Search Engine Optimization for Dentists
Guest Post by Author and Web-Expert Nina Litovsky
“Search engine marketing and search engine optimization are critically important to online businesses. You can spend every penny you have on a website, but it will all be for nothing if nobody knows your site is there.” – Marc Ostrofsky
Search engine optimization (SEO) is all about making your website friendly for search engines – particularly Google, which is the most popular engine to date. SEO ensures that your website can be easily indexed by the search engine to show up in results for relevant searches, but SEO does not guarantee that your website will consistently appear higher than the websites of your competitors. SEO can be defined as making technical and content adjustments to your website and doing exactly what Google wants you to do to put you on the same level playing field as everyone else.
There are best practices that Google tells you to follow, but these are more about avoiding mistakes than gaining an advantage. In addition to SEO, other strategies can be employed to help your website appear higher in search. These strategies are often bundled together with SEO but should be described as search engine marketing, or off-site SEO. Search engine marketing involves promoting your website on other websites, social media, online directories and business listings. This includes strategies such as link building (getting other websites link to yours), citation building (creating online listings that promote your practice) and content marketing (creating and publishing new content on your website and on other websites).
Much has been published on the benefits of SEO, but there’s hardly any discussion about what happens when SEO turns out to be a waste of resources. Most SEO services on the market are offered for a monthly fee which can be very high. Monthly SEO is often overrated and unnecessary. Unlike most web design companies, we don’t have a vested interest in selling you monthly SEO services, so in this article we will highlight the downsides of monthly SEO and discuss possible alternatives.
Foundational SEO: 20% of Work Achieves 80% of Results
Search engine optimization is not easy for anyone, and this is especially true for small businesses with limited resources. It can be hard to know which activities to put your efforts behind and which will deliver results. Most practices, especially startups, want a cost-effective SEO strategy that delivers good value for the money within a reasonable amount of time, doesn’t break the bank, and gets results that exceed the cost of the investment.
All practices need a good website, even in low competition areas. Things can change quickly as other doctors move into the area, so a professional website is a forward-thinking solution for any type of practice. Your website should be user-friendly and visually appealing to prospective patients because humans are visual creatures and judge a book by its cover. Your website should be clean and well organized so that people can find information easily, and it should be well-written and informative to educate your patients and highlight your values. In addition, solid foundational SEO has to be set up to ensure that your website is search engine friendly and has good content. Foundational SEO is a process of configuring your website according to the latest guidelines and best practices set forth by the website industry and search engines. Foundational SEO is always needed – in fact, it’s the necessary prerequisite for any further search marketing campaigns. Google rewards those sites that are fast-performing, well-ordered, marked-up, informative, and accessible for people with disabilities – therefore, you need to make sure that your website follows all these standards. By implementing foundational SEO, you will get the maximum results with only a small investment of money and effort. Foundational SEO needs to happen once initially, and can later be updated as-needed just like a car tune up.
If you’ve got a site built on a high-quality content management platform like WordPress and hosted with a reputable WordPress hosting provider, chances are that you’ve got most of the technical performance optimization under the hood. For this and other reasons, custom websites that are built in WordPress and hosted independently are often better equipped for SEO (and are more cost-effective) than websites that are rented from a web design company and hosted on a proprietary platform owned by that company. Most technical aspects of SEO – such as performance optimization, schema, image compression, sitemaps, and more – can be set up once and automated if the website is built in WordPress. On-page SEO that includes formatting of page titles and content needs to happen on an as-needed basis when new content is published on the website. Some offsite implementations, such as registering online listings which we will discuss in the next section, also need to be set up once and maintained only as necessary.
Dentists and physicians sometimes justify paying high monthly fees for SEO by claiming that it has improved their search rankings. Yet, the improvement could have come from a one-time fix of their website and foundational SEO without the need for further continuous monthly payments. By simply improving your website with proper foundational SEO, you can achieve easy and effective wins. It’s unnecessary to pay for monthly SEO when one-time improvement may be all that’s needed. We don’t even offer monthly SEO services to our clients, because we believe that a quality website, combined with diversified and efficient marketing strategies, can yield better and more cost-effective results. Instead of investing in monthly SEO, we would rather see you get a good website that’s well-optimized for search engines once, and then try various marketing strategies little by little as necessary. A good web designer can take you a long way in making your site accessible to search engines. My recommendation is to hire a highly proficient web development team that can produce an attractive website with informative content and solid SEO. Not all web designers understand the principles of SEO, and most SEO specialists don’t understand web design. Our lean team uniquely combines both skill sets because we believe that a well-designed website with strong foundational SEO is the most cost-effective solution for our clients.
