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With most surgeries and preventive screenings canceled or deferred, the pandemic has significantly impacted non-COVID-19 patient acquisition, admission, and retention efforts. This has created a backlog of patient demand, leading many to leave their primary care network. It's not only important for health care systems to build back patient loyalty and trust, it's a financial priority. A few straightforward solutions can help hospitals build back demand that declined dramatically during the COVID-19 outbreak. According to a retrospective study published in Health Affairs, even among hospitals experiencing a minimal impact from COVID-19 admissions, non-COVID-19 medical admissions fell by 39.5%; for hospitals with the greatest COVID-19 impact, non-COVID-19 admissions fell by 50%.1

While focusing on near-term campaigns to recapture lost volume, health systems also need to embrace search engine optimization (SEO). Why? An estimated 70,000 health-related searches are conducted each minute.2

Today, SEO is a much more nuanced task than in years past. The most important thing competitive organizations need to understand about SEO is that it presents a longer-term effort that accumulates influence continuously—boosting traffic to your site, aligning patient queries with your services, and establishing you as the trusted source.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

Both search engine marketing (SEM) and SEO are factors used to improve a health care system's digital marketing efforts and reach. SEM utilizes paid search methods and is distinguishable from SEO as the latter draws traffic from organic search results alone.

Most search engine results are divided into two main categories: paid search results, which appear at the top of the page as pay-per-click (PPC) content, and organic search results, which are ranked according to relevance to the search term and the quality of backlinks (links from outside domains) that point back to your website.3

What does this look like for health care? SEM is often used for location targeting; if a user searches “cardiologists near me,” SEM results will return PPC results aligning local, affiliated health care facilities with the user’s inquiry. SEO offers broader, content-based search results, combining local keywords with condition- or treatment-specific keywords such as “cardiovascular disease treatment in Philadelphia.”

How-COVID19-is-changing-search-engine-optimizationSearch engine results page with paid and organic results

Why is SEO so important?

While SEM incorporates SEO with PPC tactics, marketers frequently mistake SEM as a silver bullet to help drive traffic, often dropping the ball on SEO efforts. Organic searches, in fact, drive 53% of web traffic while paid searches drive only 27%.4 A robust SEO strategy is even more critical when you understand that 99% of all internet searchers click on organic links in the first SERP (search engine results page) and, realistically, up to 80% of searchers ignore paid ads while a quarter of them use ad blockers.4,5

And though SEM helps drive high visibility (if not clickability), SEM is paid for—not earned—and once the ads stop, so do the rankings. This means SEO is needed to sustain any influence in search engine rankings. Whereas SEM delivers near-term results, SEO takes time and patience as it delivers cumulative results that only increase in value.

What are the best SEO practices today?

Search engines today utilize algorithms that process natural language and can interpret larger bodies of text used in organic searches.6 Importantly, these algorithms allow a machine to understand the nuance of context, not just standalone meanings of words.7 For example, search engines today can differentiate the meaning of the word “bass” in “how to catch a bass” vs. “how to play the bass.”

Modern search algorithms now handle tasks related to natural language processing such as entity recognition, tagging parts of speech (prepositions like “to” and “for” matter), and question-answering.3 Search terms have been replaced with search conversations— just think of how people naturally interact with smart speakers like Siri and Alexa. In fact, 27% of online populations today use voice search and this trend is only likely to grow.4

To improve SEO, marketers need to optimize their site by including content that uses more natural language and conversational queries. In fact, searches incorporating four or more keywords are twice as likely to get your organization a click than a one-word keyword.4

SEO practices today assume to match user intent rather than keywords. Where once “knee surgery” or “orthopedic centers” were considered appropriate searches, today a patient realistically searches “what happens during knee surgery” or “where can I get knee surgery done?” And, remember, queries can be broader than the care of an individual as people often search for health answers on behalf of their children, aging parents, and even friends.

How can SEO build back patient demand?

People are more involved in their own care (and that of their household) and are increasingly quick to search the internet for health information and services. With limited ability to consult directly with their primary care provider, specialist, or chronic care manager during COVID-19, patients have been driven to search for their own answers, and an uptick in search volumes has created a real need for health organizations to boost SEO.

Optimizing search terms using natural language is a more powerful, actionable way to connect with patients. Improved SEO efforts will not only help drive traffic to your organization’s site but can align a patient query (representative of their needs) with your specific services. This paints your organization as knowledgeable, trustworthy, and better able to meet patient needs.

Why should companies invest more in SEO vs. SEM efforts?

Health care organizations should reassess their investment in SEM vs. SEO to ensure their efforts are building toward greater SEO as it creates a lasting impact—well beyond the effects of paid content. As SEO builds organically over time, investing in SEO today will pay off into the future whereas SEM stops when you stop spending. The two strategies, however, work hand in hand: as long as your SEO is well attended, SEM works to amplify your SEO efforts.

It's important to mention, despite the ability to process more natural, conversational queries, the new search algorithms won’t help websites with poorly written content. A trusted partner like Krames is essential to help you attain—and grow—visibility by incorporating natural language and nuanced content that stands out in a search.

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1 Birkmeyer J, Barnato A, Birkmeyer N, Bessler R., Skinner J. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on hospital admission in the United States. Health Affairs. Published September 24, 2020. Accessed March 23, 2021.
2 Drees J. Google receives more than 1 billion health questions every day. Becker’s Health IT Web site. https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/healthcare-information-technology/google-receives-more-than-1-billion-health-questions-every-day.html#:~:text=Google's%20total%20daily%20health%2Drelated,and%20insurance%20questions%2C%22%20Dr. March 11, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2021.
3 Rankings. Search Metrics Web site. https://www.searchmetrics.com/glossary/rankings. Accessed March 15, 2021.
Heltzman A. Organic vs. paid search: (66 astonishing) statistics for 2021. Higher Visibility Blog. https://www.highervisibility.com/blog/organic-vs-paid-search-statistics. Published March 3, 2021. Accessed March 24, 2021.
5 McGinley C. SEO vs. PPC: When to optimize and when to pay for traffic. HubSpot Blog. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/tabid/6307/bid/1514/paid-search-vs-organic-search.aspx. Updated February 18, 2020. Accessed March 24, 2021.
Valencia A. Why SEO still matters in 2020. Forbes. Published March 10, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2020/03/10/why-seo-still-matters-in-2020/?sh=6784e6c134b1. Accessed March 15, 2021.
Montti R. Google BERT update – What it means. Search Engine Journal. Published October 25, 2019. https://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-bert-update/332161/#close. Accessed March 15, 2021.