WebMD CEO Fights Off Google Health Virus with SEO

When Google Health officially launched yesterday, no company felt the competitive pressure more acutely than WebMD, the leading consumer healthcare portal. How will WebMD compete with Google’s personalized service and advanced technology platform?

In my last column, we looked at how Bankrate’s CEO invested in search engine optimization to bolster revenues and profits. This time out, we’ll see whether Wayne Gattinella, WebMD’s CEO and president, values SEO in the same way. As a publisher, WebMD features advice and content to help people make more informed healthcare decisions.

For example, WebMD features the most popular articles on the site every day.

Most Popular Stories on WebMD:

  1. 10 Surprising Health Benefits of Sex
  2. The Flat Belly Diet
  3. Pictures of Adult Skin Problems
  4. 6 Serious Medical Symptoms
  5. Sex Myths vs. the Facts
  6. Learn How to Spot Bedbugs
  7. 12 Embarrassing Body Problems
  8. 7 Causes of Fatigue
  9. Personal Questions from Women
  10. View Common Childhood Skin Problems

How do people find those articles? A significant number are regular visitors to WebMD or have the site bookmarked. Others may stumble upon the site, or find an article through social media. The vast majority, however, often find WebMD content via a search engine.

In the Q4 2007 WebMD earnings call, Gattinella outlined his online search marketing strategy. He noted the company was making significant progress toward achieving the full benefits of WebMD’s new portal technology platform on the new WebMD.com site, launched one year ago. What was the first strategy he discussed with analysts on the conference call? Search engine optimization. “First, we’ve significantly increased our search engine optimization and the ability for WebMD articles to rank highly in the natural search results on Google, Yahoo, and others. Our non-paid search referral traffic to WebMD has increased nearly 50 percent from a year ago, and WebMD content now ranks on the first page of Google and Yahoo’s search results on more then 200 of the 400 most frequently searched health terms.”

Most CEOs by now understand the value of ranking highly for specific search terms. What makes Gattinella stand out is his depth of knowledge about Web site analytics. He understands the interplay between SEO, site usability and engagement. “Second, we’ve significantly improved the user experience and measurable engagement on WebMD.com. Over the past year the click-through rate from the WebMD home page has increased by 47 percent. The click-through rate on the WebMD search results page has increased by 60 percent and utilization of our enhanced symptom and health assessment tools has more than doubled.”

Moreover, investment banking analysts are more savvy than ever about search engine optimization. CEOs can’t rely on the old mile-wide and inch-deep generalists’ knowledge of search marketing topics.

Heath Terry, analyst for Credit Suisse, asked a terrific follow-up question during the Q&A portion of the conference call. “Wayne, you have been working through the process of re-architecturing the site to better improve your listings on search engines. We’ve seen pretty significant improvement over the last year in where you’re showing up in health-related key words. We appreciate if you kind of give us an idea of how far through that process you feel like we are at this point and to what degree it’s impacting the traffic to the site from search?

Many CEOs would be glad to try to convince Wall Street that the tough work of search engine optimization is behind them. They might want analysts to believe it’s a one-time investment that would yield dividends indefinitely.

Gattinella, however, did a deep dive into the numbers and outlined his vision for the future. “Sure. As I commented earlier, our search engine optimized traffic is up roughly about 50 percent. So as many of you know that means that we don’t buy traffic, but rather when people are using a search engine like Google and typing in a health term, our content links are now showing up on the first page enough times that it’s creating a click-through and an ultimate traffic flow-through of 50 percent greater than we have seen before. We tracked the 400 most frequently searched health terms and in the month of January we ranked on the first pages of Google and Yahoo on 200 of those 400 terms.”

Fair enough. But does that mean WebMD can rest on its laurels? Not at all, according to Gattinella. “So, I would comment that the progress we’ve made has been very strong, I would also add, however, that there is still a lot of room for improvement to go. We do have other sites that we are working to optimize other than simply WebMD.com. There is a long tail in terms of health searches, so even though the 400 are important getting the next 400 actually has a lot of leverage. And so our ability to continue to grow our organic traffic both through people coming direct into WebMD or simply through the health terms that they type into the search engines, it’s something that we are still very acutely focused on.

An understanding of the Long Tail and the need to continue to grow organic traffic truly separates Gattinella from his peers as a visionary CEO. He’s not satisfied to stop with 400 keyword search terms when there are tens of thousands more that his company can optimize. He also sees the value of optimizing all WebMD Health properties to create a network effect.

Soon all CEOs will need the depth of knowledge that Wayne Gattinella displays. But for now, his understanding of SEO and his strategic deployment of SEO tactics is a tremendous competitive advantage.

Related reading

mojeek: alternative to google
youtube and child safety: is the service doing enough?
Google / YouTube and brand safety: What's next?
lessons learned from launching 100+ campaigns