In this summary of the Dental Digital Marketing Index we explore clear patterns for marketing success that don’t require you to just flush your marketing budget on a hope and a prayer. In the dental space, the most successful dental practices–at least where marketing is concerned–are mostly doing the same things in very similar ways. And that’s why we authored this report: to explore and define a basic formula for marketing success in the dental space. After evaluating the data available to us, we can say with confidence that yes, there is a pretty clear pattern for marketing success in the dental space. Much of it won’t come as a surprise, but some will. The rest of this report attempts to unpack what that formula looks like.
1,000 DENTAL PRACTICES
No joke. We looked at over 1,000 dental practice websites and their related marketing activities. We audited their websites for content, performance, and usability. We mapped their traffic over time, in some cases going back to 2010. We modeled market behavior by observing search trends from a keyword list of over 3,000 words that includes more core variations than we want to remember. We used this data to build dozens of models to understand past and future marketing patterns using over 300,000 discrete data points. Months of research and analysis. And yes, it was worth it. Why?
The ideal dental practice has a website with about 155 webpages. It generates roughly 19,000+ users in monthly traffic. About 8,100 of that comes from search traffic, and about 7,100 of that is the holy grail of unbranded local search traffic. These ideal practices are growing that unbranded search traffic by roughly 60 additional visits every month. They use Facebook and Instagram regularly, but rarely use Tik Tok or even Twitter. They have somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 followers on Facebook, but only half that on Instagram–but Instagram still generates more than 5X the engagement from the same number of posts. They have a very active Google My Business review account, some activity on Yelp, but rarely have anything on WebMB or Healthgrades. And they have an average review rating of 4.6 out of 5.0. And on and on.
All of these metrics (and more) are driving some impressive results. On average, top performing dental practices bring more prospective patients than the next 10 dental practices in their immediate vicinity combined. Understanding is why this research matters.
EVERYDAY, 113,000 PEOPLE SEARCH FOR A DENTIST
And those 113,000 are what we can empirically measure through direct observation from a constrained list of keywords. In actuality, there are considerably more. How many are near you?
As of this report, there are 336 million people in the US. So, on average, every day there are about 34 people looking for a new dentist for every 100,000 people. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are roughly 61 dentists per 100,000 people. So, if we just average it out, that means each dentist is getting a new patient from search every other day. But that’s not true. Other data in this report suggests that one or two dentists are getting most of those 34 new patients each day, and the rest are trickling into other dental practices at a much slower rate.
A “NEAR ME” WAVE IS BEING DRIVEN LARGELY BY LOCATION-BASED SEARCH AND ONLINE REVIEWS
In Chapter 4 we discuss, among other things, the “near me” wave. This is our name for a dramatic trend that has been taking place for the last decade, and appears to be accelerating. In short, the habit of adding the words “near me” to certain transactional search terms, has increased dramatically.
For a comparison, since 2010, all non-”near me” terms that we tracked have grown by about 2X in monthly search volume while the near me variants of these words have grown by a staggering 132X. In 2010, near me variants accounted for roughly 1.4% of all search traffic we measured. Today, they are roughly 47% of all traffic we measure, and are on track to overtake all other variants.
We looked at other search term variations around cost, convenience, and best service provided. None of them came close to the “near me” Wave. We can’t say explicitly why this is, but if you think about it, there’s two things that appear to be driving this: Google including maps in local search results, and Google My Business online reviews being baked into these maps results. So, if you’re trying to find a dentist to get your teeth cleaned, we have become conditioned to type something like “Dentist near me” and expect to see a map of all the dentists close by, and a summary of the online reviews for each. In the age of Amazon shopping we have come to prioritize convenience, and Google has made this extremely convenient. Hence, more of us are finding dentists this way, and doing more searches. But this isn’t the entire story.
