There is no shortage of advice about what a professional website should include for search engine optimization. But in reality SEO doesn't put clients in your office. What does that is the user experience (UX) of your website.
There are plenty of tips about that as well -- and here's THE most important one for psychologists, counselors, clinical social workers, therapists, healers, esoteric readers and others in the healing and helping arts:
Not all advice is appropriate
for your specific business and clients.
As a website designer specializing in sites for practitioners in mental, emotional, spiritual, and energy health fields, I know it's hard to resist some cool techie toy that seems to make a site stand out because its flashy or standard for other industries.
And I know that therapists especially are constrained in the use of many of these features by virtue of professional ethics or the unique nature of the audience you need to attract.
So here is MY list of must have / never have elements for your website -- as compared with the latest best practices from WebsiteMagazine.com.
First 2 Seconds Elements
This group is called the first 2 seconds elements because that's how much time it takes for a visitor to your website to decide if they will stay or go.
1. Main Keyword in Header
Most people come to your website for a purpose. They are looking for something specific that they think they want or need right now. If they don't see a word that reflects that purpose at the top of your site, they are gone.
Too many practitioners make the mistake of highlighting a cool sounding business name that you fell in love with, but that takes some decoding to figure out. Others simply use their personal name, without an explanation right under it of what you do and for whom.
The header -- that top section of your homepage that is identical on all other pages -- is prime real estate. Don't waste it by giving visitors info they aren't yet interested in, or that isn't relevant to them.
2. Intuitive Navigation
Visitors also need to see words on your menu that reflect what they want. Don't try to be clever. Don't make your visitors work to figure out your meaning. One word menu tabs are best -- for example: counseling, depression, anxiety, couples, astrology, reiki.
Part of intuitive navigation is having a clear and common sense organization for your pages. Not all of your pages will fit on a width-limited menu. For therapists, then, the most important top level page tab will be Therapy or Counseling. Organize all the niche specific pages -- depression, anxiety, bipolar, bulemia, etc -- under that top level tab. In techie talk, the top level is called the parent, and the niche specific level is call the child pages.
Use the same words for buttons if you use buttons to also direct people to move between pages. Clarity, brevity, and consistency help create intuitive navigation experience for the visitor.
3. Contemporary Design and Layout
Websites get stale. Design and layout standards change, just like fashion does. Old looking websites connote businesses that are out of touch with their customers. You might think that non-techie people won't know the difference, but that is a dangerous belief.
Old, boring, cluttered websites with long narrow side columns filled with vertical menus or buttons or random promotions, clashing colors, unnecessary animations, or mini-graphics don't display well on cell phones, and may be only slightly better on tablets.
Poor design is felt by the user. Bad layout causes frustration, and on a subconscious level makes the visitor question your clinical competence.
Close to 60% of people who search for a business are now using mobile devices to do so, and that number will only increase this year and next. If your website was built more than 3 years ago, it's probably already out of date. Time to update? Check out what I can do for you.
4. Engaging Graphics
Photos of people who resemble the demographics of your clients are absolutely essential on private practice websites. They are the start of building rapport and feeling trustworthy. Pictures really do say a thousand words. Use them liberally and strategically.
A marketing expert from the United Kingdom once questioned why therapists tend to use photos of nature on their website. (I think perhaps he'd never been in counseling and didn't suffer from stress, anxiety or depression). He asked me if American psychologists hold sessions in a forest, or on the beach, and wondered what we do when it rains. LOL. He thought pictures of your office would be better.
He had a fair point. If you can take good quality photos of where your clients will sit, and what they will see from that vantage point, or of the waiting room, these can convey a sense of comfort and familiarity, and help reduce the feeling of the stigma of going to therapy.
Some therapists use photos of the outside of their office building. I don't recommend that. Because of the potential safety issues that therapists have if you deal with a high risk population, I think it's best to limit office photos to the interior.
I do recommend using photos of mock clients -- friends or family members -- seemingly engaged in a session. Include yourself in the photo, even if it's take from behind your back. This is especially useful if you are a hypnotherapist. Potential clients want to see what a hypnosis session looks like.
Compelling Second 15 Minutes Elements
This group is called the compelling second 15 minutes elements because that's the time it takes for visitors to decide to make an appointment or look elsewhere, based on whether something on your pages captures and holds their interest.
5. Slide Shows and Videos
Almost everyone will pause to watch moving pictures. Once they do, they've made a subtle investment in learning more, so they stay on the site longer. BUT, only if the slide show or video provides something of relevance for them.
