Matt Bailey is the Senior Online Search Marketing Specialist for Johns Hopkins Medical Institute, a global health enterprise and one of the top healthcare systems in the United States. He shared Johns Hopkins Medicine’s continuing SEO and content success story (of which he was a primary architect) and gave us some key insights into and observations around building SEO and Content Strategy in the digital healthcare marketing space.

How does being a health institution inform your SEO and content strategy?

Healthcare, in general, is a really unique place to be in SEO within digital healthcare marketing. What we are really trying to do is create a very clear, concise journey for our patients.

Since I joined the Johns Hopkins Medicine team 4 years ago, we have had a goal of offering individuals helpful and accurate information in every stage of their patient journey, with an organic search focus on that early self-diagnosis stage: “Do I have a chronic headache or do I have a brain tumor? I guess I will try to diagnose myself by holding my breath and diving into the search results.”

Most of us have done this, and to be completely honest, the search results can be a fairly scary and sometimes misleading space when trying to diagnose your symptoms. It is easy for an individual to get completely lost down the rabbit hole and freak themselves out. Of course, we don’t want that, and with Johns Hopkins Medicine being among the leading names in healthcare, we aim to be there as that trusted resource from early diagnosis, to treatment, to recovery.

The way I see it, it’s my responsibility as an SEO in digital healthcare marketing to position our content in a way that individuals can find the information, answers, and next steps to seek a professional opinion. In other words, I don’t want them to find themselves reading a million articles convincing them they are going to die tomorrow, with no offer of reassurance.

When you strip away all the keyword research, content optimizations, reporting, and technical SEO, my job is really to help us gain the real estate to be a trusted guide and beacon of hope.

It sounds like a personal mission. What drives you?

My sister was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer last year and I had a front-row seat watching her dive down that rabbit hole. She got the diagnosis, dove into the web, and found some positive things and some negative things. At the end of the day, she freaked herself out and what could have been a month-long patient journey from diagnosis to a treatment plan ended up being a six-month process. She couldn’t find the information she needed and conducted months’ worth of research desperately searching while getting conflicting views from various sources.

Until she got the answers she needed, she was not comfortable making a decision on a treatment plan that would impact the rest of her life, and rightfully so. It really drove home why I do what I do, and who we as an organization should strive to be in the search space.

John Hopkins SEO and Content Strategy

What have you been focusing on as you built out SEO within digital healthcare marketing at Johns Hopkins Medicine?

When I first came onboard 4 years ago at Johns Hopkins Medicine, there was a general idea and concept of SEO. There were some best practices in place but it wasn’t built around a concrete strategy. There were interest and respect for SEO in our digital healthcare marketing, but not direction. That meant that there was a ton of education involved and a lot of conversations with leadership.

One of the more challenging things was creating an SEO culture that centered more around the idea of search and that we’re not just creating content to create content in our digital healthcare marketing. That was a very slow process that involved artfully planting seeds within various teams in an attempt to make SEO less of a task, and more of a day-to-day. It is like breathing and walking.

We do both at the same time without thinking about it. One is dependent on the other, but imagine trying to teach that to a team who is used to getting from point A to point B, stopping every time they need to take a breath. The concept of doing both at the same time may seem simple to us, but the adoption may be another challenge for those who view each as a separate task, holding their breath until they can stop to take another?

My goal has been to help our team consider SEO and their daily responsibilities as being dependent on one another. Today we are breathing and walking. I am hoping tomorrow we will be breathing and running.

Were there specific things that your leadership responded to as you built your SEO plan?

Coming to the table with actual numbers instead of words or opinions was really effective. SEO in our digital healthcare marketing is so conceptual and theory based. That is really our double edge sword as SEOs. It can be easy to get lost in best practices and the dynamic nature of SEO, but leadership doesn’t care about a hypothesis based on a research study performed by another organization. They want results and proof of cause and effect in an environment we have control over.

I would test different things in small batches; on 5-10 pages I’d test one element, and on another 5-10 pages I’d test another element, and then I could come to the table and say, “Here are the numbers. Here’s what we’ve done. Can we bring this to scale? Can we involve the production team? Can we involve more of our content team?” I would put together a proof of concept instead of simply telling fairy tales of other SEOs and their successes in their digital healthcare marketing.

How do you set goals and establish KPIs around SEO and content in digital healthcare marketing?

Our two more easily measured goals have traditionally been traffic and ranking increases. It is difficult to measure conversions in the traditional sense tied to ROI in healthcare. Unfortunately, it is a bit more cumbersome than tracking a product sale, and highly sensitive patient data, which strikes fear in most healthcare marketers, comes into play.

