Feature

Have you googled yourself lately? Even if you haven't, others have. And they may have found details about you, your practice, qualifications, philosophy and contact information. Or they may have turned up nothing but a "googleganger"-someone with the same name as you-with an unfortunate past as a convicted felon.

Googlegangers aside, why should you care about your online presence? Because more and more people are turning to the Web for health information, say experts. A 2005 marketing analysis by ConStat and the Kelsey Group, for example, found that 70 percent of U.S. households use the Internet for research when searching for products and services. A 2006 Pew study found that 80 percent of Internet users have searched for health information online.

"In today's 24/7 society, people expect to find the information they are looking for at any time day or night," says David Ballard, PsyD, MBA, the APA Practice Directorate's assistant executive director for corporate relations and business strategy. "This includes information about psychologists' practices."

DIY or designer?

You don't have to be a tech or design expert to get a Web site up and running. Depending on your skill level, the amount of time you can invest and your budget, there are many options.

Some psychologists choose to develop their own design, and work with an expert to realize their vision. "I took a Web site design class and got some excellent tips," says Edna Esnil, PsyD, a private practitioner in the San Mateo and Santa Clara, Calif., areas. "But I realized that what I wanted was too complex to design with the program I learned."

So, Esnil outsourced the technical work to a graphic designer and Web developer, while developing much of the content herself. She designed her own professional logo and wrote text that describes symptoms of mental health problems and possible treatment approaches for a variety of concerns, such as anxiety, depression, bereavement and stress. Her site also details her expertise in areas such as multiculturalism, career change, infertility and building self-esteem.

"It was really empowering for me to do my Web site," she says. "It really solidified for me my philosophy and the services I provide."

For those whose vision isn't as detailed, or who have limited time, a professional designer can help. A hands-on Web designer will meet or speak with a client to develop a product and personal style, says Carol Goldberg, PhD, a former private practitioner in New York who now designs sites for psychologists full time.

"I interview clients to get a sense of what they want to promote, their professional interests and their personal styles," she says. "The Web site should represent who they are."

Starting from a blank screen, Goldberg will add content such as articles, links to books the psychologist has written, even video-anything to demonstrate to potential clients what makes this psychologist unique.

When shopping for a designer, compare lists of the specific services he or she will offer and get everything in writing, Goldberg urges.

Although standing out from the crowd is certainly an advantage, professional design can be expensive, notes Ballard. There are less expensive alternatives. However, when considering expenses, Goldberg, suggests that DIY types take into account how much their time costs.

Psychologists might use a template such as the APA's Practice Organization's "Websites for Psychologists" or take a stab at building their own. For those who want to play around creatively without having to learn how to use a design program, there are also companies on the Web, such as freewebs.com, web.com, GoDaddy.com and homestead.com that offer template elements, including nameplates, graphics and design scheme that users can mix-and-match to make their own unique hybrid. Yahoo and Google also offer Web site-building tools and various tools to help increase your Web site traffic. You can even purchase your own domain-such as yournamehere.com-at these sites. Internet service providers also often offer users free or low-cost Web-hosting resources.

Getting noticed 101

Once your Web site is up, make sure people can find it. For one, make sure it's legible to search engines, which not only scan the text on your page but also look at who links to your site and at "metadata"-the special coding or "tags" that are embedded on your page but invisible to the casual reader. Without metadata and tags, search engines will overlook your site, making it less likely that someone surfing the Web will find it.

"Search engines pick up Web sites in many different kinds of ways," says Goldberg.

Web designers and experts in what's known as search engine optimization (SEO) can help you analyze this information, says Ballard. If you can't afford to hire someone, you can buy a SEO software package.

Another way to improve your site's search-results standing is to ask owners of relevant Web sites to link to your site, he adds.

Or you can invest in such services as Google AdWords, says Tamara Martin-Causey, PhD, a private practitioner in the Phoenix area. Through the service, you create short text ads that contain certain words or phrases that people are likely to search on and are related to your expertise, such as "OCD treatment Phoenix" or "bipolar disorder psychologist." Then, when people search for those terms or phrases, your Web site may come up in the search results. The more often people see your ad and click through to your site, the higher your site will rank in search results, explains Martin-Causey. Google has tools that can help you determine which terms or phrases are searched most often. You only pay when someone clicks on your site, and you can set a dollar limit per click and per day, like say, a maximum of 10 cents per click and five dollars a day.

This tactic significantly boosted traffic for Martin-Causey, who paid about $200 a month for words and phrases such as "psychologists in Phoenix" or "trauma treatment" for a few months. You can also boost your traffic by listing your site on directories and aggregator sites, such as your state, provincial or territorial psychological association's referral system, the APA Practice Organization's Psychologist Locator service, your local chamber of commerce's business listings and Google's Local Business Center, says Ballard.

Another inexpensive and easy way to increase your Web presence is blogging, says Ballard.

"Write about your areas of interest and expertise and post it to your blog," advises Ballard. "Blogs are designed to be updated frequently, so post new entries at least several times a month."

Even if you just stick with a conventional Web site, update it frequently with new items and educational material to give people a reason to return, Ballard and Goldberg say.

Web 2.0

Standard Web sites are only the beginning for psychologists such as Martin-Causey, who is branching out onto such sites as LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube.

"That's where people are finding information these days," says Martin-Causey, who plans to produce some informational videos on topics such as depression, anxiety and trauma and post them on YouTube.

Other psychologists, including a group of practitioners in Div. 42 (Psychologists in Independent Practice), are exploring podcasting-putting dowloadable audio files on their Web sites and the Div. 42 site so people can listen to them on digital audio players, such as iPods. Currently the group is discussing developing blogs, podcasts and bulletin boards as ways to disseminate more information.

"Podcasting is a creative way to get your message out and give psychology away through a different communication medium," says Ballard.

Whether it's through a simple Web site or forays into podcasting or posting on YouTube, it's time to meet new clients virtually.

"Staying on top of emerging trends will help you position yourself," Ballard says.