Practice growth playbook: How to master local search marketing and get found online

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If you own an independent healthcare practice, you already know success is nearly impossible if prospective patients can’t find you online. With 71 percent of people using the internet as their first stop when looking for a provider,1 the old rules of how to market your practice — advertising in the phone book, local mailer inserts — no longer apply. This shift may sound intimidating but, in reality, it works to your advantage.

Here’s why: Traditional marketing stops a prospective customer in their tracks when they don’t expect it. TV commercials and even those mailer inserts are literally interrupting a person’s activity. Not the best environment to make a good first impression.

In the new online dynamic, prospective patients are taking time to search for you. You’re no longer the conventional proactive advertiser; now, you’re responding. You’re not interrupting patients; you’re satisfying their inquiries and curiosity.

Patients are making those inquiries the same way we’re all finding information — via search engines. The ubiquitous nature of online search is what makes local search marketing an essential aspect of doing business and a great way to promote your practice, providers, and services. Interested patients are looking for you. Playing well with search engines is how you get found.

Whether you’re about to open your own small practice or want to grow an already-established medical group, the Ultimate Playbook is for you. It’s your guide to optimizing your entire online presence so you'll boost your visibility in local search, and gain more attention from people seeking care online and looking for outstanding healthcare providers.

Here, we preview the first chapter of the playbook: Introduction to local search. Read on for need-to-know local search vocabulary, information on how Google ranks local search results, and more.

Local search 101

Patients don’t want to travel far for care. With local search, search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo respond to that demand, enabling people to submit searches within a geographic area, against a database of local practice listings.

When patients search for information (known as a “query”), they typically include what they’re searching for (like “dermatologist,” “knee surgery,” or a health category), sometimes with details such as a street address and city name.

With local searches, search engines usually return results that are organic, meaning they offer a natural, relevant response to the search terms. In addition, search engines and directories display ads from medical practices that want to be featured when prospective patients look for specific services in specific areas.

Important local search terminology


  • Local search – Any online search aimed at finding something within a specific geographic area. The activity of seeking information online for a local offline transaction, such as a visit to a store, restaurant, or doctor’s office.
  • Explicit local search – A search query in which a person includes a specific location such as [knee surgery Chicago] or [ophthalmologist 02215].
  • Branded search – A type of search query where the searcher knows exactly who she is looking for [Smith Dentistry] but wants to know where they are or needs their phone number.
  • Discovery search – A type of search query where the searcher knows only what she wants [pain-free cavity filling in Springfield, Massachusetts].

How search results are ranked

Major search engines have complicated, ever-changing algorithms that determine where and how local practices (and any local businesses) rank in local search results. There is a series of factors, however, that have shown a correlation with how a practice can appear in local search.

Consider taking on these activities to help boost your search rankings:

  1. Proper categorization of your business and information about your practice in various online business directories. This should always include your practice name, address, and phone number (known as “NAP”).
  2. Having a website with more content and more relevant keywords than other practice sites
  3. Earning mentions of your practice on other relevant websites, like those from medical associations
  4. Having a Google My Business listing that’s verified and includes patient reviews and photos of your practice and providers

For a good ranking, you must ensure your practice name, address, phone number, website, business description, and business hours appear on local search engines. To achieve this, you should claim your business listings through the local online business centers on Google, Bing, Yelp, Facebook, Healthgrades, and Vitals (essential sources to start), and then make sure the information listed above is accurate and consistent.

How Google manages and displays local search

A search engine exists solely to return the most relevant results for every query.

Google — which accounts for about 90 percent of the global search market as of October 20182 — continually works to interpret local intent and deliver local search results to its users.

When local intent is determined, those results might be delivered in one of several ways.

Knowledge panel

If Google is sure that one result is better and more relevant for the searcher than all others, it will display it in a “knowledge panel” located at the top of a mobile display or to the right of the search results when viewing on desktop. The knowledge panel can often take information from a Google My Business profile if the business has claimed and created one.

Three pack

If Google is fairly sure the searcher is looking for a local business but isn’t positive which is most relevant, it will display a few local results at the top of the listings with phone numbers and links to more information within Google Maps. This “three pack” can appear at the top or middle of a search results page.

Local finder

If a user clicks “More places” at the bottom of a three pack, Google will display a “local finder,” as the searcher has made it clear they’re looking for businesses in a specific location and would like to see more options. The local finder displays the same information as a three pack of local results with each location pinpointed within Google Maps.

People searching online with Google can also do so directly within Google Maps. In that case, Google Maps displays local business results and a map with a location for each business.

Standard Google SERPs

The most obvious way Google displays local search results is within the naturally ranked organic results. Those practices whose websites are best optimized for a local search query (often what experts mean when referring to strong search engine optimization, or SEO) will rank above their competition on organic search engine results pages (SERPs). The higher your practice ranks, the far greater likelihood a patient will click on your links and see what your practice and providers have to offer.

Other places patients search for local practices online

Despite Google’s massive market share and their variety of search result locations and styles, it is not the only website patients will use to search for providers.

Not all searches take place within a search engine.

Some searchers — 16 percent — go directly to a local business directory or third-party healthcare website to search for a provider.3

Care-specific sites such as Vitals, Healthgrades, and RateMDs offer search for an entire database of providers, and list physician information such as a short bio, educational background, practice name and details, and a patient review summary. Most insurance companies offer a similar experience for their members via a portal website that includes much of the same search opportunity. Patients might also opt for general websites that have established themselves as leading destinations for consumer reviews and feedback, including Yelp and Facebook.

Clearly, there is a multitude of options for today’s trend of “healthcare shopping,” and this amplifies the need for every practice to ensure they appear on every relevant site with clear, accurate information and enough details for prospective patients to understand why they should choose them.

Local search is many things without being exactly anything. Mastering this moving target is all about knowing how to respond to what people search for, how and where they search for it, and how the results are displayed.

Now that you know these basics, you can begin to build — or optimize — your practice’s online presence to boost visibility in local search and gain more attention from people seeking care online. For step-by-step information on how to do this, use the form on this page to download a full copy of “Practice growth playbook: How to master local search marketing and get found online.”

Download the free whitepaper

By submitting my email address above, I acknowledge that PatientPop may use my information as described in its Privacy Policy.

Practice growth playbook: How to master local search marketing and get found online