Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has long been established as the best practice approach to ranking digital content in Search Engine Results Pages (also known as SERP – ie. the responses offered to a user’s search query). However, SEO focuses on the platform – calibrating content to leverage search engine algorithms and correlating keyword ranking with ‘success’ as far as optimised site performance is concerned. SEO, on its own, ignores a critical blind spot in the digital communication landscape: the human seeking answers and their digital information experience.
At Brand Medicine International, our focus is healthcare – specifically the online experience of both patients and healthcare professionals – so it is through this lens I evaluate the quality of search engine results to real world queries. My work in developing the application of Search Listening in healthcare has revealed that the majority of health-related questions return woefully inadequate – and sometimes dangerously misleading – results, leaving healthcare professionals and patients wading through terabytes of information to find satisfactory answers to their queries.
Our recent survey confirmed that only a minority of people (30%) are content with their experience of searching for healthcare information online, with the remaining patients feeling frustrated with the inefficiency of their search experience or ending up with more questions than they started with – or both!
How would you describe your current online experience when looking for health related information? (check all that apply):
It is important to note that of those who are satisfied, if searchers have low health literacy, their ability to judge quality search results may be impaired. They might be happy to be ‘informed’ by a celebrity You Tube Vlogger with no healthcare credentials. A top ranking search result to one of the most commonly asked questions in Australia about Benepali, a treatment for MS, (“benepali where to inject?”) is a UK-based YT Vlogger with over 9,000 subscribers offering an instructional video with over 4,000 views. And every category has a multitude of examples like this where problems with misinformation can easily arise…
SLO as an antidote to misinformation
Search Listening reads the aggregated search queries on a topic. This reveals the longtail questions asked in the actual words of people seeking information. For example, in response to a recent high-profile overdose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine in Australia, people searched for “vaccine bungle’; public health authorities, who are not listening to search queries, missed a vital opportunity to manage the fall-out from this event by not turning up in response to this real-world query. This left news outlets in control of the public narrative.
Search Listening also examines the quality and relevance of the search results – offering visibility over the entire online Patient Information Experience (PiX).
Listening to actual patient questions and examining the real-world search results, enables the healthcare industry to design responsive content and to intercept misinformation at the source – by deploying digital tactics that answer these queries in real time we can displace the click bait and the bloggers with no health credentials. More importantly, through identifying inaccurate or non-evidence-based health content, we can report these search results to deprioritise them, reducing the potential they will continue to turn up in SERPs.
The key to managing the on- and off-line discourse around a disease or a medication is contributing balanced, evidence-based messaging into the public narrative. With over 70,000 health-related queries being entered into the Google search engine alone every minute (~1 billion/day), and a turn-over of approximately 10-15% of new questions daily, the dynamic nature of these digital information transactions needs to be acknowledged and accounted for in how we design digital communication strategy. This requires infusing user-inspired momentum into your traditional SEO driven approach. This proactive, customer-centric approach is what promotes SEO to SLO.
Search Listening Optimisation informs Patient Responsive Content
I have developed metrics to measure the quality of SERPs that turn up in response to real world patient questions – these have been designed based on the expectations of what patients in a recent survey by BMI indicated they wanted, as well as my experience in developing patient and HCP communications over the last 20 years.
When you look for health information online, what are your expectations of the results to your search query – (check all that apply):
Depending on the relative frequency of the query, and the potential impact of low-ranking SERPs based on the L.I.S.T.E.N metrics, a brand team can triage what content to create and deploy first. This approach offers a cost-effective way to address the biggest factors distorting public understanding of your disease or therapy, as given the size of the search ecosystem for any given topic it is, of course, impossible to address everything at once.
Through my examination of the real-world Patient Information Experience (#PiX) across countless disease states I can confirm that, because we are not listening to the actual questions asked, we are almost always conspicuously absent in the responses. This is creating a vacuum where misinformation thrives. The disturbing search results I have seen offered to patients at their most vulnerable, during their private consultations with Dr Google, are proof that our build-it-and-they-will-find-it approach to digital strategy needs to be dramatically re-imagined. In short, SEO is not enough. This is because SEO is serving search engines, and not our customer stakeholders – certainly not patients, and in many cases, not even healthcare professionals.
Three things you can do now to improve the PiX in your category of focus:
1. Start listening to the real-world questions – commission a Search Listening report – and proactively track queries & their related SERPs over time
2. Identify and report misinformation to deprioritise it in the SERPs to common queries
3. Create and deploy patient responsive content – this may be through dynamic updates to the content of your website, or strategic placement of Google Ads, updates to your Wikipedia listing, deployment of Medical Information based patient support chat bots etc.
Patients ask search engines questions they are hesitant to ask their doctors; exploring concerns they are possibly also embarrassed to disclose in focus groups or surveys. Search Listening acts as a digital truth serum to reveal the most private real-world queries of patients.
It is only by listening and designing content that answers the actual questions asked that we can ensure that we turn up for our stakeholders – whether they be healthcare professionals, patients or even carers. Everyone deserves a better online experience.
About the Author:
Julia Walsh is Australia’s authority on Search Listening in the healthcare space. To learn more about how SLO can add deeper insights to support your strategies, head over to: Brand Medicine – Search Listening, Healthcare, Advertising Agency.