All site publishers want their content to rank on the first page of Google’s organic search results. For healthcare organizations, ranking well can boost their bottom line. Consumers begin their healthcare journey with an online search, whether it’s for an urgent care location, to get information about a symptom, to learn about a disease, to research a new provider, or any other of a number of pertinent health related questions consumers have every day. In fact, according to Google, 7% of all web searches are healthcare related, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that translates into 1 billion unique healthcare searches per day. Healthcare organizations face numerous challenges in trying to get their content to rank well in organic search results.
For healthcare organizations, branded keywords are the lifeblood of organic traffic to your website. While it is necessary to have a strong keyword ranking strategy that maps to your content, it’s not sufficient to rank well without taking several other critical steps to improve your search engine optimization. This blog will outline several of the most important best practices healthcare organizations should adopt to maximize their SEO ranking potential. Ranking on the first page of Google search is a zero-sum game. For you to rank someone else has to be displaced. Best practices are absolutely essential if your site has a chance to displace whomever has that current top position.
E-A-T and YMYL: What’s That Got To Do With Healthcare SEO Ranking?
There are two concepts in the world of search engine optimization (SEO) that impact how health content ranks: E-A-T and YMYL. What do these two acronyms have to do with ranking well? Let’s explore.
E-A-T stands for expert, authoritative, trustworthy content. It was developed by Google’s quality raters to help guide them in evaluating web content that the search engine uses to tweak its ranking algorithms. So why is E-A-T critical for ranking? Well, it is not a ranking factor that a content creator can try to optimize. It’s more of a set of objectives that site owners should strive to achieve when creating web content. For healthcare websites, it’s critical to understand because of the implications of the second acronym–YMYL–which stands for Your Money, Your Life. This is a shorthand way of thinking about content that has implications for the web searcher’s well-being. Financial advice and medical advice are examples of YMYL content. Google looks at this content a little differently than content describing how to create a cozy backyard retreat or how to find the best obedience trainer for your dog.
The reason E-A-T is so consequential in healthcare is that the top results are dominated by some of the largest and most respected health authorities–Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, WebMD, Healthline, and others. On top of that, Google has built a strategic practice around curating healthcare content for their own SERP content snippets. Of all the web categories, healthcare SEO might be the toughest to rank well for. One of the most frustrating aspects of organic ranking is that there are some things you just can’t control that have a significant impact on your site’s ability to rank well. One of those factors is how much traffic a site generates from organic search results. It’s a little bit of a self-amplifying cycle. The more organic traffic you generate, the more likely you are to continue to generate organic traffic. So huge health-focused websites like Mayo Clinic – which is the 26th largest website by organic monthly traffic in the US (for all websites!) as measured by SEMrush and gets 138 million organic visits per month – will absolutely outrank most healthcare organizations on medical symptoms, diseases, conditions, and procedures. In fact, most of the top 10 results for those categories of information are going to some of the largest medical organizations in the country.
But all is not lost. There’s still plenty of opportunity to find ranking potential that matches with what your prospective patients and consumers are searching for. The key is to understand their query intent and focus on creating content and web experiences that zero in on that type of search query.
Any good SEO ranking strategy will start with keyword research and content creation that understands how E-A-T and YMYL concepts influence your ranking chances. Yet, they alone will not ensure high ranking web pages.
The Three Pillars of Good SEO: on-page, technical, and off-page reputation
To have any chance at ranking well, your website needs to hew to the three pillars of good SEO: the written content on your site, the structure and performance of your website, and off-page factors like backlinks, reputation, social and traffic volume. Doing these elements well isn’t going to get you to rank at the top of Google’s organic search results, but not doing them well is going to make it much harder for you to rank. Consider them table stakes as opposed to keys to ranking. Here are the three things you need to consider:
On-Page SEO Factors
- You need good, high-quality content, and you need a lot of it. This could include blog articles that answer specific questions that web searchers might have about your organization, your medical specialities and services. It could also include healthcare advice for mothers of newborns with symptom-checker applications embedded on the site. Whatever type of content you provide, it must be top notch.
- Find the right keywords. As part of your high-quality content creation process you need to incorporate keyword research and competitive keyword research into your writing. Knowing what search terms people are most likely to use when they seek answers to medical and health related questions and knowing what sites rank on the first page of Google’s SERP for those terms is probably the most critical piece of information you can leverage as you draft your site content. This will allow you to aim for keywords that you have an opportunity to rank well for and avoid competing for keywords that you’ll never rank well for because the incumbent top ranked sites are just too well established.
