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The essential Internet

Nov. 1, 2007
A professional Web site is essential to a healthy dental practice. Here’s what you need to know to get your practice noticed on the Internet.
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A professional Web site is essential to a healthy dental practice. Here’s what you need to know to get your practice noticed on the Internet.

by Glenn Lombardi

A few short years ago, the need for a complete, well-maintained Web site was just a dawning realization for most dentists. Today, it’s a clear need driven by multiple forces that impact a practice’s success.

Thanks to the popularity of media and self-improvement products, interest in dental cosmetic procedures has exploded the last decade. Television shows like “Extreme Makeover,” and over-the-counter products like teeth whiteners, have enthralled the public with personal beauty. Many dentists recognized a new opportunity in cosmetic production, and invested in training to enhance their clinical skills. They also improved their offices by upgrading technology and equipment and office decor. With all that done, these dentists were left wondering how to put their new skills and office makeovers to good use attracting potential patients and drawing interest from existing clientèle.

Enter the Technology Age

While offering the right services in a modern environment is critical to meeting the consumer demand for cosmetic dentistry, it is important to understand how and why potential patients look for a dental practice. Some still feel most comfortable using traditional methods, such as telephone books and TV commercials. But most have acquiesced to today’s modern media marvel - the Internet. A recent Harris Interactive poll found that more than 80 percent of consumers research health information online, including information about cosmetic procedures and dentistry. In December 2006, more than one million Internet searches were performed for the term “dentist,” and more than 35,000 searches for the term “veneers.”

On the fast track

Reasons for the surge in online searches are due to two significant technological advancements in this decade - the proliferation of broadband access and the success of major search engines.

When most consumers were saddled with the slow connection speeds of dial-up service, many were hesitant to spend the extra time waiting for search results when they could just as easily pick up a telephone book. While it seemed to be saving time, this point-to-a-provider-and-dial technique did not offer the consumer additional information about the provider, quality of care, or expertise.

Getting search down to a science

The mass introduction of high-speed broadband, however, encouraged consumers to abandon books and seek their goods and services online. This, coupled with the emergence of major search engines like Google® and Yahoo!®, became critical in consumers’ Internet epiphany. For the first time, the hunt-and-peck method of Internet research was streamlined into search fields that yielded plenty of relevant results based on short phrases known as “keywords.” With these keywords, consumers can search for places in their neighborhoods and find what they need close to their homes. This was the start of local search.

Early on, to find what they needed in their neighborhoods - such as a dentist - consumers had to use keywords that included location. For example, “dentist Springfield IL” was required to find results for practices in Springfield, Ill. Today, however, as search-engine technology has advanced, it is possible to get local results by searching with broad terms such as “dentist” without including a location. Results can be displayed for local providers within a five- to 50-mile radius. This is called “geo-targeting.”

Using geo-targeting technology, a practice trying to attract new patients with a paid search campaign can ensure it will appear on the appropriate search results pages, even though the user did not specify a location. These ads are usually found at the top and right side of the results pages, and are called “sponsored links” or “sponsored results.”

Pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns are part of a larger search engine marketing (SEM) plan that effectively promotes all aspects of the practice, including cosmetic services. Dentists can attract patients looking for specific procedures in far less time than waiting for the Web site to reach the top of the organic results pages. These SEM campaigns can be run on any budget, and are easy to track for effectiveness.

From Internet acceptance to Internet mastery

The dominance of Internet marketing is a major change from early 2002, when few dentists had Web sites or understood the positive financial impact of Internet marketing. Many practitioners now realize that the growing demand for cosmetic procedures and quality dentistry means branding and marketing strategies must focus on an online presence. High-value new patients search daily for elective services and - by building a Web site that features education, before-and-after photos, biographies, and expert information - dental practices can attract potential patients based on specific community services. Dentists throughout the country are achieving major business milestones, including attracting high-value new patients, increasing case acceptance, retaining existing patients, and capitalizing on the growing demand for elective services and other profitable procedures.

Professional partnerships save time and money

Because Web sites require consistent attention to effectively win new patients and satisfy existing ones, many practices rely on outside companies to build and maintain their sites. When choosing a company, avoid the lowest cost providers. Instead, look for ones with experience in the dental community with references who can validate the company’s claims of success. The provider should offer hands-on support, be able to launch a site in days, not months, and make it easy to update information on short notice. Dentists should avoid using do-it-yourself templates for building a site. Instead, they should rely on a professional designer and programmer who can create a robust and well-branded home page that highlights specific areas. Sites can also incorporate video, animations, and educational articles.

The newly branded, information-packed Web site then becomes an integral part of the case presentation process and an invaluable tool to help increase case acceptance. A Web site can serve as a valuable reference site for patients following an office presentation, little of which they retain. They can simply visit the Web site after a consultation to refresh their memory and to share information with family members, which helps increase case acceptance.

The right formula for online success

Today it is essential for every dental Web site to include key elements that are most relevant to visitors. These include:

Appearance: The site must be attractive and well branded with easy navigation, fast loading times, and useful tools. Consumers have an expectation of professionalism from their health-care providers, and an outdated, confusing Web site only damages credibility.

Practice philosophy: Prospective patients likely don’t know the doctors, their personalities, or their approach to patient care. Two clearly written paragraphs, preferably on the site’s home or “about us” page, starts to build a relationship.

Services: It makes sense to lead with preferred services and other elective procedures. Just remember to balance this focus with information about all other services. This is your chance to attract patients you want!

Staff biographies: While doctors’ biographies are important, facts about the staff - especially their tenure with the practice - matter to prospects and patients. Encourage staff to write their own biographies, including what they like about the practice. Their positive comments are convincing and often viewed by readers as objective.

Before-and-after photos: By far, pictures have the most dramatic impact on patients. Photos demonstrate quickly and clearly how cosmetic dentistry can change a patient’s smile. This is your chance to educate family members on the benefits of your service.

Interactive content: Adding video clips, audio files, and animations can make a site more engaging. Before doing so, however, consider whether the content benefits patients. Is it presented in patient-friendly language? Can it be delivered in a file format that most patients can use? Video is costly, and unless presented properly, it can have a negative impact on the visitor’s impression.

Library: Establish expertise and credibility with patients by building a substantial resource of information and education. Include content and articles about important industry topics, procedures, ailments, and treatments.

Financing options: Provider networks, insurance, and credit options are a few of the financial questions patients and prospects will seek. Include information about leading industry resources such as CareCredit, and offer visitors links to the financial and insurance providers’ sites.

New patient section: Introduce new patients to the practice and expedite the intake process by creating a robust, centralized section that features new patient forms, office directions, biographies of dentists and staff, and basic office information such as phone numbers and business hours.

Putting it all together

The past few years have seen dentists come a long way in understanding the benefits of the Internet. By partnering with professional firms that specialize in dental marketing, dentists have learned firsthand how creating and maintaining a well-branded, service-specific Web site can attract new patients and increase case acceptance. They also see the positive impact of achieving high rankings on leading search engines using localized search-marketing plans.

These well-managed Web sites are quickly becoming the primary business-development tool of most dental practices, and are clearly an essential part of the consumer’s decision-making process. As the Web site becomes the practice’s marketing focal point, case acceptance increases, new patients are secured, and more referrals are given.

So with a small but important investment of time, thought, and money, a practice can flourish online for years.

Glenn Lombardi is a founder and president of Officite, a leading dental Web site and search engine marketing company with more than 3,100 clients worldwide. Contact him at [email protected].

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