SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, is a term you've probably heard countless times without quite knowing what it is. You've also likely heard it's something you ought to invest in.
Whilst it can be intimidating for many therapists due to the fact that it involves a lot of technical language, we would argue that anyone can easily get to grips with SEO and use it as an effective means of growing their practice.
This article will get you up to speed on the basic principles of SEO as well as its relevance to therapists.
SEO is, put simply, the art of getting your website found online by people searching with search engines. The only search engine you really need to concern yourself with is Google, which owns over 85% of market share in the UK.
In practical terms this means trying to get your practice as close to the top of the first page of Google results for the searches that are relevant to your business.
To be clear, this is distinct to running Google Ads (those paid results you find at the top of the results page) and is essentially free, though you likely need to pay with your time and/or money to acquire the necessary knowledge to bring results.
SEO is particularly relevant for therapists since Google is often people's first port of call when they go about finding support for their mental health - whether that is looking for answers around anxiety or searching for a therapist.
Mental health issues unfortunately still come with a stigma and many prefer to resort to online searches than to get advice from others. Moreover, other than the NHS and Mind, there aren't really any established mental health brands as an obvious destination for people looking for help.
Due to these factors online marketing for referrals is heavily concentrated in Google, where it is highly competitive.
Though we would insist anyone can develop a basic understand of SEO and use it to generate clients, there are still different degrees to which you can invest in it. Some therapists, for example, go as far as hiring experts to help them.
So how should you go about making an assessment of whether you should invest your time or money into it?
Before answering this, it's worth clarifying that there are 3 ways you can use Google as a means of generating clients for your practice:
For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on 2&3. You can read more about 1 here.
Getting your personal website to rank
We'll get into some basic principles of SEO later on to help you think through this, but to be brief:
If searches relevant to your practice (whether by location or specialism) tend to bring up personal websites of therapists, it stands to reason you will have a chance of sitting beside them.
When searching on Google for therapists you'll notice that it is largely directories that rank near the top of the page. However, we're increasingly noticing therapy clinics and private practices ranking higher, suggesting there is opportunity, particularly for location-based searches (i.e. 'therapists in glasgow southside').
Indeed, as a general principle you stand a better chance of ranking high if you practice face-to-face and consequently have a physical location associated with your practice than as an online therapist. You'll notice for example that www.alisonhuntertherapy.co.uk, ranks number 5 for the above search.
On the other hand, if you're an online therapist you are relying on people searching things such as 'anxiety counselling online' or 'anxiety therapist'. The main issue here is the type of results Google shows for such searches.
You can see above that none of the top results are of specific listings of therapists but of blog content and informational pages from charities and health services. This means you are unlikely to rank; Google seems to think people don't want to be shown therapists.
As a result, as an online therapist you are more likely to derive a benefit from SEO if you focus on content marketing.
Given the dynamics of Google's results as laid out above, content marketing makes particular sense for online therapists. But naturally it's something all therapists might consider.
In practice, this would mean trying to rank on the first page for something like 'how to get over the death of my dog', by writing a blog post on it.
For content marketing to be worthwhile, we would say the following:
If you enjoy writing, are a skilled writer, and have a niche area of expertise, you should seriously consider it.
The reason why niche expertise is important relates to a concept called the long-tail, which is covered later in this article.
Here are a few other considerations for whether investing in SEO is wise for you:
By now you hopefully have some idea about why SEO is relevant for a lot of therapists, perhaps including you.
But what do you need to understand in order to start geting clients from Google?
Why some sites rank higher than others
What makes SEO so hard is that no-one truly undertands how Google works. Google often share guidance and explain the latest updates to their algorithm, but the majority of people's understanding comes from trying to backwards engineer it. By this we mean playing around with different searches and seeing how results differ, or tweaking websites and seeing how their rankings change.
There are known to be over 200 factors which influence rankings, however for our purposes there are 3 we want to concern ourselves with as they have a great impact and, importantly, you're able to influence them:
Number of links pointing to a site
The main way Google sifts through the near infinite number of websites to understand which are worth paying attention to is by looking at which websites are linked to by others. If the Government link to your website as a source, it stands to reason you are likely legitimate.
Google factors in the total number of links, but also the quality and relevance of these links.
