But he has seen the same pattern play out among small, rural community banks.

Lincoln Parks, marketing director at Heritage Bank
Lincoln Parks, marketing director at Heritage Bank, uses marketing software to track hours and other information about the seven-branch institution on different directories.

“A lot of the bigger regional banks are more up-to-date on listings and directories, while a lot of smaller community banks don’t have the resources or knowledge until something comes up,” he said. Even at Heritage, “there have been oversights in the past, where someone has called and said, ‘On your website you had this, and on Google you had this,’ ” Parks said.

Why banks can’t set it and forget it

If a company passively lets third-party directories scrape its website to throw together a profile, the information will eventually grow stale. And business can suffer if vital pieces of information, such as name, address and phone number, are incorrect, said Parks.

“Consumers are out there, looking to move their financial relationships from time to time,” he said. “Whenever that customer is searching, you want to pop up consistently with the right information.”

Business owners can “claim,” or take ownership of, their listings on various websites for free so they can edit the details themselves, through portals such as Google My Business, Apple Maps Connect and Bing Places. Before they can “claim” a site, the organization running the search engine or directory verifies them by placing a phone call or by sending a postcard with a code to their address.

Google is the dominant platform. Since the pandemic started, Google My Business has added new features like the ability to mark a business as temporarily closed or delineate special hours to help companies more accurately broadcast their availability.

But it’s vital for banks to monitor their data on smaller sites as well, because customers may favor a different search engine than Google or frequent directories like Facebook, Nextdoor, YellowPages.com or Yelp.

“You'll hear a lot of the time people say, well, I have 95% of searches covered,” said Neustar's Turner. “But think about the experience for the other 5%. It would be a real challenge for those customers, and nobody wants even 5% to have that problem.”

Outsource or DIY?

Large chains with many branches are likelier to hand off the legwork to a listings management firm. Neustar’s Localeze service, for example, has one bank with more than 5,000 branch and ATM locations as a client.

JPMorgan Chase uses an outside firm to sync up hours published across Google, Apple Maps, Yelp and more (the bank declined to say which firm it uses). Any internal updates to the bank’s hours get pushed out automatically to the listings management firm.

In pre-pandemic times, those updates would disseminate nightly, said a Chase spokesperson. But now, Chase has been revising hours more frequently as needed, such as when stay-at-home orders lift and branches can reopen.

Wells Fargo also outsources the job. The bank has worked with Yext, which manages online listings for companies, since mid-2017.

Overall, large, multistate banks have done a good job of keeping things current, said Turner. Still, they need to ensure that individual branches are aligned with the bank’s overall strategy.

“Larger chains need to make sure they’ve identified who is responsible for keeping this information current, so you don’t have people putting out conflicting information,” said Turner. “Conflicting information in the listing space is a very bad thing because search engines don’t know which results to use, and the same search might yield different data sets.”

For smaller banks, the decision to outsource the job or manage it themselves is less clear-cut.

Flagstar Bank in Troy, Mich., has 160 branches in five states, though most branches are in Michigan. The $26.8 billion-asset bank uses a technology partner, Reputation.com, to upload data for its online listings in bulk, with its top priorities being Google, Yelp, Facebook and Bing.

“Our platform allowed us to make changes in real time to keep our customers informed in a rapidly changing environment,” said Marcus Lona, brand and experience leader in the marketing unit at Flagstar Bank.

One of the bank’s biggest challenges recently was not being able to easily publish and update secondary hours, such as those at a drive-through that differed from branch hours, Lona said. But in May, Google started allowing businesses to publish multiple sets of hours, such as for seniors and drive-throughs.

At Heritage Bank, Parks and one assistant oversee the listings, manually adjusting hours as necessary through each directory’s dashboard. With only seven branches to worry about, it’s manageable; Parks estimates it takes him 10 minutes to update all seven branches in the Google My Business dashboard.

Apart from watching the big sites, such as Google and Apple Maps, Parks monitors his bank’s information on Citysearch, Facebook, Foursquare, Yelp and more. To ensure he is covering all bases, Parks uses two pieces of marketing software, BrightLocal and SEMrush, to aggregate the directories into two dashboards, where he can track data, reviews, star ratings and more.

He also gets notified when Heritage Bank pops up in a new directory, and he can decide whether claiming it would help or hurt the bank’s Google rankings.

Parks’ strategy may evolve as Heritage Bank grows. In 2019, it merged with two community banks with locations in Georgia and northeast Florida, bringing the total number of branches to 24 and assets to a combined $1.3 billion. For now, each institution continues to manage its marketing efforts separately.

But the key for businesses of any size is to have a single person, team or service in charge of amending all hours consistently.

“In the past, people didn’t think about this as much,” said Turner. “But these are unprecedented times in that businesses are making material changes to the services they provide and the hours that they’re operating. It’s really important to have someone who owns it and who puts together a strategy around how you're going to do it.”

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