Choose SEO & SEM for your health care marketing

SEO or SEM search strategy for health care facilities? Our advice: choose both.

According to a 2019 study by, nearly 90% of patients will Google their health symptoms before going to a doctor. Considering that so many people turn to Dr. Google for answers, hospitals and health care facilities have an opportunity to combat incorrect information, establish authority and convert searches into appointments – all at the same time. 

In our 20+ years in the health care marketing industry, we’ve come to find that search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) strategies are powerful tools on their own – but the real results come when they’re used together. 

Here, we’ll cover the differences between SEO and SEM, why a combined search strategy is best and what all of this means for the patient’s journey. 

SEO vs. SEM: What’s the difference? 

Many people use the terms SEO and SEM interchangeably, but they are two very different tools. SEO strategy is focused on optimizing your website to rank higher on search engine results pages (SERPs) and drive organic traffic, while SEM is a paid approach to reel in searchers through ads. 

Here are the main differences between the two. 


  • Is highly technical in nature 
  • Doesn’t require an ad budget 
  • Content can be found by anyone searching regionally 
  • Takes time to see results 
  • Is a critical success strategy for a service that has proven demand 


  • Requires an ad budget 
  • Targets specific audiences 
  • Includes the “ad” designation when it appears in search results
  • Provides more immediate results that can be tracked back to the ad 

Another key difference between the two is their click-through rate. In a search engine where nearly 50% of people who conduct a search don’t click on anything, getting users to commit to visiting your site is key. 

In the second quarter of 2019, more than 40% of searchers clicked on organic content, while less than 4% clicked on paid ads. SEO consistently demonstrates a much higher click-through rate than SEM, which is why it’s imperative to include SEO in your marketing strategy even if you’re doing SEM. 

Benefits of a combined search strategy 

As you may have noticed in the lists above, the strengths and weaknesses of SEO and SEM tend to balance each other out. SEM is good for immediate results and audience targeting, while SEO gets more clicks and is cost-effective but is highly technical. This is why using a combined search strategy is better than simply choosing one over the other. 

For example, if there’s a lot of competition for your target keywords, you can use SEO to help fill in content gaps to capture organic search results. If your health care business is new and you’re trying to test a new service offering, SEM can help you build an online presence and learn how to find the right patients.  

When strategically used together, SEO and SEM complement each other in searches. An ad can increase visibility for an organic page that you land in the top spot of the SERP. This allows users to click on either link to visit your site, and your site may look more credible having multiple listings in the same search. It also helps by appealing to searchers who may instinctively scroll past the ads to the organic results even when the ads make an impression on them. 

How to use SEO and SEM to drive consumer health care 

Because so many potential patients are already browsing the web for answers, hospitals and health care facilities are in a unique position to truly reap the benefits of a combined search strategy.  

Ways to utilize SEO 

  • SEO can be used to develop a health information source on your facility’s website that provides accurate, easy-to-understand, keyword-driven content on different symptoms, conditions and services. This content can be tagged as being written and approved by specific providers within your facility, which helps patients gain trust that they’ll receive quality care if they make an appointment. It may even lead them to make an appointment with that specific provider. 
  • Adding provider bios to your site is a great way to use SEO. These bios may appear when a patient searches for something like “spine specialists in Nashville,” and having a description of your providers’ backgrounds attached to their photos establishes credibility and personalizes the service offering. 

Ways to utilize SEM 

  • Searches for specific symptoms and diseases offer a prime opportunity for placing an ad. Paid ads often appear above organic content, which means your link to make an appointment or learn more can be the first thing they see. This strategy makes use of audience targeting, which can also filter in demographic factors like age, gender and location.  
  • SEM helps encourage someone to make an appointment by promoting patient stories. This takes a more emotional approach and can help build trust, as potential patients may resonate with the experiences of people who had similar concerns and achieved a positive outcome.
  • SEM also has the added benefit of using targeting based on URLs. You can take web addresses for other sites, WebMD searches and competitor sites and tell the ad’s artificial intelligence (AI) to show your ads to the audiences that visit those URLs.  

No matter the approach, SEO and SEM search strategies are essential to the success of a health care facility and the way it’s perceived. Digital marketing can also lead to word-of-mouth marketing, as many people who search for health information online are looking for information on behalf of someone they know. People are more likely to make an appointment if they have a personal referral.  

Not sure where to start with your combined search strategy? Let us help! TruStar Marketing offers SEO and SEM services along with website development, social media advertising, research and analytics, and branding. Contact us for free expert marketing answers or to learn how we can help the right patients find you. 


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