As medical and recreational cannabis continues to grow and legislation efforts expand throughout the United States, competition in the marketplace is growing at an unbelievable pace.
While dispensaries still face plenty of regulations and challenges, the good news is that powerful marketing strategies can still be utilized. One such tactic, search engine optimization (SEO), is particularly powerful for growing brand awareness when done correctly.
Working in the cannabis industry can be daunting with the looming threat of a federal crackdown and the frequent ambiguity about what’s legal and what isn’t. This legal grey area restricts many traditional marketing and advertising options to dispensaries and other cannabis companies. With limited options available, prioritizing search engine optimization (SEO) is essential for any cannabis business interested in using digital to grow their customer-base.
SEO is a marketing channel that focuses on improving a website’s visibility in search engines’ unpaid listings. Fortunately, there are many companies and consultants (often called “SEOs” or “SEO agencies”) that can help you. However, there are many SEOs that aren’t genuine and can take advantage of the state of the industry, or worse, implement bad tactics that don’t adhere to Google’s guidelines; these are referred to as “black hat” SEOs. Black hat tactics can lead to Google penalizing or even blocking your site from their results, which can be detrimental to your business.
In our digital-first world, cannabis brands that invest in their online presence and optimize that presence for organic search are going to be more successful in driving quality site traffic and, ultimately, growing their customer bases. With that, here are the four most important SEO strategies you can focus on for your cannabis brand.
1. Focus on “dispensary near me.”
While Google, Bing and Facebook currently refuse to carry cannabis ads, you can still create business accounts across all of those platforms and many others. Submitting your site to industry and local business listing aggregators gives you more professional clout when someone conducts a hyper-local search (think “dispensary in [insert your town]”).
After all, potential cannabis customers are no different than those in search of table saws or earthenware: they expect you to be visible to them through a search experience that is fast and trustworthy. Whether you’re a medical or adult-use dispensary, the easiest way to build this visibility is to make yourself known and accessible to those in your vicinity. One very simple way to do this is to ensure that you’re appearing on their map.
According to a study by Google, 76 percent of people searching for a service nearby visit that service the same day, with 28 percent of those visits resulting in a purchase. Focusing efforts on your local SEO is therefore key to building foot traffic. When a nearby potential customer searches “Dispensary near me,” make sure that your name and location is the one popping up.
2. Leverage CTA’s in your meta descriptions.
Paid search results might be out of the question, but people are still using Google to find dispensaries.
Leveraging strategic call-to-actions (CTA’s) in the meta descriptions on your website, blog and landing pages will give your site advantages in search engine results pages. To get real engagement and, eventually conversions, readers must find value in your content. This means that even your meta descriptions (the snippets that surface in a search engine beneath they hyperlinked headline) must be compelling, informative and action oriented, with CTA’s included within the first 100 or so characters to ensure that it is being seen by searchers. In these descriptions, it’s important to have a voice that’s welcoming and conversational in tone while also being creative and distinct.
You can’t expect to say “Read more” and get your audience interested enough to act.
3. Develop workarounds for iFrame menus.
Many brands (particularly dispensaries) are using iframe menus (embedded menus from a PoS, Leafly, etc.) to allow customers to build shopping carts before heading to stores. Unfortunately, these menus have no SEO value.
Instead, focus on building complementary, search-optimized product pages that combine product detail with a local flare and link back to your iframe. This helps drive more traffic your way and, as a result, allows you to cultivate more opportunities for new customers.
4. Inform your audience.
A good SEO strategy is only a good as the content behind it.
Given that our industry has typically belonged to the anti-establishments and the outsiders, there is an enormous opportunity to educate people and re-frame cannabis in a positive, forward-thinking light through informative, engaging content.
There is still a lot of misinformation out there. We happen to be at the perfect intersection for combining marketing and education in this way. Content is king and the positive and medicinal benefits of cannabis are gaining more attention every day.
As people all over the world become increasingly curious about cannabis amidst growing legalization movements, brands should jump on the opportunity to create engaging and smart content through articles, infographics, blog posts, video interviews and interesting media, and partnerships with other publications. The more people find your content enlightening, educational and valuable, the more likely they are to share it, and the more exposure your brand will get.
Although the list of marketing challenges we face are still plenty, it’s an exciting time to be in the cannabis industry.
By educating yourselves around the specific marketing rules in your respective states, creating strong content to inform and engage, and leveraging the power of SEO in the right ways, you can connect with the right people and, ultimately, propel your brand (and the industry at-large) forward.
Luckily, there are several red flags to watch out for so you can find an SEO service that will help, not hurt you. Follow these guidelines to ensure you’re hiring a consultant or agency that has your best interests in mind.
Bold and Unclear Claims
Many SEOs will say they can get you on the coveted 1st page of Google for some highly competitive term. This isn’t only unrealistic, it doesn’t connect to any sort of strategy. The algorithm also prioritizes personalization and localization; the search results for any given word or phrase will vary greatly depending on the searcher’s location, browsing history, and many other factors. What’s ranking #1 for one person could be completely different for someone else, so this claim is meaningless.
Another red flag is the promise of your website(s) ranking permanently or for a long time. The consistent algorithm changes, along with plenty of other companies that are also vying for Google visibility, makes “permanent” and sometimes even “long-term” not a sure thing.
