Design your Web siteso that it appeals to prospective patients—and the search engines that bring them to you

Jessica has recently been considering plastic surgery. At age 26, she realizes that she has small rolls on her waist, and that “little bit” of extra girth on her thighs is just not going to go away despite how much she diets and works out at her gym. Her breasts are starting to sag just a bit, and they were never as full as she would have liked.

She recognizes that plastic surgery has become increasingly accepted, and she no longer considers it vain but rather an alternative to forever wishing that she looked a certain way.

And so she excitedly begins to research plastic surgery procedures on the Internet. Many aspects of her personal life are on the Internet—music downloads for her iPod, ringtones for her cell phone, and so forth. She‘s confident that if she Googles “liposuction” or “breast augmentation” she will locate the information necessary to make an educated decision about the procedure she’s interested in.

The search engine returns all kinds of results, including some ads for individual physicians, but she’s not ready to talk to them just yet—at this moment, she just wants information. She quickly visits a few links and settles into the American Society of Plastic Surgery (ASPS) Web site ( There, she finds copious amounts of great information about liposuction and breast augmentation.

She observes that she can find a plastic surgeon on this site—probably association members, she figures—but she still wants to visit some other “reference-type” sites first. She also wants to view before-and-after photos.

She visits Yahoo! and searches for “liposuction” and “breast augmentation.” Yahoo! returns a list similar to the one she found in Google under “liposuction,” but under “breast augmentation” there’s also a listing for the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) at Another great reference! Again, there’s a lot to read, but it’s important to Jessica that she know what each of these procedures is really like. She’s aware that the “extreme-makeover” television shows might make it all seem a little too easy.

After a little time, Jessica believes that she’s well-educated based on the information she’s found on her “reference sites,” and now she’s ready to look for a surgeon. The “find a surgeon” lookups on the two association sites didn’t really give her much information about any particular physician, although there were links to surgeons’ personal Web sites on the ASAPS site. Still, the results were based on ZIP-code searches, and she thinks that the Web might yield more practitioner information if she searches directly for them on Google or Yahoo!.

She returns to the search engines and enters a few different terms, such as “plastic surgeons Long Island,” “liposuction New York,” and “breast implant specialists New Jersey.” Jessica is willing to travel to the New York City tristate area, and she figures that the search engines will reveal more information about surgeons than the association Web sites would give her. And whereas these searches also produce a variety of physician directories, she is really after the surgeons’ Web sites, because she wants to get an idea of what their practices are like and what it might be like to be one of their patients.

The physician Web sites also tend to show several patient before-and-after photos for each procedure. Jessica likes that she is able to privately view each physician’s results from her apartment—she’d much rather do that than have appointments at several practices—and she narrows her choices to two physicians whose Web sites seemed to give her some insight into their personalities. Because she believes that the procedures she is interested in are intimate and personal, she prefers a physician with whom she can feel comfortable.

Everyone’s Doing It
Jessica is not alone. More than 100 million consumers search the Internet for health care information. Jessica is accustomed to using the Internet at her office, and she now uses the Web for all sorts of personal searches. She’s used computers since grade school, and the Internet was a necessity throughout college. She knows exactly how to find what she’s looking for.

Whereas she might find directories of all types (including physician directories) helpful from time to time, what she’s really after is the end point for her purchases: an online store or a manufacturer’s or service provider’s Web site. That’s where she makes her decisions. She’s become a pro at it now, and she won’t stay at a Web site for more than a second or two if she doesn’t find something interesting.

How and Why People Search
When prospective patients land on a physician’s Web site, they reached it for one of two reasons: They were given a physician’s name or a practice name from another medical provider or from a patient, or they searched for a provider who performs a particular treatment or procedure. Prospective patients go to the Internet to research the provider; they are attempting to verify the credibility of the referral.

Because the Web provides the ability to quickly and easily conduct this research, prospective patients realize that the referral name in itself is no longer enough information. At the minimum, patients go to the Internet to confirm the information they have about the referral. At the maximum, they are looking for potential problems with the practitioner that might serve to discount the referral.

If a patient is seeking to find a physician on the Web, they tend to start their search on Google, Yahoo!, or MSN. Because an overwhelming majority (85%) of all Internet sessions start on a search engine, this is no surprise. When selecting a medical provider, patients will typically visit several practice Web sites, sometimes comparing the sites side-by-side on their screens. In this competitive environment, the information found on a physician’s Web site is critical.

Equally important to patients is the way that information is presented. Whether it is right or wrong, people—patients—will make judgments by what they see and feel. And when it comes to Web sites, decisions are based on what appears on a 17-inch computer screen. Often, the decision to remain at the Web site is made in less than 1 second.

Extension of Your Waiting Room
So how do you brand your Web site to reflect your practice and differentiate it from others on the Web? Your home page, in particular, serves as an invitation for patients to visit and explore your practice in depth, with the objective of beginning a physician–patient relationship that starts right there.