So, then it really comes down to ranking goals, traffic goals, or project and process goals. We put a lot of focus into our general health content like conditions, treatments, symptoms, and general healthy lifestyle content. We plan our larger ranking and traffic goals based on the project goals we set.

For example, over the last year, we set project goals for moving our disease and condition content to AMP, reducing competing content for specific content areas, creating large collections of condition-specific cancer content, testing internal linking strategies, and crawl and indexing optimizations to name a few. These all contributed to larger ranking and traffic goals in our digital healthcare marketing, however, some did have their own project-specific ranking and traffic goals as well.

We also need to consider our internal team structure and how each team member is able to contribute to these larger goals while maintaining their core responsibilities. Our content specialists are designated to specific focus areas like orthopedics or neurology. We also have different types of content for that focus area, so orthopedics, for example, has general condition content for things like “what is an ACL tear” And then more action-oriented treatment content like “ACL tear treatment” or “ACL tear specialists.”

We need to make sure we have the internal content resources for the projects we plan and the traffic and ranking goals we set in our digital healthcare marketing.

John Hopkins interview

We have different ranking goals for each type of content, whether it be general condition content, or treatment and services content. For our digital healthcare marketing strategy, we track primarily through Conductor’s SEO Platform, Google Analytics, and monitor through Search Console. If we have a new page that we’re rolling out, on ACL tears, for example, we will conduct keyword research on the front end to inform content direction, and also making sure we have everything tracked in Conductor Searchlight and benchmarks set.

The next layer is competitive research to get an understanding of the SERP and how to best format our content to rank, what our H1s need to look like, whether we use bullets or include a graph, how long our content needs to be, whether we deploy an answer box ranking strategy, or if there are any other questions being asked by users or answered by our competitors that we can address better. For tracking, we build custom segments on these pages and breakout keyword categories. This all goes into our custom reporting that is then communicated to our team and leadership.

How do you report successes and challenges in SEO and content to the rest of the organization?

It goes back to the fact that data speaks a lot louder than words. Conductor Searchlight really brought that realization to light. For example, we had an orthopedic site that we launched about three years ago. Initially, traffic dropped fairly significantly from the old site to the newly migrated site on We needed to quickly figure out what was going on.

We had just adopted Conductor’s SEO Platform for our digital healthcare marketing so we put together custom reporting for that specific migration, with keyword ranking for what we felt was driving a majority of the organic traffic to the old and now the new site to show where we had drops, and with some more digging, why we thought we had those drops.

Then we put it all together, tied up with a neat bow, and passed it onto leadership. We were able to organize all of that into one clear, concise document that says, “Hey, here’s the current situation, here’s the possible problem, and here are some possible next steps. How would you like us to proceed?” It took the guesswork out of it and replaced theories and opinions with data.

John Hopkins interview

Before we brought in Conductor, we were in a bit of a data blackout. The only thing that I had on hand was limited data that I could pull using smaller tools. We were essentially looking at search volume data and making guesses at that point. They were somewhat educated guesses, but they were nowhere close to empowering us to make the decisions that we can make today for out digital healthcare marketing.

I do want to tip my hat to the incredible job you all are doing. Is there anything else you would like to share about the way Johns Hopkins Medicine is implementing SEO and your healthcare content marketing strategy?

It’s all about giving the patient a voice, truly listening, and providing guidance. Not just answering questions but really understanding why the question is being asked, and being that rock, that place to go to. An individual may be diagnosed with a condition and not necessarily know all the questions that need to be asked.  It is our job to provide them with the information and guidance that they may not even realize they need.

Check out Conductor’s SEO Platform to explore how it can help with your SEO and Content Strategy.

3 Responses to Building an SEO Strategy that Helps and Heals – Insights from Johns Hopkins Medicine

  1. Aaron Stevens says:

    How did the AMP work out for you? I have been torn around the value outside of doing it for new related content. Any insights would be great!

    • Matt Bailey says:

      We primarily invested our resources with a goal to better the mobile user experience. We did not expect to see major traffic gains and definitely learned a few things along the way. We did see a small bump in mobile traffic, but nothing extremely significant. On the other hand, our average load time did decrease significantly by an average of 345%, now loading in around 980 milliseconds. If I could go back and tweak our approach, I would have gained a stronger understanding of the Google Analytics tracking challenges for AMP before we made the move, and I would suggest deploying tracking through GTM before you make any moves to AMP. One of our other challenges was to adhere to the AMP requirements without sacrificing valuable page components, so formulating a content strategy around AMP ended up being just as important as managing the technical components. We put a lot of thought into what type of content would be the best fit, and how we were going to present it to the user.