Could your pharmaceutical or healthcare web pages rank higher in search results? The answer is yes—but only if you show them some search engine optimization love. In this article you’ll learn what SEO is, why it matters, three strategies to get your website to rank higher in Google, and advice on Canadian pharma regulations and SEO.

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization, which is usually shortened to SEO, is a set of strategies used to increase a website’s ranking on a search engine’s results pages without paying for digital ads. The goal is to be at the top of the first page of results for searches conducted by your ideal audience on topics relevant to your brand.

You may have heard the term SEM, which is short for search engine marketing. SEO is one component of SEM, which also includes paid advertising.

Why does SEO matter to healthcare brands?

SEO is the best way to get information about a product, service or disease state in front of an online audience without paying for clicks.

Are healthcare audiences online? The short answer is yes.

Patients spend a considerable amount of time researching symptoms, reading reviews of drugs and treatments and assessing the credibility and viability of proposed solutions before consenting to them.

80% of U.S. internet users have searched for a health-related topic online. Only email and researching a product or service before purchase are more popular online activities.     

     - Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2019       

Healthcare professionals use search engines to stay current in their area of practice and to research the effectiveness of different treatments, including drugs. They also use searches to connect with credible sources to help them improve their diagnoses and find resources for patients.

Where your site ranks in search results matters because half of searchers click on either the number one result (33 per cent) or number two result (17 per cent), and 90 per cent of searchers don’t go past the first page of results.

A high ranking also gives your brand credibility. But perhaps the most important reason you want to rank highly is because it’s proof that your website is offering its users the best experience possible—something we get into later in this article.

What search engine are you optimizing for?

Internet users can choose from a number of search engines, including Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo. While all search engines exist to help web searchers find what they’re looking for as quickly as possible, the strategies used to optimize a site for one search engine may not be as relevant to another.

The three strategies that follow are for optimizing a website for Google, simply because Google is by far the most popular search engine used by Canadians—Google owned 92 per cent of the Canadian market in June 2019, according to GlobalStats.

3 key SEO strategies for Google

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and relevant. The Google search engine is designed to accomplish this mission. If your site helps it get there, it will be rewarded with higher rankings on the search results page.

Gone are the days when SEO specialists tried to trick Google into ranking pages highly through quick ‘n’ dirty techniques such as keyword stuffing, where web pages were saturated with a keyword to the point where the text was difficult and boring to read. Every update Google makes to its search engine—and there have been six since 2011—is designed to force websites to make information more accessible and relevant in order to rank highly.

If it helps your user, it will look good in the eyes of Google.

A number of SEO strategies are technical. These include:

*  increasing page load speed (faster ranks better);

* mobile optimization (sites that function well on small screens rank better);

* security (secure sites rank better); and

* site integrity (well maintained sites with no errors rank better).

If you’re in charge of marketing a healthcare brand, you should be aware of the technical aspects of SEO so you can make sure your web team is looking after them. Where your expertise is most valuable, however, is in the content-oriented strategies. The three most important ones are clear site structure, proper keyword research and great content. We dive into the details of each below.

#1 Clear site structure

The structure of your website is how the information on your website is organized. The structure tells Google—and your visitors—where the most important information is and how different pages relate to each other.

People should be able to get to the information they’re looking for with a minimum of clicks and they should never feel lost or disoriented. If they do, rest assured that Google will have the same experience when it indexes your site—and will penalize you.

A website where all information has the same importance will be confusing to both Google and your audience. If there’s no information hierarchy, your pages will be competing with each other to rank well on a search results page because Google can’t tell which is more important.

These tips will help you structure your website properly.

  • Identify what you want the website to be an authority on. Articulate this in a two- to five-word phrase. For example, “Cognitive behavioural therapy” or “Living well with ADHD” or “Vaccine safety.” All the content on your site should relate to this phrase, since off-topic articles or pages will confuse your visitors and Google. Once you feel your site is successfully optimized for one topic you can add another. For example, the vaccine company may have chosen to build its authority on overall vaccine safety first because this subject is foundational to vaccine decisions. Once the company is happy with its search ranking, it can build authority on another line of business, for example travel vaccines.
  • Create a simple menu. The menu is the most obvious tool for structuring your content. It should be simple, clear and have only a few items. All the information on your site should naturally fit under one of the menu items.
  • Plan your information hierarchy. A well-structured website is sometimes compared to a pyramid. At the top is your home page, which should have clear links to the content your visitors will find most valuable. The next most important pages, called “cornerstone content” or “pillar pages,” directly relate to what you want your healthcare brand to be known for. These pages are lengthy, informative, timeless and regularly updated so the information is never out-of-date. Third- and fourth-tier pages should link to these pillar or cornerstone pages. This tells Google that the pillar page is important.

#2 Proper keyword research

A keyword is the search term you most want a particular page of your site to rank for.

There’s no way to tell Google what keyword you’ve chosen for a page other than to include it in copy, alt text, the URL and the meta description. Google is getting smarter all the time—its natural language processors can now recognize different tenses, variants and word order of keywords.

