Build your perfect Web site: Part II

By Preston Gralla

April 29, 2008 -- Louis Woolf, D.D.S., thought visitors to his Web site might like a snazzy video introduction to his practice, the Sachem Dental Group, in Suffolk County, N.Y. But after talking to his designers at American Eagle, he changed his mind.

Such introductions may not find their way onto search engines, the consultants said. And if patients can't find your site, there's no point having one.

Surprises like this are common for dentists as they design or upgrade Web sites for their practices. In Part I of this three-part series, we offered advice on planning a Web site and selecting designer. But design is only the beginning of your Web site's journey. In this second part, we'll look at the key issues in hosting and promoting your site, as well as integrating it into your back office.

Hosting

Hosting questions are so important that you should bring them up when interviewing prospective designers. As your practice changes, you may need to change a photo, describe a new service you offer, or provide details about a new office that has opened. So you need to figure out who will do that.

If you've signed up with a service that offers template-driven designs, you may be able to make the changes yourself, by simply filling out a Web form or changing text.

If you don't use template-driven designs, though, things get more difficult, because someone will have to change the actual page itself. It can be exceedingly time-consuming and frustrating, and if you're not a pro, you can do serious damage to your site.

Some design firms will include making changes as part of their overall fee, and won't charge for changes after that.

Also ask prospective designers if they will host your site. Hosting means they store the data that makes up your site on their computer and connect that computer to the internet, essentially giving the site its home on the Web. Larger design firms tend to do their own hosting, while smaller ones are likely to refer you to someone else.


This dental Web site was designed by TNT Dental.

Prices for hosting can vary tremendously. Sesame Dental, for example, will host your site free after they've designed it for you. (A typical design fee runs $4,990, the company says.) But the company charges for various value-added services to dental Web sites, such as integration with practice management systems.

TNT Dental, on the other hand, charges varying hosting rates, depending on the services offered. Prices range from $49 to several hundred dollars a month.

What do you get for your money? Most of all, you want reliability; you don't want your site down for the count when people are looking for it. So check references.

Finding out about how tech support is handled is also a good idea. Is it only via e-mail? That's not much help in an emergency. If telephone support is offered, at what hours is it available? Try calling the tech support number several times to see how easy it is to get through.

Promoting your site

Having a Web site may be good for your ego, but if no one can find it, it won't do any good. If your site will be primarily used for existing patients, this is no problem -- just give them the site's URL.

But if you want to find new patients, they'll need to be able to find it. You'll want your site to appear as high up as possible on the results page when patients search for a dental practice through Google or another search engine.

Cracking the algorithms that search engines use sometimes seems akin to voodoo. After you've stocked up on chicken blood, you can take a few more practical steps. One is to realize that multimedia -- such as fancy video introductions -- won't help, as Dr. Woolf learned.

Another step is to use as much unique content as possible. This is where using precreated content can hurt you. Because other dental sites have the exact same information, search engines won't list your site as high in the rankings.

Finally, come up with a limited list of terms that you would like to appear high up in search results for -- perhaps ten. Make sure that several of those terms are geographical. It will do you no good if someone in Mexico City comes across your Web site, and your practice is in Ames, Iowa. There are more and less sophisticated ways of including those terms in your site's content, which is one reason you may need to consult a professional.

Many firms promise that they will do what is called search engine optimization (SEO). This means making changes to your site's content or layout so that it will appear higher in search engine results, as well as submitting your site to search engines.

Many design firms, including TNT Dental, offer this as part of their design package. Outside firms offer this service as well.

Beware of firms that charge on a pay-per-click model -- in other words, you pay them as much as $20 every time someone clicks to your site. These charges add up fast. But even companies who charge a flat fee typically want at least a hundred dollars a month.

Is it worth the money? The answer depends on your marketing plan. TNT Dental's co-founder, Tim Kelley, points out that if you plan to use radio, TV, and print advertising to drive people to your Web site -- and you don't expect the site itself to draw users on its own -- then you won't necessarily need to hire someone to do search engine optimization.

If you do choose an SEO firm, Kelley says, you should ensure that you get detailed monthly reports, showing you the traffic to your site and where it comes from. Get a report that shows traffic before the firm begins its search engine voodoo, so you can see actual results.

Back office integration

Depending on what practice management software you use, you may be able to hook your Web site to it, to allow patients to change appointments, make payments, and so on.

Because of the technical difficulties, many design firms don't even offer the service. "It's quite complicated, and we don't think there's a payoff yet," Healey says. "We think it's something that is several years off for most practices."

Sesame Dental, on the other hand, says that it is able to connect a Web site to any of 30 practice management systems. Cost of integration is $264 per month.

The bottom line

If all this sounds like a lot of work, that's because it is. But the payoff can be substantial. Resources like the Yellow Pages directory are being read less and less, while the Web has increasingly become the de facto way that people find new services. A Web site will increase your exposure to potential patients, and help keep your existing patients happier.

Dr. Woolf has high hopes for his new Web site, which recently launched.

"I don't have unrealistic expectations about the benefits we'll get," he says, "but I expect that it will be easier for new people to find out about our services, and our patients will be happier with us. They'll be able to find more about our services, about aftercare, about how to get to our offices, and they'll even be able to print out forms and bring them to the office."

"All in all, we expect to be much better off," says Dr. Woolf.

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