Usually the best advice for these is to keep them short. One minute or less for videos, especially if it's a simple welcome and greeting type -- although those too are old and stale and not recommended. Better to give an actual tip, or ask a thought provoking question.
Unless you have a portfolio of work to display, 4 to 7 photos for a slide show is enough. See how we used a slide show on Angela's website to convey her professional niches and a suggested outcome. If you are interested in something like that, ask me how it's done.
6. Readable Formatting
There are many simple but essential tricks for formatting content that will help visitors want to read your marketing message. I've written a page specifically on readability that I highly recommend to everyone with a website.
Readable formatting is crucial. If your content looks too long, or too hard, or if the visitor starts to feel eye strain from wide line lengths, light colored or small font, or endless paragraphs without a break, they simply won't bother trying to read anything more on the website.
7. Emotionally Compelling Content with Calls to Action
Your niche specific pages are a conversation with potential clients. They are almost a pre-intake where you are validating their feelings and needs, reassuring that help is available, talking about the costs of not getting help, and making an emotional connection by demonstrating your understanding of what the reader is going through.
Marketing message content on these niche specific pages doesn't work well when it's all about the generic benefits of your services, disconnected from the readers experience of suffering or yearning. This is because people make decisions based on emotions first. Only after making a decision that FEELS right or good, do we then look for logical reasons to reassure ourselves that it's a smart choice.
The jury is out on whether frequent call to action buttons -- those that urge Make Appointment Now, or something similar -- are effective, or an annoying turn off to potential clients. Some websites insert such buttons linked to their contact page or to an online scheduler every few paragraphs.
I use multiple CTA buttons on the same page only if the content is addressed to multiple audiences.
8. Give-Away Opt-in Forms
Yes give-away info products such as special reports and tip sheets are still very useful marketing tools for practitioners in the healing and helping arts. If you don't have at least one, it's time to tackle this project.
An info product begins to establish a relationship between you and a potential client. You are offering something useful to them for free (in exchange for their email address), and they are showing initial interest in getting help. You can follow up with them, and offer a free 15 minute chance to ask questions about your process.
In non-therapy circles this is called lead generation, and it's a standard business practice. I recommend it over relying on doctors to refer their patients to you because you are interacting directly with the potential client, rather than waiting for the doc to remember you exist.
Some website visitors skip the marketing message pages in favor of a blog. They are looking for your advice that they can apply that afternoon. They aren't looking for a dry, academic lecture, but something that provides practical information they can implement immediately.
Make sure your blog posts that talk about anxiety, for example, also include a link back to your marketing message about help for anxiety. If a blog post talks about Mercury Retrograde, provide a link back to your marketing message about one of your astrology readings.
NOT Recommended for Small Private Practices
10. Standard Signs of Authority
The rationale is that people trust authority. Usually when design companies urge you to include signs of authority they mean a section of logos representing your client list.
Another form of authority that private practitioners tend to use are the names of leaders in your own field. There are four problems with this, represented by these questions:
Do you really want to provide free advertising for a competitor?
Will it send people from your site to theirs?
Do you need permission to ride their coattails?
Is the name instantly recognized by the public?
Of those four problems, to me the biggest one is the last. Most people have never heard of John Gottman, Marsha Linehan, Robert Hand, or Choa Kok Sui. By borrowing their authority to boost your own, you run the risk of seeming unapproachable, confusing, or irrelevant to potential clients.
11. Social Proofs
Otherwise known mostly as testimonials, which marketing experts in the past have urged us to include on website, social proofs are very tricky. There are several types, and the worst for small business are the social media icons that display how many people have liked or shared your website. Unless your numbers are in the thousands -- maybe 10s of thousands -- these tech goodies only serve to tell people that you are unknown or unliked. Yikes!
The professional associations for psychotherapists all caution against using client testimonials. Other practitioners who aren't as restricted should also think twice about prominently displaying testimonials, because they can backfire. Many people think they are faked, especially when the attribution doesn't include a last name and website. And others don't trust them because who in their right mind includes bad reviews on their own website?
The most current advice, if you must do this and have good reviews on Angie's List and Yelp, is to link to those pages. Do not lift those reviews and republish on your own website, as this may be a copyright violation and get you in big trouble with those companies. They might be about you but they don't belong to you.
Some practitioners wonder if instead of testimonials you should use recommendation statements from colleagues. I refer you to the questions under Signs of Authority.