The medical industry is not the glamorous lifestyle those outside the profession believe it to be.
With greater competition, shrinking margins, increased difficulties getting paid out by insurance companies, and now the ensuing chaos of ICD-10, healthcare professionals everywhere are turning to the online world to further their business pursuits.
Let’s pause for a second: it’s actually quite unfortunate that providers, whose primary focus and goal is, and should be, patient wellbeing, have to “resort” to alternative means to be able to uphold their pledges to society.
On the other hand, this is the reality of the world we live in, and we can either accept it or be in denial.
The Search Engines hold the key to your success
In the business world, SEO can make the difference between success and failure —Kevin Pho, MD
This is the case because healthcare often fills a sudden need – patients become sick, or injured, and only then “need” treatment.
If Apple releases a new iPhone, consumers with perfectly functional phones will line up to upgrade.
We buy new clothing despite owning perfectly wearable clothing in our wardrobes.
These items fit the category of discretionary purchases: most of the time, there is not a life-or-death “need” to buy those items.
Medical care falls into the opposite category.
If the roof of your house was retiled a year ago, and it was in perfectly functioning order, you would ignore any advertisement for roof repair.
It would be similarly wasteful to have a plumber look through your pipes if there were no leaks to fix.
If you are currently in New York City, no amount of advertising will make you purchase a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle departing in sixty minutes.
You only make those types of purchases when you need them.
Healthcare is identical.
When a patient gets sick, that person seeks out a doctor.
If an athlete is injured and in need of surgery, only then will she begin the process of selecting the best surgeon for her needs.
What happens when an individual needs to see a medical professional? He seeks out a solution. He doesn’t sit on Facebook waiting for an advertisement from a local practice to appear; he doesn’t open his inbox and wait for a clairvoyant email to arrive.
Patients seek out healthcare professionals by searching.
What does that mean for your practice as it attempts to acquire new patients online?
That means that we will always need to appear on those search engines in order to be discovered.
If your practice does not appear on this results page, it will not be found.
A prospective patient will select from one of the results that do appear.
Let’s take a closer look at what search engines we are discussing:
Google and Bing are responsible for over 85% of searches online, so we can safely analyze those two and account for the majority of online searches.
One statistic that is not included in this table is mobile search. As of this writing, Google alone is responsible for over 85% of all mobile searches.
Now, let’s examine what the physical results page looks like for a given search term (marketers obsessed with nomenclature would refer to this page as a SERP (search engine results page)). In this example, we’ll use the search query “doctor phoenix.”
Notice we are using the general term “doctor phoenix,” and not the specific MD or practice name. Remember, a prospective patient is in the discovery phrase. That user does not know what the options are for her treatment, and she is actively seeking to find them.
If the patient was referred a specific provider by a friend or an insurance company, the search would initially look different. However, 60% of the time that patient will still perform a generic search in order to compare options.
As you see, there are two distinct types of information on the search results page: paid advertising and organic search results.
That’s it – that’s the dirty secret.
Due to the nature of the healthcare business – the fact that usually only when care is needed is it sought out (meaning social media advertising won’t work, and social media profiles will be seen only secondarily) – the patient will wind up on a search engine.
Let’s examine both options:
A varying amount of paid results display based on the specific search term used. In Ringtown, PA, population 800, there are few medical practices and therefore almost no advertisers for the term “doctor ringtown.” Of course, there aren’t many opportunities to acquire patients, either.
Conversely, in a major city, there will be massive amounts of competition, and there will be many more paid advertisements.
There are positives and negatives to paid advertising. Let’s examine them in more detail:
The Good News about Paid Advertising:
- Positive: the results are immediate.
If your practice wanted to begin advertising today, you would be able to do so. You have the ability to set up an account on Google Adwords and start advertising immediately.
Alright… the good news was pretty short lived.
The Bad News About Paid Advertising
- Negative: it’s pretty costly for the medical industry
The average cost per click in Google Adwords is between $1-2. However, more expensive keywords can cost up to $50 per click.
The average small business spends between $9,000 and $10,000 per month on Google paid search campaigns. That’s over $100,000 per year.
- Negative: if you’ve never advertised on Adwords before, your account is considered “new” and your ads cost more.
If your practice has never advertised on Google, it will cost you more to serve your advertisements to users. Google’s thought process here makes sense: Google’s ultimate goal is to deliver value to its searchers (to give users the answers to the questions they are asking).
If you are an unproven advertiser, Google is unsure whether you will also be able to deliver that value. Therefore, proven ad accounts, with a history of delivering value, get to serve their advertisements for less.
- Negative: ad blockers stop viewers from seeing your ads.
According to PageFair, over 236 million users will use Ad Blockers by the end of this year. If paid advertising is the only way a potential user can see your practice via a search engine, 236 million users will not see your practice from this reason along.
Traditionally, ad blockers have been used exclusively on desktop, implying that ads on mobile would still be served effectively. However, Ad Block Plus, an ad blocker with over 50 million users, recently launched its own browser for Android. Similarly, Apple announced that the Safari on iOS9 will come with an ad blocker preinstalled.
These changes do not bode well for paid advertisements
- Negative: you can simply be outbid and your ads will not be shown
Let’s say you are a smaller practice advertising on Google as an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine.
There is a competing large practice who too offers knee surgery, but they also offer sports rehabilitation. A patient who goes to your practice will receive the surgery and then see a physical therapist separately.
That larger practice, however, will keep the rehab revenue in house because the patient will also attend the physical therapist. Since that patient creates more revenue for the larger practice, they can afford to bid more to acquire a patient. Since paid advertising on search engines displays visibility based off of the highest bid, a competitor has the ability to outbid you and bury your advertisements.
- Negative: they are advertisements!
