How healthcare SEO works

Understanding SEO and search engines for healthcare.


In today's highly digital environment, search engines have become the primary way patients research the health concerns they have. Prospective patients will try to learn more about your doctors, the treatments and procedures you offer, and how other patients have reviewed those service lines online before they book an appointment. And even if they DID book an appointment without doing any of that searching (which studies show, they won’t), patients literally cannot find your location without searching for your health system online.

How do patients use a search engine, like Google or Yahoo?

  • Collect information on their or their loved one's health conditions
  • Evaluate possible treatments
  • Discover new hospitals
  • Compare offerings between various facilities

The Importance of Organic Search

A study published by Think Google on The Digital Journey to Wellness found that 77 percent of patients used search engines prior to booking appointments. Those searches drove nearly three times as many visitors to hospital websites compared to other referral sites. The study also showed that 88 percent of patients said a hospital's website contributed to their decision process. It’s not just younger patients starting their search online — released a study in 2018 that reported 76 percent of respondents over 60 had made a healthcare-related search online that year. And that was BEFORE the pandemic.

Understanding how to properly leverage this digital arm of marketing — search and how it ties back to your website — is critical to the success of healthcare organizations in 2021 and beyond.

Understanding keyword types specific to healthcare

Keyword categories vary vastly by industry. The keywords important to the healthcare industry can be broken down into four broad categories, each corresponding roughly with where a customer is in the conversion funnel. The four main categories are: symptoms, conditions, treatments, and action.

How a healthcare funnel works.

The most important thing to understand about each of these groups is the intent behind the patient’s search, and the type of results Google will display for them. Then, you can ultimately decide if and how they should be targeted.

Next, we’ll break down each of the keyword categories and explain how to determine the intent behind those searches.


Users whose search queries fall within this bracket are generally at the top of our funnel. These are people who recognize they or a loved one has a problem and are trying to find an answer or cause for it. They’re in the first steps of their journey. The queries these people type into search engines are going to be informational, not transactional.

Common examples could include:

  • Sore Throat
  • Dry skin
  • Ear pain

Examples of the types of results for these queries include WebMD, Healthline, Medline plus, and other websites that are well-established and dedicated to diagnosing problems.


This group covers keywords associated with specific conditions and diagnoses such as “throat cancer” or “melanoma.” This group is a bit harder to quantify the intent behind, as it can be very broad. These are people who now know what specific condition they or their loved one has been diagnosed with and are actively seeking more information. Or, they could be someone looking for textbook information for further general research purposes. The results for these searches will be primarily informational, not transactional, just like the symptoms results would be.

Common examples include

  • Lung Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Tachycardia

The results will vary based on the keyword typed into the search engine, but you’ll generally see WebMD, Wikipedia, government health websites, as well as keyword-specific organizations, such as The American Heart Association,, American Cancer Society, etc.


Keywords focused on 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.

These are people that have recognized their problem and are actively looking for a solution. However, this could also be someone looking for information on a specific procedure and is not actively looking to convert beyond this point. A family member may have heard their relative is getting a heart bypass and is simply trying to learn what that means for their loved one. This will generally return results that are both informational and transactional.

Common examples include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Heart Bypass
  • Radiation treatment
  • Colonoscopy


When someone falls into this category, it means they already recognize the problem or diagnosis, and they have a clear intent. They’re looking for a department or specialty that will be able to treat them or their loved ones 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 immediate area of the searcher. Most action-based keywords will yield results that include Local Packs, a term that refers to a group of three local business listings that appear in response to search queries for products or services provided by local businesses.

Action-based keywords may also take the form of branded and location-specific searches.

Common examples include:

  • Columbus Regional Medical Group
  • Urgent Care
  • USA Family Medicine Center

Once someone has reached the point that they are searching for a specific brand, most of the work is already done. Instead of focusing on how to capture these searches, emphasis instead needs to be placed on what to show these searchers when they reach a particular landing page.

Understanding the Importance of the Right Keywords and How to Target Them

Not all keywords are born equally. While keyword volumes are an attractive way to sell SEO (this keyword has 10,000 searches a month, we should rank for it!) it isn’t the best way to approach targeting your website. Let's take a look at an example with a hypothetical hospital in Dallas Texas.

