“Provide great care and the patients will come.” Everyone has heard it. What they don’t tell you: Times are changing, quickly. It’s no longer good enough to just care for your patients. It’s about time to create a healthcare marketing plan.
Softwareadvice recently conducted a survey of US patients and found that 94% of patients consult review sites like Google My Business, Yelp, Healthgrades, and RateMDs to evaluate physicians or healthcare staff before choosing a provider.
And the numbers are increasing dramatically year over year, meaning that your online presence is becoming the leading factor in a patient’s decision on which physician to see. Especially since 8 out of 10 of people trust online reviews just as much as personal recommendations. Rather than relying on their friends or family for a recommendation, potential patients are now seeking advice from their most trusted wingman: the internet.
This is an extremely in-depth guide to online healthcare marketing and advertising, so feel free to jump ahead if you’re already familiar with some of the basics.
Here’s what we’re going to cover in this guide:
- Local SEO
- On-Page SEO
- Off-Page SEO
- Link Building
- Pay-Per-Click Advertising
- Online Reputation Management
- HIPAA Compliance
Online healthcare marketing is any effort to reach potential patients online.
There are several parts that make up a successful online healthcare marketing strategy. We’re going to walk you through all of them.
Online healthcare marketing starts with Search Engine Optimization: the practice of moving up in search engine rankings and increasing organic web traffic. SEO is conventionally broken up into 3 main parts, On-Page SEO, Off-Page SEO, and Technical SEO. We’ll talk about all of them.
Next, we’ll discuss Paid Advertising: a generally underutilized strategy in healthcare marketing. We’re strong believers that almost every doctor, private practice, and hospital should take advantage of paid online advertising to attract new patients.
We’ll then move onto Online Reputation Management: the process of optimizing your online reviews and visibility across social media. We’ll walk you through the ethical ways to get genuine 5-star reviews on sites like Yelp, Google My Business, and Facebook.
Finally, we’ll talk about a few ways to ensure that you’re always remaining HIPAA Compliant when engaging in online healthcare marketing.
Let’s jump right in.
Search Engine Optimization
In order to attract new patients online, you need to make sure you show up on search engines like Google and Bing.
Neil Patel, an expert in Search Engine Optimization, defines SEO as:
“the process of optimizing your online content so that a search engine likes to show it as a top result for searches of a certain keyword.”
For medical practices and healthcare organizations, optimizing your website for local search traffic on Google is the best thing you can do to attract new patients from the surrounding geographic area. In this guide, we’ll address today’s top strategies for optimizing your website for search engine rankings including on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO. It’s important to first understand where the organic listings are located on the Search Engine Results Pages, also known as the SERP. Here are the first 3 organic listings on Google for the query “Orthopedic Surgeon New York”:
Organic listings on Google appear below the paid advertisements (AKA Google Ads or Google AdWords) and the map pack (AKA the Local 3-pack). Still, these top three listings get over 60% of the clicks, entirely for free. Here’s a recent study that was done by Chitika that shows the percentage of clicks associated with each spot on the Search Engine Results Page.
The drop off is significant; if your organization’s website is the 6th result on Google, you’re only getting 4.4% of the traffic.
So how do you use SEO to get higher up on the search engine results page? The first thing you need to do is identify your organization’s target keywords.
Keywords tell search engines like Google what your website is about and when to show your website in search results.
For local medical practices, finding your target keywords is a pretty simple process. It’s a combination of your specialty and location. Let’s say you’re a family dentist located in New Haven, Connecticut.
The main keywords you should focus on are:
- Dentist in New Haven CT
- Family Dentist in New Haven CT
- Other close variants.
On-Page SEO is the practice of changing the content on your website to help move up in organic search engine rankings.
At its basics, SEO is a way of communicating with Google to prove that your site is relevant for the user. Google wants to provide the best answers for its users and SEO is a way of convincing Google that you are what the patient is looking for. But you have to be able to speak Google’s language too. The simplest way to do this is through Title Tags and Meta Descriptions.
Title Tags are essentially the headlines for each page on your website. Title Tags are what shows up most prominently in search results and they’re a big factor in how Google ranks your website.