Quality relates to the importance of the site (BBC for example is seen as important due to the fact lots of people link to it) and relevance relates to how closely associated the site is with the topic of the search. For your purposes as a therapist, for example, a link from the NHS would be more relevant than a link from the BBC.
Links take years to build up and this gives incumbents a great advantage over new entrants.
However, fortunately it's not the only factor influencing things...
Relevance of keywords on webpage to user's search
If we were to assume that BBC.co.uk is the most linked to webpage in the world, does it follow that it should be the top result for every search?
Obviously not. A grieving husband looking for a therapist searching 'grief counselling in Portsmouth' does not want to be shown the BBC's homepage.
In terms of understanding the relevance of a webpage, Google looks at the keywords (i.e. words!) that are on it. This includes:
It gives a different weight to each. For example, this article is clearly far more about SEO for therapists than it is about the BBC, and this is reflected in the fact that the URL, Page Title and Page Header include 'SEO for therapists', whereas BBC is hidden away in a paragraph halfway down the page.
If you were to assume that we instead wanted to try and get this page to rank for 'BBC', we'd put that in the url, the title and header instead.
Hopefully you're starting to see the implications this has for your own SEO strategy. It explains, for example, why many therapists create websites with urls like 'southwark-psychotherapy.co.uk'.
Time visitors spend on site
The last ranking factor any beginner should be aware of is the time visitors spend on a site.
If the first result for someone's search looking for CBT exercises is of an organic dairy farm in Wales, they will obviously click off the page almost immediately. Conversely, if it has an in-depth guide to various exercises along with visuals, the searcher is likely to stay for significantly longer.
Google will reward the latter webpage (and website) by ranking it higher for such searches. Generally speaking the longer someone spends on a website, the better.
Again, hopefully you can see the relevance of this for your own purposes. Things like an engaging blog, or videos, can help boost your rankings.
If you have Google analytics set up, you can track the length of time people stay.
It's worth noting that 'thickness of content', i.e. the number of words on a page, are also a key factor. However, for simplicity we'll bundle this in with time on site given how closely correlated the two are.
Understanding keyword research
Good keyword research is the central pillar and starting point for any good SEO strategy.
So what is it then?
Keyword research is the way you decide which search terms you want to target and optimise your site for (through your url, titles, headers and content).
Given the importance of page 'relevance' to a search term, no page can rank for everything. You've therefore got to understand which basket to place your eggs in. Do you want to aim for 'Yeovil anxiety counsellor' or 'Yeovil depression counsellor'?
When doing keyword research to assess which search terms to target, you want to think about the following things:
1) Search volume - this is important for obvious reasons. All things being equal you want to target a keyword which 1,000 people search per month rather than one 3 people do. You can use a tool like ubersuggest to get estimates and suggestions. Just type in the desired keyword, adjust the search location to the UK and hit 'search'.
I'd also recommend Keywords Everywhere (shown below) which bolts onto Google Chrome and displays search traffic and relevant related searches whenever you make a search in Google. It's fantastic and saves a lot of hassle. Though not free, it's cheap to buy some credits and you can always purchase it for a one-off bit of research and then dump it.
One thing to bear in mind is that the total number of searches is always far greater than that shown. The tool only displays estimated monthly searches for the exact search term. For example, 'therapists in London' (90 searches per month apparently) only shows searches phrased in the exact, letter-by-letter way. However, there is a huge amount of similar searches ('therapist in London', therapits in London, therapists in or near London), which aren't counted, but still have the same intent and should realistically be factored in.
As a rule of thumb you can assume the total is many multiples higher than the one shown. This also means that ranking first for keywords which show as 0 doesn't mean no-one will come to your site. Use some judgement and common sense here.
2) Relevance of top results - look at the page titles of the results to see whether the top rankings are a close fit with the search intent.
For example below, look at the results for someone searching 'psychoanalytic psychotherapy contract'. Timewith probably aren't hugely interested in this given the likely monthly searches are low, but if we were we'd notice the results are decent - they are on psychotherapy contracts; but not fantastic - not one of them is specifically for psychoanalytic therapy. As such, we'd probably end up first if we wrote an article around this.
3) Strength of competition - are the top results the NHS, Mind and Counselling Directory or are they personal websites of therapists? If the latter, your odds look good. If the former, less so, even when factoring in relevance. You'll often notice the NHS ranking first for searches where there are more 'relevant' searches below.
