This is part I of MyWellbeing’s 4-part series on search engine optimization (SEO) for therapists. You can find the other articles here:
At first glance, search engine optimization can seem like the best marketing strategy for any business. With a bit of work and a deeper understanding of how search engines like Google identify valuable content, you can bring in more prospective clients who are the right fit for your practice at the moment when they search for what you do.
However, getting your practice to show up in search results can also be challenging and time-consuming. Learning how to use SEO to grow your practice can help reduce the time and work required, but it’s important to make sure that SEO is the right marketing strategy for your practice before diving in.
Let’s start with the basics: what is SEO?
SEO is search engine optimization. “Search engine optimization” seems like a big and even scary term, but it is just the process of improving your site and your content to get more traffic from search engines like Google.
While there are many search engines, we will be focusing on Google for the rest of this conversation, and for good reason. With a 90 plus percent share of search traffic in the United States, Google is a verb as well as a search engine. If someone is searching for a therapist or coach near them, a therapist or coach for a particular issue area, or a specific issue area, they are running that search on Google more than nine times out of ten. Because of Google’s dominance, you can get all the business results you want from search just by concentrating on the strategies that will help your site rank in Google results.
I love to start conversations about SEO with a timeline of the history of search (I am a huge nerd).
The timeline of search is just the history of the ways that multiple companies have approached a really fascinating question: how does a computer figure out what is most relevant to a human?
Google, Yahoo, and other search engines can't have human beings reading the billions of pages on the internet to figure out what should show up first for search results, so they use algorithms to determine where to rank content on search engine results pages. But, how can a computer tell if a piece of content is highly relevant or even good?
One of the first things search engines tried was looking at the number of times a specific keyword appeared on a page. If a page mentioned a certain keyword multiple times, it was probably more relevant to a search for that keyword than a page that mentioned it once, right?
Well, when search engines first came on the scene in the 1990s, in a time period that we call the “Wild West” of search, keyword stuffing became the norm since articles that mentioned a specific keyword more times would rank higher for that keyword. If you wanted to rank first for therapist, you would put the word therapist on your website 300 times, and you would likely rank above the person who put the word on their website only five times.
We can all see the problem with that. People immediately started copying keywords thousands of times --in white font on a white background -- at the bottom of their site so that search engines could see the words but people couldn't.
Keywords alone clearly weren't the solution to the problem of how to figure out what's most relevant.
In 2000, Google came in with an idea that completely revolutionized search, and helped Google become synonymous for searching on the internet. Their idea was that an algorithm could tell whether content is valuable or not based on what other sites are linking to that content.
If my therapy website was linked to by the Washington Post, I'm probably more of an authority than someone who was linked to buy anxiety-memes.me.
The next major revolution in search came in 2004 with personalization.
Do you remember way back when you would search for “restaurant” in Google and it would pull up the Wikipedia article for restaurant? Now, when you search for “restaurant,” Google knows what block you're on and recommends the best restaurants in your area. These personalized searches came about as a result of changes to local SEO.
This development is particularly important for therapists because one of the major terms people search for when they start looking for a therapist is “therapist near me.” The advent of contextualization and local search which allowed Google to understand what businesses and resources to show in someone's area, can help you start to rank in search for local searches. The way to take advantage of local searches is Google My Business. We have a full, step-by-step article on how to set up a Google My Business profile here.
As we've progressed through the 2010s, Google has cleaned up low-quality search results and started to focus more on the intent behind a search instead of focusing on the exact keyword users enter. If you search for a therapist in New York City, Google will probably also show you counselors and psychologists because they understand the intent around the search and not only the keyword you typed in. In the past few years, Google has also moved further and further into AI and intelligent search.
What these three developments mean to the present and future of search is that quality always comes first.
Google changes their search algorithm all the time. But their primary focus is always on improving the user experience--on making it easier for people to find what they’re looking for online. Their algorithms will only get better and better at finding the most helpful content for users.
Thus, the way to continue to rank well in search or to start to rank well is to consistently focus on the quality of your website, on content that's genuinely helpful to people, and on whether your website loads quickly and is really easy for people to navigate. Your site will continue to rank well in search as Google changes more and more and gets smarter and smarter if you focus on these core elements.
Prioritizing quality can get you far in search engine optimization, even if you're not quite comfortable with the technical details.
I hope that fact is really freeing for you, because it means that you can get the business results you want for your site without having to understand every small detail, having to be an SEO expert, or hiring an SEO team.
Another important note that I'll ask you to keep in mind, before we get into the nitty gritty of SEO in the later pieces in our series, is that you should keep your practice goals top-of-mind throughout your SEO work.
Whether you're picking which search terms you want to optimize your site around or identifying potential content to write, your SEO strategy should always serve your larger goals. What action do you most want users to take on your site? Which people are most likely to take that action?
For example, if your website ranks among the top search results for the keyword “anxiety,” you could get thousands of visitors from that one keyword per month. However, those thousands of visitors may bring you fewer clients than ranking for the term “therapist in New York City,” because someone searching for that term is more likely to be ready to start therapy.
You always want to think about a searcher’s intent. What might someone be thinking or looking for when they're typing a search term into Google? Focus your SEO efforts on the keywords someone searches for when they have the intent to find a therapist who does the work you do.
Next up in the series, we’ll be getting into the nitty gritty of SEO and best practices to help your site rank in search. Sign up for our newsletter to be first to know when new content goes live!
Match with the *right* clients for your practice while growing your professional community.
Mariah was Head of Growth at MyWellbeing. She is a marketing expert in the areas of content strategy, digital advertising, business growth, and anything related to helping therapists grow their practice.