The psychology of search

colori1Staying on top of the latest Google algorithm update can be a full-time job. Unfortunately, it’s a job that not many hospitals have filled, leaving them open to confusion surrounding SEO and how to produce website content that will result in high page rankings.

As the CEO and owner of a content strategy and development company, I’ve often said that “if it’s good for the user, it’s good for search” is an apt SEO strategy. So when Google released the Panda algorithm update in 2011, I was able to joke that Google finally caught up with my philosophy. And while I’m no SEO expert, Google really did begin to apply the philosophy I’d been expounding into their algorithm. (Making me feel really smart.)

With the Panda update, websites needed to focus on providing high-quality information. Of course, “quality” is subjective, and you need to be aware that “quality” in this case isn’t measured in content length, so you won’t improve your low-quality pages by making them longer. Content can be short or long; what matters is that it provides the information the user seeks. (If it’s good for the user, it’s good for search.) The quality of the content on a website matters more than the quantity.

The Penguin update, which came out in 2012, about a year after Panda, focused on spammy backlinks. Just like keyword stuffing, folks had clued in that they could “trick” the algorithm by getting significant numbers of (often irrelevant) backlinks. Penguin addressed that situation.

So what’s a hospital marketer to do?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if it’s good for the user, it’s good for search. What are your users looking for? What do you WANT them to be looking for when they land on a particular page of your site?

This specific situation is one that we at WriterGirl address on a daily basis. It’s a subtle point, and it’s where the psychology of search comes into play. In order to fully explain this, let me walk you through a real-life scenario we just went through. (For clarity, I have to explain a bit about how we work. It’s not meant to be a sales pitch, but rather an explanation of how the subtleties of search come into play when writing highly custom healthcare content. Bear with me…)

WriterGirl trains each of our writers and project managers (PMs), and we certify them annually through our WriterGirl Academy. Part of this training involves one-on-one mentorship, which occurs on an as-needed basis with each writer and PM. The other day, an extremely experienced writer (more than ten years’ experience in healthcare writing, marketing and social media management) was working on some content. For a page on angina, she was using “chest pain” in the headline rather than “angina.” The mentor told her to think about what the user would be searching for in order to land on this page; in this case, is was “angina” rather than the more generic “chest pain.” (The writer was mentored to include “chest pain” in the content, but in order to help with SEO, to use the more specific term in the headline.)

The writer then began working on content for high blood pressure. Taking her cue from her mentoring session, she used “hypertension” – the more specific term – in her headline. Great job, right? The writer is applying the lesson learned, demonstrating that she was listening and understanding the direction.

Not so fast.

This is where the psychology comes in. (And where manufactured SEO programs fall short, by the way.)

In this case, the user would most likely search for “high blood pressure” rather than “hypertension.” The “whys” of this are subtle, and they involve everything from language to logic to advertising. Simply put, the population at large is exposed to the phrase “high blood pressure” far more than they are exposed to the word “hypertension.” So in this case, it behooved the hospital to use “high blood pressure” in the headline for better SEO.

How do we know this?

Well, that’s a tough question to answer, again because it’s so subtle. It involves all of our senses – paying attention both visually and orally to language on television and in print, not to mention digital outlets. It requires an understanding of the target audience – and not just their reading level. (“Angina” is a medical term, but one that a user searching for treatment would use, rather than the more generic “chest pain” phrase, which could imply a search for something like “signs of a heart attack” rather than “angina.”)

This situation is just one example of how personal SEO has become. Google is now working on AI (artificial intelligence), with the goal that results fit so clearly into the flow of what you’re looking for that you don’t even notice it’s happened. Your users are looking for ever-more complex answers, and by remembering to put yourselves in the seat of the user, you’ll create better content. And that better content will result in better SEO.