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Developing an Online Presence Search Engine Optimization and Website Design Concepts

Lou Shuman, DMD, CAGS

September 28, 2017 Issue - Expires September 30th, 2020



Cultivating a significant online presence can assist a dental practice in retaining loyal patients and attracting new ones. To do so, dentists must have a basic understanding of how search engine optimization can increase their website’s effectiveness in appearing in search engine results, thus exposing them to more potential patients. Inclusion of title tags, meta-descriptions, site maps, and backlinks are straightforward website features that can dramatically impact where a search engine ranks the website. Creating unique and informative content, whether through the website itself, blogs, or social media platforms, is another way to influence rank. Ensuring that the website design is user friendly and compatible across multiple devices will strengthen brand recognition and increase the likelihood of converting online visitors to patients, which is the ultimate goal of creating a strong online presence. 

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Approximately 96% of adults aged 30 to 49 years and 99% of young adults aged 18 to 29 years use the Internet (Figure 1).1 The primary target market for dentists today is women aged 25 to 49 years. Because this group has been shown to have a significant presence online, dentists stand to benefit from creating a strong online presence through their website and social media platforms.

Although the target demographic uses the Internet, knowing whether this group is seeking dental-related information is critical. Analytics on global search terms for June 2016 show that about 52 million people globally searched for either “dentistry,” “dentist,” or “dental,” illustrating that not only is the target audience online, but that potential patients are indeed looking for information on dentistry (Figure 2).2

Understanding Search Engine Optimization

To obtain and maintain a significant online presence, dentists must have a clear awareness of search engine optimization (SEO). SEO can be understood by examining its two components: (1) search engines and (2) optimizing content and website design.

A search engine is a software program that takes a user’s search terms and searches the World Wide Web looking for relevant content. When that information is displayed back to the user, it is ranked in a way that the search engine believes puts the most relevant information first. There are currently three main search engines: Google, which is responsible for 64% of all searches; Bing, which is responsible for 21%; and Yahoo, which is responsible for 12%.2 Because of Google’s massive cultural impact, it is often incorrectly believed that it is responsible for 98% of all searches. This belief can negatively affect analytics if, when building an online presence, a practice neglects to set up SEO-specific content for Bing and Yahoo and only focuses on Google.

The second half of maximizing SEO potential is understanding optimization. Optimization refers to what website owners can do to increase their website’s relevancy and ranking. Unlike searching, which is left to software programs, optimization can be influenced by a website owner.

Increasing Organic Search Ranking

After a search has been completed, the results page normally will display paid advertisements at the top, often followed by maps before finally listing relevant websites. The goal of SEO is to have a website listed as close to the top of the relevant listings as possible. The position where a listing falls is known as a website’s rank.

Six tactics can be used to improve ranking:

1. Title Tag. A title tag helps search engines understand what the content of the page is about. It is the first thing that a search engine will use to determine a website’s relevance to the search. Title tags are listed at the top of the Internet browser (Figure 3). Using popular search terms, such as the ones previously discussed—dental, dentist, and dentistry—can help boost ranking. “Dental” has been shown to be used approximately twice as often as “dentist” and “dentistry”2; therefore, adding “dental” into the title tag would be the most practical option to increase rank. In addition, practice location and any keywords that highlight the practice’s specialty are beneficial in title tags. Such wording will help ensure that potential patients searching for a dentist within a particular location or for a specific treatment are more likely to view the practice’s website in their search results.

The website owner (or the site marketing company employed by the practice) is responsible for adding the title tags. If tags are not manually added, the search engine automatically inputs them. Allowing the search engine to essentially determine the most important aspects of the website, and as a result how online visitors see the practice, can negatively impact not only online presence but the ability to convert website visitors to actual patients.

2. Meta-description. A meta-description provides a search engine with a description of the website, which the prospective patient then sees after the search results are listed (Figure 4). Prospective patients will use this information to learn more about the dental practice and make a split-second decision whether to click on the link leading to the website. As with title tagging, the responsibility of writing a meta-description falls on the website owner or the site marketing company employed by the practice, and a good meta-description should use keywords that define the practice, including specialties, location, and popular SEO terms such as “dental,” “dentist,” and “dentistry.”

3. Content. Providing good content is arguably the most important aspect of cultivating a significant online presence. Creating rich and fresh content is likely to improve search engine ranking. Using the same website design or content template that multiple practices use can negatively impact rank because search engines take uniqueness into account when ranking. In addition to having unique content, using the same SEO-significant keywords as in title tags and meta-descriptions can increase rank. However, keywords should be used in a meaningful way and not excessively added to try to trick search engines—a practice known as keyword stuffing, which is a “black-hat” tactic that search engines are aware of and can result in websites dramatically losing rank. Keywords should be used in a way that allows sentences to read and flow normally.