THIS “NEAR ME” WAVE IS A SIGN OF HIGHER PATIENT CHURN
Let’s go back to that 113,000 daily searches datapoint. In 2010 that number was approximately 29,000. So, since 2010, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for all terms being measured was roughly 13.6%. But if we look at just the “near me” appended terms, that CAGR is now over 52% (and the non–”near me” terms CAGR is more like 8%). “Near me” words are growing at a scary pace, and the trend does not appear to be slowing (there’s arguments that it’s going to accelerate).
So roll the calendar forward another decade, and just for fun let’s assume a more modest CAGR of 20%. That means there will be approximately 1 million dental-specific searches every single day, just from near me terms. That means that, basically, from a pure numbers standpoint, more than 360 million people will be looking for a new dentist over the course of a year. But, there aren’t that many people in the US (nor are there projected to be in 10 years). So, what does this mean?
You can argue the details here, and no, it’s not a perfect set of assumptions we’ve made. But what is plainly clear is the reason the number of “near me” searches is climbing and has almost nothing to do with population changes, and instead has to do with behavior changes. We, as people, are looking for dentists via search way more than we used to. So why is that? We believe this has to do with a fundamental shift in patient loyalty and ultimately lifetime value. As it becomes easier to find a new dentist (maybe you didn’t like the receptionist at your current dentist’s office, or the color of the walls, or the hairy knuckles of your dentist–whatever the reason) we’re less likely to remain loyal to our current dentist. And technology, maps, online reviews and more is making it far easier. So in 10 years, whatever the current patient lifetime value is, it will only go down (unless you can find a lot more things to sell to fewer patients).
So why will this crush some practices? Because the dental market is basically a zero-sum game. Unless you have a pediatrics practice, you mainly pickup new patients when someone else loses them. And all practices over the next decade will start losing more patients than they used to. The winners of this trend will be the practices skilled at bringing in new patients. The losers will be the practices who don’t think they need to grow and don’t learn how to bring in new patients.
SEARCH ENGINE ALGORITHMS AND SEARCH BEHAVIOR DURING AND AFTER COVID GOT WEIRD
In Chapter 4 we discuss a trend where in the early months of the Covid pandemic (March/April of 2020) there is a not-at-all surprising drop in overall search traffic for dental. However, it is followed by a significant, and sustained, growth in traffic far in excess of simply returning to “pre-Covid” normal. It peaks in mid 2021 and continues to roll off until we return to pretty normal search seasonality in the latter half of 2022.
We call this the Covid Bounce, and it matters for at least two reasons: First, we want to acknowledge the impact of Covid on patient behavior–because few industries were hit by Covid as hard as dental. Second, and we don’t know exactly why, but the impact of the Covid Bounce on individual practice search traffic was dramatically different for the average practice versus the top-performing practices. Refer to Chapter 6 for more details, but it appears that these practices were far more effective at recruiting unbranded search traffic (the most valuable kind) during the Covid bounce. Moreover, average practices saw no real benefit from the bounce and in relative terms actually took a hit.
THE COVID BOUNCE + ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE SEARCH MEANS “GOOD ENOUGH” NO LONGER IS
The Covid Bounce, and how top-tier dental practice websites performed throughout it, was a sign that things are changing in search in a pretty big way. But search is constantly changing. Yes, there was abnormal change in dental-specific search terms during the Covid Bounce–but we expect that.
The bigger question is what does this mean for dental practices? We think it means “good enough” no longer is good enough. Why? Consider technologies like OpenAI’s Chat GPT or Bard–these technologies will not just be returning search results–they will be giving an opinion on things like “the best dentist near me”. This opinion will be informed by websites, online reviews and the entire corpus of information available to these AI engines. And what used to work, no longer will. This is in part why we feel “average” dental website agencies are actually doing worse than DIY websites (more on that below).
“DENTIST NEAR ME” IS THE ONE SEARCH TERM TO RULE THEM ALL
One safe bet coming out of all this research is that there is no more important benchmark metric than the search term “Dentist near me”. Google understands that this term has a proximity trigger (near me), so the search results don’t simply show a nationally-ranked search result. Instead, Google pulls in local pack rankings from Google My Business and maps to overlay the best results based upon proximity (how close resulting practices are to the IP address of the search), relevancy (does Google think that Google My Business profile is a dentist) and trust (does Google trust that Google My Business profile more than others).
