Test your hospital website search with these four search terms

A prospective patient is on your website. 

Any money you paid for acquiring her attention has been spent. It could be through a paid ad, through SEO because of valuable content, through your social media presence, through a physician referral, or just pure luck that she’s landed here.

She quickly glances around her phone screen and sees your logo, a login to patient portal, and links to services, locations, and find a doctor. The featured image is a patient story about surviving cancer. But, she isn’t there to watch an inspirational video about colon cancer. She’s there because her 19-month-old son is at home sick from daycare with an ear infection. Is it the sixth or seventh time this year, she can’t remember. She’s tired of giving him antibiotic after antibiotic and is ready to escalate this to a specialist. 

She taps on the option that makes the most sense, which is the search box. She then types in “ENT.”


Uh oh. The first result she gets? A urology clinic. 

How does this make sense? You just redid your hospital website last year, combining all your hospitals and clinics into one web property. It looks AWESOME. You have even won a few awards. And, your hospital system has a great ENT practice. They are one of the best in the metro area you serve. 

What happened?

The problem is your site search failed. 

Search is important (and will become even more important with voice)

I talk a lot about having unified data, which is data that can relate to other data in a meaningful way. Unified data is critical to the future of your hospital, but making it findable by your consumer is a completely different beast.


Because search is the gateway into your data. 

You have all this “stuff” in your data. Physician bios, locations, services, appointments, photos, health information, content, videos, and whatever else. You have to have a way for someone to find the right stuff at the right moment.

How do you measure up?

As a strategic partner, I’m often asked to do an independent evaluation of a hospital website. Through usability testing, patient interviews, and experience, I’ve created some go to search terms I use to quickly expose poor solution architecture, poor data, and a poor UX.

Go ahead and open up a new browser window and run a quick test on your hospital’s site search:

1. “Knee surgery”

We take for granted what an orthopedic surgeon is. We know who we would call if we or a loved one needed knee surgery. The problem is you are probably college-educated and have been working in healthcare for a number of years. But, 67% of American’s do not hold 4-year college degrees and 96% of American’s work in a field outside of healthcare. Therefore, you are not your target audience. 

We tested a hospital’s site with the term “knee surgery” and it would fail time after time with our users. They could not find a doctor to do a knee surgery because the site wasn’t translating that an orthopedic surgeon is the type of doctor who performs knee surgery. The users thought since there were specialties like “hand surgery” or “spine surgery” listed in the services section, they could look for care by searching for “[body part] surgery.” They would then scroll to the “K” section and freeze because they couldn’t find knee surgery.

Your site search should map common-language searches to your hospital-language specialties.

2. “Deliver a baby”

According to Google Trends, there is decent search volume for “have a baby” as well as the more traditional “OBGYN” or “OB GYN.” Similar to searching for “knee surgery,” your site search should map common language to your birth center.

What makes this such an interesting test is having a baby at a hospital is often the first time a 25-year-old woman experiences a stay in a hospital. It’s likely unknown to her that her hospital stay is separate from her doctor who is different from her baby’s pediatrician. Also, to add to the complexity, all the woman’s doctors appointments have been at a clinic. Now she has to go to a new place to deliver her baby.

How does your search handle this story? It’s hard to get this right because it’s complicated. If it’s complicated for US to explain, how does a 25-year-old new mom with no healthcare experiences figure it out?

Your site search should expose the doctors that deliver babies at your hospital, their clinic locations, AND show the hospital where they will deliver. Don’t assume a search for “have a baby” means she’s looking for a hospital. Show her all the relevant information and let her make the choice based on her needs.

3. “ENT” and “ENT for kids”

Why is this a good test? Just like searching for a “knee surgeon”, no one ever says “otolaryngologist.” If I’m being honest, I can’t even pronounce it … It’s another great way to test how your search handles common abbreviations. 

This also allows you to see is how you handle pediatrics. Pediatrics is always a tough one for a hospital. It’s pretty much every specialty, duplicated for children. As a parent of two young children, I always look for specialists who work with kids. I don’t want a stale, unfriendly office for my often-anxious daughter.

How do you handle this? Did you give pediatrics their own site? How is it working for your brand? What about a doctor who sees both children and adults? Do you have that data, and if you do, how do you expose it? This raises lots of questions and we’ll save them for another blog post, but if you have a single-site for everything it’s important to identify pediatrics in search results.

Your site search should expose key differentiators to your physicians, services, and locations. 

4. “Headaches”

This is a tough one because it’s symptomatic and really hard to get right. A hospital website with a mature taxonomy will take a term like this and map the specialties that treat chronic headaches such as primary care, anesthesiology, imaging, neurology, etc. This helps the end user find the right place to go.

You don’t know where the patient is on their journey. They could be frustrated with their chronic headaches and seeking care for the first time. They may have already worked with their primary care doctor and anesthesiologist and are now trying to figure out where to go next.

We don’t want to assume we know the right place of care for our patients. We want to provide them with the information they need in a way that is organized so they can find the right care. It’s about exposing what we have in an honest, thoughtful way. This gains trust and credibility, letting them be the one in control of their healthcare. 

Your site search should handle symptomatic searches. No, you’re not trying to be Google or WebMD, but it needs to help patients who are looking for care. Don’t ignore search terms just because they are hard to handle! The results that should show will be different depending on your content strategy and business goals. What would you say to a patient if you were talking to them face-to-face and they asked you, “ Where do you think I should go if I have chronic headaches?” Start there. And remember, if you don’t have the results they are looking for, your site search should fail gracefully. Don’t leave them without some kind of answer.

What to do if you fail these tests

A bad site search experience is a great litmus test because it exposes your data. If you don’t have a patient-first approach to your solution architecture and your data isn’t connected, you can’t tell a patient who is looking for an ENT you offer that service. Much less where they can find that service and what doctor provides it.

Here is what to do:

  1. Don’t freak out. It’s okay. It just means you know what you have to do to get better
  2. Don’t pay for a new website. Remember, a “new website” is rarely ever the answer. A redesign often gives you a new and shiny version of your same old problem
  3. Don’t go buy a new search solution. An off-the-shelf search solution without unified data will do absolutely nothing for your end user. Bad data is usually the cause of your problems, not bad search logic
  4. Look at your priorities. If fixing your data isn’t one of them in 2019 or 2020, you should make it one. But, start small. A well-thought-out strategy has a vision identified (“Site search maps a patient to the care they are looking for.”) and then small, iterative steps to achieve that vision. A vendor cannot fix this for you. You must start the process of identifying the low-hanging fruit, build consensus, and grow from there

Start working on search now. If you get this right, adding voice search (which is coming!) on top of what you already have will be much less painful.

Was this exercise helpful? How else do you measure success on your site?

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