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The role of search engines in patient acquisition - the Practice Growth Podcast

Discover what information search engines look for when determining which doctor websites to return at the top of search results.

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The Practice Growth Podcast is an educational resource for doctors, dentists, and other healthcare providers about how to market and manage a thriving healthcare practice.

In Episode 2, host Jessica Neyer is joined by Joel Headley, PatientPop director of local SEO and marketing. The pair discusses the kinds of information search engines like Google look for when determining which websites to return at the top of search results. Click below to listen.

Find new episodes of The Practice Growth Podcast every other week on the PatientPop blog, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Jessica Neyer: Picture this: It’s late night and you’ve just landed at the airport. You get in your car and turn your attention to the dashboard only to realize everything is blurry. This happened to me just last week.

Spoiler: I made it home OK, but I knew I need to see an eye doctor as soon as possible. I didn’t have one, so I searched [eye exam sherman oaks], which is my neighborhood. Google returned hundreds of thousands of results in just a few seconds. I poked around the first few websites and then I made an appointment. The whole process took about 15 minutes flat.

How did Google understand what I was looking for? And how did those first few websites land at the top of search results? That’s the topic of today’s podcast.

Hello and welcome to The Practice Growth Podcast, the doctor’s resource for marketing and managing a thriving healthcare practice. I’m Jessica Neyer.

Search engines play a major role in our everyday lives and yet most of us, myself included, only have a vague understanding of how they work. Luckily for you and me, I have someone in studio who knows a lot about search engines and how they influence patient acquisition. His name is Joel Headley, and he is the director of local SEO and marketing here at PatientPop. Joel, thanks so much for joining me.

Joel Headley: Thanks, Jess. Great to be here.

Jessica: If you had to define it, what exactly is SEO?

Joel: SEO is really talking machine, right? Google is essentially a robot. It doesn’t have a form, but it goes out and uses these things called spiders and crawls the web. That robot then ingests your website — or ingests information about your business — and then combines it all together and decides what to show other people that are searching. That robot actually has a few rules of its own. It understands things better than others and understands them in a certain very hierarchical way, so you need to structure your website and your business so that Google, that robot, understands what your business is all about.

Jessica: Interesting. That’s why the doctor showed up for me when I went to do a Google search, is people obviously structured their website accordingly. How do you structure your website so you make sure you’re found?

Joel: Well, I think, there are lots of bits to this. I’m not sure I can go into everything. But, there are pieces of your website: Each page has a title, each page has a description, and each page has content on it. That content usually has a headline, maybe a couple subtitles or subheaders. Making sure that, again, you have to talk to the robot piece, or the code, and say, this is what the title is.

In your title, you want to describe information about who you are, where you do things, and what you do, right? So, you get your brand information in there, you get your services in there, and you get your location in there. That gives Google a really good idea what you’re all about, or what that page is about, and ultimately what you’re about.

Jessica: I know I’m, like most people, going online to find a doctor. But, not everyone is like me, going online first. Is it really important that a doctor handles their web presence, or you know, how are they found today?

Joel: I think this is something we get from providers, “Hey, most of my patients are coming from recommendations from their family, friends or even other doctors.” We really wanted to understand this problem and figure out, is it worth their investment and time and money to put up a website, to make sure their online reputation looks stellar? What we found is that people that get recommendations from friends and family, all of them, all of them go online and check the online reviews anyway.

Jessica: Interesting.

Joel: They’re all going to read their websites. They’re looking at some source online to figure out if this doctor is the right doctor for me. So Jess, even if you told me, “Hey, I had this great experience with my optometrist.” I’m still probably gonna go, “Hmm, I’m gonna check this guy out.” Right? And even for those doctors that get a lot of patients through other trusted providers, even those people, 44 percent of them are still checking an online source to decide if they wanna go to that doctor.

Even if my family’s pediatrician, who’s been working with my kids for over a decade, even more than that, I don’t wanna say how old my kids are. But, even if he said, “This is the person that you need to go see for surgery.” About half the time I’m going to still look that person up and figure out what’s the feedback look like about this person online. What’s this person’s website look like? Is it professional? Does he put his or her best foot forward?

There are lots of reasons beyond simply new patient acquisition for people that are searching brand new without any context to have a great presence online.

Jessica: So when I did a search, and I’m sure a lot of patients are like me, and the doctor showed up, there were plenty that didn’t show up then that still had websites. Is that because they don’t put things in the right place on their website that they’re not showing up or what is it?

Joel: It depends. That could be one of the reasons. Another thing that’s happening is that Google more and more knows where the customer is at and how they react to that business.

