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SEO and Search Engines for Healthcare Organizations

In today's highly digital enviroment, search engines are increasingly becoming the main way for potential healthcare patients to research symptoms, possible treatments and medical organizations that provide those treatments.

Search engines allow patients to:

  • Collect information on their  or their loved ones ailments
  • Evaluate possible treatments
  • Discover new hospitals
  • Compare offerings between various facilities

A study published by Think with Google on The Digital Journey to Wellness found that 77 percent of patients used search engines prior to booking appointments. It also showed that search drove nearly three times as many visitors to hospital websites as did referral sites such as GetReferralMD.com, Healthgrades.com, or localized listings sites.

Taking into account 88 percent of patients said a hospital's website contributed to their decision process, the importance of search engines can not be overstated.The digital field is only going to continue to grow, so putting your organization on the front page of search results is paramount to capturing new patients. Understanding how to properly leverage the marketing potential of search engines is the first step in that process.

Keyword Types

Keywords are search terms or phrases that people type into a search engine like Google or Bing. Think of them like the basic building blocks search engine optimization (SEO) is built upon. No matter how complex a digital marketing strategy, it's starts with understanding what keywords an audience uses and the kind of information they expect to find in return.

Keywords important to a healthcare industry client can be put into five categories, each corresponding roughly with where a customer is in the conversion funnel. These categories are symptoms, conditions and diseases, treatments and procedures, professionals and departments, and branded and locational. It's important for each of these groups to both understand the intent behind the search, and the type of result Google will display for them.

For instance, why would someone search for the term “chest pain?” What sort of page would this potential patient be looking to reach? More importantly, how would a website capitalize on this search in order to drive traffic? Below is a list of broad groupings of keywords, and an explanation of the possible intent behind them.


These are the keywords that will mostly be used at the beginning of the conversion funnel. Customers recognize a health problem either with themselves or a loved one and are trying to find out what it could be.

Common examples could include:

  • Sore Throat
  • Dry Skin
  • Ear Pain
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A typical result for Symptom-based keywords, Google with generally provide fast answers boxes and other SERP features to quickly answer users questions.

Capturing These Searches

These searches are going to be informational, not transactional. Expect pages that rank for this to be informational articles on the potential causes of symptoms, possible treatments or home remedies, and other practical information. These keywords will be highly contested as such broad searches are going to be covered by WebMD, Mayoclinic and other websites from well-established brands.

These searches are also less likely to have localized results. What this means is that search results will be the same across the country, with Google not taking into consideration the searchers location when providing results. This makes it difficult for region specific organizations to compete.

Conditions and Diseases

This group would cover keywords associated with specific ailments such as “throat cancer” or “melanoma.” With this group, it is a bit harder to quantify their intent, as it can be very broad. This could be searches made by customers that now know what specific condition they or their loved ones have and are actively seeking more information. Or it could be someone looking for textbook information for more research purposes.

Common examples include:

  • Lung Cancer
  • Arthritis 
  • Tachycardia
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Capturing These Searches

As with the above group, expect these keywords to be more informational rather than transactional. A hospital or healthcare network looking to rank for them will need to have a large database of information surrounding each and would be putting a significant amount of time and money towards the effort.

Common examples for the results will vary based on the keyword, but you’ll generally see WebMD, Wikipedia, government health websites, as well as keyword specific organizations, such as The American Heart Association, Cancer.gov, American Cancer society, etc. These keywords are also not likely to have localized rank attached to them.

Treatments and Procedures

Keywords focused under treatments and procedures will cover keywords directly related to what hospitals and healthcare networks have to offer. These are keywords such as “chemotherapy,” “heart bypass” and others. Generally, these keywords would be found in the the discovery page of the intent funnel.

Some searches in this category could be patients that have recognized a problem and are actively looking for a solution, while others may simply be looking for information on a procedure without any intent to take further steps such as contacting a healthcare organization. There will be both informational and transactional results for these types of searches.

Common Examples include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Heart Bypass
  • Radiation Treatment
  • Colonoscopy

Capturing These Searches

Looking at the front page of most of these types of keywords, you are seeing massive sites fighting for those top spots. The Mayo Clinic, Cancer.gov, breastcancer.org, as well as news websites such as The Guardian or The Atlantic, which have major stories surrounding a particular topic.

Competing for these keywords will be an uphill battle in some cases, and a bit easier in others. A keyword such as “chemotherapy” might be hotly contested as you will be competing against organizations such as cancer.org, webMD and wikipedia. Look into each of your keywords carefully, look at what is currently ranking on the front page not just in terms of competition, but in terms of content.

Do you see your organization being more authoritative in the medical field for this particular topic than what is currently ranked? Is your website designed to offer the same type of information as the pages that are currently on the front page? Are local results appearing or do these results appear to be more nationally focused?  

Professionals and Departments

Keywords in this section cover searches where a customer recognizes their problem and is looking for a doctor or department that will best treat them. This is someone in the purchasing stage of conversion, who recognizes the problem and has a good idea of the solution they want and are narrowing in on the provider they want to go with.

Common Examples Include:

  • Pediatrics
  • Radiologist
  • Neurologist

Typically, the results for these types of searches will be localized to the area of the searcher. For example, when it comes to kids, a parent might see websites for various pediatricians. These are also highly likely to spark Local Pack results. Local packs are a special category of results that are displayed when a searcher uses a term that Google believes will lead to them going to visit a nearby area.

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Ranking in a Local Pack is a great way for healthcare organizations to capture new audiences to their website

Capturing These Searches

These will be your bread and butter for capturing search traffic. Not only are these search results localized, but the searchers themselves are highly likely to convert compared to any of the previous keyword groups. Do your research, see what is currently ranking on the front page for your keyword and the overall feel for the information they are providing. Make sure your competition isn’t providing information you aren’t.

Branded and Locational

Keywords in this category fall at the very end of the conversion funnel and are highly likely to convert. These searchers have already recognized their problem, chosen a solution and are either considering or have already chosen a healthcare provider. This group also covers those looking for immediate assistance or the location of nearby facilities.  

Common Examples Include:

  • Springfield Medical Group
  • Urgent Care
  • USA Health Center

Capturing These Searches

As far as organic search is concerned, you are nearly there. These searchers have already chosen your website and all you need to do is get them to the correct page and make sure the information you are providing is sufficient and the conversion process is simple and intuitive.  Don’t leave your searchers hanging once they get to your site! Make sure your on-page design is clear enough to audiences so that they don’t feel confused or frustrated while trying to set up an appointment or visit a location.