Our hospital wants to increase the number of patients coming to their cancer department. In researching keywords, we’ve come up with his list:


Volume (Dallas Texas)



Breast Cancer




Based on this, we have three clear winners for keywords. 3,900 new sessions a month? Fantastic, but let’s dig a bit deeper before we start patting ourselves on the back. First, we need to look at the SERP (or Search Engine Results Page) for these keywords.

First and foremost, let’s look at the TYPE of page that is appearing on this SERP. These pages are informational, they are providing general information about Cancer (with one providing information about the Cancer constellation horoscope, interestingly.)

From this, we can get a certain expectation of what Google deems relevant to this search. Google thinks that anyone searching for the keyword “cancer” is looking for general information. What does that mean for our hospital? Well, if we are wanting to rank for this keyword then we are going to need a page that provides general information about cancer. Does this fit with our overall goal? Is it likely that someone searching for general information about cancer will then convert to being a patient? Next, let’s look at the websites that are being displayed. The first three results (discounting the news wheel for now) we see the following websites:

  • Wikipedia
  • National Cancer Institute
  • WebMD

To understand these top results, we need to understand how Google determines which websites are credible.

What is domain authority?

Domain authority is how we understand the amount of “trust” Google places on a website. A high domain authority means that Google trusts a website to a very high degree and thinks that the information provided on the site is valuable and credible enough to prioritize for its users. A low domain authority could mean that Google does not trust the site, or that the site is new enough that Google is unsure how to rank it.

Domain Authority is scored on a 100-point scale, 1 being the lowest, and 100 being the highest. A weak score would be considered 0 - 20. Anywhere between 20-30 is slightly below average, and 30-50 is good. Once your score reaches the 50-60 zone, it’s considered to be strong. If you reach 60-100, you’ve in a great spot for search results. Let's say that our example hospital’s website has a domain authority of around 40 — a fairly average domain authority we’d expect from our hypothetical hospital. How does that stack up compared to the top three results above?

  • Wikipedia: 100 DA
  • National Cancer Institute: 100 DA
  • WebMD: 96 DA

Our hypothetical website does not have a great chance at outranking these pages. But it’s probably not important that we do. Based on these results, searchers aren’t using these keywords in an effort to find a doctor to visit or a hospital to go to. While it could be theoretically possible for us to rank on the front page (very unlikely), the number of conversions we’d see from that traffic would be extremely minimal and would certainly not outweigh the number of hours we put into trying to rank. That’s because these sites provide top-of-funnel information. People searching and being served these sites were not looking to book an appointment, but rather, trying to collect information.

How to Approach Paid Search

Due to the nature of the organic search landscape, paid search campaigns may provide an immediate lift in brand awareness but do not affect the long-term rank of your organic keywords. However, paid search is a great tool to enhance your organic search strategy and can provide a wealth of actionable data.

1. Location targeting

To capture searchers that are in the proximity of your healthcare facility, apply Location Targeting within pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns. Location targeting can help you focus your ad spend and ensure that your ads are appearing in front of a more targeted and motivated audience who live in the region of your health system or practice. Google will not only serve your ads to users within that specific location but also users who are searching about the target location.

2. Ad extensions

Ad Extensions are exactly what they sound like — additional information—giving people more reasons to choose your business over the competing sites. For instance, buttons, location information, links to specific pages of your website, additional text, and more.

According to Statista, as of the fourth quarter of 2019, 49 percent of Yahoo's U.S. organic search traffic originated from mobile devices. Google had the highest share of organic mobile search traffic with 61 percent, slightly ahead of DuckDuckGo with 58 percent. Ad Extensions help your health system stand out and capture that increasingly mobile audience.

Google and its competitors are continually making updates to available extensions, and it’s important to take advantage of these. Not only do they make the ad more prominent and allow for more search result page real estate, but they’re also a factor in your ad ranking, which can greatly improve your auction performance. And that performance will ultimately influence your campaign’s success.

Ad extensions really do make an impact. In 2017, we were able to increase one health system’s cancer center conversion rate by 163% in a single year, which brought the campaign’s performance above the healthcare industry benchmark for the first time.

As we optimized and remained ahead of the curve with the newest features available, performance continued to improve year over year and resulted in a 595.86% increase in conversion rate from 2016 to 2021. The total number of phone call inquiries to the cancer center per year also nearly doubled during this same period.

