Skip to content

Episode 01: Cracking the Code on Healthcare SEO

Hosted by Aaron Burnett with Special Guest Jen Floyd

In 2024, organic search will remain a major channel for healthcare providers. So where should healthcare providers invest to succeed in organic search? In the first episode of the Digital Clinic podcast, we dive into the crucial findings from our recent study, Decoding Healthcare SEO: Unveiling the Tactics of Top-Ranked Provider Sites

Jen Floyd, Director of Digital Strategy at Wheelhouse DMG, shares the winning strategies employed by top-performing sites, the role of localized content, and the importance of understanding user intent in healthcare SEO. We also explore the surprising differences in SEO tactics across various specialties and the impact of aggregators on search results. Tune in to learn how you can crack the code on healthcare SEO and make well-informed decisions to drive your digital marketing success in 2024. 

Healthcare SEO Study Overview

Welcome to the Digital Clinic, the podcast that goes deep on critical digital marketing trends, strategies, and tactics for the healthcare and medical device industries. Each episode brings you expert guests sharing the knowledge, insights, and advice that healthcare marketers need to be successful in this complex and rapidly evolving digital landscape.

Aaron: I’m Aaron Burnett, CEO and Founder of Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group, and with me today is Jen Floyd, who is Director of Digital Strategy at Wheelhouse. Thanks for being here.

Jen: Thanks for having me.

Aaron: So, tell me about the study.

Jen: Our team performed a study, conducted a study, called Decoding Healthcare SEO: Unveiling the Tactics of Top-Ranked Provider Sites. The context around why we did this study is that Google has a special set of rules that they use for healthcare content. It’s part of a type of content called “your money, your life,” and so it’s any kind of content that can significantly impact your health, your fitness, your well-being, or your safety. So, healthcare falls into this bucket, along with things like medical devices and financial institutions, and because there is that additional layer of scrutiny on what we call YMYL content, it doesn’t always respond to the same SEO tactics that work in the rest of the world. So, we can’t always just use best practices or use things that work for other industries. And so that’s why we did this study; we wanted to demystify SEO for the healthcare industry, for both fellow marketers and ourselves. We’re a performance marketing agency, so we only do what’s tried and true. We don’t just rely on best practices or what we read about in the media. We try to only do what’s proven to work, and so we wanted to do this study to challenge our hypothesis of what we think works, get a holistic view of the landscape, and we wanted to kind of understand three things. One is, who’s winning, and more importantly, why are they winning? We wanted to discover if there was any nuance between certain metros or certain specialties, so we could dig in to see the why of things performing differently there. Then, most importantly, we just wanted to know what can the rest of the market do to compete against these winners, who often are large and have a lot of resources behind them? What can the rest of us do to successfully compete in healthcare search?

Aaron: Okay, that’s great. So, we’ve worked with healthcare clients for a long time, for more than a decade. Did you have a sense going into the study, did you have a preconceived notion that things that we have proven to work overtime maybe aren’t working now?

Jen: Not necessarily. A lot of what we’ve seen Google say about Your Money, Your Life or another acronym, you’re going to hear me say a lot is E-E-A-T or EEAT. It stands for experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. A lot of what we’ve seen Google say about YMYL and EEAT kind of aligns with how we’ve already thought about those paradigms. We feel like we’re well attuned to what’s going on and that our work has been effective. A lot of our hunches have come true. But again, we wanted to do this study just to prove it out, and also we have a new newish tool that we were excited to use, called Lighthouse, that was a perfect use case for this. It made the analysis really quick and much more efficient than if we were to try to do it by hand.

Analysis and Methodology Used

Aaron: Okay, that’s great. So, what kind of analysis did you perform? How did you approach the study, and how did you use Lighthouse?

