To dot.com or not! Part II. Marketing
Marketing your practice website is just as important as getting IT up and running with the right look, feel and user-friendly navigation. Without a marketing strategy for your website (i.e. your practice), your website might as well be stranded on a boat in the middle of the Sargasso Sea in the Bermuda triangle at night with no signal flairs, hoping that a passing plane will see it. No one's going to notice.
So let's begin with some definitions:
Website "traffic" = On the internet freeway, unlike when you're driving, you do want traffic -- lots of it. But you don't want just any traffic, you want the right traffic. Traffic = number of hits or "clicks" on your website link. However, random clicks mean nothing if they never become a new customer (in this case, patient) = "a conversion."
Number of impressions = In its simplest form, this means that when a person types in a search relevant to your website, in which your website happens to be one of the links that shows up, so it is perhaps seen as a link by the web searcher, but in the end the web searcher does NOT click on your website link. In the industry, they say this leaves an "impression" on the potential customer, so they may come back to your website in the future. For this particular type of search (or "window brousing" as it may be likened to), it is the branding or wording of the search ad for your site that hopefully makes an impression to which the person will want to return.
Search Engine Optimization = SEO, the process of increasing traffic to a website usually in a "natural" or "organic" fashion in the search results page. This means a website appears in the non-sponsored links, so that this distinguishes it from pay-per-click marketing, which is based on keyword bidding. This is a term used very commonly by most internet marketing companies as a service they provide, usually at a monthly cost, for your website, by which they insert metatags that try to trick the search engines to pick up your website "organically." This may also involve improving the site's coding, presentation and structure to make it easier for the search engines to pick it up. The problems with this system is that it's more difficult to keep track of conversion actions (actions people take that make them a new customer or patient to you), and there is no guarantee because Google is constantly changing the algorithm formulas. For example, you may have first page placement one month, then 5th page placement two months later. It's a constant and possibly costly battle.
Pay-per-click marketing = a blind auction for which businesses have set that they are willing to pay a certain price for certain keywords to drive traffic to their websites. These are the sponsored links that appear at the top or to the right of the page.
Lead aggregators = these are websites that market themselves on the search engines to obtain leads for their members. This shifts the risk away from you in a sense, to the lead aggregator, but may do so at a hefty price. In other words, lead aggregators become a middle-man in the contest for new business leads. In this setup, your profile is listed amongst all of your competitors, making it harder for you to distinguish yourself. In some cases, they may duplicate leads. Each lead aggregator is set up differently. Read the fine-print before committing.
Conversion-based optimization = another fancy term, which means keyword optimization based on the specific keywords that are generating leads for a business. This is possibly the most complex type of optimization offered for local search, and there is only one company that created this technology and brought it to the local level for small to mid-sized businesses to take advantage of, and that's Reachlocal.com.
Search engine marketing = the catch-all phrase for describing efforts to increase the visibility of a website in search engine results pages.
Oh, and I almost forgot...
ROI = Return on investment. We're going to get to that below.
Now for the reason you should know about these terms and why they are important to you as the 21st Century business owner:
A recent article in Entrepeneur magazine's March 2007 Issue highlights the growing importance of local search as a marketing tool for all types of businesses. The internet has become the 6th sense. It's the way a new generation experiences the world. Before going for services, more and more people are searching on the internet for local businesses that meet their needs.
There are different ways to glean the benefits of the local searching surge that is predicted for 2007 and the next few years.
1) Google Adwords = choose your keywords, create an ad for google search, choose a budget (you don't even need a website) and off you go. You have to keep track of how people found you so you can know if it's working (i.e. ROI). You can do this on your own, or this may be part of a marketing package sold to you by an IT company. Results are not guaranteed.
2) Local search listings = search engines, like Yahoo! local, where you can place an ad. This is the equivalent of an online yellowpage listing, known in the industry as IYP = Internet Yellow Pages. This makes up only 2 -3% of where web surfers are making their searches. Yahoo! local is an IYP, not to be confused with the Yahoo search engine. Citysearch is another infamous IYP. They were built on the basis of nightlife and restaurant listings then expanded to other services. The list rankings on citysearch which used to be based on reviews are now really based on spending. Citysearch is now promising its clients listings on google and yahoo searches, but you have wonder how they will spend your money as an additional middleman. Again, where's the ROI? The majority of search, that is 70%, are done at the main Google.com and Yahoo.com webpages. So you see, the majority of the traffic is not here. Choose your battles!
3) Lead aggregators = we spoke about this above. This is a fancier version of a local search listing, where they are going the next step and promising leads. In most cases they are working for you and your competitors simultaneously. So who's interests are really being met here? Citysearch, according to their website, would argue that they are a lead aggregator, but they're not really.
4) Bucket-of-clicks = another method used by a middleman company that for lack of a better term will buy cheaper clicks (i.e. bottom of the barrel clicks) then inflate the price significantly and charge you a flat rate, promising volume of clicks with little known value. In this case, quantity (i.e. website traffic) does not necessarily equal quality (new business conversions & the uberimportant ROI). Ex. beware of companies that say, "For $300/mo we promise you X amount of clicks." Quantity ah! ah! ah! Does not equal Quality!
5) Pay-per-click marketing with conversion-based optimization = this is the Mother of all local search. The best analogy from a business-owners perspective is that if you knew what keyword(s) or combinations thereof were actually making the phone ring, your natural inclination would be to maximize your marketing budget on these particular keywords to bring more business to your doorstep. It's the only local search marketing strategy that shows tangible ROI. And there is only one company that has the software that can do this for the small to medium size business -- Reachlocal.com. The marketing budget is taylored to your industry and the competition or cost for your business-relevant keywords. So the budget varies based on how competitive your market is (that is, keyword pricing is industry-driven by how many businesses are competing for keywords) and how competitive your business wants to be. Your budget here determines how often and how high up in the sponsored links you will appear. The software is smart in that it figures out how to optimize your budget, wherever you are. ROI is tracked by a proxy server with proxy pages for each of your webpages that can track web events, such as form submissions or calls generated to your practice from the reachlocal-powered search. You get daily or weekly reports showing the performance of your current marketing campaign with more information than you will get from any other service. The focus here is on results, REAL results = ROI. So there you go, pay-per-click marketing with conversion-based optimization in a nutshell. I guarantee you'll be hearing more about this in the near future.
6) SEO = see above. This is the organic way to market yourself. Results are not guaranteed.
Do I recommend any of these? Well, I've tried to provide a broad view of what's out there and where you should be. Where you end up is dictated by your budget and your level of comfort with these terms and the utility of these services. But if you have to ask, the Tao in me would say take the holistic approach = choose #5, get yourself listed for free on local search sites and maybe mix it up with some SEO if it works in your budget. Good luck!