Build your perfect Web site: Part I

By Preston Gralla

April 23, 2008 -- If you're not on the Web, do you really exist?

Of course you do. You've got an office with four walls and living, breathing human beings inside. But patients are increasingly turning to the Internet for everything from thumb tacks to houses. Those dentists without Web sites are becoming more and more invisible.

If you don't have a Web site, your name might be on the Internet already -- but in an unfavorable context, such as a review by a disgruntled patient. Your Web site offers you the chance to describe yourself and your practice in the best possible light.

And as the recession reaches dentistry, some practice management consultants say that Web sites may offer the most cost-effective of all marketing vehicles.

But how do you get started? Should you hire a designer or do it yourself? The choices can be daunting, so we talked to some of the leading lights in the field of dental Web site design, as well as many Web savvy dentists to offer this practical guide to launching your online presence.

The good news is that only a third of dentists have Web sites so far, so it's still possible to lead the pack, according to Irvin G. Lubis, D.M.D., a former Boonton, N.J. periodontist who now works as a marketing consultant for dentists.

Louis Woolf hired American Eagle to design this Web site for his practice.

Getting started

Where do you begin? Dental Web sites run the gamut of the exceedingly simple, in essence a business card posted to the Web, to the extremely complex, including hooks into your back-office operations.

So start by figuring out how you want to market your practice and how a Web site fits into that plan. Do you want to draw in new patients, provide services to your existing ones, or perhaps a combination of the two? Are you a specialist with services that other dentists don't offer? Is your education or experience outstanding? Would you like the site to be educational as well, providing important information about dental hygiene?

Next consider how interactive you want the site to be. Would you like patients to be able to contact you via email? Would you like them to be able to schedule or change appointments or make payments online? Many of these features will add expense to the site -- but could save your time and your staff's time.

Louis Woolf, D.D.S., of the Sachem Dental Group, in Suffolk County, N.Y., says that he plans to use his new Web site as a way to solicit feedback from patients, and will include a way for patients to make complaints.

"This is important to us because we have five different offices, six partners, and 20 dentists, with many different specialties," he says. "With offices spread out like that, we want to make sure that we're providing the best services possible to our patients. If they can easily make complaints online, either using their real name or anonymously, it will help us make sure we're giving them exactly what they need."

Once you've made these basic decisions, your real work has begun. Even with a professional designer doing the technical and artistic work, you're going to have to spend a chunk of your time working with your designer, possibly providing content for them, and reviewing the site until you're happy with it. So set aside some days.

Choosing a designer

Today's sophisticated surfer expects state-of-the-art design. That's what prompted Dr. Woolf to upgrade his site. Ten years ago, Dr. Woolf says, he had a friend develop a rudimentary site with very basic information about his group's practice. Now he is thoroughly revamping it.

"Resources like Yellow Pages books are being read less and less, while the Web has increasingly become the de facto way that people find new services."

"I've seen the evolution of information since our fist site was up," he says. "For business to be a success, including a dental practice -- it needs to be well-represented on the Internet."

Everyone we interviewed for this article emphasized that you shouldn't try to do it yourself -- or even hire that computer-savvy high schooler who lives down the block. You need a professional designer.

So who do you pick?

The choice will depend a lot on the features you've decided to include. Costs vary tremendously, from as little as $1,500 for a brochure-style site by a local designer to $10,000 for a more interactive site from a nationally known firm.

No matter how large or small your ambitions, look for someone who has already designed several dental sites. Check out other dental Web sites the firm has designed, get in touch with those sites, and ask the dentists whether they were satisfied.

Quite a few firms specialize in dentistry, but they take different approaches to their design work. TNT Dental (www.tntdental.com) has a staff of writers who interview dentists about what information they want on the site, says co-founder Tim Kelley. The staff writes a draft of what will appear, and rewrites it until the dentist is satisfied.

By contrast, Dental Sesame (www.dentalsesame.com) offers a selection of several design templates, and a great deal of boilerplate dental content about dental hygiene. Dentists can select from these pieces, then add information of their own.

Finally, with some design firms, you create all the content yourself. That's the approach Dr. Woolf took in working with American Eagle design firm (www.americaneagle.com).

There are pros and cons to each approach. Using pre-created content will take the least amount of time and effort. On the downside, that approach can conceivably feel generic to potential patients.

Working with a firm to develop your site's content can eat up the hours. "You'll spend longer on this than you expect," says Dr. Woolf. On the upside you will get the site that best reflects your practice. Original content also helps your site pop up higher when a search engine trolls the Web.

Which approach you choose depends once again on your goal for the site. An online business card doesn't need much original content. But if this is your main approach to marketing your practice, sweating over prose may prove essential.

After you've narrowed down your selection of designers, ask about the contract. Make sure that no matter which designer you use, the site and all its content ultimately belongs to you, not to the designer. You may want to pay a lawyer to read the fine print.

Design is only the beginning of your Web site's life. Next week in the second of this three-part series, we'll explain the care and feeding required to make sure your site serves all its goals.

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