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Search Engine Optimization Strategies for Doctors Tired of Being the "Invisible Man" (or Woman) Online

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

seo marketing wordsEditor’s note: This article covers secrets about Search Engine Optimization. It is another in our series about how to get found on the Internet.

We have a personal question for you.

Have you ever "Googled yourself?"

More to the point, when patients from your town search online for the services that you provide, does your practice website make the Google short list?

Sadly, if you are like most practitioners, your own patients would probably have a hard time finding your practice website online, even if they were to search for you by name.

And since most searchers never get beyond the "top 10" search results (in fact many never get past the first one or two listings), a poor search engine showing means you are missing out on over 80% of patients who search online.
In many cases, that translates into a lot of lost patients – and revenue – forever.

In our last article we covered pay-per-click advertising, which is ideal for doctors who want to ensure that they can be found on major search engines, right away.

In this article, we will cover Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which is ideal for practitioners who want to eventually get found online in the organic section (true search results), for free.

Also known as "pray-for-click" marketing, SEO is a mysterious "black box" for many people.

Many SEO vendors would either have you believe that SEO is far too complicated for a poor amateur like you to understand, or, that they have some special "tricks" that they will use to fool the search engines into ranking you highly.

Both assertions are not only dead wrong, but they are actually dangerous.

It turns out that all the major search engines have teams of brilliant PhDs who do nothing else but create search algorithms in order to rank results. They have seen every trick in the book, and they sometimes will "blacklist" websites which are attempting to game the "fairness" of their results.

"But do local patients even search online for my profession or specialty?"

While in the early days of the Internet doctors typically overestimated the number of searchers online, today we notice that most doctors underestimate the number of potential patients they could reach through their Web searches.

Even doctors who practice in rural, blue collar areas can get excellent patients from the Web these days. While naturally the percentage of patients searching the Internet is lower for rural areas than in urban centers, doctors in blue collar areas notice their highest income, most educated patients do, in fact, find them on the Web.

Moreover, the higher risk, serious, scary and/or expensive treatments are particularly likely to be searched. (E.g., patients considering surgery are more likely to search online than those who are considering upgrading the style of their eyeglasses.)

Finally, patients often use the web as a way of doing due diligence. So even if their PCP referred them to you, they still may want to "check you out" before coming in for an appointment.

Keywords are everything

The first thing you need to do is think like a patient and come up with a list of keywords that he or she would choose.

For example, a prospective dental patient in San Diego might look up "San Diego dentist," "San Diego dental implant," "San Diego tooth whitening" and/or "San Diego cosmetic dentistry."

In fact, last month on the Yahoo network, San Diegans actually did search those exact keyword phrases, respectively 6,103 times for "dentist," 872 for "dental implants," 4,866 times for "tooth whitening" and 1,044 times for "cosmetic dentistry."

For the first phase of your SEO, we recommend you make your website "search engine friendly"

One of the dirty little secrets of the Web is the fact that 95% of web designers are absolutely clueless about how to create your website so that search engines can easily "spider" and catalog your website. As a result, most private practitioner websites are dead on arrival when they are launched, at least in terms of search engines.

In fact, if your website has been online for over a year and is still invisible, chances are your web designer has failed you.


Oftentimes it is because web designers are artists who spend all their time thinking about the visual world. They typically love technical gizmos that make websites look pretty, and they like to brag to all their arty friends about how attractive their sites are. (But who cares if no one sees it!)

One of the worst culprits is wanton overuse of Flash technology, which usually appears as "splash pages" or simply "cool animation." While there are some tricks to use Flash, and it certainly has a place in web design, Flash remains virtually invisible to search engines.

Worse, most web designers completely overlook easy ways to make your website search engine friendly. For example, most search engines highly value the "title tags" of a web page. If you are wondering what a title tag looks like, look in the upper left hand corner of your browser window on this page, and you will see "Search engine optimization for doctors." We put that there for a reason.

Web designers should also incorporate appropriate keywords, descriptions and "meta tags" into their source code, which can further help you to get found. Even descriptions associated with your photos, your URL name, headline choices and text count tremendously.

You should know that a directory is not a search engine. Rather, it is a human categorization of web content. However, once you are listed in these directories, you are much more likely to get noticed by search engines websites.

Incidentally, you can forget about those automated online services that charge $75-$200 to "prime" your website for thousands of search engines. About 90% of searches are done on Yahoo, Google, MSN and their associated networks. The heavy weight sites will at best ignore your attempts at "priming," and at worst will blacklist you.

By the way, whenever we create or "makeover" websites for our clients, we include all of the above techniques into your design at zero additional cost.

Second phase SEO: For more advanced needs

The basics outlined above are all that most practitioners need to eventually get found by search engines. FYI, it usually takes about 6 months for the ball to start rolling and your site to become prominently displayed for local searches.

However, if you are in a highly competitive category and city (like Plastic Surgery in Dallas), you are going to need to call in the heavy artillery.

For our clients in those situations, we often partner with specialists, namely, one of the several search engine optimization companies that we hold in high regard.

(As in medicine, marketing has many subspecialties, and when appropriate, we refer out.)

In addition to all we have discussed so far, there are two secrets to advanced search engine optimization.

The first is content. Search engines love written text (they cannot read images), especially content that increases regularly and is laden with keyword phrases. For competitive markets, we recommend you build, into your budget, ways to generate a lot of ongoing content.

The second "secret" is "back links," especially as far as Google is concerned. It turns out that Google highly values sites which have a lot of links to them (not from them). In other words, if many relevant sites link to your site, it must be important. Keep in mind that it isn't particularly effective to simply get links from anyone who is breathing. Google somehow is able to measure the relevancy of links, as well as the relative importance of the referring site. So a link from your brother the plumber is not very valuable to you, but a link from the New York Times would be.


If you truly want to maximize your efforts, we recommend both pay-per-click and search engine optimization. The former will get you traffic right away, and the latter is a long term investment in the health of your practice.

There are a lot of issues to consider beyond the scope of our article series, so as always, if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us.

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