One of the things that Google collects is customer reviews. You can go to Google and you see a star rating, whether that’s 4.2 or 2.5, all that information Google uses to rank your business or your local listing in Google, so they get information from other locations.

Another place they get information is from other mentions about your business across the web, whether that’s a link on somebody else’s website or a profile page on some other publisher like Yelp for example or Facebook.

All those feed this great robot that is Google and gives it information that you’re not necessarily providing directly, but other people are giving it an idea of how important your business is and why it should show up first.

Jessica: You keep mentioning Google. Is any other search engine important, or really is it down to Google these days?

Joel: There are lots of other search engines out there. I think most people are comfortable using Google. I mean, we say “Google it” now, right?

Jessica: Yeah.

Joel: Nobody really ever said, “Yahoo it.” But there is “Bing and decide,” so if you’re the Bing type of person, that’s certainly a search engine out there. Some of the search engines we don’t think about very much, though, are still used quite a bit. Think about Siri. Siri is not a great search engine.

Jessica: It’s terrible. Never gets it right.

Joel: Well, and I say that only because I don’t think they’re trying to be a great search engine. They’re trying to do something a little bit different, but people are using it as a search engine. Another example might be Amazon’s Alexa which is, again, it’s another search engine. It’s not quite built, it’s focus is to buy goods, right?

Jessica: Right.

Joel: Not necessarily services like you were looking for your eye doctor. There are search engines that, it’s probably a really great product search engine, for example, but maybe doesn’t serve all your needs in a search engine. Google is probably the one search engine that’s, and I think the reason why it’s so popular, been able to get so many different verticals into a single search experience.

Jessica: I agree. So, I’m going to Google, but do you think that the doctors are missing out if they don’t make sure their website also speaks to Yahoo, Bing, and all the others?

Joel: Well, there’s something we say in search and any marketing: You need to go where your customers are. If people are searching on Apple maps, you should make sure that your information is correct on Apple maps, right? A lot of people have iPhones, right? A lot of people for some reason don’t download Google maps. I worked on Google maps, so I like to, I think everybody should download it. But you know, some people use Apple Maps, right?

You have to realize, get some analytics, understand where your customers are coming from. I mean you can just talk to them too. “How did you find me? Did someone tell you about me?” And, “Oh yeah, it was another doctor,” or, “Through my insurance provider.” You can imagine another search engine, especially for healthcare, are you listed on the places that insurance says, “Here you should try this doctor because they’re within our network.”

Jessica: Interesting.

Joel: So those are other opportunities and other kinds of search experiences that you need to be aware of to be able to take advantage of additional new patient opportunities.

Jessica: It sounds like there’s a lot of different places that doctors should make sure they’re located, but they don’t necessarily have the time to handle their websites to make sure they’re found online. Are there services they can use or what does that look like for them?

Joel: Well, I think you know.

Jessica: I do.

Joel: We both work for PatientPop, which is a practice growth platform. On the face of it, it looks like maybe we provide a website. But really, we work hard to make sure that we integrate with your patient record system, so we understand who your patients are and how to get feedback from them so that you know how to improve your business.

We integrate with that system so that you get good calendaring and booking in appointments. And then we do something that we trigger online profile updates throughout the web. We make sure that your presence looks good to any given person that’s searching, whether it’s on Google, or through Apple Maps, or through Yelp, right? So we deliver this platform that really expands across the web to make sure your presence is updated.

Jessica: How long would it take a doctor, let’s say they don’t use a service like ours, and they just want to update their online presence on their own. Would it take a doctor a long time to do that?

Joel: I think, not only would it take some time for a doctor to do it, but I think a doctor’s time is much more valuable than taking time to learn to do that. We have experts that have been doing this over and over again for different profiles and they know all the little quirks. I mean, they spend a lot of time, sometimes on phone support lines with Google or other sites, to make sure things are updated properly. They know all these little tricks to make sure things get updated.

I think, for example, we had a doctor call us the other day. Google provides these links in your local listing called Services. This link happened to go to a third party; it’s called SinglePlatform. They typically do menus for restaurants, but it was also providing this link for a psychologist and nobody could figure out how to update it. This provider was pretty upset, “How can Google do this to me and just paste this link in?” And there was a little quirk that we knew and took advantage of and we were able to update the URL relatively quickly.

But, it’s just one of those things that, you know, I’ve seen bills from doctors’ offices. They don’t want to spend that kind of money learning a whole new line of work, I think.

Jessica: I’m sure, they have their MD in one thing, they don’t need an MD in another.

Joel: Exactly.

Jessica: Joel, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it and I understand this whole SEO and Google thing so much more now.

Joel: I’m happy to be here and I hope that eye doctor thing works out.

Jessica: Well, I’m wearing glasses, so it worked out.

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