Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, seems to be an endlessly murky topic for all involved. Nowhere is this truer than in the twin worlds of health care and pharmaceuticals. Let’s try to clear up SEO here today and get to its core. 

Having worked on SEO efforts for a decade, I’ve seen it transform. What had been a largely technical “back-end” line item has become a strategic, content-driven process. I’m going to outline a few principles that guide our approach to SEO. I hope you’ll find them as useful as we have. 

SEO isn’t about gaming the system (it used to be) 

If you go back more than 5 years, search engines just weren’t as good. The search engines from a decade ago still had to rely on blunter instruments: the frequency of keywords appearing, meta keywords, and a host of other obscure factors. When search engines weren’t as effective, they were easier to game—by both good and bad actors. 

Typically, this manifested as both good and junky websites trying to stuff keywords into pages and a ton of grey-market link building. This was an ugly time in SEO; even if you were a reputable site owner, you still needed to engage in some amount of junky tactics like keyword stuffing in order to compete with the actual junk websites out there. 

This was unfortunate: in trying to gain an edge in SEO, websites often delivered a worse customer experience. For brands, this meant winning the battle for more traffic could lose the war for delivering a better customer experience. 

Today, it’s much harder to get any ranking benefit solely by packing a web page full of the keywords you want to rank on. There’s also no benefit to getting backlinks from less-than-reputable (now called “toxic“) sources.  

SEO is simpler than it seems 

At its core, SEO today is just about creating content that’s relevant for an audience. To some extent, it always was. If you can articulate who your audience is, and what they want to learn, you can get far into mapping out content that will be relevant to them. 

This process starts with your audience: your customers (patients, HCPs, caregivers, etc.) 

This process does not start with the technical side of SEO. You should not think about anything else until you’ve taken the time to understand your customers. 

In my own case, if I had access to no special tools or data, I’d start any SEO process by asking a few current customers about what led them to my brand. In the health care space, I’d interview a few patients and HCPs about how they decide between using my brand and competing brands. 

Nailing down the right keywords and content requires an understanding of your customer’s thought process and how they approach deciding between you and competitors. 

Any new SEO project should start with defining the customer and understanding their needs as they relate to your product. This should be done before starting keyword or competitive SEO research, as it will guide all other processes in the right direction. 

Once you understand your audience and what they’re looking for, then go ahead and start the more technical research piece. 

Technical SEO needs to be done, but it doesn’t end there 

Meta descriptions and web page information need to be completed, but they are not a gateway to massively improved SEO performance. 

Meta keywords no longer have any value (and if someone is selling you meta keyword writing, you should run away screaming). 

Often, a web design firm or similar entity will sell “SEO” as a service. This often means preparing meta descriptions (the copy that shows up in search results), tagging blog posts, and making sure that headers and internal linking structures are setup correctly. While this is important to do, these activities should be viewed as structural *requirements*—not an SEO strategy or as something that will bring in significantly more traffic in and of itself. 

Knowing all that you shouldn’t do for SEO, is there anything left that works? 

Yes—and it’s what you should have been focusing on all along.

SEO is about giving your audience great content 

The ultimate goal of SEO is to get more of the right individuals finding value on your website.  

Working backwards, it’s apparent that great content is required to deliver a great experience. 

Backlinks (external links back to your website/content) are also important, and you’re going to get backlinks with much less effort if you have good content to begin with. 

Approvals and timelines are the main challenge for health care/pharma SEO 

Writing content for health care or pharma isn’t much harder than content for other fields. But, the regulatory requirements, especially in the pharma space, make the entire process slower than, say, retail or consumer packaged goods. Because of this, health care and pharma SEO efforts often end after a website is created—brand managers and product teams run out of gas after the massive website undertaking is done. 

While this may be normal within health care & pharma, it’s not helpful; for customers or for brands. The silver lining to this lack of SEO-worthy content is that many health care and pharma brands can gain an edge simply by participating with regular content. 

There are two primary reasons to regularly publish content: 

  1. It allows you to respond to shifting needs in the marketplace. As your customers have new information needs around reimbursement, manufacturing, patient resources, and other topics, publishing regularly allows you to address them. 
  2. Search engines give a ranking edge to websites that publish frequently. For Google, this is commonly referred to as their “freshness” algorithm. In simple terms: for two otherwise equal websites, the one is updated more frequently and recently will outrank the other. 

To win the SEO game among competing brands, you need to keep publishing. In most markets, this isn’t an issue. For health care and pharma though, where there are often 2-week or longer regulatory reviews, this can seem like a massive undertaking. 

A prescription for better SEO projects 

Treat SEO as a series of projects rather than one task done when a website is launched. Develop goals and plan out how these goals will be achieved in discreet. 

A health care or pharma website should publish new content at minimum once per month. Ideally, publish once per week. If you look outside of health care/pharma, you’ll see recommendations to publish even more frequently. If there was more content competition in the health care/pharma space this might be necessary, but there’s not. Focus on regularly posting a few good pieces rather than constantly posting just for the sake of posting. 

Knowing that any content to be published will require a series of approvals, always follow these rules: 

  1. Plan out content to be published far in advance. Assume that there will be occasional delays in your content process. 
  2. Plan to produce more content than you intend to publish. Some content will not make it through the approval process. 
  3. Plan content out in 3- to 6-month blocks. With shorter project durations, you risk large gaps between content. With longer project durations, you risk not adapting to emerging needs from your audience. 
  4. Remember that the goal of every SEO project is to get the right individuals having an excellent experience with your content. Define your audience, then let that audience guide your content creation.  

Summary 

With clear goals defined and stable content publishing, health care and pharma brands can avoid SEO pitfalls and succeed in generating more frequent, more useful customer experiences. 

By focusing SEO efforts on providing value to your customer, you’ll ensure that you’re both growing your traffic and building real (and positive) brand interactions. 


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