Fun with keywords: The words “doctor” vs. “physician” on the HSC website

The words “physician” and “doctor” seem interchangeable when you’re writing about medical doctors on a website for a health science center, but the two words are different in at least one important way: SEO.

SEO, or search engine optimization, is basically a process of understanding the audience via their internet searches and implementing strategies to help a website rank high on search engine results. The words, images, headlines, URLs and other elements of a web page are all optimized for search at some point in the website production process.

If readers can’t find the website, it’s not going to do much good. And little details that might not seem important can make a big difference in search if the right word or strategy is used.

One of the basic strategies of SEO is identifying and using targeted keywords in web writing. Keywords are the words and phrases that are meant to predict the words that users type in search engines to find information they are looking for. Understanding keywords is very important in ranking high on search engine results.  We are able to run reports that show which words and phrases users have recently typed in to search engines such as Google and Bing to find out information about topics that match the kinds of content we’re featuring on the UT Health Science Center San Antonio website. Once we know the types of words that readers are likely to use to search for information, we can choose to use those words to give our web pages a better chance to be found.

Getting back to our previous example of “doctor” vs. “physician”; yes, there is a difference if a website uses the words ‘”doctor” vs. “physician”.  Doing an SEO keyword check, you would discover the majority of internet searches use the keyword “doctor”, not “physician”.  We found in our audience research that “doctor” was also a word a typical consumer would use more often than physician. “Physician” might sound more distinguished or professional or you might be tempted to mix in the word “physician” in text so that the word “doctor” isn’t repeated so much, but using “physician” exclusively will cut down on your SEO.  That’s because, while physicians themselves may use the word “physician”, we know through search-engine analytics that the vast majority of online searchers use the word “doctor”.

Ever wondered about popular phrases in search? Leave a comment and try to stump the SEO expert!


Article Categories: Analytics, Content Strategy

5 Responses to “Fun with keywords: The words “doctor” vs. “physician” on the HSC website”

  1. So its not exactly clear from your post, are you suggesting that writers should use the word ‘doctor’ for the most part but also sprinkle ‘physician’ here and there to avoid monotony?

    How about the concern that too many occurrences of the same word (doctor in this case) might actually make Google suspicious.
    Also, some people argue that Google is not smart enough to understand that doctor and physician are synonyms and so it doesn’t really matter anymore. What are your thoughts?

    • Okoben, Janet T

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s true that Google will take note if a web page is stuffed with certain words intended only to place a phrase such as “muffler repair” or “garage replacement” out there with the goal of ranking high in search. “Stuffed” is the operative word here and keyword stuffing is an activity that took down some blatant offenders during a Google update a couple of years ago specifically targeting that practice. But when we refer to a doctor in a feature article or choose that word when we’re writing website pages, it’s because we are sincerely talking about a doctor in the context of a Health Science Center. Our intention isn’t to cram the article full of words simply for the sake to reinforcing that word. We choose “doctor” over “physician” because it’s the way most people who aren’t in the medical professions refer to doctors. And our goal is to be readable and approachable. From what we know, that’s what Google wants.

  2. That is an important consideration when keyword planning, but with some of Google’s more recent contextual changes, i.e. incorporating related words, I wonder how much this will change going forward. I think that change is a big step forward for SEO in general, as people don’t need to use multiple instances of the exact keyword string anymore such as “pizza place”, as instances of “pizza restaurants”, “pizza delivery”, etc. will also reinforce the general concept of the site being a pizza place.

    Outside of SEO concerns, it also makes more sense to use the more commonly used version of a word for the readers as well so the article feels more applicable to them. Like you said, there are probably more physicians that use the word physician than patients, and connecting with the audience once they’ve landed on your page is just as important as getting them there.

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