Q: How can I use the Internet, along with social media, to gain more visibility for my private practice?

A: For private practitioners who know how to tap its riches, the Internet has become an abundant source of referrals. I know this firsthand, having gotten at least 50 referrals a month to my group practice from online sources for the past five years. In the old days—say around 2008—getting online referrals to your practice involved learning how to play the search-engine game and posting profiles on a few well-chosen therapist directories. However, the effectiveness of that strategy is now being compromised by three recent trends that have changed the face of Internet marketing, referred to collectively as the SoLoMo revolution—Social, Local, Mobile. Understanding them can help you take advantage of the opportunities they present to generate steady referrals. Best of all, much of what you need to get on board with SoLoMo is absolutely free.

Getting Social

In the past three years, social networking sites have overtaken search browsers as the most popular online activity, with four major services leading the charge. The leader of the pack, Facebook, passed Google in overall web popularity in 2010. User-generated content shared with friends has proven to be an addictive formula for more than 800 million people worldwide. An astonishing 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month. It has the longest average visit of any site on the Internet (22 minutes), and each Facebook user spends on average more than 15 hours a month on the site.

The second major social networking service is Twitter, the microblogging site where more than 200 million users post news, ideas, photos, and links every day for anyone to view. Despite its popularity, Twitter hasn’t proven to be a good source of referrals for private practice, since few people search for professional services on the site.

The third major social networking site, LinkedIn, has become the premier business-networking site online. It’s analogous to attending a professional conference with others who share your training, expertise, and work experience. In 2011, LinkedIn reached 100 million professional users worldwide. However, unless you’re offering services to other psychotherapists—training, consultation, or supervision—LinkedIn isn’t likely to be a steady source of revenue for your practice.

Coming late to the party as the fourth major social service is Google, which realized that it was losing the battle for online eyeballs to Facebook. In 2011, after several botched attempts in the social realm, Google launched a social network platform called Google Plus, which now boasts more than 100 million users. Google Plus has several interesting features: better privacy settings than Facebook and much longer postings than Twitter. It allows free video chats (“hangouts”) with up to nine people.

The launch of Google Plus was just the first step in Google’s attempt to socialize searching. In January 2012, Google startled the online world by announcing a radical new confluence of social and search called Google Search Plus Your World. All Google searches are now separated into two categories: Personal and Global, with Global being what you used to think of as a normal Google search. Personal search gives a strong priority to Google Plus profiles, posts, and links. Although Google allows you to switch between Personal and Global search results, Personal Search is the default setting. So you can no longer assume that what shows up on a Google search is the best information available, since you’re probably viewing Google Personal results, which are biased toward Google’s own content.

So what to do? Never use Google again, as some are recommending? No, taking your ball and going home will not help you get referrals when Google still garners two-thirds of all computer searches. Moreover, Google says it’ll be integrating even more of its services into Google Plus in the future, so it’s best to join them. Follow these guidelines:

  • Create a Google Plus Profile with either your name or your business name at: http://plus.google.com.
  • Make your profile purely professional, only using your office address and phone number, and your website URL.
  • Try to post something on Google Plus at least twice a month.
  • Instead of lists of followers or friends, Google Plus has Circles of Contacts. You can organize your circles by anything you want, such as profession (psychotherapists), location (your city or state), and hobbies (kayaking). Create several circles and invite people to join them. Here are two good free tools to find people to add to your Google Plus circles:

Over time, more free, organic search results will be populated by Google Plus posts, so being an early adopter will pay dividends in the future.

In addition to these new Google Plus guidelines, your website will consistently show up higher in the search results if you regularly add fresh content to your site, have your website URL listed on other sites (called inbound links), and populate your meta tags with the highest-value search keywords for your areas of specialization (to find the best keywords, search for Google Keyword Tool).

There’s another way to make Google Plus relevant: pay to show up on the first page using Google’s Pay Per Click AdWords service, since AdWords listings aren’t affected at all by Google Personal search.

Since many people now do their searching within Facebook, everyone should create a free Business Page, which serves as a sort of miniwebsite within Facebook. You can create this page at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/create.php.

Facebook offers a unique way to get your message out to people who are most likely to be interested in your particular service—Facebook’s version of Pay Per Click ads. But unlike Google’s ads, which are keyword-driven, Facebook’s ads are seen only by people who fit a particular profile that you select. Because Facebook has a great deal of personal data on most of its users, you can create ads that will be seen only by people with certain interests and/or demographic factors, such as family and marital status, age, gender, education level, and city of residence. This level of precision targeting has never been available before in any advertising medium.

Looking Local

The second major trend in Internet marketing is the focus on local businesses. Google has expanded its local emphasis through its two related services, Google Maps (for getting directions) and Google Places (where you post a profile of your practice). The great news for private practitioners is that since October 2010, Google has frequently been putting Google Places profiles on the top of the first page of the search engine results, and the profiles are free to fill out. To take advantage of this, create a Google Places profile at: http://www.google.com/places.

Google will ask you to enter up to five categories of your service. Since these categories are what drive the local search results, be sure to fill out all five categories. You can use terms such as psychologist, psychotherapist, counselor, marriage counselor, and others. Google will rate your profile more highly if you add more media—up to 10 photos and 5 short YouTube videos.

Often forgotten in the search engine wars is Microsoft Bing, the second most popular search engine, with about 30 percent of all searches. Many are predicting that the backlash against Google Personal Search will result in Bing’s getting an even greater search-market share. Just as with Google, you can create a free Bing local business listing by starting at http://www.bing.com/businessportal.

With these two free steps, you can start showing up on page one of 95 percent of local search results.

Increasing Mobility

The third major trend is the explosion of Internet usage on cell phones and tablets. Popular cell phones, such as iPhones and Androids, are part of the trend toward smartphone devices that can access the Internet. Almost two-thirds of all new cell phone purchases for people under 45 are smartphones, and Internet access will be standard in all but the most basic cell phones in the next few years. With large screens, powerful processors, and speedy 3G and 4G networks, these pocket-sized computers now allow unprecedented access to web content anywhere, anytime.

Already 20 percent of online searches are done on a mobile device, 40 percent of which are inquiries about local businesses. Whereas Google now accounts for 65 percent of searches done on desktops and laptops, it has a dominating 96 percent of searches done on mobile devices.

So how can you take advantage of this mobile trend in generating referrals to your practice? First, see how your website looks on a smartphone screen. If you don’t have a smartphone to test this out, you can use a mobile site simulator such as http://quirktools.com/screenfly to see how your site looks on various smartphone screens. If it looks cramped, this will definitely hurt your chances of getting a referral from a mobile search. Consider creating a mobile version of your website. Google has stated that it will give a higher ranking to a mobile-configured website when found on a smartphone search. They even give you a free tool to create a mobile version of your website: http://www.google.com/sites/help/intl/en/mobile-landing-pages/mlpb.html.

You can do two other things to take advantage of the two commonest uses for cell phones: texting and making phone calls. Try adding texting as an additional contact option on your website. I’ve generated 60 extra referrals in the past year since adding this one simple step, which costs nothing but about 10 minutes of time. In addition, you can create a mobile-only Google AdWords Pay Per Click ad campaign. The beauty of this is that your ads will show up only on cell phones, and about 20 percent of people who are interested in your ad will call your office directly by just tapping your phone number on their screen. I’m averaging 16 phone calls a month to my office using this method, for a monthly cost of about $30.

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc/Pexels

Joe Bavonese

Joe Bavonese, PhD, is the director of the Relationship Institute in Michigan and the co-director of Uncommon Practices, a service that helps psychotherapists create their ideal practice.