There are also some SEO companies and professionals that claim they “know someone” at Google or have inside information on the algorithm, which gives them an advantage. The truth is that no one really has inside information about the algorithm because Google intentionally keeps it pretty wrapped up to keep their results authentic. Genuine SEOs use data and strategy to make a hypothesis on an intended outcome.
Questionable Tactics and Strategy
Numerous factors play into Google’s algorithm, and they sometimes change in priority or even become irrelevant. Some tactics can even hurt your rankings or get you blocked from the results. Here are a few things to look out for as you review potential SEO service offerings:
The importance of meta data has lessened over the years, but it’s still a simple tactic that many cannabis companies don’t take advantage of. It can also potentially help you better position your website in Google to reach more customers. However, anyone highlighting meta data as one of their key strategies either isn’t up with industry trends or is trying to pull one over on you. And if they mention meta keywords (other than to say that Google doesn’t pay attention to them or Bing penalizes abusing them), run the other way.
A link from a quality website that’s topical to your business is basically a popularity vote that tells Google you can be trusted, and it’s an important factor in the algorithm. However, good links are earned with quality content, a solid promotion plan, or creating something that is very useful to your audience (although you should still have a promotion plan when you invest in creating content).
If a link appears to be “unnatural” to Google–meaning it was most likely bought–they will potentially penalize your website, as well as the website linking to you. I’m not saying all “link building” is bad, but you should proceed with caution. And any SEO company that is promising “X number of links to your site” is likely purchasing them and/or they’re not focusing on quality, relevant links.
Search Engine Submissions
If someone is telling you they’ll submit your site to some ridiculous number of search engines, or even just major ones, you’ve spotted another red flag. Overall, submitting sites to search engines is a waste of time. There are also many free and simple ways for you to submit pages to search engines, so being charged for it is a rip-off. Dispensaries usually don’t have the kind of budget to throw at nothing.
I wouldn’t recommend this tactic if you’re trying to improve your SEO because there are many other things to focus on. In fact, major search engines say that over-submitting your site to be indexed can yield negative results.
Anything ‘Secret’ or ‘Quick-Fix’ Recommendations
There are many industry-wide, agreed-upon best practices that any knowledgeable SEOs know and follow. If your potential SEO partner is secretive about their methods, they’re likely performing some of those black hat tactics. This can include the “bad” link building methods, cloaking content, and several other frowned upon practices.
Also, make sure that the company or person you’re talking to has some sort of maintenance or retainer option for you to select. Otherwise, they’re likely doing one-off optimizations that may be dated after the next big algorithm update. SEO is never a “one and done” deal.
Confusing or Sketchy Website
A big part of SEO is having quality, relevant content that is useful to users and answers the questions they’re asking about your industry. If an SEO company’s or consultant’s website isn’t accomplishing this, how can they successfully execute a content strategy on your site?
One major red flag is if the company website is filled with thin, nondescript content. SEO is an often-misunderstood industry, so unfortunately many companies will take advantage of this lack of education with their clients. Make sure their tactics and strategy are clearly explained, in human language. “If we increase the keyword density and build links to the page, we’ll get you more link juice and improve your PageRank in Google” is not human language.
Some SEO companies will use plenty of jargon in website copy to confuse uneducated potential clients. If you’re confused about what a website is saying because it’s full of unrecognizable terms, they’re likely not going to be a good partner with your business.
Lastly, take note of how professional the website looks. Are you afraid submitting your email will infect your computer with malware? Does it look like it might have been designed on the Geocities platform? If the website doesn’t look professional, you’re most likely not dealing with professionals.
Too Good to Be True Pricing
When reviewing pricing for SEO, shop around and see how much other comparable companies or consultants cost. If something seems too good to be true, there’s a strong chance it is. If someone can charge an unnaturally low price for a service, it’s because that’s how much it’s probably worth. Avoid looking for SEO on sites like Fiverr or Elance, because you’re more likely to find the “quantity over quality” SEO approach.
An even bigger red flag is when a free trial period is being offered. Companies that advertise SEO services with a free trial aren’t always bad; just proceed with extreme caution. Remember that you’re giving them access to your data and information, and what they do with that is unknown; you didn’t pay them, so they have no ties to you, which can be incredibly risky.
What to Look for in a Good SEO Service
After reading through the above list of red flags, you might be starting to develop some SEO trust issues. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent SEOs that genuinely want to help your business. Here are signs of a trustworthy, effective SEO company or service:
- They communicate with you. A good SEO will ask questions about your industry, competitors, target audience, and business goals. They’ll want to understand the full picture to determine how they can use their expertise to improve your business.
- Their website uses human language. The content is clear, their services make sense, and you’re not having to look up every word’s definition and essentially learn SEO on your own. At the very least, there should be an SEO glossary to help you better understand some of the terminology.
- You can trust them. Browsing around the website will make it easy to see how authentic the business is. Look for accolades, client testimonials, media mentions, information about the person/people behind the scenes, and companies they’ve worked with.
- Their reputation isn’t tarnished. Google can help you here; simply do some searches for the company/person’s name to make sure they’re not flagged on sites like the Better Business Bureau or from an angry ex-customer’s social feed. As we all know, bad behavior rarely escapes the scorn of the internet.
Hopefully this provides you with the right information to find a quality SEO partner in your path to grow your cannabis business. For every scam or unethical service, there’s also a worthy one. Just keep your wits about you and recall this advice before bringing on some outside help!