NHS Digital

An Extra 3 Million Organic Clicks a Month for the NHS Website

Jennifer Hearn
Jenny Hearn

SEO Consultant 1 Jul 2020 6 min read

The NHS website (NHS.UK) is one of the most popular health websites in the world. Every year, the site receives over 500 million sessions. A mammoth 90% of those sessions start on a search engine like Google. As such, a programme of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is vitally important to ensuring users are getting to the site easily, and more importantly, getting the help they need quickly.

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nhs.uk

We started providing SEO consultancy to the NHS in 2017. At the time, the NHS website was undergoing a huge digital transformation, based on a programme of in-depth user research and usability testing. But SEO wasn’t a significant voice in that conversation at the time, nor was it informing or validating any decisions that the team behind the site were making. Given how much they were changing, and how important organic search is in their users’ journeys, the need for a dedicated SEO resource was essential. That’s where we came in. By overhauling the NHS’s approach to SEO, we’ve delivered an extra 3 million organic Google clicks per month to the NHS website in the time we’ve been working with the web team. Here’s how we did it.

Tackling SEO challenges head-on

The organic health of the NHS website is extremely strong. It has a world-beating Domain Authority. The content ranks in top positions for a huge number of high volume keywords and the site has an enviable backlink profile. With that kind of organic clout, a fair (but misguided) voice might ask: “Why bother with SEO when the site is already doing that well without any focus?”. Torchbox, and the NHS, take the polar opposite view. Our job is to protect, conserve and grow this organic strength through a dedicated programme of SEO consultancy.

We’ve done this by working to address some of the major SEO challenges the site faces, including:

How to create content that works for users who are on the site, but also for users who are searching for that content in search engines

For the NHS, this issue is acute: the user must come first, and content has to be designed in a way that gets them to take the right actions quickly. But the majority of the site’s users start their journey on Google. If content isn’t “search engine-friendly”, users won’t find it in the first place.

We support user researchers in finding the questions that users are turning to search engines to answer, supporting them by finding “new user needs”, and prioritising these needs by comparing the demand for information (comparing the average number of monthly searches).

Competition

The NHS faces stiff competition in being the number one voice in healthcare. Search engine results (however localised and personalised) are still international, meaning the NHS website is in “competition” with international healthcare experts like Mayo Clinic and WebMD. Less reputable websites and sources of information are also getting eyes on their content, especially where users are searching for health information that is not clinically-approved—and where the NHS cannot compete.

We help by finding the “content gaps” – topics that competitor sites publish content on, but where the NHS website does not have a search presence. We also support teams when they review existing content on the site, giving recommendations around how to optimise pages for search.

The rise of the “zero click search”

Increasingly, Google is serving information up directly in the SERP (search engine results page) via “knowledge graph results”, removing the need for a user to click through to a website.

It’s in this area that some of the most exciting SEO work is happening right now for the team at NHS Digital.

In one of the most significant changes to the SERPs in the last few years, Google recently updated over 250 healthcare results pages to show on-SERP health information, taken directly from the NHS website.

In order to achieve this, the NHS team have been working independently on “Content Modularisation” – writing “snippetable” content and establishing the relationships between entities using new schema.org markup they are developing alongside Google. The team at NHS Digital have written a great piece about their journey towards providing modularised content for Search.

Here at Torchbox, we have been supporting the Content Modularisation team in their work in a few ways: answering questions about search engine behaviour, advising on the impact of duplicating content snippets across the site, giving examples of FAQ schema in Google, and researching ways to track user engagement with the health knowledge panels.

Here’s what it looks like. Now, when you search for over 250 health conditions on Google from within the UK, you’ll see NHS health information directly on the results pages as part of a new Health Knowledge Graph result. This is what happens when you search for “epilepsy”:

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Organic search for 'Epilepsy'

Knowledge transfer at the fore

Knowledge transfer underpins the work we do with the NHS. Like almost any major organisation, there is a need for SEO to be embedded across all teams working on the site, which requires culture change. Product owners need to know if any planned transformations will negatively affect users’ search experiences. User researchers need to know where searcher demand for a topic reveals a new user need. Content designers need to know what searchers are searching for, and what language they’re using to search. That’s just the beginning.

