A new study says that, for consumers seeking health information online, relevance matters more than trust, and that search-engine optimization is a must for healthcare companies.
Posted Jul 16, 2007
When consumers are looking up healthcare information, site trustworthiness runs a distant second to the relevance of information, according to a new report from Jupiter Research. Loyalty is a low priority for health users, and most information hunts start with a general search engine, so healthcare companies would do well to concentrate their efforts on search engine optimization, the report says.
The Jupiter report--"U.S. Health Consumer Survey, 2007: Understanding Search Behavior"--defines online health users as consumers who have used the Internet during the past year for health information, and divides the group into three categories based on frequency:
In all, online health users make up 68 percent of the total online community.
The results are not encouraging for those companies that have focused on building loyalty with the online community. Health users' approach to searching is unsystematic and hard to predict. Only 19 percent of them turn first to favorite sites for information, and only 16 percent type a relevant address directly into a browser. The majority of users (58 percent) usually start looking for health information by leveraging search engines without a specific destination in mind, and 31 percent start at a general search engine but have certain sites in mind. "The challenge for advertisers trying to increase ad exposure is predicting [which] other sites online health users visit because online health users leverage more than 10 types of health sites for health content," the report states.
"Up to one-and-a-half years ago, health marketers were content to know that people were going online to find information on healthcare products and services," says Monique Levy, senior analyst with Jupiter. "As competition has increased, the marketers need a better idea of what consumers are looking for. They're finding that trustworthiness is completely secondary to relevance." In fact, relevance was the main consideration for 65 percent of respondents, a four-to-one advantage over trustworthiness of the source (16 percent). Levy adds that this is not due to ignorance; online health users just want information, and are willing to piece together multiple sources to arrive at their own conclusions.
- occasional (less than once per month);
- frequent (one to three times per month); and
- power (weekly).
One of the surprises Levy and her team uncovered in compiling the report is the desire power users have to incorporate more technology and options into their data gathering. "Power users are very interested in using more sophisticated technology, such as vertical-specific searches, local resources, and symptom and subcategory searches, for example," Levy says.
Because of all these factors, it seems clear that, for all but the biggest brand names out there, loyalty-based online marketing efforts are on life support. "Search engine marketing is a critical area for health marketers to explore," Levy says. You can't rely on loyalty unless you're a huge brand like WebMD or Yahoo! Health that already has trust."
However, Levy cautions marketers not to rush into new technology before they have the basics nailed down. "If you're a health site, be sure you've done a thorough job of search engine optimization in the first place, before you start investing in new technology," she says, acknowledging that grabbing mindshare now will be of use later. "This will drive traffic in the short term, and will allow you to build upon it when ready for the newer approaches."
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Maybe so, but only if the healthcare industry can better diagnose and care for its patients.