The Meta Description is the portion of text under the title tag and URL. Meta Descriptions don’t directly affect search engine rankings, but they’re important for getting potential patients to click on your website. The percentage of people that click on your page after seeing it in search results is called the Click Through Rate (CTR). The higher your CTR, the more likely patients are to go to your website. Not all Title Tags and Meta Descriptions are effective for SEO, however.
Tips For Title Tags
- Begin with your target keyword. Start your title tags with what you know your patients searching for (a.k.a. your target keywords). Take this blog post for example. The title tag of this article begins with the words “Healthcare Marketing,” which is our target keyword for this guide. We’re looking to attract readers that search for that keyword, so putting it first in our title tag tells Google that “healthcare marketing” is the focus of this blog post. And by doing this, it helps us rank higher in searches!
- Make your title tags between 50-60 characters long. If your title tag is too long, Google will cut your title tag off with a “…” And if it’s too short, you’re leaving out a ton of valuable real estate on the search engine results page.
- Make your title tags easy to read. Nobody wants to struggle when reading a listing in search results. Keep your title tags grammatically correct, take out any numbers and create a clear and concise message that speaks to your target patients. Take a look at these title tags for example:
As you can see, the first title tag isn’t optimized for SEO:
- It’s doesn’t feature any keywords.
- It’s too long. (note the “…”)
- It only contains names, which adds no SEO benefit.
However, the second title tag is great for SEO:
- It begins with the keyword “Plastic Surgery Atlanta, GA”
- It contains the name of the medical practice.
- It’s 55 characters long, which is a perfect length.
Tips For Meta Descriptions
Just like with title tags, you should put a lot of thought into your meta descriptions. These are the little blurbs underneath the title tags on the results page. Meta descriptions give you the opportunity to expand upon the content on each page of your website, so you want to take advantage of them.
- Fit your other keywords in there tastefully. The goal is to add relevance and engage the user. Which brings me to my next point…
- Make the sentences flow naturally. You want your meta descriptions to be easy to read.
- Keep your meta descriptions under 300 characters. This is because Google tends to cut them off at around that length.
How would you like it if you were looking for a plumber and saw a meta description like this?
This meta description is choppy, irrelevant, and the capital letters make it seem like spam. The goal of title tags and meta descriptions is also to convince people to click on your link, so it’s very important to avoid looking like spam.
The text on each page of your website tells Google exactly what the page is about. Each page on your website should target a group of specific keywords for which you hope to rank in search results.
One of the best things that you can do to improve your SEO is to create unique pages on your website for each service that you provide and each location that you serve. These pages are sometimes referred to as Landing Pages. If your medical practice sees patients at more than just one physical location, it is incredibly important that you create unique pages on your website for each location. Why? Because your location is one of your most important keywords.
This will help your website rank in Google search results when potential patients search for providers or specific medical treatments in their city or state. For example, let’s say you’re a dentist in NYC. When a potential patient searches for “best dentist in NYC,” you want to be able to show up prominently in Google search results to attract these patients.
It’s important to note that each page MUST have unique content to remain favorable in the eyes of the search engines. So, avoid copy and pasting content from page to page.
Optimization of URL Structure
A common problem that we see with many of our healthcare clients at Phase 5 Analytics is with the URL structure of their websites. URL structure is essentially the format of the URL. To better understand the importance of having a clear URL structure, let’s take a look at this incredible infographic by MOZ:
Small changes to the URL structure can make a difference in the way that users assess your relevancy and trustworthiness. In fact, URL structure is one of the most important factors in a user’s decision of whether or not to click on your link in search engine results.
- Keep your URLs readable
- Use keywords, but don’t stuff them
- Keep them short
- Don’t include words like: and, or, but, of, the, a, etc.
- Use hyphens NOT underscores
Off-Page SEO is a series of practices for SEO which take place on third party sites, rather than your own website. The focus of off-page SEO is to maintain a consistent online image and presence.
Whether you’re aware it’s happening or not, thousands of online directories across the internet feature your organization’s information. Often times, your organization’s name, phone number, or address is listed incorrectly, and this is harmful to your SEO.
At Phase 5 Analytics, we monitor the internet and find every instance where your organization’s information is listed incorrectly – and we fix them. However, if you’d like to handle your own healthcare marketing campaigns, you should start by claiming as many of your online profiles as possible.
