In today’s post, I’d like to walk through the basics of structured data, schema markup, and how the healthcare industry can embrace the SEO gift that schema.org has given them.
Since I arrived at emagine I’ve been enthralled with our client base and the amazing work these organizations do each day. Much of our clients fall within the scope of hospitals and healthcare systems, biopharma, pharmaceutical, biotech, or medical device companies. I frequently hear about advancements with CRISPR or gene therapy and read the remarkable life-saving measures our doctors are performing.
As I sit through client calls and talk about SEO and PPC, I find myself wanting to migrate further away from conversations about what we do because I’m falling deeply in love with what they do. And it’s all because I can see the incredible ways these companies are improving the health and happiness of those they serve.
Then I get excited. I want to do whatever I can to help them find more people via search so they can expand their amazing work to more people.
So what can I do to help them find more people online? This brings me to the topic of healthcare schema markup and how it can truly impact the SEO of organizations working within the healthcare, medicine, and the life sciences sector.
Here’s what we’ll cover in today’s article:
- Breaking Down Schema for Healthcare, Medicine and Life Sciences
- Digging into the Details of Healthcare Schema Markup
- Adopt Healthcare Specific Schema Sooner Than Later
- Supporting Resources and Articles
- Full List of Schema Data Available in health-lifesci.schema.org
Breaking Down Schema for Healthcare, Medicine and Life Sciences
Schema.org is a collaborative community and initiative that was originally launched in 2011 by Bing, Google, and Yahoo. The intent of this collaboration was to take unstructured data and create structure via a common schema vocabulary that can be used within websites, emails, and other digital properties.
This schema vocabulary is used to create structure out of an internet full of chaos. The schema options are weaved into websites via structured data and this structured data brings website content to life for search engines.
Structured vs. Unstructured Content
Managing large quantities of structured and unstructured data is a primary function of any information system. Search engines, and their massive indexes of content, fall within these information systems and the need to organize large amounts of data.
Google, for example, has reviewed over 130 trillion web pages. Let’s look at that with actual zeros and ones – over 130,000,000,000,000 web pages. That is a lot of content to crawl, digest, index, and rank for the search engine results pages (aka SERPs).
As the web grows, and search engines like Google continue to crawl more and more URLs, the need for structure is becoming increasingly important.
This is where structure content becomes critical.
When a search engine crawler goes to a traditional web page it will find unstructured content, images, and links. In many cases, this is just standard HTML, PHP, and CSS code that is used for displaying content. This regular HTML code creates visible content, but it is completely unstructured.
In some cases search engine crawlers might find HTML5 code with Semantic elements, which will provide additional details for content such as segmenting out a header, footer, article, or aside (aka sidebars). But even then, the search engine still isn’t “seeing” the page like we humans can see the page. It is only discovering blocks of content and/or an outline of content via the HTML5 subheaders.
When real structure is applied to content, a search engine crawler doesn’t just see text and code. The search engine now discovers data sets, entities, types, properties, values, and actions. It sees a colorful world full of details that help it digest this content, relate it to the real world, and position in search to perfectly match up to a human’s search queries.
It’s this structure that allows us humans to search for our ailments and have beautifully illustrated answers returned in the search results. While Dr. Google may not be able to diagnosis us based on our search queries, Google’s Knowledge Graph can help provide answers to our questions and help prepare us for our visit to the doctor, clinic, or hospital.
And it’s this preciseness of questions and answers that makes structured content so important.
Structured Data Used by Search Engines
Structured data is a systematic approach to connecting data points together. It helps search engines categorize and index content in a much more meaningful way.
Google and Bing both use structured data that is based on schema.org vocabulary. Schemas are a set of types that are arranged in a hierarchy and each type has an associated set of properties. The core schema vocabulary (not industry specific) currently consists of 598 types, 862 properties, and 114 enumeration values.
This is an example of generic schema available for a local business:
When used within a website, this local schema is presented with structured data to produce the following example in search results:
Schema.org provides a web of documentation for exploring what is available and what can be used within websites. Each search engine also provides documentation on the exact schema types they recommend and use.
