The Principles behind a Great Dental Website
A strong online presence is not simply an important element of an effective marketing campaign; it is absolutely necessary for any dental practice that wishes to be competitive in the 21st century. The foundation of a strong online practice is a dental website that serves as an engaging, useful resource for your current and prospective patients while accurately projecting the image and philosophy of your practice. How can you ensure that your website does this and more? The answer is simpler than some online marketers might lead you to believe.
If small and medium-sized businesses want to compete on a level playing field in the 21st century, then establishing a strong online presence is crucial. In the 1990s, having a corporate website was highly advantageous; in the Google era, however, it has become an absolute necessity. In fact, in many ways, a business's online identity is as important as its physical storefront, and this is as true in dentistry as it is in any other industry.
More than 240 million Americans, or nearly 80 percent of the country's population, use the Internet on a regular basis; according to a 2010 study conducted by BIA/Kelsey and ConStat, a remarkable 97 percent of these people use online media to research products or services in their local areas. This means that many prospective patients are gathering information about dental practices before ever visiting them in person. In some instances, these consumers may visit a practice's website for something as simple as business hours or its physical address; in most cases, however, they want to learn more about the practice, the services that it provides, and its reputation. As a dentist, if your practice lacks a strong online presence, the information that your potential patients are seeking will come from a third-party source - in effect, your reputation, and the impression you make on others, will be controlled by someone else. If, however, you have a dentistry website that is elegantly designed and filled with compelling written, visual, and video content, you have the tools you need to control and maintain your image.
Of the 240 million Internet users in the U.S., 97 percent use online media to research products or services in their local areas.
Given the importance of having a robust online presence, the next question that begs to be asked is what should your website encompass and what should it, for lack of a better word, do? Put simply, your website should serve as an online representation of your practice. It should:
- Introduce your practice to new patients, including its core philosophy, purpose, and goals
- Educate consumers on the services that you offer, particularly those that set your practice apart from your competitors
- Provide answers to commonly asked questions
- Engage prospective patients, to help ensure that any impression made is positive and lasting
- Drive those prospective patients to action
A website that accomplishes these things will serve as a comprehensive and, perhaps most importantly, useful resource for new, existing, and future patients.
But how does a website accomplish these tasks, especially in a world in which distractions are everywhere and information can be accessed from a virtually infinite number of sources? Quite simply, by providing visitors to the website with a rewarding user experience. And this is accomplished through the design and construction of a user-friendly site with informative, relevant, timely content. Though there are no hard and fast rules as to what a dental website should or should not be, a website that adheres to the guidelines outlined below stands a better chance of serving its purpose.
Clear Focus - What Is This Website About?
Search engines such as Google and Bing are able to measure how many users arrive onto a web page and then quickly return to the search engine to find a site that better serves their purposes; they use this data to calculate what is referred to as the page's bounce rate. A high bounce rate is detrimental to the practice not only because it represents the loss of potential patients, but also because it can negatively influence the website's search rankings. To serve its users, search engines such as Google must deliver accurate and relevant results, quickly. A high bounce rate is an indicator that a web page is not a good match for a particular search query, as the individuals who clicked through to the page found it to be unsatisfactory and left.
To prevent a high bounce rate, the topic of the web page and focus of your website should be clearly evident. If this is not the case, users will navigate away quickly, as they are looking for information that can be easily and immediately digested. The website should also be built in a way that makes the navigation and information hierarchy easy to understand, as this will encourage users to click through to deeper-level pages. A prospective patient who explores more than one page of your website will be more likely to have his or her questions answered and, therefore, take action by contacting your practice.
Guide Your Users - Don't Let Them Wander the Featureless Desert or Impenetrable Jungle
Websites are made up of multiple pages, and if a user interacts with only one of those pages, he or she is most likely being underserved by the website in general. A website should be designed in such a fashion that the user is encouraged to interact intuitively with the page in a specific way, whether by contacting the practice through an on-page form or clicking through to deeper pages on specific topics. A clear hierarchy and easily understood navigation take away the need of the user to make decisions about how to proceed and allow you to have greater influence on the user's experience. If presented with too many or too few options, or not given a clear directive on which steps to take next, a user may feel his or her best option is to simply navigate away from the website altogether.