SEO Considerations for Startup Dental Practices
Startup practices often operate on a tight budget. When budget is an issue, it’s better to consider alternative strategies that deliver faster and more tangible results instead of investing in monthly SEO where results can be unpredictable, ineffective, and achieved at a high cost. If you’re just getting your website going, start with the foundational SEO and then focus on getting people to know about you and your practice using conventional ways, such as targeted ads or networking with other local businesses. These strategies are more direct and will give you immediate results.
In addition to solid website optimization, proper SEO includes offsite implementations that can be set up at a low cost or for free: online map listings such as a Google My Business page, social media pages, and listings in various business, insurance, local and professional online directories (also known as citations). For more information, check out the SEO recommendations that we give to our startup clients. Practices that are located in areas with low competition may not need ongoing monthly SEO at all. A professionally built website with solid foundational SEO may be just enough to get you ranked well. In highly competitive areas, ongoing SEO may not be feasible either. There will always be someone bigger, better, faster to market and with deeper pockets who can outrank you. Engaging in monthly SEO can turn you into a slave of the SEO ‘rat race’ – a risky, time consuming and expensive game that never ends and is nearly impossible to win. Can you come out on top and rank well? Perhaps, but you should be prepared to potentially spend years and lots of money to do it. The amount of time and money you have to spend will depend on your market, keywords and competitors. And even if you end up on top, you will have to keep spending money to stay there until someone else comes and spends more to outrank you.
If you don’t have much time and money to continuously invest in monthly SEO, then your best bet is to get a good website with solid SEO, stick to quality content that can help you attract and educate patients, and do additional SEO and one-time improvement projects only ever so often to keep things chugging along nicely.
SEO should be part of your bigger strategy, because your rankings get built up as a side benefit of whatever it is you do to market yourself. The beauty of SEO is that Google collects information about your practice from various sources, so any positive traces you leave online or offline can improve your rankings. The efforts that help you attract patients through marketing, social media activity, sponsorship, volunteering, community involvement can also help your rankings, so it’s a win-win game. The longer you are around and the longer you do active local marketing, the better your local search rankings can get.
SEO Considerations for Mature Dental Practices
If you are a mature practice with more resources, I still recommend putting your money to better use than monthly SEO. Consider investing in options that can potentially have a much bigger impact, such as brand growth, social media marketing, review collection and reputation management, press releases, books, articles, networking, advertisements and media buys. All these can just as well improve your search visibility and rankings, whether directly or indirectly. As part of your brand growth, you may need an outreach campaign to get other reputable local websites to link back to you. You may also need to create high-quality written and media content for your website, social media, and other relevant websites that may link to you. Well-written, relevant and informative content will be appealing to both readers and search engines. All this can be handled by one or a few skilled content marketing or brand strategy specialists.
If, after doing everything mentioned above, you still want to try your luck in the SEO game, you should spend the time and effort to identify the best SEO company to help you. Based on the experiences that our clients have shared with us, many SEO companies get too comfortable billing their clients on a monthly basis and providing only minimal service on an autopilot, such as writing generic blog posts, mindlessly cluttering the website with keywords, delivering incomprehensible reports, and acquiring inbound links from irrelevant websites that don’t generate traffic and conversions for the practice. It’s important that the company you hire provides quality concierge service that includes working closely with you and your office, getting to know your practice, patient base, and value proposition, designing a fully custom marketing campaign, and providing detailed, intelligible reports that will clearly highlight the work that was performed, the budget spent, and the benefits you have gained immediately and will gain in the long term. The company should also work closely with your team to create high-quality content that is custom-written and authentic to your practice rather than generic, dull, boilerplate content that many SEO agencies generate for their clients. Such high-end service will likely be expensive, but it’s also the only way to achieve best results in the long term.