Technical SEO Factors
- You need to make sure that your site indexing, URL structure, and instructions to crawlers are clear and focused on signaling what your most important content is. This starts with a solid architecture and ends with ensuring that the published site is accurately presented to Google’s bots for indexing and site crawling.
- You need to ensure that your page speed performance is within Google’s recommended ranges, especially for Core Web Vitals. Practically, this means that your website is fast and responsive and that the codebase your developers used is optimized properly. Oftentimes developers use frameworks and other code conventions that are inefficient and consume significant network and server resources. This causes slow site performance on both mobile and desktop, and it will hurt your SEO chances.
- You need to ensure that your SEO metadata is optimized for the search queries you want your pages to rank for. This means doing the competitive and keyword research to determine what meta title, description and h1 tags will best align with the queries searchers are doing that would position your content in front of them. While SEO metadata isn’t going to improve your SERP rankings, it is going to influence your organic CTR, which is ultimately more important than whether you rank 1st or 3rd for a keyword.
- You need to use schema and target keywords with expanded SERP features such as People Also Ask, Site Links, Knowledge Panels, Video Carousels, and many of the other Google SERP features that often rely on schema to populate results.
Off-Page SEO Factors
- Because branded organic search terms are so important for your SEO success, nurturing your brand reputation, even offline, will pay dividends in your SEO quest. Whatever you invest in your brand will pay dividends for your organic search as branded search terms can sometimes account for 70% or more of your keyword volume. So having a very strong brand reputation in your local market is critical to SEO success.
- Use social media to promote content and drive traffic to your website. Although Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram are becoming more reliant on paid search within their platforms, using their organic social features is absolutely essential for helping improve your SEO strategy. Any blog you publish should get linked from all your social media accounts. Any news story that relates to any medical content or patient story you have should be newsjacked and linked to your site from all your social media accounts. Anytime there’s an opportunity to get your healthcare experts to comment on a current health issue in the news, do it, especially if you can publish it as a podcast or even a short video clip. Rinse and repeat. Don’t be afraid to recycle old blogs repeatedly on social media. It’s a transient medium, so keep replenishing people’s feeds with your content.
- Cultivate backlinks. This is perhaps the hardest piece of advice to do because you’re completely dependent on another site owner to be successful. The best way to get backlinks is to have link-worthy content (which we’ve already talked about). Once you have that, don’t be shy about reaching out to businesses that you have pre-existing relationships with to ask them to put a link to your content on their site. Optimally you want them to put a link with “follow” instructions in the code as opposed to “nofollow” instructions, as the former conveys ranking value whereas the latter does not. Once you have organizations that you have relationships with add links to your site, you can then decide whether it’s worth the effort to try to solicit links from businesses with which you do not have an established relationship. Generally speaking, it’s not worth the effort.
For healthcare organizations, these three pillars present challenges and opportunities. Let’s consider how. The challenges are that many healthcare organizations are very complex with many layers of decision making and many personalities who want to influence or control what content gets published. The best advice is to work through those issues with your organizational stakeholders by explaining the critical importance of SEO for your mission. Often large organizations have sophisticated content management systems and processes that go hand-in-glove with complex IT processes. Both of these make it critical for cooperation on SEO across silos in the organization. And if you have an organization where scheduling is decentralized, that makes adding any advanced web functionality more difficult, which in turn complicates the organic aspects of getting SEO right for your online scheduling. Finally, because many healthcare organizations are physician led, particularly when it comes to medical information, writing medical content for SEO requires physician or medical staff sign-off. While absolutely justified, keep in mind this adds yet another layer of complexity to the process of creating good content that is going to generate results for your SEO.
Besides the three pillars of good SEO there are some additional optimization opportunities that healthcare organizations must leverage if they want to rank well for non-branded terms, and even ensure that they are not falling victim to competitive incursions against some of their most-prized branded searches. These are the differentiating factors that will propel a site onto the first page of Google’s results, whereas the three pillars outlined above are just table stakes.
