Some doctors find ways to attract Google searchers

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By Pamela Lewis Dolancovered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  —  Posted Oct. 23, 2006.

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Jordan Shlain, MD, medical director of San Francisco On Call Medical Group, a 24-hour primary care clinic, is experimenting with a relatively new way of advertising.

The internist's clinic is advertising through the Internet search engine Google. When you search for "doctors san francisco," a sponsored link pops up on the right-hand side of the page for Dr. Shlain's clinic, courtesy of a program called Google AdWords, which allows anyone to pay for the right to have their business get a special, prominent place in Google search results. Other search engines, such as Yahoo, offer similar services.

Cosmetic surgeons were first to jump on the program, but now a small but growing number of primary care clinics, such as Dr. Shlain's, are doing so as well. While Google AdWords is a long way from proving itself as a surefire path to marketing success, some doctors are hoping it can be a relatively inexpensive, wide-ranging way to reach potential patients -- especially if it's part of a larger marketing plan that includes a robust Web site.

"Google lights the match," Dr. Shlain said. "It doesn't start the fire."

Here's how Google AdWords works.

Physician advertisers come up with keywords and phrases that they "sponsor." Based on those keywords, ads will appear with a link to the physician's Web site. The keywords are sponsored through competitive bids in the amount the physician is willing to pay each time someone clicks on his or her Web site. The minimum bid is 10 cents per click.

Emily White, Google's director of online sales and operations, said where the ad appears can depend on the value of the bid and the specificity of the keywords.

The most common place for ads to appear is on Google's search page. Every time someone types in the sponsored keywords, the ad appears. Ads also can appear alongside e-mails with relevant content sent to Google mail accounts (Google operates its own e-mail system).

And Web site owners who partner with Google through its AdSense program can get paid a small stipend to host ads that are relevant to the content on their Web site. (White says advertisers can use negative search terms and Web site exclusion options to ensure that the ads won't appear on Web sites that are not relevant or appropriate.)

The more you pay, the more exposure your ads will have. For example, the person with the highest bid will get ads at the top of the Web pages; the second highest bidder will be in the second spot; and so on.

The AdWords program appealed to the San Francisco On Call Clinic in two ways. First, it's a relatively cheap form of advertising. costing about $500 to $1,000 per month, depending on how many people click on the ad to get to the clinic's site. Second, Dr. Shlain realized that he hadn't looked in the telephone book for anything in several years, relying mostly on Google searches, and the clinic figured more people were doing the same.

Dr. Shlain said he was committed to extending his experiment for at least another year as he continues to evaluate the benefits.

Google offers an "AdWords Starter Edition" that is recommended for first-time users. Google's advertising link, which is found at the bottom of, directs you through the following steps to get started:

Decide what your ad will say. Each ad will include a title and two lines of text. The text is important because that's what will prompt the person to click, or move on to the next ad.

Decide on relevant keywords. Marketing experts say this is one of the most important factors of your ad's success. The keywords should include specific aspects of your practice you want to highlight. (e.g., Spanish-speaking doctor; ob-gyn high-risk pregnancies) Google can zone the ads to show up only for users in your region so location is not necessary in all your keyword groupings unless you are trying to attract patients nationally.

Set a budget. Your budget can range from as little as $30 per month up to however much you are willing to pay. The budget can be increased or decreased at any time. And cost-per-click bids can be adjusted automatically so that if your budget is low, it won't be blown the first day of the month, White said.

Set up a Google account. You can use an existing Gmail account as your username or create a new one. The accounts are free, but there is a $5 activation fee to run your first ad. After that is paid, you will be charged only when someone clicks on your ad.

You can check your ad's success any time by logging in to your account. A chart will show how many times your ad appeared with each keyword and how many times it was clicked so you can gauge the value of each keyword. You can change your bids anytime to pump more money into more successful keywords and dump those deemed less valuable.

Dr. Shlain's practice sponsors about 30 search terms, which he changed a lot in the beginning. Then, he spent much more time than he spends now on ads because it took a while to develop the most effective search terms for his practice.

Dr. Shlain said it could be a full-time job to manage ads. If it's in your budget, several health care marketing firms offer online ad management.

Bob McDaniel is general manager of AdSmart-Medical, a Houston-based health care marketing firm. His company, for example, manages existing Google ad campaigns for a minimum of 15% of whatever you spend on ads per month.

The coveted spot for the ads is at the top of the Web page, but getting the top spot can be costly, especially in a competitive market. For example, the No. 1 spot for "New York breast augmentation" was recently at $6.55 per click on a similar advertising program through Yahoo. The third-highest bid was just over $4. (Google does not release its bid information).

Dr. Shlain warns not to expect immediate results. Some months, the revenue Dr. Shlain makes from patients who found the practice through Google is cancelled out by the money he spent getting them in the door. The key, he said, is to make it a pleasant experience for those who do come because of the ad.

AMA policy states there are no restrictions on physician advertising except ones that protect the public from deceptive practices.

Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  — 

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