SEO vs. SEM for Healthcare: The Difference Explained

SEO vs. SEM for Healthcare: The Difference Explained

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Whether you run a multilocation healthcare organization, hospital, or health system, understanding the distinction between search engine optimization (SEO) vs. search engine marketing (SEM)—and how each distinctly helps your business—is important for several reasons.

This knowledge helps you:

  • Allocate resources more efficiently.
  • Tailor marketing initiatives to align with specific goals.
  • Achieve long- and short-term goals.
  • Boost website visibility on search engines like Google.

In this blog, we’ll cover the unique roles of SEO and SEM in healthcare marketing and how they work. We’ll also share why we think your organization should invest in both.

We’ll explain how SEM amplifies your web presence quickly and discuss how SEO supports long-term online visibility.

Let’s begin by defining healthcare SEO and healthcare SEM.

Understanding what sets these two strategies apart is fundamental for achieving an optimal search engine results page (SERP) rank and business goals.

What Is Healthcare SEO?

SEO is the process of improving a website’s technical configuration, content relevance, and internal and external linking to improve its organic visibility and ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs).

The goal is to make your website more attractive to search engines like Google so it appears higher on SERPs when people search for relevant information, products, or services.

SEO Challenges Unique to the Healthcare Industry

The healthcare industry manages and protects massive amounts of sensitive medical information. As a result, it faces unique SEO challenges, such as:

  • Patient privacy and regulatory compliance
    Healthcare organizations must comply with strict privacy regulations (e.g., the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA) while crafting educational content that is properly optimized for search engines and sensitive to consumer’s potential concerns.
  • Complex medical terms
    Healthcare organizations must balance complex medical terms and concepts with accurate, accessible, and easy-to-understand content for consumers.
  • Accurate content
    Healthcare organizations must provide accurate content to ensure patient safety, build trust, comply with legal and ethical considerations, and prevent the spread of misinformation. Google wants to protect users from incorrect medical information and has high standards for Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) content that can potentially impact a person’s happiness, health, financial stability, or safety. Content accuracy is critical for ensuring high-ranking web pages.
  • Search queries
    Keyword research can be tricky in the medical space. Healthcare organizations must understand common terms and phrases patients use to search for symptoms, conditions, treatments, and procedures.
  • Local SEO
    Local search is vital for multilocation practices and helps healthcare practices attract more business in their local communities. However, managing the logistics (e.g., online reviews, Google Business Profile, consistent contact information across directories, local keywords, and content) can be overwhelming without proper training and expertise.

What Is Healthcare SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a digital marketing strategy that leverages paid search techniques (primarily pay-per-click ads in healthcare) to quickly boost its website’s SERP ranking.

SEM strategies focus on identifying and using highly relevant keywords with the highest potential to win clicks.

The goal of healthcare SEM is to drive increased traffic to a website and achieve specific goals. Common goals for a healthcare organization may include increased online appointment bookings, increased Telemedicine appointments, more lead form submissions, a higher volume of click-to-call users, etc.

SEM Challenges Unique to the Healthcare Industry

The healthcare industry is subject to strict regulatory requirements, legal restrictions, patient privacy and confidentiality, and more, leading to several unique SEM challenges, such as:

  • Ad copy regulations
    Healthcare advertising is highly scrutinized. Healthcare organizations must understand the parameters and limitations of how to promote certain treatments, medications, or medical procedures in a compliant way.
  • HIPAA Regulations
    The big news is that HIPAA regulations now prohibit using tracking pixels as they can potentially compromise the security of protected health information (PHI). A tracking pixel is a small snippet of code that is loaded when a user visits a web page. Google Analytics uses it to track user behavior, site conversions, web traffic, and more. This ban makes it challenging to collect SEM data in a compliant way and create analytics useful for ad performance. However, some tools can help.
  • Trust and credibility
    Building trust in healthcare advertising is critical and requires transparency, authenticity, and an unwavering commitment to accurate, reliable, and relevant content.

How Are Healthcare SEO and SEM Different?

SEO and SEM can lead to some confusion among novice marketers. However, each is a distinct digital marketing strategy that supports a website’s visibility on search engines like Google. Let’s explore the differences between SEO vs. SEM:

  • Organic SEO vs. Paid SEM
    • SEO is an organic “free” search strategy that focuses on improving the long-term visibility of your healthcare business (via relevant keywords and phrases) on SERPs.
    • SEM involves paid search strategies, like pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, to quickly boost a website’s search engine visibility.
  • SEO vs. SEM Timeline
    • Healthcare SEO is a long-term approach that involves three core techniques: on-site SEO, off-site SEO, and local SEO. Results from an organic SEO strategy are often gradual and take time to fully realize optimal search engine rankings.
    • Results from an effective paid search (SEM) strategy are near-immediate, but visibility stops when the allotted advertising budget is used.
  • SEO vs. SEM Cost
    • Healthcare SEO has upfront and ongoing costs that vary depending on your unique goals.
    • Healthcare SEM involves direct payments for clicks and impressions. However, healthcare organizations can monitor and manage their budget and discontinue it anytime.

Why Your Business Should Do Both

Healthcare SEM strategies provide near-immediate and continued revenue while allowing businesses to adjust their daily budget as needed. However, it is not a sustainable stand-alone strategy for increasing brand awareness or attracting high-value patient cases.

Why? Once you turn off your ads, your revenue potential returns to zero.

Investing in organic SEO strategies continues to pay dividends via increased traffic and conversions long after your website is optimized.

We recommend incorporating both SEO and SEM strategies into your comprehensive healthcare digital marketing strategy to maximize brand awareness.

Need real-world proof? Check out our Pomona Valley Health Center Case Study. In it, we share how we increased leads by 62% through effective organic SEO practices and laser-focused healthcare SEM strategies like local paid search and social media advertising.

Use Both SEO and SEM Strategies for Lasting Success

A well-rounded online presence benefits from the long-term benefits of an organic SEO strategy and the quick—and impactful—results of healthcare SEM.

These strategies create a balanced approach that combines the promise of lasting visibility with immediate results.

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