Claim your online profile(s)
Claiming all of your relevant online profiles is the first step of off-page SEO. Doing this will allow you to correct any inaccurate information, which will help promote your website in search engine rankings. Claiming your online profiles is also helpful for managing your online reputation, so definitely start here.
You need to claim your profile wherever your practice or individual doctors are listed – Facebook, Yelp, Google My Business, Healthgrades, etc. If your practice is not on any of these social media sites yet, get listed. If you’re not there, you’re missing out on free traffic to your organization’s website.
The more information Google and the other search engines have about your practice and doctors, the higher you will be ranked. Once you have claimed your page, you have the ability to edit your information. The first thing you should check is your NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number). Make sure that your Business Name, Address, and Phone Number are exactly the same on all sites.
This is important for SEO because inconsistent NAPs will hurt your ranking in search engines as well as your legitimacy.
Link building is arguably the most important strategy for improving your SEO. It’s also probably the hardest. Links (AKA backlinks) to your website from relevant and authoritative 3rd party sites have a massive impact on your search engine ranking. Any successful healthcare marketing strategy must include actively trying to build links to your organization’s website.
Here’s a graph from Backlinko, who analyzed over 1 million Google search results. This graph shows how the number of referring domains (the number of websites linking to you) impacts Google rankings:
As you can see, the number of backlinks correlates directly with better organic rankings in Google. While a few hundred links may seem like an unrealistic goal, you won’t need that many to rank well in local markets. It’s important to also ensure that all of your backlinks come from relevant and authoritative websites since building spammy links from irrelevant websites will end up hurting you in search engine rankings.
So, what are today’s leading strategies for building authoritative links to healthcare websites?
Start a blog on your website
The most widely used strategy for building links to your website is starting a blog related to your medical specialty. Our team suggests posting a 1000-2000 word long-form article on one specific topic related to your medical specialty. If you’re having trouble coming up with fresh ideas for blog posts, check out our article on creating content in dull niches.
It’s also important to note that links don’t just appear by themselves. You can’t just publish a new article on your website and expect people to find it, read it, and link to it. Instead, you’ll need to perform what’s called link building outreach to relevant and authoritative 3rd party sites. Link building outreach involves sending personalized emails to authors of tangentially related content on the internet.
For example, let’s say that you’re an OB/GYN who just wrote an in-depth article on postpartum depression. After you publish the article to your website, you should email people who wrote articles about similar topics like postpartum anxiety and say “hey! I think my article would make a great addition to your post because of XYZ.” Don’t expect everyone to agree, but over time your website will build up more and more authority within your niche.
Guest post on relevant sites
Another popular strategy for building links to your website is publishing guest posts on other relevant sites. The first step to creating a guest posting strategy is to identify relevant sites within your niche that actually allow guest posts. The easiest way to find out if a site allows guest posts is to look through their blog and read about the authors. If you can’t tell by looking through the site’s existing content, I’d suggest emailing the company and asking! You’ll usually get an answer.
Once you’ve identified websites within your niche that allow guest posts, you’ll need to write original, thoughtful articles that follow all of the site’s guidelines. Most sites that regularly accept guest posts allow you to include a link back to your website within the content. Take advantage of that. Guest posting is an effective strategy for steadily building backlinks over time, but it takes time.
Sponsor local events that offer backlinks
If you don’t have time to create your own content marketing strategy and you don’t want to partner with a healthcare marketing agency like us, you can still find easy ways to build links. One such way is sponsoring local events or donating charities that offer backlinks.
If your organization has a budget for donations or sponsorships to local events and charities, consider prioritizing ones that offer backlinks as rewards. Believe it or not, most charities have dedicated pages on their websites where they list their sponsors and provide links to their websites.
You can spend months pushing out high-quality content and waiting for those SEO improvements to kick in. Your best bet for quick, highly measured traffic is paid advertising on platforms like Google Ads, Bing Ads, Facebook, Instagram, AdRoll, etc.
Let’s now take a look at a few of the most popular paid advertising platforms for healthcare organizations.
