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In today’s competitive healthcare industry, it’s no longer an option for doctors and medical practices to have a website—it’s necessary if you want patients—and providers who can make referrals—to find you.

Without any digital marketing experience however, you might think, “build it and they will come.” Yet your website is only the foundation of your online presence. The real key to getting found lies in search engine optimization, or SEO.

But what exactly is SEO? And why does your medical practice need it? Read on for an SEO primer.  

What is SEO?

SEO is how your business turns up in search engine results, how the content you create is ranked by Google and other search engines and how patients ultimately find you.

SEO is process that’s measured and repeated to help you get organic, or unpaid, traffic to your website and it includes both technical and creative tactics to drive that traffic, improve your search rankings and create awareness about your practice. SEO includes the right keywords, headings, subheadings and backlinks (hyperlinks to other reputable sites), as well as the structure, word count and amount of white space. 

Why do you need SEO?

Social media is an effective way to get found online, but since search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing are the primary sources of traffic, SEO is even more important.

Before patients look for a provider, however, they search for information about their symptoms and even a presumed diagnosis. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 72 percent of online users say they have looked online for health information in the past year and 35 percent are “online diagnosers,” or people who have searched to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else may have. If you’re not creating content and providing valuable information for your prospective patients, they’ll land on a competitor’s site who is.

SEO is also important because it can help you turn up on the first page of search results, the most valuable since most people don’t look past the first page. In fact, according to a 2013 report by Chitika, sites listed on the first page of Google search results generate 92 percent of traffic from an average search.

How does SEO work?

SEO may seem like a marketing concept that’s way over your head, but it’s actually quite easy to understand.

SEO starts with Google’s algorithm, a mathematical formula used to rank every website and search query to determine where websites will appear in search results and which ones will appear on that coveted first page. The algorithm looks at three factors: quality, trust and authority.

1. Quality

You may have heard the phrase “content is king,” and it couldn’t be truer for an effective SEO strategy. Years ago, websites would fill their pages with keywords to rank higher but Google now penalizes sites for this practice of “keyword stuffing.”

Google ranks sites that create interesting, unique, compelling and shareable content. The content should be optimized for search engines, of course, but it must also be user- friendly and easy to read by people who find your site.

2. Authority

Google assigns higher rankings to those sites that are authoritative—meaning they’re well liked and have an engaged audience. Sites that have a fan base, or a community of people who love your content, share your content on social media and make referrals are those that rank well.

3. Trust

Google wants to show search results of sites that are seen as credible and trustworthy and one factor that plays a role are online reviews.

Approximately 72 percent of patients read online reviews first to find a doctor, according to a survey by Software Advice. Not only are these reviews important for your online reputation but Google ranks sites who have positive reviews higher and penalize those who have poor reviews.

Another way to be ranked as a trustworthy site is to have other reputable sites like news sites, industry trade outlets and well-ranking practices link to you.

How to select keywords and optimize your site

Using the right keywords to optimize your content is key to high Google rankings. You should have a list of keywords that you want to rank for which can include your location, specialty, and symptoms, health conditions and procedures people are searching for.

A tool like Google Adwords Keyword Planner can help you come up with new keyword ideas and give you insight on how certain keywords rank in your local area. Aim to use 5 or 10 keywords per page of content and make sure each page is optimized.

Long-tail keywords can also help improve your rankings because that’s how people search. So although “abnormal mole” may be a good start, you might use “pictures of abnormal moles,” or “what does skin cancer look like?”

Always include your location, i.e. “Dentist in New York City.” However, if you’re in a saturated market, keywords that rank high may be too competitive so you may have to start with less competitive keywords as you continue to optimize your site and your ranking improves.

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