The Pitfalls of Working with SEO Companies
Obsession with Top Rankings is Counterproductive
Before you start interviewing SEO agencies, let’s consider some of the possible pitfalls of monthly SEO that we recommend avoiding. One thing to always bear in mind prior to investing heavily in SEO is that your results cannot be guaranteed. No one in the industry has any insight into how exactly rankings work. SEO is based entirely on Google guidelines, industry best practices, and educated guesses. No SEO company can promise rankings on Google or claim special relationships with Google or other search engines. Rankings are controlled by the search engine, not by SEO companies.
Many practice owners are obsessed with getting #1 rankings, but top rankings aren’t all they are made out to be. As we have discussed, in areas with low competition it may be enough to have a well-built website with solid foundational SEO, up-to-date online listings, and active social media presence in order to appear at the top of search results for a local dentist or physician. In highly competitive areas, only a handful of practices can be at the top, and out of the dozens or perhaps even hundreds of others competing for that, the chances for you obtaining those top positions are pretty slim – even with the best SEO company working for you. Besides, when an SEO company promises you top rankings, you may get ranked well for generic or unimportant low-quality keywords that don’t drive much volume of traffic, but not for high-volume keywords which are much harder to compete for.
It’s also good to remember that search engine rankings are merely a single measure of success. There are so many more ways to drive traffic to a web site than being at the top of search results. Top search engine placement is great, but rather than obsessing over it, it’s best to focus on improving your website usability and conversions, activating your social media presence, providing good services, collecting reviews, and building up your brand and reputation. These are some of the most reliable ways to prove to Google that you actually deserve to be at the top position in search. There is no need to worry about that #1 ranking. Just get your website professionally built and optimized, and work on delivering targeted traffic to a website that can successfully convert many visitors into patients. Focus on that, and one day the #1 ranking may just follow.
Primary Objective Should Be Good Website and Content, Not Higher Rankings
If you hire a SEO company and measure their worth on the basis of how high they get you in the rankings, then you may end up fighting a losing battle. It is possible to improve placement by manipulating the system, and the SEO company can use every trick in the book to get you better rankings and fulfill their promises. Although this can have short-term benefits, it may not last in the long term – at least not without continual investment. This is because the objective is wrong. SEO shouldn’t be about getting to the top of Google for particular phrases. In fact, you shouldn’t be optimizing for search engines at all. You should be optimizing for your patients because that is what Google wants you to do. Google is constantly changing how it rates websites so it can provide more accurate results. In Webmaster guidelines, Google says to “create a useful, information-rich website, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.” Google’s objective is simple: connect its searchers with the most relevant content.
Dental and medical websites created by SEO agencies are often poorly designed, poorly functioning, and cluttered with generic, verbose content that is stuffed with keywords and reused on all other websites built by that agency. The agency simply fills a boilerplate website template with boilerplate content without much care for your brand, your patients, and your unique values. While that may seem easy, quick, and cheap, it is not beneficial for you in the long term. When we build our websites, we make sure that the design reflects your brand and highlights your values, the functionality is smooth and intuitive, and the content is custom-written to be informative, clear, easy to read and concise, highlighting the values and benefits of your specific practice. In other words, we make sure that the website is attractive and user-friendly and the content is relevant and authentic so that your patients enjoy their online experience and can easily find what they need. This is what Google is trying to achieve and this is what Google rewards in the long term.
The Downside of Metric Fixation
When SEO companies optimize metrics above all else, they risk exposing themselves – and you – to metric corruption. Goodhart’s and Campbell’s laws from the world of social science and economics warn us about the dangers of data fixation: when you measure, people begin to change how they do things so that the measurements look good. And if you turn a measure into a target or a goal, you can wind up incentivizing the exact wrong behaviors. This often happens in the world of marketing and SEO.
Numbers and data can hide vital information. It’s important to use them as a guide – but it’s just as important to remember what they don’t tell you. For example, SEO companies convince clients to spend more on SEO by claiming that if, let’s say, you want your SEO strategies to increase traffic by 10%, that would generate another 1,000 visitors a month. With a 1% conversion rate, that traffic will directly bring in 10 new patients, and if, say, each patient is worth $10,000, you will get $100,000 of value to map back to that SEO investment. Such predictions are flawed because the process isn’t always so linear. How do we know that these patients all converted because of your SEO efforts? Some might have arrived on your website from Google (and would therefore be tracked by your SEO company as organic traffic) but decided to call you from the website only because they had previously seen your good reviews, so their conversions should really be attributed to your reputation management efforts, not SEO. Also, SEO companies rarely present clients with control scenarios. How much patient increase can you get over the long term if you just build a very good search-optimized website and don’t pay for monthly SEO? Or if, instead of monthly SEO, you focus on other marketing channels?