Jen: We use Lighthouse – a lighthouse is a proprietary search intelligence platform – and it basically allows us to see Google the way it is. It doesn’t use any other third-party tool to filter, it scrapes from Google directly. It pulls search landscape data directly from Google, and then it’s sort of like SEO at scale. We fed Lighthouse 10s of 1000s of healthcare keywords, and we started off in one Metro; we started off in Chicago. The idea was that we would be able to have one example of a major urban market and apply those findings to other major metros, and also Chicago has more hospitals than any other metro, so we started off there. Because it’s so quick to do this analysis with Lighthouse, we quickly decided we wanted to add two more metros. We added Dallas, which is a growing metro. It has a lot of hospitals, and it’s becoming more competitive as new healthcare providers come onto the scene. Then we added Columbus which is more of a mid-sized market. We wanted to make sure we weren’t playing in any markets that we had ever worked with a client before or recently, just to really be in fresh waters and not have any preconceived notions. Because Lighthouse is so fast, we were able to spin around those extra markets pretty quickly. We also looked at a bunch of different specialties. We looked at cardiology, neurology, OB/GYN, pediatrics, primary care, and urgent care. We wanted to see if there were any unique differences between the different specialties or certain tactics that worked better for one or another. So, it helps us do what we used to do and what most agencies now do manually with a click of a button. We are able to pull in data directly from Google search engine results pages (SERP), and we put it into our Compass platform, our analytics platform, and we can instantly crunch a lot of data and understand the search landscape, who’s winning, what kind of search engine features are showing up and for what kinds of keywords, so not only do we better understand the landscape and the SERP features, but we also get a sense of who’s winning, who’s losing, and can kind of easily separate out the competitors? For this analysis, it was 10s of 1000s of keywords, hundreds of providers, and those three metros that we talked about.

Key Findings

Aaron: Okay. And what did you find?

Jen: We broke it down into some core findings, and I can talk through those. At a very high level, what we saw was that the best sites, the sites that are performing the best, they all seem to have the same approach, and it’s the sort of core approach that we recommend to all of our clients. That is, having a thoughtful taxonomy, high quality authoritative content, clear and prominent CTAs that don’t compete with each other or confuse a user, and a compelling and logical user experience. Now those are heavy things, but they all consistently had that, and that’s in line with what we’ve always steered our clients towards. Additionally, those are the kinds of things it takes to really rank for the most relevant, most high-quality, valuable keywords for our client.

Aaron: I think one of the things that strikes me about that is that at least two of those things that were seen as really important, are well beyond the pale of conventional SEO. It’s much more about UX design and pure marketing.

Jen: Yeah, it’s not as simple as some people’s understanding of what SEO is – pushing a couple buttons on the back end or checking off a list. SEO, I always feel, is a practice that is so interconnected with every other function in a company, and it’s like a blend of an art and a science, too. Looking at that list of what works, it really is far reaching across all parts of an organization.

Aaron: Did you find differences in findings for large providers versus small providers and maybe mid-sized providers?

Jen: Yeah, the first finding actually sort of speaks to the size of the provider, and it’s all about EEAT. We know that EEAT is essential for ranking. Not surprisingly, we saw a lot of large healthcare providers ranking really well because they often have the resources to create these really large, expensive content libraries and have experienced authors and experts weighing in. So, it can be hard for a smaller or regional healthcare system to compete with that. One thing we found, though, was a piece of leverage that the smaller healthcare providers can use is emphasizing and leveraging their locality, so being able to tie themselves closely to the neighborhood, the city, and the market that they are operating in, more so than a national brand may be able to. One specific example we saw was in Chicago. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) obviously is a very respected, well established content provider, and for neurology related searches, they were ranking for over 200 keywords and over 50,000 monthly search volumes. They were consistently ranking at the top of page one. UChicago has less than half as many pieces of content than NIH, but they were successfully ranking for just as many page one keywords, and they were doing that by having locality to everything that they had. They had a breakdown of their services by location. They had a map of their treatment locations; they really tied into that they were based in and authoritative in Chicago specifically, not just neurology. So, they were winning with that strategy.

Aaron: That’s very interesting. Did we see that same preference or value ascribed by Google to localized content, or were there instances in which localized content actually wasn’t such a factor?

Jen: Yeah, that didn’t really come through in the study as much. What do you mean by localized content?