Google describes it’s use of structured data as:
“Google Search works hard to understand the content of a page. You can help us by providing explicit clues about the meaning of a page to Google by including structured data on the page. Structured data is a standardized format for providing information about a page and classifying the page content. Google uses structured data that it finds on the web to understand the content of the page, as well as to gather information about the web and the world in general. Google Search also uses structured data to enable special search result features and enhancements.”
Google currently used structured data to support the following advanced search results (aka rich results) in SERPs:
- Corporate contacts
- Fact checks
- Job postings
- Local businesses
- Q&A pages
- Sitelinks Searchbox
- Social profiles
- TV & movies
- Voice search (speakable text)
In this below video, Google walks through examples of structured data, why it matters, and how it helps website owners.
Bing also uses structured data and states:
“At Bing, enabling users to make key decisions through visually appealing, information-rich search results is a key component of our search experience. As a content publisher, you can contribute to – and stand out in – this experience by annotating your structured content using any of the following supported specifications such as HTML Microdata, Microformats, RDFa, Schema.org, Open Graph, and JSON-LD. Annotating your data doesn’t actually change the visible content, but it does gives Bing valuable information on the type of content you’re hosting on your site. On our side, we put your annotations to good use, for example by using them to increase the visual appeal of your search results, or to supplement and validate our data sources.”
Bing currently supports markup for:
- Fact checking
Digging into the Details of Healthcare Schema Markup
Now that I have your attention and you know a little about regular schema and structured data, let’s explore healthcare schema markup. The healthcare industry has been active in creating an industry-specific extension of schema specific to medical content on the web. It’s a great advantage for medical websites and their efforts with SEO.
When discussing healthcare schema markup, I am referring to schema that is targeted at web use cases and I am not referring to schema that is designed for clinical markup or clinical data exchange. This is important to note, because the search results for structured data related to healthcare can bring up a lot of data associated with clinical activity.
This is not what we are discussing in this article. This article is specifically referencing healthcare schema associated with websites, search engines, SEO, and of course ranking of content within the search engine results page.
The Origins of Healthcare Schema
The health-lifesci.schema.org schema set is an extension of the core schema vocabulary. It is a hosted extension, which means it is managed and published as part of the schema.org project.
This initiative grew from a collaborative project that began back in 2012. Aaron Brown’s posting kicked off this extension with the following via a W3C message:
“Over the past 6 months, a few of us at Google and other institutions have been working on a set of schema.org extensions to cover the health and medical domain. After several internal iterations and a lot of feedback from initial reviewers (including the US NCBI; physicians at Harvard, Stanford, and Duke; the major search engines; and a few health web sites), we think we have a solid draft and would like to open it for public feedback as a step toward incorporating it into schema.org.
For those interested in more background on the approach: our goal is to create schema that webmasters and content publishers can use to mark up health and medical content on the web, with a particular focus on markup that will help patients, physicians, and generally health-interested consumers find relevant health information via search. The scope of coverage for the schema is broad, and is intended to cover both consumer- and professionally-targeted health and medical web content (of course, any particular piece of online health/medical content is likely to use only a subset of the schema). We’ve worked with physicians, consumer web sites, and government health organizations to get input into the key topics and properties to model and to refine the schema structure and type/property documentation.”
The Goals of Healthcare Schema
Like all schema.org vocabularies, the health and medical schema set is intended to make it easier for regular people to find the right online content to solve their search queries. The difference with this specific schema is the structured data is for content specific to an industry.
The internet is filled with health and medical information. Some of it is rich, expert written information while other content is written by unqualified, novice writers. It’s very difficult for normal people to figure out the difference between expert content and content written by a novice.
There are simply too many bloggers creating content with the sole purpose of pushing coconut oil via affiliate links. These bloggers and affiliate marketers are clogging the web and making it difficult to locate the expert-written content.
While Google has cracked down on this issue in the fall of 2018, problems still exist and regular people are being hurt because of it. In February of 2019a CNN article titled Herbalist sentenced after death of diabetic boy advised not to use insulin provides a perfect example of this growing issue.
We have a very serious problem and Schema.org’s health and medical schema vocabulary is trying to help correct it.
Schema.org and the schema specific to healthcare and medical content provides a means to help content providers markup an implicit structure in the medical information they publish. The end goal is for webmasters and publishers to use this markup to assist search engines in identifying expert written content and do a better job of helping patients, physicians, and health-interested consumers find quality information.