In order to increase ad visibility and remain competitive in ad auctions, Google recommends a healthy mix of text ad extensions. There are several different types of extensions that can be added.

⇢ Site Link Extensions:

Site link extensions can assist users on a general search such as “hospital” to get closer to where they want to be without having to navigate the web site

How site extensions work

⇢ Call Extensions:

Call extensions are a great way to capture a mobile audience. When your call extensions show with your ad, people see your number or— when their device can make calls—a clickable call button. People can also click on your ad to go to your website, and you can set numbers to show only when your business can take calls.

Call extensions are a great way to capture a mobile audience.

⇢ Location Extensions:

Similar to sitelinks and call extensions, location extensions have been around for some time. As proximity is often an important decision when determining which hospital to visit, it’s important the user can easily see where your hospital is versus where they are located. This extension is most useful when your health system or practice has multiple locations.

In order to use a location extension, you must first link your Google Ads account to your Google My Business account. Google Ads will automatically determine which of your Google My Business locations is nearest the user and show the address for that location only.

Location Extensions

⇢ Callout Extensions:

Callout extensions let you include additional text so you can show more detailed information about your business. They are displayed directly below the description in a text ad, making the ad more noticeable and allowing you to maximize the number of characters you can use. It’s important that these provide more general information that’s applicable to your entire business and can apply to each ad without being repetitive.

How callout extensions work.

⇢ Structured Snippet Extensions:

As with callout extensions, structured snippets provide more information about your general business to the viewer. Structured snippets allow you to highlight specific aspects of your services, giving users a nature of the range of services offered before they click on an ad. They show beneath your text ad in the form of a header (ex: “Service catalog”) and a list of values that fall within that header’s category.

How structured snippet extensions work.

3. Responsive Search Ads

One of Google’s latest updates is that they recommend at least one Responsive Search Ad (RSA) per ad group. These RSAs use combinations of existing text ad copy and earn a higher quality score when top-performing search queries are used. According to Google, ad groups that employ a combination of at least two expanded text ads and one RSA receive up to 15% more clicks or conversions. Since our adoption of this type of ad, the majority of our top converting ads have, in fact, been RSAs.

A key to successful RSAs is knowing that assets can be shown in any order, so you need to ensure that each asset makes sense individually or as part of any combination. You can pin assets to only show in certain positions, but this reduces the potential combinations and often hurts your ad strength. Leveraging the feedback from the Ad Strength tool helps make each RSA more effective.

The current paid search landscape certainly involves a balancing act between control and automation. As Google Ads evolves, it’s been clear that they are pushing for more automation for multiple reasons such as privacy compliance, ad relevance, and algorithm optimizations. The most successful advertisers recognize the need to maximize the level of control available while still following Google's best practices to allow the algorithm to do its best work.

Negative Keywords

Google decides which search queries are relevant to the keywords you’ve chosen for your campaign and determines when your ads will show. It can be helpful to add negative keywords to your campaigns to block search queries that are irrelevant to your content. For example, let's say you're an optometrist who sells eyeglasses. In this case, you may want to add negative keywords for search terms like “wine glasses” and "drinking glasses."

Listed below are a few examples for specific categories.

Professionals and Departments:

  • “My”
  • “Login”
  • “Portal”
  • Payment
  • Billing

Conditions, Diseases, Treatments & Procedures:

  • “What is”
  • Define
  • “Meaning of”
  • Information
  • Symptoms
  • Problems
  • Risk
  • About
  • News
  • Research

However, you may want to show up for these types of research queries. Consider using these filters when budgets are limited or your reports are showing little to no impressions or click-through rates (CTRs).

When Paid Search and Organic Combine, You Win

The odds of winning space on the first page of search results will be far greater if you use both paid and organic search optimizations rather than using one or the other. But for either to work, you must have a clear goal in mind.

Having a clear understanding of what that goal should be and where to allocate your budget will make or break your success in search results. Paid search ads can be expensive, and building organic search results will take time. It will be worth your investment to request the advice of a paid and organic search expert before pulling the trigger on any new efforts.

  • Healthcare marketing
  • SEO
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Paid Search
  • Healthcare