The importance of owning this term for local search, as well as using it as a barometer for how well you’re doing, cannot be overstated. Right now, “Dentist near me” alone represents more than 34% of all search traffic we measure.
MOST DENTAL PRACTICE WEBSITES ARE ‘MEH
If you’re reading this, then of course we don’t mean you... that being said: We didn’t expect dental practice websites to compete with the Fortune 500 in terms of the speed, organization or overall experience of their website. But even going in with low expectations, we were disappointed. Every performance cohort we measured–top 1%, top 10%, dead average–had a failing grade on almost every performance metric.
The good news for dental practices is that the bar is incredibly–even embarrassingly–low. The bad news is that all the other stuff we’ve been talking about suggests this can’t continue. As patient churn climbs, savvy practices will understand they have to raise the bar closer to that Fortune 500 company website (within reason), and anyone who fails to keep up will feel the pain.
TOP DENTAL PRACTICES OVER-PERFORMED BY AN ORDER OF MAGNITUDE
We’ve already alluded to this a few times in this summary, but we feel this deserves a “long pause” moment. High performing websites, those in the top 1% cohort, didn’t just do a little better than their peer practices within their same metro areas. They crushed them on almost every metric. If an average dental practice gets 100 web visits–of basically any kind–the top 1% get 1,000 and sometimes quite a bit more. If an average dental practice has 1,000 points of social engagement, the top 1% will typically get 10,000+. And if the average practice has a total of 100 Google My Business reviews, the top 1% will easily have 1,000+.
The point we’re trying to make is to challenge the notion that marketing doesn’t really matter–that it’s all the same and that everyone is just sort of meandering along. Yes, most practices appear to be meandering along when it comes to marketing, and we don’t really blame them (most use agencies and assume those agencies know what they are doing). But the truth is, the top performers have figured out a few important marketing activities and are exploiting them to great effect. And if you’ve read our thinking on the “near me” Wave, then you should consider that what was average is going to get demolished in the coming decade.
DON’T HIRE AN AGENCY UNLESS YOU’RE SERIOUS ABOUT PERFORMANCE
Above we mentioned something called the Covid Bounce, and how search engine algorithms seemed to get weird during and since this bounce. What’s really strange is, when you look at average dental practice websites, and you break them up by those that are a DIY shop versus those that use an agency, well, something unexpected happens.
Before the Covid Bounce, websites built and managed by agencies were out-performing the DIY shops on organic search traffic–nothing amazing, but on a relative basis they were more than double the traffic each month. But after the Covid Bounce, it flipped. Agency websites suddenly took a dip and settled into decline while DIY websites jumped dramatically–as in almost 3X the performance of agency websites.
So, what the hell is going on? We don’t think that, all of a sudden, the quality of DIY websites suddenly, and dramatically, sky-rocketed. In the SEO world, this is clearly a sign of algorithm changes in the search engine itself. But why did the change favor DIY shops (at least among the average dental practices) so much? Who knows for certain, but our guess is that these agencies were basically bush-league and had built websites meant to exploit weakness in the algorithm rather than just being good websites for visitors. The algorithm was learning this and hit an inflection point and began to punish these agencies’ websites while also rewarding authentic, if less impressive otherwise, DIY websites. Once these changes took effect, these same agencies didn’t have anything else in their bag of tricks and have been struggling ever since.
The moral of the story is, if you’re just shooting for average then you should become extremely lean in all marketing, maybe focus on one or two things (hint, reviews!) and instead try to be the very best dental practice you can be. Ride the fruits of your hard-earned reputation, and hope the “near me” Wave doesn’t crush you. Because hiring a cheap agency may actually hurt you in the end (and cost you money). And, just to note, the data does not support this for high-performing agencies–they have done well all along.