Article Date: 8/1/2006

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Your patients are looking for you on the Web. Are you there yet?
By Michelle Boyles, Managing Editor

A recent Harris Interactive poll shows that 80% of consumers today research health information online. But with the wealth of information out there, how do you drive patients to your Web site? And once they are there, how do you get them to make an appointment? This article will tell you the dos and don'ts for putting your site together and ensuring it works for your practice.

The patient perspective

Internet users conduct nearly five billion searches every month on major search sites. And while you may not think patients are searching for you, the statistics tell a different story. In the month of June, 8,090 searches were conducted on Yahoo.com for "optometrist, Los Angeles." The chart on page 66 shows that even if your practice is in a smaller town, patients are looking for eye care online.

Rudy Svezia, president of Virex Marketing & DocGrow.com, explains why a Web site is increasingly necessary in today's society. "It's simply expected. People have come to expect you will have a Web site when they want to make a decision about you or your services," he says.

Savvy, educated patients are more prone to search for health information on the Web. And the more involved the procedure, the more likely a patient is to research it. Stewart Gandolf, M.B.A., partner at Healthcare Success Strategies explains, "In marketing, we call this a high-involvement decision. If the risk or cost of a product or service is high, patients are more likely to do secondary research."

Sample of Searches for Optometrists on Yahoo.com in June 2006

  Search term

Number of searches
Optometrist, Los Angeles    8,090
Optometrist, Chicago  6,145
Optometrist, Washington, D.C. 5,430
Optometrist, Philadelphia  4,262
Optometrist, Riverside, Calif. 2,107
Optometrist, Louisville, Ky. 1,283
Optometrist, Monmouth, N.J. 1,175
Optometrist, Bergen, N.J. 1,157
Optometrist, York, Pa.  495

Optimizing your site

There are several keys to a successful healthcare Web site. Mr. Gandolf and Mr. Svezia agree that a Web site should be part of your overall marketing plan. "Traditional marketing efforts introduce your product or service to the market. A Web site is your excuse to have an in-depth resource about you," says Mr. Svezia.

However, take care in creating your site. You don't want to overload the patient or make it difficult for them to find what they are looking for.

Keeping it simple is your best bet in several ways. Both of the consultants we spoke with suggest keeping the home page simple. "We recommend people have the location of the practice and the phone number in the upper right-hand corner of the page," says Mr. Gandolf. "Segment other information away from that page," says Mr. Svezia. For example, have a separate page that lists office hours, another page that lists your practice's dry eye services and so on. Mr. Gandolf also suggests you have a strong headline that speaks to the unique benefits your practice offers.

But be careful with the amount of information you include and the way in which you present it. "One mistake healthcare professionals make is to forget that the Internet is a visual medium," says Mr. Svezia. He suggests avoiding too much text or technical terminology. "How the user navigates is just as important as what's on the site ... The patient looks for what he thinks he might have," he explains. That means if your site includes information about treatments for conjunctivitis, a patient searching for "red eye," wouldn't see it in the results page.

You should also avoid too much flash technology on your site, which appears as splash pages or some sort of animation. "Most Web designers are simply artists. A lot of 'cool' features will actually impede your ability to be found in an organic search," says Mr. Gandolf. For instance, if your practice logo is placed on your site as an image vs. text, it's virtually invisible to search engines. What's more, those flashy bells and whistles can slow down the loading time for your Web site. "People are incredibly impatient on the Internet. You've got literally one or two seconds to grab their attention," says Mr. Gandolf.

Search engine visibility

"Most searchers never get beyond the top ten search results," says Mr. Gandolf. "In fact, many never get past the first one or two listings." But how do you get your site in the top rankings? There are several methods.

Pay-per-click advertising. These are the sponsored results you see above and beside your search results. You pay the search engine and your site is listed in the sponsored results. "Most search engines have joined major networks headed up by Google, Yahoo and MSN. So, when you contract with each of these, you get immediate access to hundreds or search engines and will be visible to almost all searches," explains Mr. Gandolf. Each network operates differently, but we can offer a few tips for pay-per-click ads.

Target ads geographically. This way, you only pay for clicks from prospective patients in your area.

Multiple key words. Brainstorm every possible phrase patients might use to find you. Mr. Gandolf recommends a minimum of 300, but 1,000 or more is better. Remember to think like your patient.

Bid on the best keywords. With some search engines such as Yahoo.com, you'll bid in an auction to have your listing appear in the top sponsored results. Cost can range from ten cents to a couple of dollars per click for private practices. Bid more on keywords most relevant to your practice.

A Search engine optimization (SEO). This method employs tricks to boost your Web site's organic (free) ranking.

Keywords are important here as well. Earlier we mentioned that patients are more likely to search for more expensive, risky procedures. So, if your practice offers premium lenses or punctual occlusion, be sure to list them as keywords. Remember to think like a patient and use terms he or she would use.

Title tags. These are words or phrases at the top of each page that describe that page's content. Most search engines value these highly. Be sure your Web designer incorporates them, along with meta tags.

Content. Search engines are drawn to sites that have a lot of written text and content that increases regularly. So updating your content regularly can actually help you get a better listing. Also, be careful that your practice name or logo is written out and not just included as an image. These are invisible to search engines.

Web directories. Mr. Gandolf says, "Make sure your site is listed in the two most important directories, Yahoo's and Dmoz.org's." Once you're listed there, search engines are much more likely to notice your site.

Links. Some search engines value sites that include numerous links to relevant sites. However, they must be relevant to your content. So linking to your daughter's "My space" account probably won't do much for your ranking.

Tracking your progress

Once you've put all the effort into your site, you want to be sure it's working and attracting patients. Mr. Gandolf suggests using Alexa.com. The free Web site provides an instant approximation of how heavily a site is trafficked. You can see how well you're doing, as well as how well your competitors are fairing. "If the results say 'no data,' it's a dead site," he says. Keep in mind, however, the site only provides an approximate number, says Mr. Gandolf, "Take it with a grain of salt."



Optometric Management, Issue: August 2006