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SEO Strategy for MedlinePlus

by Felipe Lagos, Senior Marketing & Communications Specialist

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 fashion. 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 project. 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, and Bixal has been working alongside the National Library of Medicine to ensure proper execution of modern search engine optimization (SEO) and the comprehensive analysis of all content strategies. Several of the National Library of Medicine’s tactics and approaches have been completely overhauled, in order to 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, keyboard 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 meant to judge the existing implementation of MedlinePlus via rigorous testing of the MedlinePlus domain. However, within the first steps of our analytics audit checklist, we immediately identified a major gap in the MedlinePlus system which meant that the technical audit, and the subsequent steps, would be more than enough to uncover all relevant items which 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 overlooking nearly 200 of the most common optimization points for the entire MedlinePlus domain. This checklist gave our team a much clearer idea of the elements which were running smoothly, and those which were not. Once we had this idea in mind, it was time to round out the Research and Discovery phase before layout all of this out into an informative SEO Roadmap. Bixal completed extensive research focused on 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. Our research informed both us and the National Library of Medicine of where MedlinePlus was currently exceeding expectations, and where it was far behind these other web services.

MedlinePlus's visibility ranking
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Planning and Strategy

Upon entering the Planning and Strategy phase, we finally had our full SEO Roadmap, based on all findings from the Research and Discovery phase. Having already completed initial steps, Bixal identified the general direction the National Library of Medicine needed to take in order to improve the online standing of MedlinePlus. The following stages were undertaken to further stage the execution of Bixal’s end goals for the program:

  • 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

In addition to these key steps, Bixal performed a backlink audit, conducted to ensure that the backlinked portfolio of MedlinePlus was healthy and active. We managed to eliminate the need for Google Disavow, a tool which would illuminate all negative links impacting the website. Bixal conducted a full, site-wide audit of all content in order to discover some of the causes of MedlinePlus’ downfalls. We reverse engineered the existing content strategy for MedlinePlus, in order to uncover precise gaps in the strategy, showing us exactly how Bixal could fill those gaps.

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

Along with addressing and providing solutions for MedlinePlus’ technical issues, Bixal also conducted a Content Audit after our Content Calendar Creation which created an initial content strategy for MedlinePlus. As such an invaluable resource of information, one of the challenges they faced was the fact that information had not been properly organized for better usability and search visibility from the ground up. The result was an environment which was generally unsuitable for users when compared to other organic competitors.

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 this equation. Through research, we learned that MedlinePlus users were searching for terms they wanted to understand better. Users would still see MedlinePlus as their domain of choice for information, yet would often find other means of accessing that information due to poor usability. Once our plans were implemented, we began to gain a better understanding of why MedlinePlus was at a disadvantage in terms of SEO performance, usability, and informational relevance.

SEO used to be a phase-focused development with an “on” and “off” switch; something that a project would address once and never again. However, with the rising prominence of digital marketing, we’re starting to see SEO as a permanent process which needs to be addressed on a continuous basis. MedlinePlus’ competition have actively worked on content marketing and SEO on a daily basis. The old way was no longer sufficient, and we boosted MedlinePlus’ SEO activities to daily.

“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 daily, who need answers to their health questions and fast. If we can help MedlinePlus move to the front line of those questions and searchers and stay there then I think that is a job well done.”

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Stats for the MedlinePlus website
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Implementation and Execution

Once all strategies and plans were developed and put into place, Bixal began to implement these new focus points for MedlinePlus in order to improve overall domain performance. Bixal began by recreating the content structure of the entire website. This map laid bare the central pain points of MedlinePlus’ holistic architecture, allowing us to fill in the gaps with the new approaches we had developed. We were able to lay down a strong, healthy foundation before moving forward with the further steps involved in Implementation and Execution. These steps included:

  • Technical Implementation
  • Analytics Implementation
  • Content Marketing Campaigns
  • Persona Outreach Creation
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Growth and Development

Upon completion of these final stages, Bixal entered into a perpetual Growth and Development phase, focusing on the maintenance of various campaigns and personas, building an audience, reinforcing structural foundations of the website, and overall content refining. Once a wholly revamped MedlinePlus saw the light of day, we began the final steps in the SEO process:

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