TestHow Patients Search for Doctors

How Patients Search for Doctors

In the past, patients found their doctors primarily through word of mouth. If a patient was in need of a doctor, naturally they asked friends or family for recommendations. However, with the rise of the internet, more and more patients search for doctors online. But how are these searches conducted, and how do patients decide?

Imagine you just moved to a new city for a job. You probably won’t have a network of friends who can refer you to a specialist. In this case, your first stop is likely Google, where you’ll assess online reviews and recommendations amongst the area’s top practices.

As a doctor or practice administrator, it’s important to understand how patients find you online, so you can adapt your marketing strategy accordingly.

Note: When we talk about online search, we really mean Google.

Of course there are other search engines on the web like Yahoo and Bing, but Google dominates the online search market. In fact, 95% of all online searches occur on Google. For this reason, you should focus your search engine optimization (SEO) and digital marketing efforts on Google.

There are three primary ways patients find their doctors online:

  1. Local Search
  2. Practice Search
  3. Doctor Search

Local Search

An example of a local search is “orthopedic surgeon near me” or “orthopedic surgeon in [city name].” The prospective patient isn’t looking for a specific doctor or practice. Instead, they just want the best. The patient is seeking Google’s recommendations!

When performing a search like this, Google’s local 3-pack appears.

What is the Google 3-Pack?

In local searches, Google will feature and highlight three Google My Business practices or individual provider profiles, along with a map.

The local 3-pack always shows above the organic search results. On mobile, the local 3-pack takes up the entire height of the screen so it captures the eye and attention of end users. It’s the internet’s most effective marketing tool, and the best part is that it’s free. You cannot pay your way to the local 3-pack.

The local 3-pack is highly competitive. In fact, it used to be the local 7-pack, but in 2014, Google reduced the number of featured businesses to three. Landing a spot in the local 3-pack means more online visitors will see your practice, driving more traffic to your Google profile and ultimately to your website.

Google local 3-pack; how patients search for doctors online

What Determines 3-Pack Ranking?

When determining which profiles to feature in the local three pack, Google takes into account three main factors:

  • Relevance
  • Distance
  • Prominence


Relevance refers to how well a local listing matches what someone is searching for. For example, if someone is searching for an orthopedic surgeon, Google won’t want to show you results for dentists. Having a complete and detailed Google My Business profile is the best way to ensure you match the online visitors’ needs. Fill out the information completely so Google can better understand your medical practice and match your listing to relevant searches.


If an online visitor is looking for a doctor in a certain town or city, Google will make sure to match them to listings an appropriate distance away. How far is each potential search result from the location term used in a search? Occasionally, the user may not specify a location in the search. If this is the case, Google will calculate distance based on what’s known about their location.


Prominence refers to a practice’s renown. Some practices are more prominent in the offline world, and search results try to reflect this in local ranking.

Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a practice from throughout the internet, such as links, articles, and directories. Google review count and score are factored into local search ranking: more reviews and positive ratings will improve a practice’s local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.

When determining 3-pack placement, Google looks at a number of additional factors:

  • Number of reviews
  • Overall rating
  • Review recency
  • Name/Address/Phone (NAP) consistency
  • Keywords
  • Profile completeness
  • Photos

If your Google My Business profile is not optimized, this should be one of your first digital marketing priorities.

Ultimately, there’s no way to request or pay for a better local ranking on Google. All you can do is follow their best practices.

Practice Search

The second way an end user can find you online is through searching for your practice. An example of a practice search is “Pediatric Ophthalmic Consultants, NYC.”

In this scenario, end users aren’t looking for Google recommendations nor the local 3-pack. Instead, they search with a particular objective in mind.

It’s possible they’re searching Google for logistical information such as your practice’s address, phone number, or website URL.

In the local 3-pack, a snippet of the Google My Business profile appears. However, in practice (and doctor) searches, the entire the Google My Business profile appears, displaying crucial business information.

On desktop, here’s what a practice search result looks like:

Google medical practice search; how patients search for doctors online

The Google My Business profile will always appear in the top right on the first page of Google.

On mobile, the Google My Business profile takes up half the screen and is the first thing the end user sees.

Doctor Search

The last type of search that patients use to find doctors is a doctor search, in which they use the provider’s name. An example of a doctor search is “Mark A. Steele, MD.”

Google doctor search; how patients search for doctors online

When searching for individual doctors, the Google My Business profile will appear in the top right-hand side on desktop, just like with practice searches. On mobile, the Google My Business will cover the entire span of the phone.

Oftentimes, when searching for a doctor or medical practice, the patient doesn’t even make it to the practice website.


Because the information they are searching for is usually visible from the Google My Business listing. This saves end users time and clicks. This is why it’s so important to have an optimized Google My Business profile.

When it comes to Google’s ranking system, you can control several factors:

Number of Reviews

Studies show that end users want to see 34 reviews before they start to trust the accuracy of those reviews.

Overall Rating

Nothing is more important than your health. Would you rather see a 3.4-star-rated orthopedic surgeon, or a 5-star one?

Recency of Reviews

Readers are more inclined to trust reviews if they are recent (within the past few weeks or months). If your last online review is from two years ago, that raises several red flags and questions.

In an increasingly digital age, more patients are finding your practice and providers online. In all three types of online searches, Google My Business plays a crucial role. For this reason, it’s becoming vitally important to optimize your online listings.

If you’re looking to optimize your Google My Business profile and get more views, check out our listings optimization page. Not only can rater8 grow your online reviews, we can also claim and optimize your listings.

See rater8 in action!

Ready to transform your practice’s online reputation?

Schedule Demo

Popular Posts


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up to date on all things rater8!

Visit Us On Social

30-Day Free Trial

Take the sting out of 1-star reviews

Capture patient feedback and enhance your online image.

Want to see how you appear online?

Schedule a demo to see rater8 in action. Our team will put together a detailed online reviews analysis for your practice, evaluating your presence across Google, Healthgrades, Vitals, and WebMD to identify specific areas in need of improvement.

Google, Healthgrades, Vitals, WebMD logos
Major Health Partners, Vanguard Medical Group, Michigan Orthopaedic Surgeons, Peninsula Orthopaedic Associates, Ortho Central, and Island Eye Surgery Specialists all contributed to rater8's free patient experience guide.

FREE GUIDE: Mastering the Patient Experience