The Components of Healthcare Schema
The health-lifesci schema.org extension includes 100 types, 177 properties, and 147 enumeration values that augment the existing core schema data options.
Of the 100 available types, the health-lifesci schema.org extension offers the following core options:
- Medical Condition – Any condition of the human body that affects the normal functioning of a person, whether physically or mentally. Includes diseases, injuries, disabilities, disorders, syndromes, etc.
- Drug – A chemical or biologic substance, used as a medical therapy, that has a physiological effect on an organism. Here the term drug is used interchangeably with the term medicine although clinical knowledge make a clear difference between them.
- Medical Guideline – Any recommendation made by a standard society (e.g. ACC/AHA) or consensus statement that denotes how to diagnose and treat a particular condition.
- Medical Web Page – A web page that provides medical information.
- Medical Scholarly Article – A scholarly article in the medical domain.
The following image gallery provides schema examples for the above healthcare markup options:
The health-lifesci schema.org extension also includes a core set of additional medical entities:
- Signs and symptoms – Any feature associated or not with a medical condition. In medicine a symptom is generally subjective while a sign is objective.
- Causes – The causative agent(s) that are responsible for the pathophysiologic process that eventually results in a medical condition, symptom or sign. In this schema, unless otherwise specified this is meant to be the proximate cause of the medical condition, symptom or sign. The proximate cause is defined as the causative agent that most directly results in the medical condition, symptom or sign. For example, the HIV virus could be considered a cause of AIDS. Or in a diagnostic context, if a patient fell and sustained a hip fracture and two days later sustained a pulmonary embolism which eventuated in a cardiac arrest, the cause of the cardiac arrest (the proximate cause) would be the pulmonary embolism and not the fall. Medical causes can include cardiovascular, chemical, dermatologic, endocrine, environmental, gastroenterologic, genetic, hematologic, gynecologic, iatrogenic, infectious, musculoskeletal, neurologic, nutritional, obstetric, oncologic, otolaryngologic, pharmacologic, psychiatric, pulmonary, renal, rheumatologic, toxic, traumatic, or urologic causes; medical conditions can be causes as well.
- Risk factors – A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s likelihood of developing or contracting a disease, medical condition, or complication.
- Tests – Any medical test, typically performed for diagnostic purposes.
- Devices – Any object used in a medical capacity, such as to diagnose or treat a patient.
- Studies – A medical study is an umbrella type covering all kinds of research studies relating to human medicine or health, including observational studies and interventional trials and registries, randomized, controlled or not. When the specific type of study is known, use one of the extensions of this type, such as MedicalTrial or MedicalObservationalStudy. Also, note that this type should be used to mark up data that describes the study itself; to tag an article that publishes the results of a study, use MedicalScholarlyArticle.
- Trials – A medical trial is a type of medical study that uses scientific process used to compare the safety and efficacy of medical therapies or medical procedures. In general, medical trials are controlled and subjects are allocated at random to the different treatment and/or control groups.
- Diets – A strategy of regulating the intake of food to achieve or maintain a specific health-related goal.
- Supplements – A product taken by mouth that contains a dietary ingredient intended to supplement the diet. Dietary ingredients may include vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars and metabolites.
- Exercise plans – Fitness-related activity designed for a specific health-related purpose, including defined exercise routines as well as activity prescribed by a clinician.
- Anatomy – Any part of the human body, typically a component of an anatomical system. Organs, tissues, and cells are all anatomical structures.
The two examples showcase the additional medical entities of medical sign or symptom and medical trial:
There are many more elements available to the healthcare schema, but the above gives you a good overview of what is available for website adoption.
The key is to know that these entities intertwine and define the relationships between them. In other words, medical therapies can connect to medical conditions, medical sign or symptom, or medical study. Another example is a physician connecting to a hospital affiliation. All of these connections can be used by search engine artificial intelligence to connect the data, better understand it, and use it to provide rich answers in the search engines results.
Here is an example of a medical rich snippet on Google:
Example Schema Usage for Hospitals
Healthcare organizations like hospitals are an ideal candidate for both regular schema and the healthcare schema markup. Hospital websites are typically large, unorganized pools of data that lack strong SEO and have a slew of technical and content issues. Basic SEO strategy and tactical efforts would improve search rankings, but deploying healthcare specific markup would take those efforts to the next level.
