Bite the Apple before the Apple Bites You
In conjunction with the historic release of the iPhone 5, Apple recently updated its proprietary operating system, but not without significant controversy. The latest version of the operating system, iOS 6, does not include the Google Maps app, replacing it with Apple Maps, a flawed but promising app that figures to improve substantially over the coming months. This now-very-public clash between Apple and Google affects not only iPhone users, but also the businesses that rely on being easily located on mobile devices. How will this affect your medical practice? The good news is that, if you're prepared, it doesn't have to - at least not negatively.
There was a time when two of the world's tallest technological giants, Apple and Google, walked hand in hand, to the seeming benefit of consumers around the world. The boundaries seemed so clear at the time: Apple produced the mobile products - the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod - that bred an entire iSubculture, while Google supplied these devices with some of their most useful and popular features. It was a win-win situation for consumers, who could access Google search, YouTube, and Google Maps instantly on their iPhones, wherever they were.
Ah, 2007…the good old days.
The mobile landscape has changed significantly since then. Google decided that it wanted to be more than simply a sidekick in this enterprise; the company wanted to claim its share of the mobile market that it had helped to grow, and so released its own operating system, Android, in 2008. Apple, a company generally known for putting the needs of its consumer base first, waited until September 2012 to respond by releasing a new version of its proprietary mobile operating system, iOS 6, that no longer included YouTube or Google Maps. While iPhone users can download a free YouTube app from Google, Google Maps has been replaced by Apple Maps, a flawed but promising new technology that will almost certainly improve very quickly.
As Google has begun to offer more robust features to Android users than iPhone users in recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that the two giants are no longer partners, but rather competitors. What didn't necessarily figure is that Apple would enter the local search business as soon, and as controversially, as it has. What does this mean for the average medical practice that relies on local search to drive so much of its traffic?
For those who get caught in the crossfire of the Apple-Google conflict, the transition may be rough. However, if you are prepared for this seismic shift in the mobile terrain, your Internet presence may soon be stronger than ever.
September 21, 2012: Why you couldn't find a parking space at the mall…
September 21st was an historic day for Apple, as people lined up around the globe, some having camped out for days, to get their hands on the new iPhone 5. In most cities, the device sold out within hours - in fact, until at least the middle of October, you'll have an easier time finding free parking in Downtown Los Angeles or New York than finding an iPhone 5 on the shelves of an Apple store.
In the twenty-first century, Apple has transformed itself from a quirky, visionary company into a multinational powerhouse that, even before the release of the iPhone 5, was sitting on more than $110 billion in cash. To put this astonishing number in perspective, Apple has more cash than the United States of America.
How has Apple accomplished such a feat? Talk to anyone who owns an Apple product, and you'll likely encounter someone who sounds less like a consumer than a fan, and a hardcore fan at that. In growing this ever-increasing fan base, Apple has transformed how people conduct their everyday business, from organizing their finances to finding the nearest place they could grab a good sub. In short, Apple has changed the face of commerce in the United States and around the world.
Vital to the corporation's ability to do this was their partnership with Google. Using the Google Maps app, iPhone users were not only able to find local businesses, but also to access consumer reviews and other data. And use it they did: in July 2012, alone, 12.6 million iPhone users sourced Google Maps each day during the month, accounting for nearly half of its mobile traffic.
Two days before the release of the iPhone 5, Apple made the iOS 6 available. Users who downloaded the new version of the operating system - including millions of people using previous models of the iPhone, as well as all models of the iPad and iPod Touch - found that they could no longer access Google Maps. The result was confusion and more than mild annoyance, especially among those who encountered some of the many bugs inherent in Apple Maps.
Apple has always been a savvy company, though. You would be well-advised not to take criticisms over the accuracy of Apple Maps' data as an indication that the technology is a bust. The smart money says that, within months, Apple Maps will be vastly improved. It may not ever claim the heavyweight crown from Google Maps, but it will be a contender.
What does this mean for my practice?
Just as a solid Internet marketing strategy has become integral to the success of medical practices in recent years, the ability to effectively reach out to mobile users has become an essential component in such a strategy. Approximately 40 percent of all mobile searches are for local businesses and other points of interest.
During this period, local search data providers such as Google+ and Yelp have had a major impact on medical practices. Whereas five years ago, your Internet presence was determined largely by the quality of your website and how well it was optimized for the search engines, you are now confronted by such issues as online reviews and reputation management. Although these concepts can be uncomfortable, bordering on distasteful, to many experienced practitioners, they must be confronted - even embraced. Even as you do your best to distinguish your practice by delivering a unique, powerful user experience via your website, the search engines reward conformity to their guidelines and rules. As the field of search evolves, you have the choice either to adapt or to ignore the changes. Guess which choice will have the more beneficial effect on your bottom line?
