The topic of search engine optimization (SEO) is often met with skepticism from veterinary practitioners. It isn’t difficult to see why. SEO is frequently leveraged as a buzzword instead of a rigorously explored topic with established first principles. The topic can seem dense and unapproachable, but it doesn’t have to be. SEO should fit into your broader marketing strategy. We’ll start with the story of how SEO was developed, why it exists, and what you need to know about it to help your practice succeed. From PageRank to content marketing and everything in between, this is SEO demystified.
Let there be…data
The year is 1998. The world has a wonderful, but perplexing, new problem. We have started to accumulate massive amounts of data from the internet but have no effective way of sorting and searching through this information. The public uses a mix of first-generation search engines. Remember Ask Jeeves? AltaVista? Yahoo?
These search engines evaluated a page’s relevance and authority for a search term based on the keywords on that page. For example, if you had a veterinary practice with a website in 1998 and the word “veterinarian” was used a dozen or so times on your home page, you’d have a pretty good shot at ranking well. However, 2 Stanford University PhD students spotted the obvious problem with this: anyone could stuff keywords onto their website. It doesn’t mean they’re the most trusted resource for a given search query. Larry Page and Sergey Brin knew there had to be a better way.
That better way, and the pioneering insight that catapulted Google from an unknown startup to one of the most powerful companies in human history, was PageRank. At its core, the idea was elegant and appealing. PageRank didn’t look to the website itself to determine its relevance and trustworthiness. It looked at what other websites were linking to that particular website. The theory was that if you link to another website, it’s a vote of confidence that this is a trusted resource. And by developing a clever and reciprocal system, a new and better way of searching the web was born.
From backlinks to Google My Business
Earning inbound links (or backlinks) to your website is still an important component of SEO today. However, there are now multiple categories that will account for your website’s search ranking. This is because internet behavior evolved, and Google’s tools and strategies have evolved along with it. We’ll start exploring these categories by first going through a quick lesson on the anatomy of the search engine results page (SERP), explaining a major change that happened a couple years ago, and then providing actionable steps to take within each major category.
Anatomy of the SERP
The basic architecture of Google’s SERP has undergone significant changes over the past 20 years. In fact, if you want to learn a nifty trick to see just how far we’ve come, type in “Google in 1998” into your address bar or directly into the Google search box.
The previous years had seen a slow (but occasionally sudden) shift from a long, homogenous list of organic links to the modern reality for which there are 3 major components to the SERP: paid, local, and organic. Local is the most recent addition, first appearing in 2017, and some studies suggest that local pack spots (the collection of 3, sometimes 4 nearby local business listings next to the map on Google) earn about 50% of the traffic on the page.
And here’s the kicker… the local pack rankings have different rank factors than organic links. So now we have 2 kinds of SEO to address. I’ve always found that the most successful strategy is to look for low-hanging fruit first. Understand the highest-weighted rank factors and look for the easiest ways to beef those up. One wonderful resource is the Moz search rank analysis study (it comes out every couple of years). Refer to figure 1 below which shows the top 8 rank factors for the local pack and localized organic links.
The modern landscape
You’ll notice a few major things in the figure. First, for traditional SEO (the pie chart on the right), link signals still dominate. Second, for the local pack (which earns more traffic), the new kid on the block is Google My Business (GMB). I’d recommend focusing on 3 categories of signals when starting out: GMB, Link signals, and technical SEO or on-page signals.
Google My Business
GMB is Google’s business directory system. They obviously are incentivizing you to help them to make this an important part of the web, as this rank signal is almost twice as effective as anything else for local pack SEO (from which you often see 50% of the page’s traffic).
A big part of ranking first in the local pack is proximity to the searcher. Not much you can do here; if someone is 2 blocks from your practice, you will have a much better chance at ranking #1 than if your practice is 2 miles away, all things being equal. More interestingly, there are parts of the GMB profile that are usually ignored by veterinary practices but are quite valuable to optimize.
This is the basic information about your business. In “Categories,” you should claim all categories relevant to your services (such as veterinary, boarding, grooming). In the description, give your best-value proposition and include keywords for all of your services. These keywords can help you show up in searches within the local pack.
Many business owners are unaware that anyone can edit a GMB page, so it’s important to monitor your page, correct mistakes, and make sure that notifications are going to the right email address.
GMB Posts are miniature advertisements that you can publish on your page. Many veterinary practices don’t know about this option, and it improves your ability to rank in the local pack for searches. This is some of the most obvious low-hanging fruit within SEO, and every practice should do it. Good topics for posts include:
- an event (at the hospital or within the community)
- a promotion for one of your services
- a link to a recent blog post (along with a short summary of why the post is helpful)
- important updates or hospital news
If you look at your GMB page, you may already see questions posted there. If you don’t take the initiative, members of your community may answer these questions for you. Take a look at the Question & Answers module of your GMB page, ensure all questions are appropriately answered, and then start posting more questions. Ask your team what the most common client questions are, and then publish those questions and answers on your page. This helps you rank in a wider range of searches and provides potential clients with a better experience on their journey to your practice.
Reviews are a major signal within the local pack, and they are also heavily used by searchers to determine who to investigate further and who to avoid. Encourage thoughtful reviews from your best customers and respond to every review you get, positive or negative.
Getting links to your website has been the foundation of SEO for a long time. It is still the main driver of traditional SEO and is a major component of local pack SEO. Nowadays, the main way to earn links to your website is by regularly publishing valuable content on your blog and marketing that content on social media. When you create valuable content, others will share your posts, which counts as an earned link.
The first step is to create a content calendar and map out the next 12 months. We typically recommend at least 2 blog posts per month, but if that’s not realistic, aim for 1. Blog posts should be 500 to 1500 words and educational in nature, although it’s fine to tie in a promotion. Write about topics that will be valuable to pet owners and fill an important compliance gap, such as periodontal disease, training a new pet, or nutritional guidance. This is your opportunity to educate your community, build brand equity, and improve SEO.
On-page SEO (commonly referred to as technical SEO) refers to how the content of your webpage is optimized for the search engines. It includes page load speed, metadata, page titles, keywords, and other on-page factors.
It’s important to have a well-coded website that optimizes images and media files for speed. This is a highly technical job, so it’s best to work with a developer to ensure that your website loads quickly.
Within your content management system, such as WordPress or Squarespace, you have the ability to edit page titles. These show up on the page tab of the web browser and are an easy way to improve SEO. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the home page of a veterinary website still using “Home” as its page title. The titles should list the main point of the page, along with valuable keywords such as services performed and locations served. For example, a good page title for a home page could be:
Loyal Companions Vet | Veterinarian in San Diego | Checkups – Dentistry – Surgery
Every page on your website should also have a proper meta description. This shows up in the search engines below the title of your page. If you don’t write one, Google will do its best to automatically generate one, but it’s almost always smart to take control here. Meta descriptions are limited to 160 characters and should be primarily optimized for the value you’re providing, and services rendered, in order to optimize for keywords.
- 2018 local search ranking factors. Moz. Accessed May 18, 2021. https://moz.com/local-search-ranking-factors