Local Interest Content
Where healthcare organizations need to really outshine their competition is in the arena of local search. In fact, this is probably the most important thing you can focus on to ensure that you’re ranking well. Since almost all healthcare encounters are local to the consumer, ensuring that your local SEO facets are well executed is essential. Local business searches account for 46% of all organic searches and nearly 77% of all patients use Google before scheduling an appointment. Clearly those appointments are proximate to the patient’s location, so doing well in local search is paramount. You should be thinking about how local search applies to three aspects of your site’s content: your physician and provider directory, your symptom and clinical information, and your physical locations.
The first critical aspect of your local organic search strategy should concern optimizing your physician and provider directory content along with your medical services, symptom checking and clinical information to have local relevance. Searches with the phrase “near me” in the query have jumped by 900% since 2015, signifying an explosion of local intent. While this doesn’t mean you should put “near me” on your pages, what it does mean is that you should contextualize your site content to highlight localization. In other words, weave place names into your page copy as naturally as you can.
Besides tailoring your content for local search, the single most important step you can take to improve your local SEO results is to actively manage your Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business) listing. This is the most important aspect of local search. You must verify your listing and complete your profile, taking care to fill out as many fields as are applicable to your business. It is important to select appropriate categories, add a robust description of your services, add the URL relevant to the services rendered at that location, provide details about your hours of operation, and include a phone number. Beyond these fields, you should also upload high quality photos of the facility and the services or staff patients will encounter. Actively managing your listing is crucial and you should seek to incorporate the listing into your physical presence, paying particular attention to soliciting patients to leave reviews on Google that will result in you receiving stars in the Google Business Profile.
Directory Listings, Ratings, Reviews and Schema
One of the most important things you can do as a healthcare organization is to ensure that your physician and provider directories are eminently retrievable in organic search and that they offer the most robust experience for the user that is possible. This means you need to have your physician rating data (from Press Ganey, or any other service like Healthgrades or Doctor.com) included in your provider directory profiles and that information needs to be coded using structured data types so that it appears in organic search results. Similarly, your physician review content should be included in your profile directory and should be coded as structured data so it also has a chance to be picked up in SERP features such as sitelinks, ratings, carousels, images and other page elements that go beyond standard text results . Both ratings and reviews use structured data types, as does some medical content. Making sure your site uses structured data is essential if you hope to be included in these rich results on the organic search page.
All rich results use schema, or structured data, to categorize page elements so the search engine understands the information being presented. Structured data, particularly for local search and healthcare specific content like provider reviews and heath library material, helps search engines parse and categorize content on a page. Therefore leveraging schema types specific to healthcare content, such as medical conditions, medical signs or symptoms, medical studies, and the dozens of other structured data definitions adopted by schema.org, has to be part of a good content strategy for a healthcare site.
Healthcare organizations who want to differentiate themselves must use schema.org taxonomies in html microdata such as schema.org/MedicalCondition, schema.org/MedicalSymptom, schema.org/MedicalRiskFactor, etc in page markup for their medical content. Along with structured data for location and physician directory content, the use of schema will give you leverage for your SEO strategy.
Remember, SEO is a zero-sum game. For you to rank on the first page of search results, someone else has to drop off. Ranking well takes a lot of effort and doesn’t happen overnight. It’s also a team sport, and not the sole responsibility of your SEO expert, whether that person is in-house, part of an agency, or your boss’s 15 year-old nephew who’s a wiz at web development. If that’s your strategy, you’re not going to be successful, because it takes coordination between the marketing executives, content writers, web developers, web designers, PR professionals and SEO experts to come together to put your healthcare website on the best footing to rank well.
Healthcare SEO is probably one of the most challenging efforts in the SEO space, but it’s also the most rewarding and critical for supporting the overall marketing and brand building activities of your organization. Chances are anywhere from 30% to 60% of your site traffic comes from organic search engines. Ensuring that you get the best results from that traffic, by ranking for the type of search queries that are going to help fill appointments and drive net new patient growth should be the #1 priority of your healthcare marketing efforts. Showing improvement in SEO is a long game and requires investing across your marketing technology stack–from your site design and development, to your PR and content creation. For more information on how MHP|Team SI can help you adopt SEO best practices for your healthcare organization, contact us.
About the Author
Mark Samber has worked in digital marketing and web consulting for two decades, including 4 years as director of digital marketing for an academic medical center. He has held a number of positions in UX, analytics, content, product marketing, and search engine optimization with advertisers and agencies, giving him both perspectives on the digital ecosystem. He holds Advanced Google Analytics and Google Analytics for Power Users certifications and is currently senior consultant on the Analytics Team.