When a single metric is used to determine success or failure, the SEO company is likely to try to optimize their efforts to improve that metric (and justify their worth to you) at the expense of all else. What kind of behavior is this metric incentivizing?
- If you track leads from the website, you’ll incentivize creating a ton of salesy content cluttered with pop ups and annoying calls to action.
- If you track traffic, you’re incentivizing a lot of generic, verbose, keyword-stuffed content, whether or not that content generates leads.
- If you track the number of blog articles published, that’s what you incentivize – even if the articles themselves are poorly written and don’t attract anyone.
Obsession with metrics while optimizing your website for conversions and SEO can harm patient experience and reduce the quality of your website. It can also cause negative long-term consequences. The experience that people get on your website helps them decide whether or not they should trust your brand, and how people feel about your brand is extremely important because that’s what makes them remember you and stay with you.
SEO Requires a Holistic Approach
Your position in search depends on a multitude of factors, some of which cannot be managed by your SEO company. A solid website that is well-built and optimized according to the best industry practices is an essential ranking factor. However, many other factors beyond your website also influence your rankings, whether directly or indirectly. These factors include your reviews, social media activity, other websites mentioning and linking to your practice, your local community participation, your business listings, the age of your website and practice, and more. Those numerous offsite factors can correlate to rankings, because they influence the way Google evaluates your relevance for local searches.
A solid SEO strategy requires a holistic approach. Rather than hiring a company that will slap together a quick generic website, tweak your keywords every month, and call it “SEO,” invest in a solid, well-optimized website and offsite marketing strategies that will build up your local visibility and help you become more relevant to Google.
Keeping Up With SEO Trends and Algorithm Updates
Search engine rankings change. New sites are always going online, old sites are disappearing, new information is added to the web, and new competition with fresh marketing dollars emerges. Add to that the fact that search engines are always tweaking and adjusting their algorithms, and you’ve got a search engine ranking rat race that can make you waste money and resources.
Marketing agencies often tell clients that their websites need monthly SEO in order to keep up with the latest search engine algorithm updates and industry trends. Some go as far as to say that you need monthly SEO to remain showing on Google – which is, of course, a myth. In the SEO industry, there are incredible amounts of misinformation published about the next big thing. And yet there are countless instances when trends such as accelerated mobile pages (AMP) are peddled by SEO agencies as performance wonders that will work for everyone. AMP used to be a big thing for a few years and then it was mostly abandoned. It was an example of costly technology which had both benefits and downsides, but most websites could accomplish excellent results using alternative methods at a much lower cost.
It’s important to remember that search engines promote technological innovation with their users in mind, so the core guidelines for a search-friendly website have always remained the same: good content, solid design, and seamless functionality to make visitors happy. Most Google algorithm updates are only minor internal tweaks that rarely affect a well-built website in any negative way – at least not in the long term. Major changes in the industry, such as the emergence of mobile-friendly (responsive) design, are usually infrequent and are introduced gradually over the course of several years, so website owners have plenty of time to hire developers to implement those changes. To sum up, minor trends are usually insignificant noise, and major trends can be implemented as needed and do not require ongoing involvement of an SEO agency. Instead of paying for monthly SEO, it is more cost-effective to pay an SEO company once in a while – such as every six months or yearly – to do an audit of your website, optimize new content, and suggest SEO improvements.
What About SEO Success Stories?
When you interview SEO agencies and ask for their case studies, they will likely show off their best clients that rank at the top of the search for relevant keywords. However, those successes may not necessarily apply to you if you become a client. In the world of marketing and SEO, results vary greatly. As a classic example of confirmation bias, agencies tend to show a handful of best-case scenarios that confirm their selling proposition. But what about their other clients (the silent majority) who never end up at the top? What if you end up being one of those other clients? Assuming that the agency uses white-hat, industry-approved SEO tactics, there are additional considerations about those successful case studies that few doctors reflect upon and few SEO agencies disclose:
- For how long does a successful client stay up at the top, and how consistent is their success? The client’s rankings could have gone up at the moment, but may go down later and remain flat even if the client continues working with the agency. Rankings are not controlled by SEO companies, so the successful cases that the agency brags about may be temporary and short-lived.
