Once upon a time, research sites had a fat chance in note-to-file hell of getting on page one of search engine results for keywords like “clinical trials.” As a result, many sites didn’t bother with a website. And of those with a website, few research sites put effort into search engine optimization (SEO).
Until fairly recently, this decision was perhaps a wise use of resources. But search engine algorithms have changed, creating a new search landscape for research sites. And with this landscape comes new patient recruitment opportunities.
The Rise of Local
According to Google, approximately 20% of searches have a geographic modifier. In other words, searchers add the name of their local geographic region to their primary search term on about 1/5 of searches. And I would argue that an even higher number of searches have local intent but aren’t necessarily making use of a geographic modifier.
Major search engines have recognized the importance of local search and are including an increasing number of local results on user queries. They have increased the prominence of local results in two primary ways, via local business listings and through integration of local websites into natural results.
Local Business Listings
Both Google and Bing now put a local business listings box on top of (or within) their natural results. Google brands these listings as “Places” and Bing brands them as “Local,” but local listings for both search engines are essentially the same concept. Yahoo also has local listings, but I won’t discuss Yahoo in this post since Google and Bing comprise the majority of the search market.
Below is a Google search I did for “clinical trials austin.” As you can see, the Places listings appear before the natural results. And despite all of the clinical trials activity in Austin, only one lonely listing appears here. That’s because Austin companies in the clinical research industry have not optimized for Google Places. If you try the same query at Bing, the results will look quite similar.
Many businesses have yet to recognize the value of local listings, particularly in the clinical research industry. If you search for clinical trials related keywords in most major cities, very few research sites (or CROs and sponsors) will appear in the local listings.
Local listing optimization requires a significantly different strategy than traditional SEO. So even clinical research companies who use traditional SEO tactics often do not appear in local listings.
h3>Local Presence in Natural Results
Moving on to natural search, the top 5 results for “clinical trials austin” are shown below. As you can see, Google has given priority to local websites. Though Clinical Connection does not have an Austin address, it manages to appear in the 2nd spot due to some strategic SEO. But all in all, you can see that the results have a decidedly local flavor.
The topic of analyzing search engine competition is beyond the scope of this post, but one point is important to note. Two of the top five spots are occupied by Backpage, which is a classified listing service similar to Craigslist. If you see classified ads or job postings ranking that high up in results for a query, that means Google is desperate for results. Your research site should be in those spots (or higher) instead of a classified listing.
Though I used Google in this example, you will see a very similar scenario if you search for “clinical trials austin” on Bing. As I’m writing this post, the fourth spot is being taken by a Career Builder post for an Oracle database developer.
Once again, there is plenty of opportunity for research sites to appear at the top of these results. But most research sites have not put any effort into SEO, so you will see classified ads and national brands beating them out in results for local queries.
The Future of Local
Earlier I mentioned that about 20% of searches include a geographic modifier, and I speculated that the percentage of searches with local intent was actually higher. Apparently Google agrees.
Google has started to assume local intent even if a search does not include a geographic modifier. So, for instance, if I search for “clinical trials,” I see results for Ochsner and Xavier University on the first page. Google uses my IP address to determine my location, and it integrates New Orleans websites into the results. If New Orleans research sites were utilizing better SEO, I would have seen even more local results on the 1st page. Use Google to search “clinical trials” and you should also see search results tailored to your geographic location.
What does this mean for your research site? For the first time ever, you have the opportunity to compete for keywords like “clinical trials” when people in your geographic region use that search term. Sure, people outside of your region will not see your website but that’s just fine. You can’t recruit patients outside of your region anyway.
Search engine algorithms, particularly with regard to local results, are continually changing. But one thing is certain. Search engines will give local results increasing prominence, allowing savvy research sites to be much more visible to potential patients.
Are You Visible?
As a quick exercise, head to Google or Bing and type in “clinical trials” plus your city name. Do you see a listing for your research site?
If not, you are losing the opportunity to communicate with people in your geographic region who are interested in clinical trials. A website is of little use if it’s not attracting targeted traffic.
Approximately 95% of non-branded natural clicks come from the first page of search results. And approximately 56% of clicks go to the very first result in rankings, tapering drastically as you go down page one. So if your research site ranks first for a search term like “clinical trials dallas,” you can expect to get around 56% of clicks for that term. At a bare minimum, your research site needs to be on the first page. This click distribution infographic demonstrates this point nicely:
I’ve said in other posts that a great recruitment strategy requires that you be visible to patients who are not looking for you. And that’s still true. The general public has little understanding of clinical trials and would not think to search for information on the subject. Therefore, a recruitment strategy targeted strictly at those searching for information will miss plenty of potential patients. The search numbers for clinical trials information tell the story. These terms are not searched with near the frequency of popular consumer interests.
But to quote Voltaire, “perfect is the enemy of good.” Before you start advertising to patients who may be interested in clinical trials, make sure you are visible to patients who are certainly interested in clinical trials.
In some industries (like tourism), it takes thousands of dollars a month just to be competitive with SEO. That’s not the case in clinical research. You can be at the top of search engine results with minimal effort and far less investment. Since clinical trials keywords are less competitive, SEO also won’t provide you a flood of traffic that other industries see. But you don’t need as much traffic as they do.
Depending on what kind of studies you do, some basic SEO can easily pay for itself after the enrollment of just one new patient. Lets say you enrolled one new patient a month because of SEO. For many sites, I’d say that’s a conservative estimate. SEO is great place to start your online recruitment strategy and offers a very competitive return on your recruitment investment.
A Word of Caution
While there are many reputable people who offer SEO services, there are also plenty of disreputable people within the industry. Please do your research and use caution when selecting someone to do your research site’s SEO. You can also contact Rebar Interactive for help with SEO as well.