In a nutshell, Google Ads (formerly known as Google AdWords) is a way of faking your way to the top of the search engine results page without relying on Search Engine Optimization.
Google Ads allows advertisers to display their ads whenever users search for their target keywords on Google. This type of advertising strategy is commonly referred to as Pay-Per-Click advertising or PPC. And as the name suggests, in pay-per-click advertising you only pay when someone clicks on your ad.
Improving the quality and relevance of your ads can help drive costs down, and set you up for a massive ROI. Google cares a lot about relevance, and a lot of that hinges on your keywords. So let’s get a few things straight before we go further. Understanding these terms is crucial to fully understanding paid advertising:
- Queries: what someone types into the search bar.
- Keywords: the word or phrase you’d like to show your ads for.
- Impression: when your ad shows up on the results page
- Click-Through Rate (CTR): the percentage of people who click on your ad after seeing the ad.
You might be wondering: if keywords are the bread and butter to my marketing success, how do I make sure I’m taking advantage of the right words and phrases?
The answer, love it or hate it, is research. Through keyword research, you’ll be able to predict how potential patients are searching for your services online. Keep in mind that sometimes the most important part of a successful marketing campaign revolves around what is absent, rather than present.
Negative keywords are arguably the most important part of narrowing down your exposure to get the highest quality clicks you can. You only want your ads to show up for people who are looking for your services. Generally, negative keyword lists should be as detailed as you can possibly get them and again, as you continue moving forward, you may encounter more negative keywords to add.
Many people use Google to self-diagnose an illness, so you need to be sure you’re only targeting keywords with purchase intent. It’s more profitable to only target keywords at the decision stage of the buyer’s journey.
What Makes a Good Google Search Ad?
In order to create a good Google Search Ad, you need to be able to get inside the head of those who are searching for the services you provide. How do you convince potential patients that you are qualified and can address all their needs?
The answer to this question is pretty simple: take up space.
Our online habits are pretty lazy and so we are more likely to click on the first thing we see. This could be a first-place spot on the google results page, but it is also likely to be the biggest ad on the page. Ads with more components break up the page and draw in the eyes of the user.
The best way to get more “real estate” on the results page is through ad extensions that display links to the different landing pages on your website. Ad extensions like this offer the user more options and easier access to the information they are looking for. Here are two examples:
Note that in this example, the advertiser in the first ad has utilized several different ad extensions as well as enhanced their title and description to take up as much space as possible with relevant material and plenty of keywords.
In contrast, the ad underneath it lacks significant information about the practice as a whole and does not give the sense that it will address the concerns of the user.
Online Reputation Management
As I mentioned earlier, patients are increasingly turning to online reviews as the first step in choosing a physician.
Every day, people are fighting over false or exaggerated reviews on Yelp and other similar websites because REVIEWS MATTER. In fact, a $750,000 lawsuit was recently filed against a Virginia woman for a Yelp review she wrote about a construction company. Nobody likes to see bad reviews of themselves, especially when they’re not true. Most of the time, doctors just choose to ignore them, but you shouldn’t because reviews are extremely important to patients.
Reputation Management is the practice of actively monitoring, responding to, and shaping your online image. But in order to understand reputation management fully, we need to take a look at each part that goes into it.
For doctors and medical practices, we tend to focus on these 4 major review sites: Google My Business, Healthgrades, Facebook and Yelp.
Each of these online review sites for doctors caters to specific audiences, so it’s important to take each into consideration when creating a healthcare marketing plan.
Google My Business
Google My Business is essential for managing your online reputation. While other online review sites like Yelp can be huge channels for marketing in healthcare, Google My Business is even more important. Here’s why:
Users are searching for medical-related terms on Google in record numbers. Way more than the number of searches on Yelp. Before we get any further, let’s break down what Google My Business is exactly.
What I’ve highlighted in red is the Google My Business profile of this particular medical practice. There are multiple parts that make up your Google My Business profile, but the most crucial elements are the:
- Business Name
- Address & Phone Number
To understand how important Google My Business is for healthcare marketing, we need to also take a look at Google’s Local 3-Pack.