But, first, it’s important to determine what is important about your practice. Answer these questions:
• When was your practice founded, and by whom?
• Why was it founded?
• What is unique about your practice?
• Whom are you intending to serve, that is, who is your targeted patient?
• What are the demographics of your targeted patient—age range, income range, and ethnicity? What is the expected education level of your targeted patient?
• What is the perceived level of sophistication of your targeted patient?
• Where is your practice situated? Is it located in a major metropolitan city, in a suburb, or in a more rural area?
• Is the practice located in a particular neighborhood? Does it conform to the feel of the local community, or does it stand out as different? (This is not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes it is an advantage.)
• What is the décor of your facility? Is it modern or classical? Does it have a particular regional motif, such as southwestern or colonial?
• Do you have a surgery center on-site? Is it accredited?
• Do you have a logo or a particular typeface (font) for your practice name?
• Do you have any printed literature? Does it match your other materials, such as a welcome kit?
• What are your strong points as a health care provider? Is it where you received your education, or where you performed your residency or your fellowship?
• Do you have any professional honors?
• What are your professional memberships? Do you serve on any committees, or lead any sections?
• What are your publications? Although patients prefer to read less clinical articles that might appear in Vogue or W, professional articles can be great “food” for search engines in indexing your practice with procedures you perform.
• Are you featured in any publications? Do you have copies of any articles that you are mentioned or quoted in? Have you been featured on any television or radio programs?
• Who are your best case studies? Will they consent to the use of their before-and-after photos on the Web? You don’t need many pictures, just two or three examples of each procedure, but they should be your most dramatic examples if possible.
• Do you have clinical data on your before-and-after examples?
• Do you have any current patients who might be willing to provide you with a testimonial? Might they agree to be photographed—not necessarily in a revealing clinical sense, but in something more of a “glamour” or “model” setting?

Web Site Visitor Principles
It is important to keep in mind that visitors to your Web site are often attempting to imagine themselves as one of your patients. As they explore your site, they are conceptualizing what your office looks like and what it reveals about you. Obviously, your office should be clean and impressive, but is it consistent with patients’ tastes?

Knowing your target audience is key. For example, if the prospective patient is in her mid-50s, wealthy, and socially prominent, does your Web site clash with this “country-club” type of individual, or does it welcome her? If your target patient is younger and more urban or hip, will your Web site make her feel like she’s just crossed the tracks to a different part of town, or will it make her feel like she’s going to soon look like a pop-culture celebrity after her surgery?

It is important to provide your Webmaster with directions for the look and feel of your Web site. The goal is to attract and retain your targeted patient “audience.”

The home-page appearance is important from two perspectives: that of the prospective patient who will be attracted to an inviting home page and decide—within 1 to 2 seconds—to visit the rest of the Web site, and that of search engines such as Google or Yahoo! that will investigate the home page—most importantly—and then other pages of your Web site to determine the validity of the site, to compare it with other similar sites, and to rank all of the sites based on specific search terms.

It goes without saying that the site must be easy to use. Every Web site looks different, but navigating a site should be both obvious and intuitive to the visitor.

Before-and-after photo presentations must be easy to access. The before-and-after section is often the first section that patients head to when they arrive at a surgeon’s Web site. The path to it must be immediately obvious.

Control the Search Engine
Your site must induce search engines to link to the right information: Content is extremely important to search engines like Google because their goal is to provide visitors with reference information about the search term they have entered.

In fact, content is one of the reasons that association Web sites rank so highly on search terms for plastic surgery procedures. And although prospective patients visit association Web sites and read about procedures there, seeing more information about procedures they are considering in a practice Web site makes them feel much more comfortable about the practice.

Your Webmaster should include HTML links on your home page so that search engines can follow them to other pages of your Web site, where there is more detailed content describing your procedures. In addition to HTML links, the Webmaster will use several strategies to increase your visibility or Web-site ranking under various specific search terms:
Page titles should have keywords that you are attempting to index, and each page may have different titles, which gives the search engine multiple page indices. Page titles may be identified in the “blue bar” at the top of a screen window.
“H” reference tags are ways to attract a search engine toward specific areas of your Web site in a priority order so that the engine can identify what is most important on the site.
Meta tags are a factor in determining page rank.
• Because search engines can’t actually “see” photos and illustrations, alt-image tags can be used to reference pictures and graphics that the search engines would otherwise miss.
• Classify by geography. It is important that your Webmaster focuses on the geographic area of your practice. Unless your specialty is so unique, or you are already nationally known, it is not going to help you much if your practice is in south Florida and your Web-site visitors are in Seattle or Chicago. Web-savvy people know that the simplest way to filter search results is to use searchers’ city, region, or ZIP code in combination with the search terms. So make sure that your Web site’s page titles and tags include the area where you’re located.

Think about how visitors might search specifically for you: Will they include the name of a city, or will they search an entire state, such as New Jersey, because it lacks a single large city? Will a patient likely travel to an area as large as Southern California or South Florida, or will the term “Los Angeles” or “Miami” be enough? The right combination of procedure and location will get you the visitors you’re after.
• Consider sponsored (pay-per-click) ads. Ads with search terms that include your city, region, or state are not as effective as “organic” search results, but the positions of sponsor ads can be controlled, and they can ensure visibility on specific search terms. Such ads appear at the top right in boxes on a search-engine page.

Be Easy to Find and Hard to Leave
You don’t have to put in a huge amount of time, but some forethought and effort will help Web visitors find your site and become “intimate” with your practice—even before they call you for the first time. The idea is to make it easy for a patient like Jessica to find you, and then captivate her with your practice’s style and appearance once she’s there. Make it hard for her to leave your Web site.

It might sound like a simple concept, but it’s the difference between an effective Web site and a billboard in your basement. Don’t delay: The next “Jessica” is quite likely looking for a plastic surgeon on the Web right now.

John J. Pellman is the president and CEO of MedNet Technologies, which he founded in late 1998. He has more than 23 years of experience in the field of information technology; for16 of those years, he was vice president of Professional Design Systems, a software application development company that was sold to a division of Thomson Financial in 1998. He can be reached at (877) MEDNETT or via the company’s Web site,