Regular Schema Usage for Hospital Websites
- Local Business Listing – Business Type, Location, Hours of Operation
- Corporate Contact
- Social Links
- Breadcrumb navigation
- Q&A Page
- Job Posting
Healthcare Schema Usage for Hospital Websites
There are 100 different industry-specific schema types, here are examples of schema usage that apply to most every hospital website and/or center of excellence microsite:
- Medical Specialty
- Medical Sign or Symptom
- Medical Cause
- Medical Condition
- Medical Test
- Medical Therapy
- Medical Procedure
- Medical Study
- Medical Trial
Here is the available data for a hospital entity. Notice the references to procedures, tests, therapies, and specialties which would be augmented and added:
It’s simply a matter of providing structure to an unstructured piece of website content. And while Google isn’t telling marketers to use this industry-specific schema currently, the structured content helps Google and Bing better digest the content and understand how it relates to search, AI, and the Knowledge Graph.
Adopt Healthcare Specific Schema Sooner Than Later
First and foremost, you will not find references to healthcare schema markup in Google’s webmaster documentation. They have not officially begun recommending it to marketers yet. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start using it.
I learned a long time ago that to stay ahead of SEO changes, you need to watch Google closely and you really need to predict what might be coming. This is no different.
If you are in the healthcare industry and you care about your SEO, you need to know Google will eventually push you to use healthcare and medical schema. The decision is whether or not you want to be ahead of this directive or running behind it in an effort to catch up.
Google is Already Using Healthcare Schema
Why am I so firm on this coming down the pipe? Let’s review a few data points so you see I’m thinking clearly and my desire to implement healthcare schema markup is genuine.
In Gmail’s Schema.org Proposals, Google states the following:
“Google has worked with the schema.org community to standardize its mail-related schemas so that other email services and email clients can also take full advantage of them. They have also been deeply integrated with numerous other improvements at schema.org. Google remains committed to updating its support of the schemas as adopted at schema.org. When this process is complete, Google will try to make any necessary transition as smooth as possible for all developers using these schemas as well as for their users.”
You might be wondering what that has to do with healthcare schema markup, but stay with me, because it closely relates.
So, while Google doesn’t specifically tell website owners to use the healthcare schema, they are telling Gmail users to consider using this Schema markup in email, and more importantly, they recommend the use of schema from the healthcare schema data types.
The specific medical data types I found in the Gmail documents were: Web Page, Medical Clinic, Physician, Medical Study, Medical Condition, Medical Procedure, Medical Test, Medical Guideline, and Medical Therapy.
This is a clear indication that such markup is on Google’s radar and directed usage within search is coming.
Implementing Healthcare Schema Markup
While regular schema usage has significant advances, overall adoption has been slow to ramp up in everyday implementation by webmasters, marketers, and digital agencies. It seems marketers only react to schema once Google says they must.
And while general adoption has been limited, industry-specific adoption has been virtually nonexistent. It’s been so bad, that I reached out to a fellow SEO consultant named Paul to see if I was missing something.
After all, I want to implement healthcare schema markup on every client website I touch. Why doesn’t anyone else feel this way and why isn’t the healthcare schema being implemented more?
Paul’s answer was that most organizations refuse to be strategic when it comes to SEO. Most wait until structured data is required and their actions are reactive. Sadly, this means most marketers are pushing themselves further and further down in organic search results and scrambling to meet requirements only once they are forced. That will equate to haphazard implementations, warning messages from Google, and a whole lot of frustration for marketers.
I want to change that. Or at least, I want to help the healthcare industry be strategic with SEO, so they can be ahead of their competitors and not chase behind them.
Some Words of Caution
Since usage of this healthcare and medical schema is very limited, you won’t find a WordPress plugin or third-party “SEO package” that you can quickly purchase and implement.
Healthcare schema markup is being used only by a few early adopters – those who truly care about their SEO and/or who want to be strategic and not reactive. Due to this fact, simple implementations just don’t exist today and probably won’t for a very long time.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of core schema or schema specific to healthcare, medical, and life sciences.