Clearly legible text, a simple navigation stripped down to its basic elements, and conspicuous menu links make navigating a website easy and intuitive, and it provides a user with options without overwhelming him or her. In effect, your navigation is the table of contents for your website; as is the case in books, a table of contents that has too many chapters listed can be as useless as having no table of contents at all.
Clear Delineation - Food Does a Body Good, But Only When Digested
Users scan websites. Though the information contained in your dental website may be every bit as useful, well-written, and factual as that in text books and encyclopedias, visitors to your website will not interact with it in the same fashion. Knowing this may cause you some level of consternation at first, as you may fear that your content isn't being read, but in reality, it can help you tailor your content so that it's more effective. If television and magazine advertising relies almost exclusively on visuals and written marketing relies on prose, marketing for the Web combines these two elements seamlessly into one.
So that the information on your cosmetic dentistry website is easily discernible and accessible, it should be structured clearly and logically; use headers, graphics, inline images, embedded videos, bullet point lists, and paragraphs of a reasonable length to create a topic outline for each page of your website. This allows users who are scanning through the website to quickly and easily find the specific information that they are looking for. By way of example, a page on dental implants may discuss a range of topics, including the implants themselves, the placement procedure, alternative treatment options, risks and benefits, candidacy, and your experience and expertise in implant dentistry. By breaking the page up into manageable blocks, a user who arrives at this page of the site, whether from another page of your site or a search engine, can quickly identify the topics that are being discussed before reading the content in detail.
Website Copy - Now's Your Time to Channel Shakespeare (Or Have Someone Do It for You)
It may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but your dental website still needs words to accompany those pictures if it's going to be an effective resource for users. Though every practice will take a different approach to content, ideally, website copy should accomplish two primary goals: inform users by providing basic answers to basic questions and encourage action steps on the part of those users. If, for example, a user arrives at your dentistry website as a result of a search query related to teeth whitening, you want to ensure that your page on this topic will provide him or her with the information he or she is seeking. However, it is important to remember that your website, while being a resource for your patients, also serves as an advertisement for your practice, and should provide you with fresh leads to convert into new patients. Through various calls-to-action, you can encourage users to take specific action steps, such as contacting the practice or downloading PDF forms, rather than let them interact with the website passively.
The goal of all ad copy is basically the same, but the way that this copy is written must be unique to you and your dental practice. The tone of the copy should reflect:
- The topic of the page: The voice used to promote the services of a personal injury attorney is likely to be conspicuously dissimilar to that used in marketing copy for a new sports car, with good reason. Users who are searching for legal services are motivated by a very different set of needs, goals, and circumstances from those who are searching for information about a new sports car, even though both groups are comprised of potential consumers. While you may adopt a serious, clinical tone when addressing an audience of your dental colleagues, you will want to modify your voice when speaking to prospective patients who are seeking out basic information that is easy to comprehend.
- The image you want to project, both of you and your practice: A family dental practice will likely want to project a warmth, compassion, and even lightheartedness that creates the impression that the staff and office environment will gladly cater to patients of all ages. By comparison, a cosmetic dentistry practice that is aiming to attract an affluent, upscale audience will want to use language that conveys a certain elegance and sophistication. The language you use, along with such conventions as sentence structure, transitions, narrative mode (i.e., your use of first-person, second-person, and third-person forms), and precision of detail all influence the image you project. Clinical, matter-of-fact language will portray you and your practice differently from language that that is simpler and more idiomatic.
SEO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Search Engines
The best-written website copy in the world is useless if it isn't being read by humans. So how can you help ensure that your content is being read by actual people? In a nutshell, through search engine optimization, or SEO. Though there are many companies that purport to have the secret to SEO figured out, the real secret is that there are no secrets. Search engines such as Google (who published its Webmaster Guidelines to further demystify SEO) have a relatively simple goal: to deliver relevant results for specific queries as efficiently as possible. If a search engine is unable to do this, users will simply utilize a different service. Search engines accomplish this goal by organizing their results according to a multitude of factors, too numerous to list here. However, these factors can be subsumed into three basic categories:
- Relevancy - Perhaps most basically, a search result must be relevant to the search query. If a user enters a search query for "red leather shoes" and the search engine results yield web pages that contain information primarily about green cotton hats, then the search engine has failed the user. There are a number of ways to determine a website's overarching focus, but the simplest way is to crawl or scan the language contained in its pages. By reading on-page content and comparing it to content found in meta fields (such as the page title), search engines can filter out pages with an abundance of mentions of "green cotton hats," and instead direct users to pages that feature language related to or matching "red leather shoes." One of the easiest ways to ensure that your website is found for topical search queries is to determine the specific subject of each page and make sure that the great majority of the content on that page is directly relevant to that subject, with minimal digression.
