Do you remember when the Yellow Pages were the ideal space to promote your practice and its services? Back then, patients perused crowded print pages of static, alphabetical listings in order to find the information they were after.

Today, however, while phone books and their color ads are nearly obsolete, the Yellow Pages mentality still exists. According to Jack Hadley, founding partner of My Social Practice, Salt Lake City, many orthodontists treat their websites as a one-time necessity. Once the site has been designed and has gone live, very little thought is given to it thereafter.

That, says Hadley, is the wrong web approach in today’s social marketplace.

“In the old days, a practice’s brand was almost completely controlled by the practice itself, communicating through brochures, direct mail pieces, billboards, and text on the website,” he explains. “Today, an orthodontic practice’s brand is primarily defined by others.”

Hadley notes the influence of social media, and how it provides a trusted, permission-based, highly scalable stage for sharing on a viral scale. “Patients are talking about your practice,” he explains.  “These conversations are happening whether a practice participates in them or not. It isn’t like they just go away if you ignore them. In many ways, participation from the practice is no longer optional. People expect it. When it comes to conversations about your practice, not listening to the social media landscape is like not picking up your phone when it rings.”

Hadley and his team at My Social Practice have worked with countless orthodontists on how to use the practice’s website as a tool in this conversation with patients. He notes that using a website as a dialogue platform with current, past, and potential patients allows a practice to be approachable and transparent. It gives the practice the ability to defend itself if needed as well as receive feedback so as to enhance care.

“Hands down, the biggest mistake a practice can make is to ignore its website because they view it as something they ‘have’ and not something they ‘do,’” Hadley notes. “Practices need to adopt this new conversational mind-set and change their approach to marketing. They may need to partner with the right support resources (or fire the old school ones) and get serious about participating in their marketing. That’s what patients and new prospective patients expect today.”

Responsive_web_2Out With the Old

What good is a website if no one sees it? To make sure their site doesn’t go unseen, many have—either willingly or unknowingly—gone the gimmick route to drive traffic to their sites, meaning they’ve engaged in questionable search engine optimization (SEO) tactics.

These questionable tactics include using hidden SEO-heavy text on a site or keyword stuffing, which, as Hadley explains, is when SEO pundits try to disguise manipulative text (including blog posts) as valuable content on the website. The skewed content is written specifically for search engines, crammed full of keywords that make it extremely clumsy to read. This tactic is used to fool search engines into believing the content is relevant.

Another common gimmick is phony backlinks, in which webmasters have built hundreds, if not thousands, of links from phony websites (link farms) to a practice’s website.

Google has cracked down on many of these gimmicks, and in some cases will even penalize a website in search result rankings.

“Many practices are upset because their websites are being penalized for something they paid SEO experts to do for them over the years,” Hadley says.

He notes that in some cases, sites can be cleaned up—although it can be very time consuming and expensive. “In other cases,” he says, “it can almost be better to just start over by trashing the entire site and building a new one.”

Regardless of penalization, or the unethical nature of manipulating SEO, many businesses still continue to go that route. “I think there are three main reasons why these gimmicks are still widespread,” Hadley explains. “First, they used to work (before the latest, sophisticated Google updates). Second, most practices are not informed about these things and simply figure ‘Our web guy takes care of all that stuff.’ And third, because many webmasters continue to make their living by billing monthly services related to these gimmicks, they’re hesitant to rock the boat and lose revenue.”

However, as Hadley notes, in today’s online world of post-Google shake-up, if a practice wants to increase web traffic to their site while not being penalized in search results, they have to get rid of the gimmicks entirely.

Driving traffic to a website is a very complex thing to do and is dependent on thousands of factors. Hadley explains, in order to simplify the process, a practice needs to remember—and focus—on three things that are within their control.

First, their website structure needs to be up to date and accommodating to search engines. Hadley recommends that practices go after what is known as a responsive design, which is a big-picture design approach that considers all viewing devices, not just mobile. “[A responsive] site detects where it is being viewed and adjusts accordingly so that it looks great on a desktop computer, tablet, or phone,” he says.

According to Google, responsive web design (RWD) is “…an approach to web design aimed at crafting sites to provide an optimal viewing and interaction experience—easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling across—across a wide range of devices.”

Because a significant amount of web traffic is happening on mobile devices, Google now factors into its ranking algorithm whether a site is mobile friendly. If the search engine detects a responsive site, it will rank it higher in its results page.

The second area where Hadley suggest practices focus is publishing content. New SEO requires participation on the part of the practice to publish its own genuine and original content. Hadley recommends doing this through blog posts featured on the practice website.

“I like the old saying, ‘Patients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” he adds. “Blog topics can include valuable orthodontic information, but it must be mixed in with highly personalized content to be effective.”

The third, and possibly more crucial, element is harvesting reviews, via Google or Yelp, which Hadley considers to be the easiest and fastest way to improve a practice’s search engine ranking. “This requires claiming, monitoring, and taking control of your Google+ page, and having a consistent, effective way of getting reviews inside your practice.”

The world is a very social place today. If a practice wants to be part of the conversation, they can’t take the old hands-off mentality. As for Facebook, well, it’s still the 800-pound orthodontic marketing gorilla, as Hadley refers to it. But a practice website can be a fantastic resource for hosting and contributing to the conversation among current and future patients. OP

Lori Sichtermann is a freelance writer for Orthodontic Products. She can be reached at [email protected].