As a marketer or webmaster, you just need to find a trusted digital agency that offers both SEO and programming as part of their core competency. You’ll need to have both skill-sets so the teams can work together to craft out a strategy and implementation plan for identifying the right schema you need, implementing it on the individual web pages, and then testing it to make sure it is implemented correctly.
We’d Like to Help
At emagine, our core competencies include all the necessary elements to get you up and running with the Health and Lifesciences Extension for healthcare, medicine, and life sciences.
Our team is well versed and very experienced with SEO, programming, and the healthcare industry. We have the technical and industry knowledge to bring everything together to help you safely and proactively implement the right schema markup to add structure to your website content.
Just reach out and let us know you’re ready to take your website to the next level.
Supporting Resources and Articles
Full List of Schema Data Available in health-lifesci.schema.org
Terms defined or referenced in the ‘health-lifesci’ extension.
issue-1741 Properties (1)
issue-894 Properties (1)
AnatomicalStructure, AnatomicalSystem, ApprovedIndication, Artery, BloodTest, Bone, BrainStructure, DDxElement, Dentist, DiagnosticLab, DiagnosticProcedure, Diet, DietarySupplement, DoseSchedule, Drug, DrugClass, DrugCost, DrugCostCategory, DrugLegalStatus, DrugPregnancyCategory, DrugPrescriptionStatus, DrugStrength, ExercisePlan, ImagingTest, InfectiousAgentClass, InfectiousDisease, Joint, LifestyleModification, Ligament, LymphaticVessel, MaximumDoseSchedule, MedicalAudience, MedicalBusiness, MedicalCause, MedicalClinic, MedicalCode, MedicalCondition, MedicalConditionStage, MedicalContraindication, MedicalDevice, MedicalDevicePurpose, MedicalEntity, MedicalEnumeration, MedicalEvidenceLevel, MedicalGuideline, MedicalGuidelineContraindication, MedicalGuidelineRecommendation, MedicalImagingTechnique, MedicalIndication, MedicalIntangible, MedicalObservationalStudy, MedicalObservationalStudyDesign, MedicalProcedure, MedicalProcedureType, MedicalRiskCalculator, MedicalRiskEstimator, MedicalRiskFactor, MedicalRiskScore, MedicalScholarlyArticle, MedicalSign, MedicalSignOrSymptom, MedicalSpecialty, MedicalStudy, MedicalStudyStatus, MedicalSymptom, MedicalTest, MedicalTestPanel, MedicalTherapy, MedicalTrial, MedicalTrialDesign, MedicalWebPage, MedicineSystem, Muscle, Nerve, OccupationalTherapy, Optician, PalliativeProcedure, PathologyTest, Patient, Pharmacy, PhysicalActivity, PhysicalActivityCategory, PhysicalExam, PhysicalTherapy, Physician, PreventionIndication, PsychologicalTreatment, RadiationTherapy, RecommendedDoseSchedule, ReportedDoseSchedule, Substance, SuperficialAnatomy, SurgicalProcedure, SurgicalProcedure, TherapeuticProcedure, TreatmentIndication, Vein, Vessel, VeterinaryCare, VitalSign
action, activeIngredient, activityDuration, activityFrequency, additionalVariable, administrationRoute, adverseOutcome, affectedBy, alcoholWarning, algorithm, antagonist, applicableLocation, arterialBranch, aspect, associatedAnatomy, associatedPathophysiology, availableIn, availableService, availableStrength, availableTest, background, biomechnicalClass, bloodSupply, bodyLocation, branch, breastfeedingWarning, cause, causeOf, clincalPharmacology, clinicalPharmacology, code, codingSystem, comprisedOf, connectedTo, contraindication, cost, costCategory, costCurrency, costOrigin, costPerUnit, diagnosis, diagram, diet, dietFeatures, differentialDiagnosis, distinguishingSign, dosageForm, doseSchedule, doseUnit, doseValue, drainsTo, drug, drugClass, drugUnit, duplicateTherapy, endorsers, epidemiology, estimatesRiskOf, evidenceLevel, evidenceOrigin, exercisePlan, exerciseRelatedDiet, exerciseType, expectedPrognosis, expertConsiderations, followup, foodWarning, frequency, function, functionalClass, guideline, guidelineDate, guidelineSubject, healthCondition, hospitalAffiliation, howPerformed, identifyingExam, identifyingTest, imagingTechnique, includedRiskFactor, increasesRiskOf, indication, infectiousAgent, infectiousAgentClass, insertion, intensity, interactingDrug, isAvailableGenerically, isProprietary, labelDetails, legalStatus, manufacturer, maximumIntake, mechanismOfAction, medicalSpecialty, medicineSystem, muscleAction, naturalProgression, nerve, nerveMotor, nonProprietaryName, normalRange, origin, originatesFrom, outcome, overdosage, overview, partOfSystem, pathophysiology, phase, physiologicalBenefits, population, possibleComplication, possibleTreatment, postOp, preOp, pregnancyCategory, pregnancyWarning, preparation, prescribingInfo, prescriptionStatus, primaryPrevention, procedure, procedureType, proprietaryName, publicationType, purpose, recognizingAuthority, recommendationStrength, recommendedIntake, regionDrained, relatedAnatomy, relatedCondition, relatedDrug, relatedStructure, relatedTherapy, relevantSpecialty, repetitions, restPeriods, riskFactor, risks, runsTo, safetyConsideration, secondaryPrevention, sensoryUnit, seriousAdverseOutcome, signDetected, signOrSymptom, significance, source, sourcedFrom, sponsor, stage, stageAsNumber, status, strengthUnit, strengthValue, structuralClass, study, studyDesign, studyLocation, studySubject, subStageSuffix, subStructure, subTest, subtype, supplyTo, targetPopulation, tissueSample, transmissionMethod, trialDesign, tributary, typicalTest, usedToDiagnose, usesDevice, warning, workload
Enumeration values (147)
Abdomen, ActiveNotRecruiting, AerobicActivity, AnaerobicActivity, Anesthesia, Appearance, Ayurvedic, Bacteria, Balance, CT, Cardiovascular, CardiovascularExam, CaseSeries, Chiropractic, Clinician, CohortStudy, CommunityHealth, CommunityHealth, Completed, CrossSectional, Dentistry, Dermatologic, Dermatology, Dermatology, Diagnostic, DietNutrition, DietNutrition, DoubleBlindedTrial, Ear, Emergency, Emergency, Endocrine, EnrollingByInvitation, EvidenceLevelA, EvidenceLevelB, EvidenceLevelC, Eye, FDAcategoryA, FDAcategoryB, FDAcategoryC, FDAcategoryD, FDAcategoryX, FDAnotEvaluated, Flexibility, Fungus, Gastroenterologic, Genetic, Genitourinary, Geriatric, Geriatric, Gynecologic, Gynecologic, Head, Hematologic, Homeopathic, Infectious, InternationalTrial, LaboratoryScience, LeisureTimeActivity, Longitudinal, Lung, MRI, MedicalResearcher, Midwifery, Midwifery, MultiCenterTrial, MulticellularParasite, Musculoskeletal, MusculoskeletalExam, Neck, Neuro, Neurologic, NoninvasiveProcedure, Nose, NotYetRecruiting, Nursing, Nursing, OTC, Observational, Obstetric, Obstetric, OccupationalActivity, Oncologic, Oncologic, OpenTrial, Optometric, Optometric, Osteopathic, Otolaryngologic, Otolaryngologic, PET, Pathology, Pediatric, Pediatric, PercutaneousProcedure, PharmacySpecialty, Physiotherapy, Physiotherapy, PlaceboControlledTrial, PlasticSurgery, PlasticSurgery, Podiatric, Podiatric, PrescriptionOnly, PrimaryCare, PrimaryCare, Prion, Protozoa, Psychiatric, Psychiatric, PublicHealth, PublicHealth, Pulmonary, Radiography, RandomizedTrial, Recruiting, Registry, ReimbursementCap, Renal, RespiratoryTherapy, RespiratoryTherapy, ResultsAvailable, ResultsNotAvailable, Retail, Rheumatologic, SingleBlindedTrial, SingleCenterTrial, Skin, SpeechPathology, StrengthTraining, Surgical, SurgicalProcedure, SurgicalProcedure, Suspended, Terminated, Therapeutic, Throat, Toxicologic, TraditionalChinese, TripleBlindedTrial, Ultrasound, Urologic, Virus, WesternConventional, Wholesale, Withdrawn, XRay
Terms and conditions