Searching for the Future

Google isn’t just a verb—it’s become a fundamental part of the daily experience by serving as an entry point into where we go and what we do, everywhere and all time. In the most basic sense, Google searches offer a peek into the zeitgeist.

That’s why the annual study tracking Google search trends in the banking industry, as seen in the Financial Brand, typically makes for interesting reading. The newest one is no exception.

Some searches are both surprising and hard to explain. For example, it may be time for the credit union industry to do some outreach or otherwise gain attention—banks generated eight times more searches, a phenomenon that has stayed true for several years now. More to the point, bank-related searches continue to rise, while those for credit unions do not. For a sector that can be so critical to so many consumers, this is a worrisome trend.

Digging deeper, some banks seem to generate more searches than others. Bank of America roared to the top of the list three years ago, but has declined since. Wells Fargo, meanwhile, has steadily become more popular on the search matrix, with volumes doubling in just four years. It would be interesting to uncover what factors might be causing these changes. Could they be tied to internal initiatives, such as a successful ad campaign or the release of new services and mobile apps? Or could it be a wave of negative headlines, such as those regarding lawsuits? Big Data be used to explain so much; any pointers toward answers here would be welcome.

But then, of course, we get to the mobile area, and that’s always grounds for significant changes. True to form, mobile banking solutions continue to spike in popularity—the billions devoted to development and distribution, not to mention security, seem to be paying off. Oddly, searches for bank branches and ATMs haven’t receded. If anything, it’s speculated that mobile capabilities are actually fueling this activity—geo-location features mean consumers can be told where the nearest ATM is more easily than ever before.

On the flip side, consumers don’t seem nearly as interested in mobile payments. This is an area virtually crying out for growth, which stubbornly isn’t coming. As discussed here before, there’s certainly no shortage of available options, with a plethora of initiatives dedicated to making it easier for consumers to pay their bills via the smartphone or tablet. But the flood of applications hasn’t yet yielded a killer app. And that’s all it takes for a trend to take off.

Of course, the betting now is that Apple Pay, which is only just hitting the market, will play exactly this role. The innovative conglomerate is certainly up to the challenge, and has done it many times before. However, the obstacles in the way of broad-scale adoption are still around, and the barrier to entry in this market is in some ways even higher than before. It will be interesting to see a year from now what consumers are searching for online.

Reading too much into Google searches would be a mistake, but as mentioned earlier they do provide an interesting snapshot of the current climate. What that instant picture is showing now is that while the outside world may think of banking a staid and stodgy industry largely resistant to change, it is in fact always undergoing significant transformation.

That’s a good thing. In fact, let’s hope that the next study a year from now has very different metrics. What’s on your wish list? What would you like to see changing?

Written by Jack Dougal