Helping search engines find you more quickly
■ A practical look at information technology issues and usage
Patients looking for a new doctor used to turn to the Yellow Pages which, in its alphabetized way, gave an advantage to doctors whose names started with A.
Now, thanks to online search engines, Dr. Zimmerman has the same shot at being the first name listed as does Dr. Anderson -- unless Dr. Anderson has tapped the power of search engine optimization.
Search engine optimization uses some Internet tips and tricks to make sure your name comes up on top in a specific Web search -- say, for example, being the first allergist in Tulsa, Okla., to pop up if someone types "Tulsa allergist" into a Google search.
Numerous studies have found that few people look beyond the first page, or even below the first five or so listings of search results. Therefore it pays to be on top when launching any kind of Web presence.
There are several reasons physicians might want to use search engine optimization tactics, even if your practice is busy and you don't need to attract new patients. For starters, experts say, these techniques can help you gain control of what is found when people Google your name. Good placement in an online search also can help attract referring physicians.
Some practices pay big bucks to ensure their Web sites are at the top of search result lists through per-click bids on certain search terms. But there are ways to help get your site near the top of those search lists "organically," or free, based on the Web site name itself, the content of the site or even the number of links to your Web site from other spots on the Web.
The first thing you need to do is to figure out who you want to reach with your Web site, said Linda Pophal, owner and CEO of Strategic Communications, a Chippewa Falls, Wis.-based marketing firm. The intended audience might be other physicians, a specific kind of patient or even people looking for an expert in a particular area of medicine.
Once you have identified the audience, some brainstorming is required to figure out what terms people may use to describe you or your practice -- the more specific the better. For example, an internist practicing in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago would be hard-pressed to stand out in a search for "Chicago doctor," but a more specific "Lincoln Park internist" would help narrow the search.
Incorporating those terms into your Web site, or even better, incorporating them into the domain name -- LincolnParkInternist.com, for example -- will help ensure your Web site gets picked up in a search. Getting top placement, however, takes a little more expertise and a lot more Internet exposure than just your own Web site.
Kelly Cutler, co-founder and CEO of Chicago-based Marcel Media, said driving traffic to your Web site involves creating a presence at sites where there is already high traffic, such as social networking sites or blogs. The more places your Web site is referenced, the more "Google will respect you,"
Cutler was involved in a small-budget marketing campaign for NorthShore University HealthSystem (formerly Evanston Northwestern Healthcare) to help drive search engine traffic to the new name.
The campaign started with paid search listing (the links to the side or top of a Google search results page), which proved successful in getting people to the individual sites of the system's three hospitals. The next step was to use search engine optimization to segment the traffic to specific clinical areas and specific physician profile pages.
Cutler said a large part of the campaign was getting physicians to create a presence on Web sites outside of the hospital's, where they could blog or participate in online discussions or social networks as a way to add exposure to their own Web sites and, as a result, their practices.
Another way to add exposure may be through contracts with phone listing advertisers, some of which offer online advertising in addition to the traditional paper directories.
Tools such as Google Analytics can tell you how people found your Web site. For example, it can tell you how many came from another Web site or which search terms are most effective. The good news is these tools are free, but the bad news is using them is a continually evolving project that can be time consuming. You may need a third party to manage it for you.
"Most people can figure out analytics if they give it enough time and energy but most ... health care professionals do not have the time to dive into these types of projects and really understand how to effectively make decisions," Cutler said. "Because it's not just analyzing the data, it's making decisions based on the data."
Companies that specialize in search engine optimization charge monthly fees dependent on several factors, including how robust your Web site is. The only way to get the best price is to shop around.
But price isn't everything -- and one mistake can have lasting consequences.
The company that Dean Dornic, MD, an ophthalmic surgeon from Cary, N.C., hired got his Web site among the top five results for people searching for laser eye surgery in his area. A few months later, Dr. Dornic noticed a significant drop, not only in visits to his Web site but in patients to his practice.
He discovered that when the Web site was re-launched, some existing links from his old site were not carried over, and this negatively impacted the ability for Google to place his site up high in searches. Within two months his listing had dropped from the top five to the fourth page -- beyond where most patients were willing to go.