Recent updates have afforded search engines the ability to look at documents, videos, photographs, and graphics for content and keywords. As a result, captions and copy relating to multimedia content should have the correct keywords included in the appropriate fields.

Search engines also favor websites that dedicate a full page to a specific topic. After the homepage, which acts as an overall introduction to the practice, other pages on the website should each focus on a singular subject or topic, such as implants, orthodontics, or sleep.

Hosting a blog can also be a beneficial way to provide good content. However, the blog needs to be updated regularly with fresh, original content. Search engines can recognize when a blog is not kept current, which negatively impacts its website ranking.

4. Site Map. Site maps can be created to help search engines find and index all pages on the website, essentially acting as a table of contents. Site maps are important because search engines are not perfect; they may overlook some of a website’s content if a site map is not provided, resulting in lower ranking and relevancy. A site map guarantees that content will not be missed or overlooked.

5. Backlinks. Any link on another website that points to the practice website is considered a backlink. Backlinks can come from various websites, but websites related to dentistry will maximize the benefit. If a site has many backlinks, preferably from other dentistry sources, search engines begin to consider it a “reference site,” which will increase rank dramatically. Examples of relevant backlinks are articles available online that practitioners have written for dental journals or an association’s website linked back to the practice’s website.

6. Social Media. In addition to having a website, practices should engage in social media. Google’s Panda algorithm, a software update, recognizes the impact of social media icons, especially Facebook, and has made being active and engaging on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest an important part of how the practice is ultimately ranked. All social media platforms should be linked to the practice’s website; otherwise, it will forfeit potential ranking benefit.

Recent Changes in Evaluating Ranking Importance

Although being ranked No. 1 on a search is ideal, because consumers have matured in search practices, 87% of all clicks from organic search engine traffic now goes to the first five results.3 Thus, even if a website is ranked fifth, it is still likely to be considered by the searcher. Research has also shown that 97%4 of consumers use search engines when looking for local products or services, with 72%5 looking online for health information.

The Website as a Hub

The practice website acts as the hub of a wheel, whereas social media icons act as spokes. Focusing on the design and development of the website is crucial because the site is the strongest connector to current and potential patients.

Approximately 88% of patients prefer to go to a practice’s website for information rather than calling the office.6 When visitors are on the website, the site has approximately 10 seconds7 to capture their attention and then approximately 90 seconds8 to entice them to physically call the office. This is called the billboard effect, a marketing approach where a message needs to be conveyed in a very limited timeframe, and it highlights the importance of website design.

Although websites are often built to optimize ranking by search engines, a user-friendly design should remain a major consideration. Creating a modern and professional layout is the first step to engaging visitors. A website should take into consideration the ease of navigating the website, specifically making it easy for visitors to find important information, such as contact information that encourages them to call, email, or request an appointment. Converting an online visitor to a potential patient is one of the main objectives of increasing online presence.

What Works in Website Design

Creating unique, quality content is not just important for SEO but also for engaging and informing potential patients. An online presence can prompt existing patients to take an action or a new visitor to set up an appointment. Key website features that encourage patient conversion include quality pre- and post-treatment photographs, educational videos, location information, and payment options. Existing patients need to sign a marketing release form before their cases and photographs can be used, both on the practice website and social media platforms; without this, the practice exposes itself to potential legal issues. Contacting a state association to make sure the practice’s marketing release form meets state and local requirements is recommended because requirements vary from state to state.

Specific features such as a “Services We Provide” or “New Patient” page can immediately capture the attention of potential patients arriving at the website for the first time. Other features that have proven successful are a practice overview video as well as clear contact information on the homepage. Creating an easy-to-use navigation menu is important to ensure visitors do not leave the site because they cannot find what they are looking for.

What Does Not Work

Focus groups have shown that if a website has certain features, visitors are more likely to leave the page within 10 seconds.8 Music and autoplay animation, a splash introduction page (an umbrella page that introduces the practice and requires a click through to the homepage), scary or graphic images (specifically of instruments), a dark color scheme, and content that is perceived as cold or institutional can all lead to a visitor leaving a website quickly. Other features that focus group members have perceived as negatives for a website include running too many promotions and having too much happening on the homepage.

The Importance of Being Personal

A “Doctor” page is the most important page on a website after the homepage. The Doctor page should focus on allowing the visitor to get acquainted with the doctor personally and reach a comfort and confidence level that he or she is the right type of individual to treat the visitor or the visitor’s family members.