- Authority - Google was founded, and continues to operate according to, a principle inspired by the practice of citing sources in academic papers. The company's founders posited that the authority of a single source of information could be at least partly surmised by the number and quality of citations contained within it. This authority could be further determined by the number and quality of academic papers in which it, in turn, was cited. Similarly, Google organizes its results in part by weighing the authority of a website, with links serving as the Internet equivalent of citations. Just as the quality of the citations contained within and pointing to an academic paper is as important as the number, so too does the quality of the links to and from a website influence Google's rankings. Therefore, an inbound link to your website from the New York Times, for example, will carry far more weight than an inbound link to your website from your cousin's Twitter feed.
- Popularity - If the authority of a website is determined largely by the quality of inbound and outgoing links, its popularity is determined by the quantity of those quality links. The page-one rankings of Wikipedia for subject matters across the spectrum can be attributed to a large degree to the number of inbound links the website receives. In the previous paragraph, we discussed the notion that your cousin's inbound link, though kind and generous of him, would carry little weight. And that may be true. However, if your cousin and 1,000 of his friends link to your website, then this volume of inbound links can influence your website's rankings, especially if those inbound links include topical language (e.g., your cousin would be well advised to create a link that reads "my cousin's dental practice" rather than one that reads "Yo, check it out!") without reading unnaturally or like an egregious attempt to manipulate search results.
Your website content should include appropriate keywords for relevant search queries. If you want your dentistry website to be found for search queries relating to dental bonding, and yet this phrase appears only once or twice on the page devoted to the topic, you will be lacking an important signal to search engines such as Google and Bing that the page is a relevant result for users.
Aesthetics - Color Wheels, Photography, and Graphics, Oh My!
You've heard the saying, "save the best for last." One could argue that that idiom applies to this article as well, as the appearance of your dental website will be its primary defining trait, and in turn, will embody the public image of your practice. To put it clearly, the way that your website looks is extremely important. The power of visual branding is self-evident; one need only conjure up the logos of Coca-Cola® or UPS® in their minds to understand how pervasive visual branding is. At their mere mention, the names of these companies automatically trigger a visual response in your brain. The way that you brand your practice visually can make a huge and lasting impression on your current patients, as well as prospective patients. If you have a visual brand in place, then continuity will probably be most important to you in terms of the design of your new dentistry website; if not, then developing a visual brand should become a priority.
As with marketing copy, the aesthetics of any website should be appropriate both for the overall topic of the site and the image a business wishes to project. For example, a website promoting a new sports car might feature stark, high-resolution images and a bold, startling layout while one promoting a veterinarian's office would likely feature softer, more conventionally pleasant images of animals and minimal use of distracting graphic elements. When deciding upon the color scheme and layout of your dental website, you'll want to keep this in mind. Warm, soft colors - light blues, greens, and yellows - give an impression of an airy and light atmosphere, whereas dark colors and high-contrast graphics can be interpreted as more sober and traditionally professional. A family friendly dental practice that wants to portray a casual and comfortable atmosphere may, therefore, want to embrace the former in establishing its visual brand.
Be careful not to become excessively ambitious about the site's visual elements, however; it is very possible to transform a simple, elegant design into a cluttered, chaotic jumble that can overwhelm visitors into immediately leaving. A website design that avoids trends and gimmicks and embraces usability, functionality, and taste will provide a richer user experience. It will also be as relevant and attractive to prospective patients five years in the future as it is now; the surest way to date your dental website is to build it in slavish accordance with today's trends. Though it's impossible to appeal to everyone's aesthetic sensibilities, you will reach a wider audience now and in the future if you aim to build a website that will last.
And a website that frames compelling, relevant content in a timeless design will thrive regardless of marketing trends, Google algorithm updates, and changes in consumer behavior. While other dental websites come and go, yours will be in it for the long haul, expanding your patient base and promoting the growth of your practice.