Urgent message: As urgent care volume has dropped from pandemic highs, the average cost per click of Google Ads for searches related to “urgent care” has gone up—often considerably.” Advertisers need to understand the factors that affect these costs in order to optimize their budgets.
The Google Ads Auction Framework
Google Ads is built on an auction model that determines the cost of “clicks.” Every time a search occurs, Google uses an algorithm to analyze all the bids for that search term. The final positioning is determined by a combination of the actual bids and the “quality score,” which is largely based on how well the phrase typed into Google correlates with your ad copy and the content on the landing page for the ad.1
When search volume goes up and/or the number of advertisers goes down, cost per click (CPC) will go down. The corollary: when search volume goes down, or the number of advertisers goes up, costs go up.
Let’s take a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced both the supply and demand for urgent care ads over the past 2+ years.
After the unprecedented patient volumes that came from COVID-19 testing, it may be hard to remember the first 3 or 4 months after lockdown, when most of the industry saw record low volumes. During this time, searches for “urgent care” were lower than they had been in several years. Searches related to COVID began to appear around this time. COVID testing was beginning, but supplies were extremely limited.
Surges Due to Testing
By June 2020, more and more urgent care centers began to offer testing. As a result, people started to associate urgent care with testing, leading to the first surge in search engine traffic during the pandemic. In July of 2020, we saw traffic volume comparable to the previous December during the peak of flu season.
Traffic stayed fairly high through the fall, mostly driven by testing. Then, as Thanksgiving approached and people began to travel for the holidays, we saw an even bigger surge in urgent care searches. At this point, volume was over 30% above prepandemic peaks, and it stayed at that level for three times the length of a normal holiday/flu season peak.
As 2021 began, volume calmed back down—until July, when the Delta variant took over. During the peak of Delta, search volumes were higher than ever. Even as Delta wound down in the fall, volumes never got below the prepandemic peak. And then, as the holiday season approached, Omicron took over. At this point, search volume reached three times the normal holiday/flu surge.
Back to Normal (Almost)
When 2022 arrived, the Omicron surge began to slow. People saw that Omicron was generally more mild than previous variants. And free or inexpensive at-home tests became widely available. Searches for “urgent care” in January of 2022 dropped to almost the same exact volume that we saw in January of 2020.
In a normal year, urgent care search traffic stays even or dips slightly as we approach the beginning of summer. This year, we have actually seen a steady increase, such that current volume in June of 2022 was at the level of the prepandemic peak.
The fact that traffic is relatively high, on its own, would lead to lower costs per click. However, this supply is more than accounted for by the demand in the current market. In many areas, this demand is driven by the opening of new urgent care clinics. And even in areas without new competitors, many competitors have likely increased their monthly budgets. This results in an increased average CPC.
Options for Optimizing Ad Campaigns
While we can’t control the total supply or demand for urgent care searches, we can do a few things to maximize the value we get from paid search and to control your results.
Raising your quality score
As mentioned above, Google calculates a quality score for each ad, which is reported on a scale of 1-10. A high score gives you a discount off of the price of your click, while a low score results in a premium charge. There are three factors that make up the quality score.
- Expected clickthrough rate (CTR)—The likelihood that your ad will be clicked when shown
- Ad relevance—How closely your ad matches the intent behind a user’s search
- Landing page experience—How relevant and useful your landing page is to people who click your ad3
To improve your quality score, make sure you are organizing your keywords into logical ad groups, and then creating landing pages to match the topic of the ad group. It may be easier to think of this in reverse; you can start with the different service pages on your site and create ad groups with related terms for each one.
Choosing your keywords
As you are building out your ad groups, diversify and expand the keywords you target. Search terms such as urgent care near me can be extremely competitive, leading to CPC of $10 or more in many situations. But other terms such as urgent care near (town name) may be much less competitive. By targeting these longer phrases, you can find bargains.
Don’t forget synonyms for urgent care, like walk-in clinic or immediate care. From there, focus on specific services; anything from x-rays to school physicals to DOT physicals can attract patients. These phrases tend to have bigger variations in volume from market to market, but in most cases they also tend to have much less competition, leading to lower average costs when you find a good fit for your situation.
Ultimately, the way you set up your bidding and budgets will have the most obvious influence on your results. Over the past 5 years or so, Google has introduced a variety of smart (automated) bidding strategies. Prior to that, bidding was done manually on a keyword-by-keyword basis. The option for manual bidding still exists, but strategic use of smart bidding strategies will generally produce better results.
The most powerful strategies are based on maximizing conversions. These work best for businesses that sell products online, allowing for precise measurement of the value of each click. In an urgent care setting, tracking online check-ins can give us similar data. That said, to depend on conversion-based strategies, you need to be consistently and reliably using an online check-in tool that is used by the majority of your patients.
In a more typical urgent care environment, the most reliable strategy will be to “maximize clicks.” With this approach, Google will take your total budget, and spend it on the keywords and at the times of day that are most likely to lead to clicks. To get the most out of this strategy, you will generally want to place a maximum bid limit. Once you have a few weeks of data, set a limit that eliminates the most expensive 10-20% of your clicks. As long as you are spending your full budget, try dropping the maximum to find the level where you can spend your full budget with the lowest maximum bid possible.4
As life has gotten back to something like normal over the past 6 months, Google Ads for urgent care has gotten more expensive. That said, with the right strategy and planning, Google Ads is still an indispensable tool for growing your urgent care patient base.
Google Ads Help. Auction. Available at: https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/142918?hl=en. Accessed July 29, 2022.
- Google Trends. Urgent care; urgent care near me. Available at: https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=2019-01-01%202022-06-25&geo=US&q=urgent%20care%20near%20me,urgent%20care. Accessed July 29, 2022.
- Google Ads Help. About quality score. Available at: https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/6167118?hl=en. Accessed July 29, 2022.
- Google Ads Help. Determine a bid strategy based on your goals. Available at: https://support.google.com/google-ads/answer/2472725?hl=en. Accessed July 29, 2022.