When discussing online marketing strategies with healthcare professionals (physicians, practice/office managers and healthcare marketing professionals) we are often tasked with explaining what online marketing entails and the differences between some of these strategies. Online marketing categories include search engine marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, display advertising and mobile advertising. Understanding where to spend your marketing budget and which strategy provides the best return on investment (ROI) is crucial to your overall healthcare marketing success. Search engine marketing historically has proven to have a strong ROI, but can be difficult to understand and manage for less experienced marketers.medical seo versus medical ppc, medical SEM

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a form of internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs). It provides the opportunity for potential new patients to find your medical organization online when conducting search queries using search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc). It is a very popular and profitable marketing strategy for healthcare organizations, but you must comprehend the difference between its two components: Search Engine Optimization and Pay-Per-Click advertising, Below, I discuss the two strategies and offer some of the benefits and limitations to each.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO): SEO is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s “natural” or un-paid (“organic”) search results. The higher you rank, the higher you appear on the search results pages, the more exposure your brand gets and the more visitors/traffic your web pages will receive. There are a variety of ways to improve a ranking for a search result, but most involve the content that exists on the website. Including keywords in a web page’s meta-tags and page descriptions is important because of what the search engine’s algorithms are programmed to identify.  The biggest influence to a ranking is going to be how well a website’s content matches the search query. Adding keywords you want to rank for in your content, as well as continually providing new and unique content, will improve your ranking when search engines “crawl” the website (“crawling a site” refers to an Internet bot that systematically browses the world wide web and existing web pages, typically for the sole purpose of  indexing search results). Updating content requires the search engines to frequently and continually crawl the site.

Benefits: One benefit to implementing an SEO strategy for generating referrals is that it provides a level playing field for all competitors in the market. Your ranking cannot be influenced by out-bidding a competitor and is based on the content that exists on your website and your website’s domain authority. Domain authority is a measure of the power of a domain name and is one of many search engine ranking factors. Creating or optimizing content for maximum search results can be a very cost-effective marketing strategy that can have long-term results. Another benefit to SEO is that you can target specific keywords that potential patients may be using in search queries. Adding these keywords or phrases to your website’s content will boost rankings and visibility. You are also able to target new potential patients at the local level; using local modifiers with phrases such as “Florida Hand Centers” or “New York City Vein Care”.

Medical SEO, Search Engine Marketing, Online Visibility

Limitations: SEO does have some drawbacks. First, SEO is a long-term strategy that takes time to implement and even more time to see ranking improvements. A website will not jump to the top of the rankings a day after adding keywords to your content. It takes time for the search engines to continually crawl a website and determine there is a fit between your content and the search query. It also takes time to build your domain authority so that you can outrank your competitors on similar search terms. SEO requires a continued dedication to providing new and unique content (such as blogs), which take time to write and a level of commitment that many may not be able to provide. For targeting purposes, SEO realistically (unless you have a very large SEO budget) only targets ‘local’ keywords like ‘Miami knee replacement’ (as ‘national’ keywords like ‘knee replacement’ are simply too competitive to achieve page 1 rankings).  A good SEO strategy should only involve targeting 6-10 keywords/phrases, leaving many other searched terms or keywords unaccounted for in your online marketing strategy.   Lastly, when evaluating SEO success, it is important to peel away (e.g., not include) any visitors that come from ‘branded’ searches (searches done on your physician or practice names), as these visitors generally found you (initially) via other means (e.g. are existing patients, found via offline advertising, etc.).  Branded searches often make up 70-80% of organic visitors, but add little incremental value.

Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising: PPC advertising is an internet advertising model used to drive more traffic to websites. Advertisers typically pay the publishers (Google, Yahoo, MSN, Bing, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc…) when their ad has been clicked by a web user (Cost-Per-Click or CPC). Typically, advertisers will bid on specific keywords or phrases that are relevant to their target market, with a combination of the highest bidders and the most relevant advertisers garnering the top spots in paid search results. Paid advertisements are typically seen as the first three spots of a search result (usually having a beige/gold background) as well as along the right hand column of a search result page. PPC campaigns will have a strong enough ROI as long as you have a high enough procedural value on the specialty you are promoting.

Benefits: There are a few major advantages to PPC programs. First, with PPC, you are able to see an instant impact. Once you determine which keywords/phrases to target, your program is visible on search results. If you are looking to drive referrals and have immediate results, PPC is a great fit as a marketing strategy because you don’t have to wait three to six months to begin seeing the results. Another benefit to PPC is that you can target both local and national keywords, exposing your brand to more web users. Lastly, with PPC, you can target anywhere from 300-1000 keywords/phrases for your campaign, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to uncovering new patient opportunities.

Medical PPC, Search Engine Marketing, Online visibility

Limitations: Some of the drawbacks to running successful PPC campaigns, like SEO, is it requires a significant time commitment with constant ad optimization, results tracking and analytics. There are over 20 different targeting methods that can be used when running a PPC campaign and if you don’t have the experience managing these types of campaigns, things get overlooked. Professional advertisers typically create numerous ads (often over 100), carefully select keywords (100s or even 1000s), geo-target/geo-optimize, target non-English languages, optimize for different devices (tablets, mobile and desktops), manage quality scores, schedule ads to optimal times, and monitor click-through-rates (CTR) and conversions in order to have a successful campaign. For a PPC campaign to be successful, it often requires someone managing it that has a certain level of expertise, experience and attention to detail. Unattended, PPC campaign costs can spiral out of control without showing any improvement in results.

When determining what form of online marketing strategy to implement for your healthcare organization, few strategies can compete with the ROI and exposure generated from search engine marketing. Both PPC and SEO need to be a part of your online medical marketing strategy if you want to maximize your organizations exposure to new patients. The problem is the time commitment and the experience level it involves to run these types of programs successfully. Those organizations who embrace both strategies are going to be extremely visible online (showing in organic as well as paid search results) and be top of mind when patients begin looking for treatment of their specific condition.