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Practice Development | Sept/Oct '20

Quarterly Healthcare SEO Roundup: Q3 2020

When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO) and health care, only two statistics matter:

1. More than eight out of 10 patients use Google as their first step in researching a medical condition or selecting a physician1; and

2. Fewer than one in 100 patients will ever click through to page 2 (or beyond) of Google search results.2

A practice’s ability to appear high in organic search engine results pages is crucial for patient acquisition and growth. If your practice website does not appear on page 1, you’re missing out on patients and revenue.

To help physicians and their marketing managers stay on top of the biggest developments in SEO, this article summarizes the major changes that occurred this quarter. Included are actionable tips and insights that practices can take to respond to market changes, stay on top of their online presence, and keep acquiring patients from organic search.


What Happened

On September 23, Google experienced an issue with websites dropping from its index entirely, causing major declines in traffic for websites that rank on page 1. Google took more than a week to admit it was experiencing an issue. The company then noted that the problem was twofold: one issue had to do with canonicalization, or how Google decides which content is most authoritative, and the other was related to mobile indexing.

Why It Matters for Health Care

Organic search is the largest source of website traffic for most practices, so even a temporary removal from Google’s rankings could have an outsize effect on patient acquisition. Although issues like these are rare, it is important for practices and their marketing teams to ensure that their website was not affected.

What Practices Should Do

In response to the indexing issues, Google tweeted, “There’s no action to take with these issues on the part of site owners. We apologize for the issues here and are working rapidly to resolve them.” Still, any time an indexing error occurs, it is wise for marketing managers to check their website analytics platform (eg, Google Analytics) and Google Search Console to (1) verify if they were affected and (2) closely monitor pages that were affected to ensure that they fully recover. If you found that your practice website was affected, there is no need for action, but you will want to monitor the affected pages closely to ensure that they get put back into the index, as Google claims they will.


What Happened

Early in September, Google notified advertisers on its Google Ads platform of an impending change. The company stated that, going forward, the Search Terms Report will “only include terms that were searched by a significant number of users.” The Search Terms Report shows advertisers the real-world Google searches that triggered their ads. It is an incredibly valuable source of keyword ideas for advertisers, marketers, and SEO alike.

Importantly, this policy change by Google lacks transparency. What exactly is the threshold that constitutes a significant number of users? The less data the Search Terms Report contains, the less valuable it is to advertisers. Google’s policy change here ostensibly enhances user privacy, but it also has the potential to make billions of dollars in advertising spend invisible to advertisers, which is of enormous significance to practices engaging in paid advertising or SEO.

Why It Matters for Health Care

Although this change primarily affects practices that utilize paid advertising on Google Ads, it has outsize effects on practices that engage in SEO efforts as well. The Search Terms Report is one of the best ways for practices to identify new keywords, as it uses real-life data to show which searches triggered their ads. The Search Terms Report can be a great tool to help practices identify and target new organic keywords as they try to increase their share of voice and build brand awareness in their local markets. Google’s changes do enhance user privacy somewhat, but practices may now need to go elsewhere to find new keyword ideas.

What Practices Should Do

Regardless of whether patient acquisition efforts hinge on organic or paid traffic, practices that use Google’s tools may need to get more inventive going forward. Be sure to analyze past data in your Search Terms Report, as those data are likely as good as they’re going to get. Download the data as a spreadsheet to retain the insights and minimize the risk of data loss. Consider using Google’s Keyword Planner Tool (also in Google Ads) or third-party tools such as Ahrefs or SEMRush as a source of ideas for paid and organic keywords.


What Happened

In September, Apple updated an internal documentation page about Applebot, its web crawler that helps it index web results for users. According to the company, Apple Search may now take the following into account when ranking online search results:

  • Aggregated user engagement with search results;
  • Relevancy and matching of search terms to webpage topics and content;
  • Number and quality of links from other pages on the web;
  • User location–based signals (approximate data); and
  • Webpage design characteristics.

It is important to note that Apple already has a search engine it uses for Spotlight searches on iOS devices, while it uses Google’s data for Siri searches. This new report doesn’t confirm that Apple is working on a universal search engine that would be similar to Google, but with the company’s recent focus on enhancing user privacy, speculation abounds. At the very least, Apple looks to be building its own internal tools to reduce its reliance on Google as a provider of data for its products and services.

Why It Matters for Health Care

Should Apple develop its own universal search engine, it would be yet another potential traffic source for which practice marketing managers need to optimize their websites. At a minimum, Apple’s efforts in this area underscore the importance of maintaining a good web presence that makes your website accessible to users across all platforms. Technologies such as on-device assistants (eg, Siri) and voice search platforms (eg, Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa) are on the rise around the world. As patients demand more convenience, ensuring that your website is top of mind across all search technologies remains crucial to the health of your practice and your patient acquisition efforts.

What Practices Should Do

At present, the existence of an Apple universal search engine is only speculation. As such, there are no major actionable steps practices should take at this time. However, optimizing your website for maximum visibility across other technologies, especially voice search platforms, remains a best practice for optimal SEO results.


Change is the only constant in the SEO world, and these changes can be difficult to navigate. As Google seeks to improve the experience and results it surfaces for its 1.7 billion daily active users, health care professionals must stay on top of these changes and adapt to continue serving their patients and growing their practices. Hopefully this quarterly SEO roundup will help.

1. Weaver J. More people search for health online. NBC News. July 16, 2020. www.nbcnews.com/id/3077086/t/more-people-search-health-online/%23.Xvn216dh1pQ#.Xyq7sRNKg3F. Accessed September 20, 2020.

2. Dean B. We analyzed 5 million Google search results: here’s what we learned about organic click-through rate. Backlinko. August 27, 2019. https://backlinko.com/google-ctr-stats. Accessed September 20, 2020.

Crawford Ifland