Aaron: Well, I’m thinking in the list of factoids that Joe and Massimo provided, there was one, that I was just reading this morning, that juxtaposed the difference between, OB/GYN, where local content and a local presence and all those local signals definitely enabled small providers to rank above much larger providers. Whereas, I think it was cardiology, where nationwide providers and national institutes of excellence, with much more generalized content and no localization, were clearly dominant in search.

Jen: Yeah, I remember that. I found that plays out a lot when you’re thinking about intent as well, the user’s intent and how much local content or signals can have an impact. That was actually one of the next findings, that it’s important to understand your users’ intent when you’re creating content. It’s not just a one size fits all SEO strategy or EEAT works for everything, that’s not the case. What we found was, which was not a surprise, but still important to outline, is that specialty searches for cardiology, neurology, etc. were much more top of funnel. Those users were looking for educational content, they might want to learn more about a treatment or a disease, or something more top of funnel, versus not quite being ready to search for a provider, make an appointment, etc. They might get there at some point, but they definitely wanted top of funnel. Contrast that with things like urgent care, primary care, even OB/GYN, where it was much lower down in the funnel, there were a lot of “urgent care near me,” “OB/GYN in Chicago,” those kinds of more immediate needs and a transactional user intent. Those users wanted to make an appointment today, tomorrow, or soon, and they wanted to be able to see availability too. It was important for us to call out that success really depends on knowing your user and what they intend to do. Your site should offer a great experience across the board, making sure that they can find and have a good experience with their top intent.

Aaron: Right, that makes good sense. Does it make sense to dig into each of the findings a little bit more?

Jen: Yeah, sure. I have an example of that last one.

A: Okay. That would be great.

Jen: Thinking about search intent and the importance that it plays in optimization, there’s one example where an urgent care brand, called Physicians Immediate Care, were outranking large brands like Solve and CVS because they had a top-notch search and user flow experience. They had everything down to parking details, insurance information, and what to expect when you got there. It was really seamless and exactly what a user would want when they’re trying to make an urgent appointment. So, even though that specific brand had a much smaller footprint, wasn’t a national brand like CVS, they were ranking really well because you could tell they understood their users’ intent, and they had one clean page that answered all their questions.

Aaron: That’s great. That’s a really good example. Tell me about the next finding.

Jen: On that topic of thinking about user intent, and digging deeper into transactional intent specifically, I mentioned that primary care, urgent care, and OB/GYN were the three specialties with the most transactional intent. We found that Google rewards sites who have a really streamlined booking approach and consistently four things. One, having the booking process be above the fold – something that you see immediately upon landing on the page, thoughtfully designed, easy to use, not any obstacles in the user’s path, accessible – and then just the shortest path to finding a doctor and making an appointment. I’ll add there that there needs to be availability as well. It’s not enough to have this great, slick booking experience, and then you can’t find an appointment for six weeks. Talking about SEO being something that spans the entire organization, you need to have the availability of providers to offer appointments at the end of that booking experience, too. It extends far beyond the website, but from the user’s experience, that’s their ultimate goal, to get a booking. That was something that specialties that have a transactional user intent really had to get right in order to rank well on Google.

Aaron: Oh, okay, that’s great. What else did you find?

Jen: The last thing that we found is about aggregators. This would be sites like ZocDoc and Meta Find, that aggregate health care providers and are one-stop shops for users. They can rank really well and be tough to impossible to knock out of position. We generally don’t recommend that an individual provider or healthcare system tries to outrank or set their sights on overtaking a site like ZocDoc. It happens for sure, and it can be a happy result of a strong content strategy, for example. But really, the best way is a “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality of making sure you’re proactively having your providers listed on that service or listed on that website. That’s the best way to at least capitalize and leverage the visibility that those aggregators have, and hopefully get some appointments from it. We have some interesting stats here about how often aggregators show up for different practices; it’s not the same across the board. Looking at the individual specialties that we studied, urgent care had the smallest amount of aggregators, so only 16% of the results for urgent care were aggregators, compared to one of the largest ones, cardiology. Over half, 53% of results, were aggregators. Most of the specialties like cardiology, neurology, and pediatrics, they have between 40-50%, and say with OB/GYN and primary care, close to half, or 50%. It was urgent care where it was primarily 83% non-aggregators, actual providers.