Above all else, paying for advertisements means that users know you are paying to be displayed. That’s why users click on organic results on Google and Bing 94% of the time.
While this list seems like a death sentence to paid advertising on search engines, consider the following:
- Practices are making money on these ads, otherwise they would not continue to run ads month after month.
- One way or another, your practice needs to be visible to a prospective patient. If you cannot enter the search engine results page organically, you’ll likely need to pay to play.
Organic Search Results
Getting to the top of the search results page organically happens through a process called search engine optimization (or SEO).
Because of all the factors previously discussed, it is generally preferable for a practice to achieve high rankings through organic means.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and there are both positive and negatives elements to efforts to organically increase rankings.
The Good News about Search Engine Optimization
- Positive: rankings tend to remain for a long time (months or even years)
Any successful initiatives from SEO tend to stick for a while. This is great for practices, who can employ agencies to deliver results and then benefit in the future without needing to pay for further enhancement.
This also means that it is more difficult for a future competitor to overtake your rankings.
- Positive: users trust the authority of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo
Prospective patients trust these giant search engines whose sole purpose is to delivery quality results to their users. Years and years of fulfilling this promise have proven this point – we search on search engines because we trust their authority more than we trust our own body of knowledge.
As stated before, 94% of clicks from a search engine results page are to organic listings. That level of trust speaks for itself.
- Positive: organic results are not advertisements and are welcomed by users
It was previously mentioned that over 250 million people will use ad blockers by the end of the year. Clearly, organic search results are not advertisements, and thus cannot be blocked by Apple or any other company.
As users are exposed to more and more ads across various platforms and social media networks, they will continue to become more frustrated. They will look for “safe havens,” and the organic listings on a search engine results page will always be considered a safe haven.
- Positive: SEO campaigns extend beyond a single search engine platform
While Google, Bing, and Yahoo have different search results, they all have similar search results. Any efforts that result in higher rankings on one of the search engines will automatically result in higher rankings on the other main engines.
In order to advertise on Google, Bing, and Yahoo, you would need to manage a Google Adwords campaign, a Bing Ads campaign, and a Yahoo Gemini campaign simultaneously.
The Bad News about Search Engine Optimization
- Negative: results are not immediate.
Contrary to paid advertising, if you want to show up first in Google tomorrow, you cannot. Generally, results take a minimum of 2-3 months. On the flip side, rankings achieved via SEO have greater staying power.
A competitor cannot snap their fingers and decide to outrank you.
- Negative: the typical practice or hospital is not capable of performing quality SEO on its own
The lack of ability to improve your practice despite wanting to is frustrating. However, there is simply no way that a medical professional or admin can compete with an effective SEO agency.
The SEO agency is much more specialized and will be spending its entire day performing research, testing hypotheses, and keeping up with the copious amounts of changes to the search algorithms Google, Bing, and Yahoo make.
Google alone makes between 500-600 changes to its algorithm in a given year.
- Negative: lots of agencies offering SEO are not capable of performing high quality SEO, either.
This point is especially disappointing for healthcare professionals trying to improve their practice.
It is easy to accept that in-house SEO won’t be an option because the person performing SEO does not dedicate his or her day to achieving those rankings.
However, it is bothersome to learn that many agencies are not capable of performing quality SEO campaigns either.
SEO is a very complex endeavor requiring consistent changes and adaptations to an incredibly complex algorithm that is constantly being updated.
In other words, it is very difficult for non-technically minded individuals to comprehend. Therefore, there is a bit of “magic” to results that are achieved. Healthcare practices won’t be entirely sure what happened that caused rises in ranking to occur – you will simply be able to see that your practice appears higher in the search results pages.
Similarly, SEO companies generally do not share the specifics of their strategies publicly, or even with clients. If everyone knew those strategies, everyone would employ those strategies, causing Google to take notice and make changes to their algorithms.
Google has a history of making significant changes to their algorithm that render previously effective strategies worthless.
Because of the “magic” inherent in SEO, combined with the non-immediate nature of results, often times practices only find out that SEO initiatives did not work “after the fact.”
This potential flaw can be remedied by offering guarantees of service. Good SEO companies are confident in their product, and know that they will deliver results. You should not engage an SEO company without an agreement of minimum results necessary to indicate progress.
This potential flaw can be remedied by working closely with effective agencies.
In a best-case scenario, an agency will offer some sort of a guarantee with the work provided. You should not engage a SEO company without an understanding of the expected results needed to indicate progress on your campaign.
Conclusion – What Can You Do?
You’ve learned that the core of online healthcare provider discovery comes from search engines.
Unfortunately, there are many negatives associated with paid advertising.
On the other hand, search engine optimization provides a legitimate way to make significant increases in revenue to your practice; but it is nearly impossible to effectively perform in-house.
If your practice is serious about competing online, you will need to hire a firm to perform search engine optimization.
SearchTides might be the perfect fit for you. We work with providers who:
- Provide ethical services to patients and genuinely care about patient well-being
- Have reliably consistent or demonstrably growing monthly revenues
- Are not geographically located in the same area as a current client (SearchTides will not take on work that will compete directly with preexisting clients)
This article is part of The Definitive Guide for Healthcare Practices: Thriving Online series. The Definitive Guide is over 13,000 words and is completely free to access. The guide walks through every critical topic your practice should be considering: from online branding, to social media, and precise patient acquisition strategies.
The Definitive Guide for Healthcare Practices: Thriving Online
Analyzing Your Practice (Recommended Reading First)
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[Competition Analysis] How to: Uncover These Hidden Competitive Advantages: Do you know which of your competing practices are online? What are their strategies? What specific tactics should your practice use to outperform the unique strategies your competitors are using? This guide shows you exactly how to use the internet to uncover what works and what does not work — and then reveals how to put your practice at the front of the line.
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