Caveats for Marketing Your Medical Practice Online

January 15, 2015

Web-based marketing can hurt your practice's ability to attract and retain patients if it doesn't maintain a high standard.

You invested no small sum constructing a website to promote your practice. It's visually appealing, user-friendly, and literally teeming with keywords and original content, the so-called holy grail of search engine optimization (SEO). So why is your online traffic tapering off? Medical practices that market themselves through websites, blogs, and social media are fast discovering that the tools they use to attract and retain patients are increasingly less effective - and worse, may negatively impact their visibility. "Google's algorithms that determine where your [webpage] ranks on the results page are constantly changing, so what worked two years ago doesn't necessarily work today," says Wes Reuning, executive vice president and co-owner of SEO Advantage, an online marketing firm in Tampa, Fla. "It's a moving target."

A good example? When online marketing was new, businesses could bolster their search engine ranking by paying for hyperlinks (called backlinks) connecting other pages to their webpage. Many also exchanged links with other websites without regard to relevance, in a reckless attempt to drive traffic. But Google got wise. The tech giant has since deployed sophisticated algorithms to flag websites with low quality, "spammy" or irrelevant backlinks. "Not only are those links of zero value today, but companies are now being penalized for it," says Reuning. In extreme cases, Google and other search engines even blacklist websites they suspect of using abusive marketing tactics from showing up on their results page - a veritable death sentence for organic traffic.

As search engines become better adept at separating the wheat from the chaff in cyberspace, practices must ensure that their digital strategy steers clear of the cardinal sins of SEO, including keyword overload, bogus guest blogs, and press releases that lack merit. At the same time, they should seek to polish their Internet presence to be sure it doesn't alienate mobile users, or negatively impact branding through poor design and subpar social media missives. "You always have to keep the user experience in mind," says Austin Paley, corporate marketing manager for Blue Fountain Media in New York. All customers, he notes, including patients, push back against marketing disguised as content.

Apart from toxic links, for example, the keywords embedded on your home page can count against you if you artificially saturate your website in an attempt to influence your search engine ranking. Keywords, included in headlines and written text, offer a description of what your website is all about, like your specialty, service offerings, or office location. When patients type in those words, or some combination of them, your website pulls up among the search engine results. How high you rank depends on, among other things, the quality of the content you post and the caliber of the websites that link to your page. "There's still value in using keywords, but you have to be very strategic," says Paley. "If you want users to know that you're a family practice in New York City, don't throw the word "New York City" 16 times in a 400-word post. It's awkward and doesn't read well." Google screens for keyword density, but just as important, warns Paley, keyword stuffing detracts from your brand. "The average reader knows it's a bad post," says Paley. "If you're doing all this weird stuff online, what's that say about your practice?"

GUEST BLOGGING

Guest blogging, which occurs any time you create a post on a website other than your own in order to link back to your own site, can also land you in hot water with Google. "It's not so much about the quality of your blogs as it is about where they are posted," says Thomas Hofstetter, managing partner with online marketing firm Points Group in Morristown, N.J. Google monitors your link profile, or the list of hyperlinks that point to your website, he says. If that profile includes too many low-quality backlinks, you may get blocked. "With enough low-quality links pointing to your site, a search engine will assume that your site is low quality and not worth putting in their search results." Worse, they may suspect that you are paying to post those blogs or otherwise attempting to game the system.

Thin content is yet another no-no. Search engines previously gave equal weighting to a 400-word blog and an 800-word researched article. Not anymore. "Now you really have to be able to produce quality content, which is measured partly by volume," says Hofstetter. "When we blog, we try to write at least 750 words. And we've noticed a massive increase in organic traffic." The same is true of press releases. Google announced last year that press release sites that accept outside submissions, like PRWeb and PRurgent, are now required to code the links within using a "no-follow" tag, meaning you can include whatever links you like, but they won't count toward your ranking. So don't waste your time populating the Web with press releases containing no news value. No one would bother to link to them anyway.

SOCIAL MEDIA

It's not all about SEO, of course. Web-based marketing can also hurt your ability to attract and retain patients if you don't maintain a standard. Many practices, for example, forget to optimize their webpage design for mobile users. That's a huge mistake, says Paley. Hint? If your site is designed using Flash software, he says, your page won't load on mobile devices that do not support Flash. "You want to make sure your page renders correctly on all forms of mobile devices, including iPads, tablets, and smartphones," he says.

Likewise, practices that consider their social media presence a second priority are doing themselves a great disservice, says Nic Nevin, chief executive officer of ifXmedical in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. He advises practices to only post carefully crafted content that serves to educate or inform the user. "If you're not saying anything useful on social media, you probably shouldn't say anything at all," says Nevin.

In healthcare, he adds, the most successful social media pages are those operated or contributed to by physicians, giving them a platform to show the human side of their practice. "If you put the lowest person on your totem pole in charge of your social media, the chances that they're going to provide relevant content for your practice are pretty remote," says Nevin, noting the jury is still out on the degree to which social media impacts SEO. "The most important thing about social media is to change your mindset from marketing to communication and value."

WHAT DOES WORK?

So what does work on the digital marketing frontier? Inbound hyperlinks from relevant, industry-leading sites, like professional associations or local hospitals, which are freely granted based on editorial judgment, deliver significant SEO value, says Reuning. Reputable SEO service vendors can help develop those leads, but effective link building is costly and time consuming. Beware of any link builder who promises a certain number of high quality links per month, or No.1 search engine ranking, in the first few months, says Reuning.

High quality guest blogging can also establish your practice as a leading authority, regardless of whether it impacts SEO. So, too, can educational videos and patient testimonials, which help create a more robust user experience, says Nevin. "I don't think there is a stronger method than a carefully crafted video to create a close connection with a visitor and convert them to a patient," he says. "It's all about creating a culture of helpfulness. When you help people get answers to questions that trouble them deeply, as is often the case where healthcare is concerned, you build trust."

As for keywords, Paley says practices looking to optimize their search engine ranking should absolutely use them, but do so in a way that does not detract from the user experience. For best results, he says, include keywords in your page's title tag, in header tags (h1, h2, h3) when it makes sense in the context of the page, in the written copy of your home page, and in image alt tags. The keyword should not be used more than 12 times to 15 times, he says.

Google algorithms will continue to change, but the message for practices trying to market to patients online remains the same: put patients first and your brand image (and SEO) will reap the rewards. "If you continue to focus on ranking and traffic you're making a fundamental mistake," says Nevin. "You should be focusing on engagement and lead generation and ultimately conversion, which is the number of people who come to your site and become new patients. That's the only metric that really matters."

Shelly K. Schwartz, a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for more than 17 years. Her work has appeared on CNBC.com, CNNMoney.com, and Bankrate.com. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Physicians Practice.