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Healthcare & SEO: Best Practices for 2021

Digital | Marketing | Digital Access

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With patients acting more and more like consumers of healthcare, it is increasingly important for healthcare organizations to appear in the place they look for care information. For many, that journey to finding a new provider or selecting a service starts online. However, with competitors–from other health systems and market disruptors, like Amazon, CVS, and Walgreens–also vying for their attention, competing effectively will require a robust digital strategy. To make sure you attract, engage, and convert patients online, consider these three areas:

  • Find: What channels will you be using to drive patients to your website (e.g., SEO, social media, display advertising, etc.)?
  • Engage: How can you optimize the content and navigation of your website to ensure that patients can easily find what they are looking for?
  • Convert: How can you make sure that patients perform the call-to-action that you had in mind?
In this blog, I will focus on a key piece of the “Find” component of your plan, SEO.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It is the practice of optimizing a website to increase its rankings in organic search. By ranking high in Google search, you increase your online visibility and get more organic traffic to your website.

Why does SEO matter?

Organic search is a core part of today’s buyer’s journey and the patient journey is no different: they look for and “buy” care online. According to our annual consumer research, 57% of online consumers turn to search engines, like Google, when looking for a new provider and ⅓ actually start there. Because Google is aware of this trend and the potential consequences of misinformation, the search engine expects sites in the medical and health fields to produce high quality content that demonstrates especially high levels of “expertise, authority, and trustworthiness” (E-A-T).

Screen Shot 2021-06-03 at 9.42.33 AMSource: 2020 Patient Access Journey Report

How does SEO work?

SEO always starts with keywords. Before you optimize a website, you need to have keywords in mind that you want your website to rank for. Of course, these keywords should be relevant to your business but more importantly, relevant to your patients–for instance, think “urgent care near me.” The process of searching for keywords is called keyword research.

Google has more than 200 publicly-known ranking factors that it uses to assess websites. SEO involves implementing and optimizing these factors with your target keywords. Out of the 200 ranking factors being used by Google, those that are considered to be the most important are content, mobile-friendliness, on-page SEO, search intent and links.

  1. Search intent: Search intent is what a user is looking for when conducting a search (e.g., PCP near Boston). There are different types of search intent; informational, commercial, transactional, and navigational. Each keyword has a specific search intent that you need to satisfy if you want to rank for it. Search intent is one of the most important ranking factors in today’s SEO and it should be your focus when writing content. 
  2. Content: The key difference when writing SEO-friendly content and other forms of content is you are writing articles with a specific keyword in mind and the goal is to rank for that keyword in Google, yet do so without sacrificing the integrity of that article. The key here is to map your content to the patient’s journey. A great example of this is incorporating specific keywords into your service line webpages, which adds relevance and context so patients can find the right provider and appointment.
  3. Mobile Friendliness: Mobile responsiveness, or ensuring that your website responds to and is optimized across different devices, is key to delivering a seamless patient experience. It not only contributes to the overall user experience but it is also a key factor in how well your website ranks, making it crucial for enhancing SEO. Additionally, more and more we see consumers accessing information through mobile devices–our data shows that over half of patients access websites through a mobile device.
  4. On-page SEO: On-page SEO is the optimization of SEO factors that are found within the website. These factors include title tags, meta descriptions, headings, keyword density, image alt text, keyword proximity, structured data, and more. On-page SEO is important because it helps search engines understand your website and its content, as well as identify whether it is relevant to a searcher's query. As search engines become more sophisticated, there is a greater focus toward relevance and semantics in search engine results pages (SERPs).
  5. Links: Off-page SEO or link building is the practice of acquiring links from other websites, better known as backlinks. Links are one of the top ranking factors in Google’s algorithm. PageRank is the algorithm used by Google to assess the importance of websites based on the quantity and quality of links that they get from other websites. Based on the PageRank algorithm, websites that have more quality backlinks will rank higher than websites that have less. For example, adding links or citations from expert sources, like professional societies and other healthcare sites, can add legitimacy to your health system’s website and in turn, cause you to rank more highly.
By investing in these areas, you will start ranking higher in search and attracting more people to your site. In fact, 90% of all organic traffic to your website comes from page 1 in a Search Engine Results Page (SERP), which is why this is such an important part of your digital strategy.

How can healthcare marketers succeed with SEO in 2021?

As many Digital Marketers will tell you: SEO is both an art AND a science, so opinions on what are “best practices” are far and wide and can at times even be misleading. However, in my career working as a healthcare marketer, these are the commonly known best practices that I have encountered and recommend to our health system customers.

  • SEO is not the main strategy but a key tactic within your overall digital marketing program. Consumers access information about your providers and services in a variety of ways. To keep pace with their preferences, use search data and analytics to understand who they are, their needs, and their journey to selecting care. This will help you hone your strategy and prioritize which tactics to pursue.
  • The Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) aspect is still defined by Google as a ranking factor. E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trust. These are three criteria being used by Google’s quality raters, who manually check websites and evaluate them. Although Google said that E-A-T is not technically a ranking factor, it is still best to follow the best practices for it because it involves improving the overall quality of a website.
  • Local SEO / Google My Business is becoming more important to get hits from local audiences. In fact, when looking for a provider in Google, 66% of online consumers search using phrases like “doctor near me” or “near town/city” and nearly 40% click the provider profile pane directly within the results. The use of structured data can help you deliver rich results, such as knowledge panels, for users on SERPs.
  • Core Web Vitals. More than half of your traffic comes from consumers who are using a mobile device and are “on-the-go”, away from high speed wifi. This means that web speed has become critically important. Core Web Vitals are a set of user-facing metrics related to speed, responsiveness, and visual stability to help site owners measure user experience on the web. To measure these essential aspects of user experience, Google chose three corresponding metrics–aka the Core Web Vitals: 

google web vitalsSource: Search Engine Journel

    • LCP, or Largest Contentful Paint: This measures how long it takes for the largest piece of content to appear on the screen. This could be an image or a block of text. A good grade gives users the feeling that the site loads fast. A slow site can lead to frustration.
    • FID, or First Input Delay: This measures how long it takes for the site to react to the first interaction. This could be a tap on a button, for instance. A good grade here gives the user a sense that a site is quick to react to input and, therefore, responsive. Slow, again, leads to frustration.
    • CLS, or Cumulative Layout Shift: This measures the visual stability of your site. In other words, does stuff move around on the screen while it is loading and how often does that happen? Nothing is more frustrating than trying to click a button when a slow-loading ad appears in that spot.

Starting in June 2021, Google will update its algorithms to incorporate Core Web Vitals as a new ranking factor.

However, attracting consumers and retaining their business isn’t just about your digital strategy or your marketing team. Ensuring better access and delivering the experiences consumers are looking for is a team sport and it takes an enterprise-wide business mindset (i.e., involve your clinical team, IT leaders, etc.). Additionally, prioritize metrics to better understand your patients’ needs, as well as optimize your strategy, and use these insights to bring the voice of the customer to the leadership table and guide strategic discussions. Together, these will help you move the needle on SEO and digital access in 2021.