The second most important page on a website is one that introduces the practice team members. Team members should each be able to decide what picture they want on the website and what copy they’d like to share on this page.

An important term in marketing is ADI, which stands for “area of demographic influence.” Research has shown that most patients in a typical suburban dental practice are located within a 10-mile radius of the office.9 Most of a practice’s team members are also likely to live within this 10-mile radius. As a result, by being active in the community, team members can have tremendous influence in communicating about the practice to potential patients.

Utilizing Google Analytics

Monitoring how a website is performing is an important aspect of building an online presence, beyond observing where a website is ranked. Google Analytics, a free web-analytics service, allows website owners to see data for their website, including the website’s visitors, unique visitors, page views, and pages per visit, among other valuable information (Figure 5). Data can be analyzed on an hourly, weekly, or monthly basis.

Google’s Hummingbird Algorithm

With the advent of Google’s software update called the Hummingbird algorithm, the shape of SEO has evolved. This algorithm takes into consideration full questions asked in searches as opposed to word-by-word searches. For instance, if a user searches, “How do I fix the chain in my Trek mountain bike?,” Google is able to understand that the searcher is not shopping for a Trek bike or a bike chain but is looking to find an answer to how to fix the current chain.

How SEO and social media experts will effectively adapt to the algorithm is yet to be seen, but several ideas that could impact websites in supporting growth when it comes to relevancy and ranking under the Hummingbird algorithm have been agreed to.

One such idea is to create a separate “Questions & Answers” page on the website, which should be developed by sitting down with the entire practice team to determine the most frequently asked questions at the practice with answers. An example would be, “What is the difference between clear aligners and braces?” Questions can include everything from insurance information to billing practices to common dental inquiries. The goal is to make the website more relevant when a potential patient searches Google for a specific dentistry question for which the website has an answer. Having the specific question listed on the Q&A page on the website can have a significant impact on ranking.

Branding Across Multiple Platforms

In today’s world, every user is not going to be on a desktop computer when searching the Web; many will be using smartphones or tablets. What is known as a “responsive website design” template is important because it allows the website display to be viewed accurately on any device.

In addition to making sure the website display is accurate across all devices, creating social media pages that visually have a similar design to the website will increase brand recognition. The brand should remain consistent, such that regardless of where a potential patient lands, whether it is a social media page, a blog, or the homepage, the visitor should be able to recognize the site as belonging to the practice. The consistency will build the brand and translate into more loyal and potential new patients.


1. Internet/broadband fact sheet. Pew Research Center. Published January 12, 2017. Accessed September 6, 2017.

2. ComScore releases February 2016 U.S. desktop search engine rankings. ComScore. Published March 16, 2016. Accessed September 6, 2017.

3. Petrescu P. Google organic click-through rates in 2014. Moz. Published October 1, 2014. Accessed September 6, 2017.

4. Pick T. 103 compelling social media and marketing statistics for 2013 (and 2014). Business2Community. Published November 12, 2013. Accessed September 6, 2017.

5. Health online 2013. Pew Research Center. Published January 15, 2013. Accessed September 6, 2017.

6. Database fact, May 2013. Accessed September 6, 2017.

7. Krauska S. How long do people spend reading websites? Evermore. Published September 10, 2015. Accessed September 6, 2017.

8. Nielsen J. How long do users stay on web pages? Nielsen Norman Group. Published September 12, 2011. Accessed June 27, 2017.

9. Du Molin J, Frey J. Dental patients and how far they travel. The Wealthy Dentist. Accessed September 6, 2017.

Fig 1. Age demographics of American use of the Internet; 96% of Americans aged 30 to 49 years are online.<sup>1</sup>

Figure 1

Fig 2. Global search term results for “dentistry,” “dentist,” and “dental” (in millions, June 2016).

figure 2

Fig 3. Example of a title tag listed in the Internet browser.

Figure 3

Fig 4. Example of a meta-description, which appears after a search has been made. Keywords and location are emphasized to illustrate their importance.

Figure 4

Fig 5. Preview of a Google Analytics dashboard.

Figure 5

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PROVIDER: Dental Learning Systems, LLC
SOURCE: CDEWorld | September 2017

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe how to enhance a website presence in order to attract new patients and build patient loyalty.
  • Introduce effective search engine tools to maximize online visibility.
  • Discuss the importance of branding and why a website should be viewable on different types of devices.


Dr. Shuman has received an honorarium for his work on this course.

Queries for the author may be directed to