We’ve achieved SEO knowledge transformation at the NHS in the following ways:

  • We deliver cross-team consultancy. We support product owners, user researchers, content designers, technical architects and data analysts when making decisions that might impact on the site’s SEO. Our work spans technical SEO, content reviews (to tackle the immense amount of content, we focus on key topics each month), keyword research, site structure recommendations, and much more.
  • We work in an agile way. We have a Product Lead at the NHS who works with us to prioritise tasks on a Kanban board on Jira. Multiple stakeholders have visibility over in-progress SEO tasks, and can also brief on their own issues without having to go through a central “gatekeeper”.
  • We maximise our visibility. We routinely work in-house, inviting staff to bring their challenges and queries to us for help, formatted as “ask me anything” sessions.
  • We run in-house training sessions. Recent examples include a show-and-tell about “Google and health content”, and a practical session for user researchers on “Understanding your users through search query analysis”. Our sessions are streamed via video link between the different offices NHS Digital staff operate from. Recently, we collaborated on creating a series of SEO guidelines for NHS content designers.
  • We use a shared Slack channel for quick queries. This allows tasks to be raised quickly, and ensures communication is transparent.

Torchbox produced some engaging 'Show and Tells’ and training sessions to upskill NHS website staff on SEO. The feedback across the team has been brilliant, and our team were super enthusiastic to start applying what they learned to improve NHS website content and digital products using the latest SEO techniques and tools.

Stromi Lof, Product Manager, NHS Digital

The future of SEO at the NHS

The NHS’s decision to work with us on a strategy for SEO has paid off. Since our work began, we’ve seen a year-on-year rise in impressions of 16%, and a massive 6% increase in organic clicks. And these stats come before the coronavirus crisis, where traffic to the NHS website has spiked because of the increasing need for people to access information or services that address health concerns in respect of coronavirus, as well as the NHS website being promoted by the government as the key destination for coronavirus content (nhs.uk/coronavirus).

As we’ve outlined, the NHS’s goal is not simply to increase traffic to the website. But it’s important to demonstrate that content is visible to their users, discoverable in organic search, and that the site meets searchers’ needs with their content. To have navigated the huge digital transformation that their site—and teams—have undergone and still have their content featuring front and centre in search engines is something we’re really proud to have been part of.

Along the way we’ve had the opportunity to work on some really exciting SEO projects that complement the NHS website, that have expanded our skills and expertise, from consulting on content modularisation and schema.org markup projects, to App Store and YouTube optimisation.

It’s been a great journey so far, and it’s not over yet.

As search is evolving, so too is the world of SEO. The NHS will, like any organisation, face new challenges in getting their information seen or heard online. Becoming a leading source of information in voice search, across platforms and devices, is a key part of their organic search strategy. Maintaining a constant presence along users’ journeys (and keeping users from finding misinformation) is another.

We can’t wait to continue working with the teams at NHS Digital to steer them through these new challenges. Together, we’ll ensure organic search plays its part in maintaining the NHS’s unrivalled reputation in the healthcare space.

We have learnt so much about SEO and how to optimise digital products to stay up-to-date in the fast moving digital world. With this partnership, the NHS website has been able to implement some valuable changes to its design and the team now recognise the value of SEO and have established new models of working to make sure it is at the centre of all product and website design.

Stromi Lof, Product Manager, NHS Digital

Come along to our forthcoming webinars on nailing SEO for nonprofits, where we'll be sharing all our secrets of success! Find out more and register your place here.

Jennifer Hearn
Jenny Hearn

SEO Consultant 1 Jul 2020 6 min read

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