How Patients Search for Doctors

In the past, patients would find their doctors primarily through word of mouth. If a patient was in need of a doctor, he or she would naturally ask friends or family for recommendations.

However, with the rise of the internet, more and more patients are finding their doctors online.

The importance of online reviews and recommendations is particularly true in large, transient cities where people frequently move in and out.

Imagine you just moved to a new city for a job. You won’t have the same type of network that can refer you to a specialist. If this is the case, your first stop is likely Google.

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 really focus your SEO and digital marketing efforts on Google.

There are three ways in which 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 particular 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 businesses or individual profiles, along with a map.  

The local 3 pack always shows above the organic search results. On mobile, the local 3 pack takes the entire height of screen so it captures the eye and attention of end users. The local 3 pack is the internet’s best 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 very competitive. In fact, it used to be the local 7-pack, but in 2014, Google reduced the number of featured businesses to three. If you can land a spot in the local 3-pack, you should be excited. This means more online visitors will see you and visit your profile or website.

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 means: how well does a local listing match 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. The best way to ensure you match the online visitors’ needs is by having a complete and detailed profile. Fill out the informational completely so Google can better understand your business and match your listing to relevant searches.


Distance should be obvious. If the online visitor is looking for a particular doctor in a town or city, Google will make sure to match him/her appropriately. 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 how well-known a business is. Some places 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 business from across the web (like links, articles, and directories). Google review count and score are factored into local search ranking: more reviews and positive ratings will probably improve a business’s local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.

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

To be featured in the 3-pack, Google looks at a number of other factors such as: number of reviews, overall rating, Name/Address/Phone (NAP) consistency, keywords, profile completeness, review “freshness”, photos, and much more! If you’re Google My Business profile is not optimized, this should be one of your first digital marketing priorities.

Practice Search

The second way an end user finds you online is by searching for the practice.

An example of a practice search is “Pediatric Ophthalmic Consultants, NYC”.

In this scenario, end users aren’t looking for Google recommendations or the local 3 pack. Instead, end users type the search with a particular objective in mind.

It’s possible that they’re searching Google for logistical information such as the 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 the Google My Business page looks like:

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

On Mobile, here’s what your Google My Business page looks like:

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

As you can see, in all three types of online searches, Google My Business plays a crucial role.

Doctor Search

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

When searching for individual doctors, the google my business profile will appear in the top right-hand side on desktop. On mobile, the Google My Business will cover the entire span of the phone.

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


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

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

The number of reviews

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

The overall rating

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

How recent the reviews are

Readers are more inclined to trust reviews if they are recent (within the past few weeks or months). If the last online review was 2 years ago, that raises several red flags and questions.  

In an increasingly digital age, more patients are finding you online. 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 gets more views, check out

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