Google’s Local 3-Pack
When users on Google search for local businesses or organizations, they’re met with the Local 3-Pack. The Local 3-Page appears on the Search Engine Results Page and is used to show local business listings. For example, here’s the Local 3-Pack when I searched for “Austin texas obgyn”:
You’ll notice that the Local 3-Pack prominently features your average online rating, so it’s important to strategize about how to get more 5-star reviews from patients. However, in order to show up favorably in Google’s Local 3-Pack, you’ll need to first set up a Google My Business account. For detailed instructions on how to claim, set-up, and optimize your Google My Business listings, check out this guide.
Even though we use Facebook every day, healthcare marketers still seem to neglect the social network’s effectiveness, especially regarding online reputation. Here are a few reasons you should be focusing some of your reputation management efforts on Facebook:
- Your audience uses Facebook.
- Your Facebook page shows up on Google
- Reviews on Facebook show up on Google
- You’ll cultivate a group of your biggest fans.
That last point is extremely important. You’ll cultivate a group of your biggest fans. This is extremely valuable to savvy medical marketers like you. Think about it this way: When you’re trying to get people to review your medical practice online, you only want to be asking your biggest fans. Nobody who has had a bad experience with your practice is going to follow you on Facebook. Now you’ll have a group of people who love your practice at your fingertips.
Yelp began when one of its founders, Jeremy Stoppelman, got the flu. Stoppelman began looking for referrals online to find a local doctor, but came up empty-handed. And the rest is history.
Since 2014, Yelp has quickly climbed to become a key player for online referrals, especially for the healthcare industry. Today, of Yelps 142 million monthly visitors, 79% are researching or reviewing health or medical businesses. Any successful healthcare marketing plan must involve Yelp. That being said, Yelp is a stickler when it comes to asking for reviews. In order to avoid being penalized by Yelp, it’s important to pay attention to their guidelines and make sure you’re not breaking any rules.
We recommend avoiding asking patients to review your organization on Yelp since their algorithm is adept at catching solicited reviews. In fact, in severe cases, you could even end up with a Consumer Alert on your Yelp profile that alerts users of solicited reviews. Since your Google My Business profile gets way more visibility than your Yelp profile, we suggest focusing your efforts there instead.
Healthgrades is another huge name in online reviews for doctors, amassing over 12 million visitors during its 10-year tenure.
It is a trusted source, and unlike all of the other review sites listed above, Healthgrades focuses specifically on medical practices and healthcare professionals. This makes it easier for the searcher to compare your profile against others, which leaves the opportunity for a competitive advantage.
Our team typically begins our reputation management efforts with Google My Business, but we sometimes direct reviews to Healthgrades if we see an opportunity for an easy competitive advantage in our client’s local market.
For doctors and medical practices, it’s important to practice HIPAA compliant marketing and advertising so you’re not jeopardizing your confidentiality. Since many email addresses contain enough information to identify the owner, email addresses are still considered PII (Personally Identifiable Information). If you’re wondering why, it’s because many email addresses contain the person’s first and last name.
The first step to HIPAA compliant healthcare marketing is choosing a HIPAA compliant email service. There are many email services that are able to be made HIPAA compliant. For example:
- G Suite
It’s important to note that none of these email services are HIPAA compliant without first signing a Business Associate Agreement (BAA). Our favorite HIPAA compliant email service – and the one we recommend to all of our healthcare clients – is G Suite by Google, which only costs $5 / month.
Developing a tailored healthcare marketing strategy is one of the best things you could be doing to grow and scale your medical practice. Even if you only take a few measures, you’ll be putting yourself ahead of much of the competition.
Online healthcare marketing involves constant optimization and attention, to detail, but that’s what we’re best at. If you’re looking to take your marketing to the next level, reach out and learn how a healthcare marketing agency like Phase 5 Analytics can enhance your healthcare organization’s online visibility and patient acquisition channels.
Written by Andrew Epprecht
As the Founder and CEO of Phase 5 Analytics, Andrew leads a team of healthcare marketers and consultants. He's been featured in publications like Forbes and Search Engine Watch. An entrepreneur at heart, Andrew started his first business in high school. While attending Duke University, he further developed his knowledge of online marketing and advertising. Today, Andrew uses these skills to help forward-thinking healthcare organizations attract new patients online.