When choosing which keywords to taget, you should consider all 3 of the above, and make a weighted score. If you want to get stuck into keyword research take a look at Hubspot's Guide, which comes with downloadable templates you can use to organise your research.
Semantic search is a thing
Another relevant piece of information for therapists is that Google is not only good at understanding related searches but understands synonyms. It understands that 'counsellor' and 'therapist' are similar things, and so a page that ranks for 'counsellors in Belfast' will also rank decently for 'therapists in Belfast'.
However, all things being equal it will rank a page entitled 'Counsellors in Belfast' first over one entitled 'Therapists in Belfast' - consider this when creating a strategy, as you can intelligently bypass the competition with minor interations on phrasing.
Understand the long-tail concept
This is particularly important for those of you who are content marketers or online practitioners.
Remember how we mentioned above that the search volume showing for 'therapists in London' is only a small fraction of the number of relevant searches? This is because of typos and semantic search. But it's also because of the long-tail.
What is the long-tail?
To understand the concept of the long-tail, view it in the context of the fat-head, the middle and the long-tail.
When thinking about all the searches that happen around a topic, say anxiety, there is a fat-head, a middle, and a long-tail.
The fat-head would be 'anxiety' and is called so because 'anxiety' is (probably) the search term with the most searches around the topic of anxiety.
The middle would include searches like 'social anxiety' and consists of searches with fewer results.
The long-tail consists of the most specific searches, each of which only have small amounts of search traffic. It would include searches such as therapists treating social anxiety in Manchester.
If we've struggled to articulate this sufficiently well, the image below should help.
What's interesting about the chart is it shows that a significant amount of the billions of searches every day (up to 40%) are long-tail searches. Hence the 'long' in 'long-tail'!
Given that long-tail searches are generally less competitive, this is where the opportunity lies for smaller players.
One thing you'll notice is that face-to-face practices naturally lend themselves to the long-tail because practice locations are highly specific by definition.
This is why I mentioned that the long-tail is important to grasp for content marketers and online therapists. In order to understand how to get search traffic to your website, you want to concentrate your efforts. How can you add specificity to your offering to get your away from the uber competitive 'fat head', and towards the 'long-tail'?
For online therapists, this is why 'niche-ing' down is of more importance for you if you want to get traffic from Google. You stand much more of a chance of ranking for 'anxiety therapist for financial services CEOs', than for 'anxiety therapist'.
It's also why things like content marketing are more relevant. You can create blogs on your website targeting niche, long-tail search terms (e.g. how to reconnect with my father after our relationship broke down) that few others are targeting, and if you write enough of these, can start to bring a sizeable amount of traffic.
Click-throughs are not evenly distributed
When deciding which search terms to target it's important to remember that not everyone will end up on your page. Only a percentage will 'click through'.
Importantly, the number of clicks per position are not evenly distributed aross the page. That is to say that the first 5 results don't get 50% of the clicks between them, but 80+%.
The graph below shows this clearly.
One of the main implications of this is that it is often better to rank 1st for one keyword than it is to rank 8th for several. Thus it pays to seek out an area where you can do well and dominate it.
Local SEO and Google My Business
A final point on SEO, and one with immediate practical implications for face-to-face therapists, is that of local SEO.
Local SEO relates to the results that show in the map at the top of many search results pages. These display local businesses. See below.
There are a few things that are interesting about local SEO.
The first is that the results always show at the top of the page. This means you can effectively bypass higher authority sites, and become immediately visible to prospective clients searching.
A second point of interest is that very few therapists bother doing this, so you stand a good chance of getting results.
Lastly, you can get clients to review your listing (as seen in the image above). This not only helps you rank at the top of the local listings, but also acts as a valuable signal of trust and quality to clients.
In order to have your business show up there, you must create a listing with Google My Business. Details on how to do that can be found here.
By this stage you're probably worn out and slightly battle-weary. But we hope you will be a little less non-plussed whenever SEO is brought up.
If you want to go any deeper into understanding SEO, the go-to resource for many is Moz's guide to SEO.
The next question is how you go about creating an SEO strategy for your business that gets results.
Like we said earlier, the starting point for any SEO strategy is extensive keyword research to understand a set of search terms to try and rank for.
Beyond that you have several levers to play with. We cover these in the follow up to this series: How to create an SEO strategy to get private practice clients from Google.
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For full details on what we offer to support therapists to grow their private practices, head here.