Aaron: Interesting. Was there anything in the study that gave an indication as to why that would be or do you have a hypothesis?

Jen: I would assume it’s the ultra-transactional nature of urgent care, that someone wants to be seen today, and maybe being closer to the actual provider that you are trying to see is preferable or a better experience. Going through an aggregator kind of feels like you’re one step away from actually who you’re interacting with, and so I wonder if being closer to that provider was preferable.

Aaron: Yeah, that makes sense. It would seem to me that for something like cardiology, that you’re making more of a considered decision. You’re researching to figure out where to go and who the best is at a particular procedure you might need or a particular diagnosis, and urgent care is, “help me now, be competent and close.”

Jen: You’re less concerned about reviews and more concerned about, “are they still open, and how many miles away are they?

Aaron: Yeah, that makes good sense. It seems to me that what we see in this data and this study is Google continuing to actually deliver on things that they said they did for years and did less well for years.

Jen: Yes, there were no huge surprises. I do have some surprises to share, but the key findings were kind of doubling down on what we already believed and thought to be true and reinforcing some beliefs we already had.

Surprising Discoveries

Aaron: Okay. So, what if anything was surprising?

Jen: Yeah, a few things definitely got our attention. One, I’ve mentioned this a few times, but we found that users shop for OB/GYN the same as more like a primary care or urgent care. The keywords there are more lower funnel, they’re more about “near me,” or in a certain metro, and it made sense because I think for many people, their OB/GYN is their primary health care provider, unless they have other health issues going on. They might just see that one provider once a year, and that’s it. A lot of the services provided by an OB/GYN are preventative, so it’s something that you can do without actually being sick, and that’s different for other specialties. You’re not typically going to a neurologist or cardiologist unless you have a special consideration or issue that you need help with. So, I was initially surprised to see OB/GYN user behavior lumped in with primary and urgent care, but once we thought about it, it actually made total sense.

Aaron: Sure. Any other surprises?

Jen: Yeah, so another one was about pediatrics. The barrier to entry, quite candidly, for pediatrics is much lower. We saw a much lower level of sophistication on pediatrics websites than we did compared to other specialties. So, what’s working? The SEO tactics that work in pediatrics are, like I said, they’re pretty unsophisticated, and I saw a lot of well intentioned, but pretty basic off the shelf websites, with some warm kid imagery that are performing just fine. For a provider or marketer that has a deliberate, intentional, and well thought out SEO strategy, they would be able to, I think, quickly win and see success in a pediatrics marketplace.

Aaron: That’s very interesting.

Jen: Another thing that we saw was that in every market that we looked at, we saw providers who you would think, they were prominent, they were well known, and they had clearly invested a lot of money in content strategy and other forms of growth marketing, but they were not really succeeding in search because they had either created low quality pages, or they had redundant or illogical taxonomies and outdated SEO strategies. It goes to show that even though I talked about the big name brands having a built-in advantage, having real world authority and well thought out content strategy still matters in performing well in search. Also, we saw this with companies who had undergone mergers or acquisitions and had kind of clumsily jammed things together, and then ended up with a website that’s maybe not intuitive, which is something we’ve worked with a lot of clients on. So, make sure that you don’t rest back on your laurels too much and that you still need to do all the things right to have a well thought out content strategy.

Final Thoughts

Aaron: Well, thank you very much for sharing insights from the study. When can we expect it to be published, and how can people find it?

Jen: You can find it on our website. Just go to, and you can click on ‘insights’ at the top navigation, and then ‘research,’ and it should be there any day now. By the time you’re hearing this, it will be live.

Aaron: Okay, that’s great. Look forward to reading it. Thanks very much.

Related Links

For more information on today’s episode, read the full ⁠SEO Healthcare Study⁠. Make sure to subscribe to the Digital Clinic on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Amazon Music to stay up to date on our weekly episodes.

Questions or comments

Please let us know if you have questions or comments about this episode by emailing Grace Johnson at Want to be a guest on a future episode? Fill out the Be a Guest form at the top of the Digital Clinic page to submit your inquiry.

HIPAA Compliance
Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Description of the image