SEO Strategy for MedlinePlus

MedlinePlus stands at the helm of the National Library of Medicine's efforts to bring the American people, and indeed the world, greater access to medical information in an authoritative, easy to understand, and interactive way. The MedlinePlus website features wiki-style articles, up-to-date news and health statistics, drug information, educational videos, and tools and games to help visitors expand their medical knowledge. Other health entities from around the world, including the National Institutes of Health, also contribute information to this free resource. Nearly half a billion people around the world used MedlinePlus in 2015.

MedlinePlus serves as a major content hub for the U.S. government's citizen-facing online medical information services. Bixal has been working alongside the National Library of Medicine (NLM) to ensure the proper execution of modern search engine optimization (SEO) and the comprehensive analysis of all content strategies. Several of the NLM's tactics and approaches have been completely overhauled to better serve MedlinePlus' mission, beginning with an in-depth technical audit of major programmatic pain points. Some of these pain points were technical issues (metadata over- and under-optimization, poor internal linking issues, page speed insights underperforming) while some were based around the content itself (poor content optimization, keyword cannibalization, image optimization, and poor user experience).

Research and Discovery

Our first steps, as always, were to focus on identifying key gaps through the Research and Discovery phase. This effort was launched with a technical audit, which began in tandem with an analytics audit focused on evaluating the existing website via rigorous testing of the MedlinePlus domain. However, during the first steps of our analytics audit checklist, we immediately identified a major gap in the MedlinePlus system. This meant that the technical audit and subsequent steps would be more than enough to uncover all relevant items that could be improved upon. Overall, Bixal's strategy for Research and Discovery included:

  • Technical Audit
  • Analytics Audit
  • Industry Landscaping
  • Competitive Research

Bixal's initial technical audit took advantage of internal SEO systems, which used a checklist that covered nearly 200 of the most common optimization points for the entire MedlinePlus domain. This checklist allowed our team to identify the elements that were working well and those that were not. Once we conducted this analysis, it was time to round out the Research and Discovery phase before developing a comprehensive SEO roadmap. Bixal completed extensive research to evaluate the current state of medical information available to the public online. This included a heavy analysis of similar websites at the forefront of the industry, including the Mayo Clinic and WebMD. The results of this analysis allowed us to see where MedlinePlus was exceeding expectations and where it was trailing behind these other web properties.

MedlinePlus's visibility rankings.

Planning and Strategy

We entered the Planning and Strategy phase with our SEO Roadmap and key findings in hand. This allowed Bixal to advise the NLM on the necessary actions to take to improve MedlinePlus' ranking in the key search engines. We also completed the following tasks to support NLM's comprehensive SEO strategy:

  • Keyword Discovery and Opportunity Mapping
  • Audience Persona Creation
  • Competitive Links Audit
  • Link Opportunity Mapping
  • Topic Research
  • Link Calendar Creation
  • Content Calendar Creation
  • Content Audit
  • Strategy Adjustment

Bixal also performed a backlink audit to ensure that the MedlinePlus' portfolio of backlinks was healthy and active. We conducted a full, site-wide audit of all content to identify issues that negatively impacted MedlinePlus' ranking that Bixal could address.

Bixal recommended a site-wide “structured data” strategy for MedlinePlus with the intent of furthering clickthrough rates and refining the domain's organic search capabilities. This also helped to improve overall website rankings. Some elements of this phase, most notably keyword discovery, research, and analysis, are ongoing as they are vital to inform the development of meta descriptions across the entire site.

Along with addressing and providing solutions for MedlinePlus' technical issues, Bixal also conducted a content audit. This occurred after we finished the creation of a content calendar and developed an initial content strategy for MedlinePlus. Although MedlinePlus is an invaluable resource, Bixal discovered that the site wasn’t organized with usability and search engine best practices in mind over the years of growth. This has impacted its ability to compete with other sites who have placed more emphasis on these factors.

User Journey: Understanding Why

Bixal crafted a strategy that addressed the what and the why of content strategy. This strategy focused on the traditional five stages of the user journey:

  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Purchase
  • Retention
  • Advocacy

Since MedlinePlus isn't an eCommerce site, it was easy to eliminate “purchase” from the list. Through research, we learned that MedlinePlus users were searching for terms they wanted to understand better. Users saw MedlinePlus as their domain of choice for information, yet would also find alternative sources of information due to MedlinePlus' poor usability. As we conducted this analysis with the NLM Team, we developed a better understanding of why MedlinePlus was at a disadvantage in terms of SEO performance, usability, and informational relevance.

SEO used to be something that organizations would address once, and not as a continual process. However, with the rising prominence of digital marketing, organizations have found that SEO has to be addressed on an ongoing basis. MedlinePlus' competitors are actively focused on content marketing and SEO on a daily basis. This is why Bixal recommended that NLM do the same: integrate SEO activities into their daily work.

“What really made this project a success was understanding that this wasn't about improving a website's organic visibility and rankings, but actually doing all that we can to improve the website to help people,” said Bixal SEO Manager Brandon Grimes. “There are thousands of people who need quick and accurate answers to their health questions. If we can help MedlinePlus move to the top of the list in answering those questions and stay there, then I think that is a job well done.”


Infographic of MedlinePlus stats.

Implementation and Execution

Once we had developed a solid SEO strategy and plan, Bixal worked and continues to work with the NLM Team to carry out these plans with the goal of improving MedlinePlus' overall domain performance. We began by recreating the content structure of the entire website. This map identified the key pain points within MedlinePlus' overall architecture and allowed us to begin applying the new approaches developed to begin filling the gaps. This allowed us to develop a strong, healthy foundation before moving forward with the additional steps involved in Implementation and Execution, including:

  • Technical Implementation
  • Analytics Implementation
  • Content Marketing Campaigns
  • Persona Outreach Creation

Growth and Development

Upon completing these final stages, Bixal entered into a perpetual Growth and Development phase, focusing on the maintenance of various campaigns and personas, building audience, reinforcing structural foundations of the website, and overall content refinement. Once we finished this phase with a wholly revamped MedlinePlus, we began implementing the following ongoing activities of the SEO process:

  • Content Promotion
  • Content Outreach
  • Link Outreach
  • Link Building Campaign
  • Monthly Reporting