You’ll notice the word keyword is singular, not plural, but a keyword is rarely a single word—the competition for that word would be just too high.

A keyword can be a “head” keyword (a one- or two-word broad search term that is very popular in searches e.g. “diabetes drugs”) or a “tail” keyword (a longer string of more specific search terms that has a lower search volume e.g. “can I take too much diabetes medication”). The longer and more specific your keyword is, the easier it will be to rank for it. The trade-off is that there will be less search traffic.

The important thing is to think about keywords as a strategic SEO tool, rather than a way to game the system. Here are some tips for conducting proper keyword research.

  • Know your audience. Who are you trying to reach? What terms are they using when searching for something you can offer them? What do they want to accomplish when they’re on your site? There are a number of tools you can use to conduct keyword research, including SEO guru Neil Patel’s Ubersuggest, but these tools are only effective if you know your audience and the intent behind their search. Knowing your audience will help you determine the “tail” keywords that will have some success. This will help offset the fact that tail keywords have a lower search volume, because you’ll know the right people are finding you—it becomes a matter of quality rather than quantity.
  • Know your brand. Your keywords should come directly from what your organization stands for. What are your mission and values? What do you want to be known for? What is your unique selling point? Answering introspective questions like these will help you brainstorm keywords that relate to what you truly offer and distinguish you from your competition.
  • Use Google’s autocomplete function. When you start typing a search query into Google, it will automatically suggest a search based on what others are searching for. Google added this feature to help people search more efficiently, particularly using mobile devices, but these search predictions can be helpful ways to research what people are looking for (keeping in mind your intended audience, of course!)
  • Check out the competition. Type possible keywords into Google and take a look at the top three results (excluding ads). What companies are they? How likely are you to be able to compete with them? Can you see your web page in amongst them? If the answer is yes, you’ve likely hit on a good keyword. If the answer is no, you may want to choose a more specific keyword. Better to be a big fish in a small pond.
  • Go Incognito. If you use Chrome as your web browser, you can conduct your search research using an Incognito window. These “undercover” searches will return more accurate results because they won’t be influenced by your search history, although they may still be influenced by your location.

#3 Great content

The better the content on a page, the better an experience it offers its users and the higher its search engine ranking.

When it comes to quality web content, Google is a surprisingly harsh critic. In fact, Google employs real people—called “quality raters”—who can rate websites according to the site’s expertise, authority and trust on a topic.

Better content is more likely to be shared on social media and linked to by other trusted websites, which increase topic authority in Google’s eyes. Great content is also more likely to become a featured snippet (the excerpts that appear at the top of page one).

Here are some tips for creating content that will rank well in Google:

  • Keep your content accessible. Write clearly, concisely and for the busy reader. People skim before devoting more time to a deeper read, so use subheadings and write helpful first sentences for each section to help skimmers determine that your content has value.
  • Create content for voice search. According to Forbes, half of all online searches will be conducted using voice search by 2020. Content that provides a good experience for voice searchers will be written the way people speak.
  • Think beyond the written word. Lately, many pharma websites are ditching the conventional approach and experimenting with videos, slideshows and infographics to give their target audience an excellent experience on their site. Keep accessibility in mind, however. Include transcripts and captions for videos. Summarize your slideshow in words. People have different learning styles and different abilities, and a good user experience offers content diversity.
  • Keep your keyword in mind. Your keyword should be the word or phrase that describes the content on that page the best—once you’re done writing, confirm that’s the case, as it’s easy to get off-track. Don’t use your keyword too often, and keep your writing natural. A keyword concentration of one to two per cent is good.

SEO and Canadian pharma industry regulations

Health Canada’s regulations about the advertising of branded pharmaceutical products will impact what content of a branded site for either healthcare professionals or patients will be “visible” to search engines prior to the gating of that site.

According to PAAB, every page that is behind a gate, whether for healthcare providers or patients, must have a “No Index” command, meaning search engines will be told not to index the page so it won't be shown it in search results.  

Unbranded and help-seeking disease state websites and websites for medical device products or schedule D products such as vaccines are ungated and therefore will have much more freedom to employ SEO best practices.

If your website must be submitted to PAAB, you must include the page titles and meta descriptions that are used for search engine optimization in the site copy deck, because PAAB will want to review these for compliance. For example, direct or implied product claims in your descriptors that contravene any federal regulatory requirements for drug advertising are not allowed. Neither are keywords or metadata tags that refer to a competitor's products. Schedule D products may contain claims and don't require fair balance.

It’s a good idea to educate your internal compliance review team on the basics of SEO to help the members understand what they’re reviewing in a copy deck. This will go a long way to speeding up your internal review process. Start with an SEO 101 presentation that explains how search engines work, what they are looking for, why SEO is important and how to achieve the best rankings by implementing SEO best practices through site design, development and maintenance. Chances are you don't feel like an expert in SEO just yet. Your agency partner should be, however, so ask them to present to your internal team.

In conclusion, SEO isn’t about a quick fix or a magic bullet. It’s about creating a high quality online experience for your audience through clear site structure, keyword research and high quality content…then getting rewarded for it with higher search results rankings.