- Can the client’s ranking success be really credited to the SEO agency or is it due to external factors? Some factors that influence rankings cannot be controlled by SEO agencies. Practicing in a low-competition area, having a long-term website presence and being around in the local community for a long time, being well-established and well-known in the local community, having more publicity and more inbound links from having been around longer, or having many positive reviews can be some of the factors that may contribute to the ranking success.
- Top rankings don’t necessarily generate sales. Does the successful client get much click-through traffic to their website and, most importantly, does that traffic convert into loyal, long-term, profitable patients? A lower-ranking competitor may be able to convert better if their website is better designed and more relevant, if they have more meaningful ways to drive traffic to their website, and if their practice delivers more value.
- How much did the successful client pay the agency? Most agencies have different SEO plans and service packages. It could be that their VIP clients are the most successful. But will you be just as successful if you are not on the most premium plan? Alternatively, some SEO companies take pro-bono clients and make publicity cases out of them. But they may not necessarily provide you with the same kind of service. If you spend lots of money on SEO, you may end up higher than average, but is it really worth it? Are you really prepared to spend as much as that successful client might have spent?
Your Platform Matters
It’s wise to get your website built on a popular open-source platform such as WordPress, especially if you are planning to do monthly SEO or other online marketing going forward. Many large web design agencies build websites on their own proprietary platforms. In addition to high hosting fees and lack of website portability and ownership, renting a website hosted on the agency’s proprietary platform can cause SEO issues as we have discussed earlier. Only the agency can fully manage their own proprietary platform. You will most likely be unable to hire outside SEO specialists for your website or their access will be severely restricted. Therefore, you will be limited to using only the in-house SEO services offered by the agency, which may not be of the quality you want. Buying bundled services from one vendor can cause vendor lock-in – a situation where the cost of switching to a different vendor is so high that you will be stuck with the original vendor. That may not be in your best interest.
For best and most effective results, you should consider diversifying your marketing vendors so you can pick and choose the best vendor for each job. We strongly believe that the best products and services are provided not by large full-service agencies but by specialists that focus on specific aspects of marketing, which is why we choose to specialize in high-quality web design and refer clients to outside consultants for monthly SEO or online advertising. If you diversify your pool of providers, you can replace, add or remove vendors easily and adjust and reconfigure your marketing strategy on the fly. Many marketing specialists work with WordPress, which makes it an ideal solution for a practice website. You will have the flexibility to choose the best and most cost-effective SEO provider and easily grant them full access to everything they need to do on your website.
Conclusion: Focus on What You Can Control
A good philosophy in life is to only worry about things over which you have some degree of control and where taking action will actually make a difference. Worrying about something you have no control over is pointless. This can easily apply to marketing and SEO. SEO is a long-term strategy; the results will be nonlinear and nothing is guaranteed. In this world of uncertainty and high risk, I recommend sticking with a conservative approach, especially if the budget is limited. It’s better to avoid spending lots of money rather than waste it. You should initially focus on proven strategies that require relatively small investments, can deliver stable positive results, and can help your search engine rankings along the way. To reiterate, these strategies include a professionally-designed custom website with great content and solid foundational SEO, optimization of your online listings, review collection, content marketing, active social media presence, and prominent presence in the local community through local outreach or partnering with local businesses. Focus on marketing strategies that build up your brand, and your search engine rankings will follow.
Most importantly, SEO won’t fix a poor business model. A service that finds no buyers won’t become more appealing if you improve site performance, fix canonicals or claim more real estate on the search engine results page. Before investing in monthly SEO where results cannot be predicted or guaranteed, focus on what you can control: ensuring that your business model is top-notch with an excellent team, helpful front desk staff, high-quality care, and a good reputation. That will help you convert prospects into patients and deliver tangible positive results both in the short and long term. Take every patient Google sends you and turn them into a keeper with exceptional service and face-to-face human experiences. Find ways to lessen your reliance on Google by developing real-world community and loyalty. Focusing on the conversions is where the money is at. In fact, the better your conversion rate, the less traffic you have to rely on. And relying on less is always a good thing in an online world when things can change overnight.
About the Author
Nina Litovsky is the founder of Nina Interactive, a boutique firm that offers high-quality custom web design, content writing, logo design, and foundational SEO services for solo and group medical and dental practices, doctor-managed blogs, and healthcare-related businesses.