Plenty of dental practices are paying a monthly retainer for SEO services. But what exactly are they getting for their money? Not necessarily that much, says Daniel Warren.
It’s quite reasonable to understand what you’re getting when you pay for something. When one of your patients gets an implant, for example, you explain what you’re doing in their mouths. But hundreds of dental practices are paying people to “do SEO” for their websites, without any idea of what that involves.
According to Mark Brown, co-founder of digital marketing agency Engage Content, it doesn’t have to be that way. “You don’t need to understand intricate details of how the engine of your car works to drive it,” he explains. “But you don’t buy a car, then just leave it in the garage and never drive it. It has a purpose. And to drive it, you do need to understand how, where and why to put petrol in it, what happens when you change the gears, and so on.
“Similarly, you don’t make a website, put it up on the web, and forget about it. If you understand what search engines are, and how people use them, you can make sure your website is actually working for your practice.”
A search engine (like Google) is an index. Like the index you see in the back of a book. The difference between Google and the index in the back of your textbook is the way it structures information. But it’s still, at its heart, an index. In fact, Google’s company mission statement is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
Inside the machine
If you’re going to do that, you first need to get all the information on the Web. That’s a mind-bogglingly big job. They gather the information using software called ‘crawlers’ or ‘spiders’, which browse from website to website gathering inf0rmation about the various pages on each site. The crawlers travel from site to site using hyperlinks—the same way you do if you’re surfing around. That information the crawlers gather is then sent back to the index, where it is catalogued and stored.
“When you search the web using Google, you’re actually searching their index—not the web itself,” Brown explains. “That’s why you can put up a brand new website one day, and not be able to find it when you Google it tomorrow. The site may not be indexed yet.”
When you use a search engine, you type a couple of words into the blank box on the page and hit ‘search’. The search engine then rifles though its index at super-fast speed to send you pages it thinks you’re looking for.
Those words you type into the box—your search query—are also called keywords. Keywords are words or phrases that indicate what you’re looking for to Google’s computers. But it’s very hard for a computer—or a human being, for that matter—to work out exactly what you’re looking for based on one or two keywords.
“Take ‘teeth whitening’, for example,” says Brown. “Imagine a patient walked up to you and said, ‘Teeth whitening!’, then waited with their arms folded for your response. Do they want to know what teeth whitening is? Or how much it costs? Or whether it’s safe? Or how long it takes? Do they want you to whiten their teeth right then and there?
“It’s possible that the patient doesn’t know what he or she is looking for yet. Similarly, with search engines, we’ll often do a search for a short keyword first, in order to work out what we’re looking for. Then we’ll see the results, and search again, refining the words we use.”
Those second- and third-tier searches often involve longer, more specific phrases. These longer phrases are called ‘long tail keywords’. An example of a long tail keyword might be ‘how long does teeth whitening last for?’ or ‘what chemicals are used in teeth whitening?’
Looking for clues
Keywords are just one of the more than 200 factors search engines use to figure out how to index the pages on your site, Brown says. The web crawlers look at words and phrases that are repeated at important places on each page, and use them as a clue. The search engine also uses those factors to try and determine the quality of what you’ve published, and whether your page should be the first result or not. Or even whether it should be on the front page, or the second, or elsewhere.
“Some of those factors used to rank your website pages are things you have very little control over,” says Brown. “For example, one of the factors is looking at the links that come in to your site from other websites. If these links are coming in from somewhere credible and authoritative, they will help you get a better ranking. But if they’re from somewhere dodgy, they can have a negative effect. There are ways you can build credible links, but if you try to trick the search engines, they won’t like it.
“Most importantly, no-one anywhere knows the exact balance of factors Google uses to determine rankings. Anyone who tells you they do know is lying.”
SEO for dental practices may sometimes be tricky to do, Brown admits. But it should be easy for anyone to understand.
“The process of optimising your practice website involves making the pages as easy as possible for search engines to find and understand. Really, you should only need to do it properly once for each page,” he says.
“If you’re paying someone a monthly retainer for SEO services, you deserve to know what it is they’re doing. Their answer to the nine simple questions below will give you an idea as to whether you’re paying for a result, or just giving someone money for nothing.”
Nine questions to ask your SEO provider
If you are paying a digital agency for SEO services, and they are promising your practice website will rank in a Google search, there are a few basic questions you can ask to understand what you’re paying for.
1. What specifically are they doing each month that optimises your site?
2. Are they adding new content?
3. Are they changing the pages to make them easier to find?
4. How often do they have to do that?
5. Are they building new links?
6. If so, where are these links coming from?
7. How many keywords is the site ranking in the top 10 for?
8. Is this changing month to month?
9. And if it is, what do they do that initiates that change?
Your current SEO provider should be able to easily answer those in a way that you can understand. They should not have to baffle you with jargon. Any answer they offer that you don’t understand indicates they’re actually doing very little.