Does Your Hospital Have Bad Reviews? How One Marketer Fixed His Physicians’ “Yelp Problem.”

Oct 16, 2014 4:05 PM ET

At Hale Advisors, we recommend a 70/20/10 marketing investment strategy for our clients: 70% of a marketing budget should be used on “traditional” tactics, 20% on innovation in segmentation and targeting, and 10% on experiments, where success is defined as new learnings and/or a breakthrough.

Are you looking for an experiment or two to occupy that 10%? Here’s a great idea that brought down the house at this year’s Hospital Marketing Innovation Summit in Boston.

Reinvent how patients “find a physician”

It’s no revelation that we all use Google to check things out before trying something new. On the first page of a Google search, we always see information like a company’s address, phone number, and links to its website. Notice in the screen shot below that “review stars” are another prominent element. Sites that generate reviews and feedback often rank higher, increasing the chances of getting clicked on.

Many businesses have a “Yelp” problem (not the one above, which is my favorite restaurant in my city), where potential customers research their services and read a small sample of bad reviews, disqualifying them before even making it to their website. If a small handful of vocal customers have a bad experience, they can create a false impression of a business’s quality.

Why do review sites rank so well?

The short answer: Users click on sites that have review stars.

The long answer: In the SEO world, review stars in search are known as “rich snippets.” Multiple SEO experts are in agreement that rich snippets increase click through rates (CTR) in search (which, in Google’s merit-based search rankings, improve your search position), the only debate is in how much.

Catalyst Search Marketing, for example, cites a 150% increase in CTR, while the Google Adwords blog claims a 17% boost, and Builtvisible claims a 25% increase. Regardless of the actual percent increase, it’s clear that review stars do improve CTR.

What’s the solution for healthcare?

Pew Internet Research in 2013 said that 80% of online health queries begin at search engines. For physicians and health systems, this can be a massive liability if not managed correctly. Google your primary care physician right now; odds are that rich-snippet sites like RateMDs, Healthgrades, and Vitals rank alongside the doctor’s actual webpage, or even above it. These sites feature a tiny sample size of reviews, which can be posted by anyone who makes an account (read = no verification that they are an actual patient).

Today’s high-deductible, empowered patients want to see accurate reviews of their doctors before entrusting them with their health outcomes, money, and time. Five mixed reviews of a doctor on Healthgrades should not be reflective of the hundreds, if not thousands, of patients that doctor has treated over the last few years. But, if there’s no better source of information, patients will use whatever is available.

Recent research conducted by the University of Michigan seems to echo this narrative. Lead study author Dr. David Hanauer, a primary care pediatrician, explains:

“A provider’s online reputation may now be just as important as one’s reputation among the general community, and the results from this research seems to support that perspective. This happens despite persistent questions about how trustworthy these sites actually are.”

The solution, said marketer Brian Gresh, is to give people the best and most accurate review site possible, and beat third-party sites at their own game.

Brian is the Senior Director of Interactive Marketing & Web at University of Utah Health Care, which includes 1,200 physicians. In the past, Googling a University of Utah Health Care physician’s name would bring up third-party review sites that outranked the physician’s profile page.

Brian saw an opportunity to use his organization’s patient satisfaction surveys, which are distributed via email to patients after discharge. The surveys include ratings of physicians and a section for comments. Brian set up a system where a separate team screens the surveys for personal information, HIPAA violations, and inflammatory language and posts them, with the rating, to the corresponding physician profile page. His team also ensured the ratings and comments show up in Google as a rich snippet, so they’re consistent with how third-party review sites look.

The results

After six months online, the physician profile pages ranked significantly higher in organic search, had higher star ratings, more total reviews than third-party sites, and more profile clickthroughs than before implementing the review program. The transparency of the program is a differentiator against University of Utah’s competition, and its physicians can rest easier knowing that a full representation of reviews from actual patients is coming up in search.

Since he was venturing into uncharted territory, Brian tested the program with an internal six-month pilot (remember the 70/20/10 rule). Once it became clear that the project was a home run, it went live to the public and is even being featured in external advertising.