So if Apple wants you to participate in their local search engine, you should do precisely that.
Will people really search for a doctor on their phones?
They already are, in droves. At Einstein Medical, we have witnessed a lot of trends and changes over the years, and even we are surprised by the dramatic year-over-year growth in the number of people who use their mobile phones and other mobile devices to find, and ultimately become patients of, medical practices. This trend is reflective of a larger trend in consumer habits.
"Roughly one in seven searches, even in the smaller categories, are happening on a mobile phone," Jason Spero of Google stated in 2011, "but how many of you [business owners] are putting one-seventh of your resources into mobile…? Your customer is trying to engage you."
Google also reported that, among consumers who searched for a business using their mobile phones, 61 percent called the business and 59 percent later visited. Search Engine Land reported that 9 out of 10 mobile searches lead to action, with more than half eventually resulting in the purchase of a product or service.
One-trick ponies, enter stage right…
It is interesting, if not exactly surprising, to see the number of cottage industries that sprout up overnight every time there is a major change involving Internet technology in general, and local search in particular. When social media emerged as an important marketing tool, hundreds of startup companies entered onto the scene, claiming that websites were a dying medium and that social media was the be-all and end-all of an effective Internet strategy. Likewise, when Google launched Google+, the opportunists responded by setting up companies that exclusively managed Google+ accounts. We have seen companies devoted solely to reputation management, online review management, online video, blogging, link building, and other "next big things" involving the Internet come and go. Surely, the release of the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 will lead to the sudden creation of hundreds more fly-by-night companies vying for your business.
Such one-trick ponies are trying to earn as much money as they can as quickly as they can, without taking measures to invest in the long-term success of their clients. Be very cautious about entrusting any element of your online strategy to a company that was only recently established and is promoting itself as having expertise in one specific element of Internet marketing - especially if that single element has a lot of buzz surrounding it, as is the case with Apple's latest releases.
There are companies in the online marketing and SEO industry, including Einstein Medical, that have ridden out the trends and understand the history of the Internet, as well as the interplay between its various components. In our industry, as with any industry, there is no substitute for experience.
Thinking long term can solve a lot of short-term problems
A successful Internet marketing strategy must be well-rounded and focused not simply on the present, but also on the future. On the one hand, it must be built upon a bedrock of quality: quality content in a quality website that adheres to Google's Webmaster Guidelines. On the other hand, it must be constantly evolving with the marketplace and with the times. The major search engines will always reward medical practices that provide the best experience possible - the most relevant and timely information available using a variety of media types - for their users.
When the iPhone was first introduced in 2007, most medical practice websites did not include video, and online review sites were the province of anonymous users with vague praise and even vaguer complaints. Facebook was something that kids used to communicate with other kids. In 2012, video, reputation management, and social media are all essential parts of any online strategy, and those companies that embraced these concepts when they were still new are now reaping the rewards.
If you want your practice to remain at the forefront of local search in the future, you would be wise to add Apple's new local strategy to the checklist of items necessary to the success of your long-term marketing plan.
Can my Apple results affect my Google results, and vice-versa?
The major players in local search are watching each other very closely. In a search sting operation conducted by Google last year, the search leader caught Microsoft's Bing search engine copying its results. Interestingly, Bing did not deny that it did so. In more recent news, Yahoo! poached its current CEO, Marissa Mayer, from the ranks of Google. You can be certain that every company within the industry has a pretty good idea of what its competitors are up to. The one goal that all of these companies share in common is to provide their users with the best experience possible.
The moral of the story? Provide the best user experience possible, and Google, Apple, Bing, Yahoo!, and their competitors will not ignore you. They can't afford to, or they will lose credibility among their users.
What should I do now?
The good news is that Apple wants you to be found. The more comprehensive its database, the better the experience it is able to provide to its users. Apple Maps pulls its data from a variety of sources; generally speaking, you will want your practice profile to be found in as many reputable places on the Internet as possible. That said, the quality of those profiles you have registered is more important than the quantity. You will want to review your profiles to make sure that they are completely filled out, revising any that provide only fragmented information. If you do have multiple profiles, it is very important that all of your information be consistent from profile to profile, down to the finest detail. Be sure that your name and title, the name of your practice, the practice's physical address, and the practice's primary phone number are precisely the same everywhere they are published, including on your website.
Remember that your online presence is a vital extension of your physical practice; as it goes, so goes your practice. Make sure that your Internet marketing company is staying abreast of major trends, that it has a solid local SEO plan in place for you, and that it is prepared for this latest clash of the titans so that your practice will continue to be found on the millions of iPhones out there.