Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art of fine-tuning a website to rank better and increase the number of visitors to the site. While SEO may be new to the cannabis industry, it’s been a valuable service for small businesses since the advent of home internet service.
SEO improves organic search rankings, which are responsible for as much as 80% of a website’s traffic. After SEO, Cannabliss & Co., a marijuana retailer in Portland, Oregon, achieved a tremendous 35% increase in sales across all five of its locations.
Organic search traffic
When customers enter a website URL directly into their browser address bar, that is considered a “direct” traffic source. “Referral” traffic, however, comes from other websites, like an ad on Marijuana Venture’s website or a social media link.
“Organic” traffic occurs when someone clicks on a link in their Google search results. But before you can get an organic click, a user has to make it past ads and Google Maps. A typical search returns results in this order:
– Top of the results page: Paid Google advertisements. (Google does not allow cannabis product ads; paid ads are removed for most cannabis-related searches.)
– Google Maps: This is called the Map Pack. It shows what Google considers to be the three best physical results for the search. These locations are usually very close to the searcher. For the search “dispensary near me,” Google Maps will show the three closest marijuana dispensaries.
– Organic results: These are the website search results that can produce thousands of links across hundreds of pages, but almost all users click on one of the results on the first page. Google looks at more than 200 factors to decide where each website ranks in the organic results.
According to a study by content marketing firm BrightEdge, “organic search drives 51% of all visitors to B2B and B2C websites, trumping all other non-organic search channels, including paid search (10%) and social (5%).”
Consistent return on investment is what makes organic traffic the most valuable. SEO focuses on improving website search rankings because the first three results on a Google search result page get 60% of the clicks, according to Chitika Insights. These results are entirely organic, meaning SEO produces an easy-to-measure ROI that can last for years if a site continues to rank well.
How SEO applies to cannabis
There are three major focus areas for SEO: backend optimization, content and backlink portfolios. These three components have the biggest impact on website rankings, but many people do not understand these terms. What are they? How should a cannabis business approach them? And what results can they expect?
– Backend optimization: Cannabis retailers, farmers and equipment manufacturers all benefit from backend optimization. More than 65% of all web traffic for cannabis retailers comes from mobile users, so a website has to load quickly on a mobile phone. A poorly optimized site loads slowly and may not display correctly on a tablet or cellphone.
Backend issues don’t just affect the user experience; they hurt a business’s site rankings. Google recently rolled out its “mobile-first” indexing update which will have a major effect on website rankings. Google will analyze the mobile version of a website to determine where a website will rank on mobile and desktop searches. That means a poorly optimized mobile site can lower your desktop and tablet site rankings too. Some common optimization techniques include: shrinking image sizes so they load faster; adjusting how a website loads so important pieces load first; and incorporating code snippets or schema to help Google quickly understand a webpage.
To check a mobile website’s performance, use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to see how easy a mobile site is to use, or use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to see what issues are slowing down a site.
– Content: It’s important to create the information your customers are searching for. Who’s searching for your cannabis products and services? Where are they located? What questions are they asking? Does your content answer them?
Content optimization is all about creating the content your customers want to see. In its quality guidelines, Google says that the quality rating of a webpage depends on the quality and amount of content on that page. That means you want high-quality content that completely covers a topic. Don’t just cover the basics. For example, almost every cannabis website has a section on the difference between indica and sativa. Ask yourself, “What makes my page better than my competitors?”
Here are some ways to create quality content for your cannabis-focused website:
– Quote and link pages to trusted local and national resources. Cannabis retailers and farms should link to state .edu and .gov pages. Equipment manufacturers should link to national .edu and .gov pages. These may be industry specific or not — just make sure the page you link to is about the topic your webpage covers.
– Research how users find your business type and put these searches directly into your content. There are many tools you can use to research key terms, such as Moz, which offers 20 free searches a month using its Keyword Explorer tool. This provides suggestions and an average of how many monthly searches a term receives. You can even see how difficult it will be to rank for a term.
A great page on the CO2 extraction process will naturally include tons of other related key terms. When someone searches for these additional terms, your CO2 extraction page will have an excellent chance of showing up on the first page of the search results.
– Content is all about making your website an authority on a particular topic, whether it’s CO2 extraction, cannabis retail or organic hemp farming.
– Google’s search autofill is another great way to see how and what people search for. The search bar autofills with Google’s idea of the most likely search query. You might not think “dispensary open late” is a common search query, but it is. Writing content about late-night specials, highlighting the night staff or blogging about the best places to smoke marijuana at night could all help your site rank for “dispensary open late.”
– Backlink portfolios: Backlinks are all the links that go to your website from another website. These include everything from directories to social media posts and mentions in local news articles. The best links are called “do-follow” links, meaning Google can follow the link and see that it goes back to your website.
Think of a backlink portfolio like the strands of a spiderweb with your website at the center. The closer a backlink is to the center of the web, the more the entire web vibrates when the backlink gets clicked. Creating a strong web of backlinks can greatly improve a site’s performance.
Backlinks from major sources like news websites, educational, government and industry sites are close to the center of your backlink web. A visit to your site from one of these centered sites has the biggest effect on your rankings.
Directories and social media links are further from the center. A single click might not vibrate the web very much, but 1,000 clicks from a viral social media post can definitely shake the entire web.
SEO adds a new strand to your link web. In the cannabis space that can be as simple as adding your business to popular weed-related directories or creating interesting posts or articles that are worth sharing. If you’re going to submit to a directory yourself, make sure your name, address and phone number (NAP) are correct. Consistency matters. When you add your business to a directory, the name, address and phone number must match your Google My Business page.
This builds trust and authority for your business and website across the Internet. An SEO company will identify and edit or remove any instances where the NAP is incorrect.
An incorrect NAP is like an anti-rankings signal. A correct NAP won’t increase your rankings, but an incorrect one can seriously harm them.
Here are some of the free directories you can submit your business to include:
Finding reliable local directories like http://oregon.publicdispensaries.com is even better. These can help your map rankings because a link from a local site is also a local signal going to your website. If a directory seems broken, out-of-date or includes links and content to off-topic websites, do not submit your business to it. These can actually hurt your organic rankings.
How long does SEO take to work?
SEO is complex, and that’s why so many companies outsource for cannabis SEO. The first step is always to decide whether you are happy with your current website traffic. SEO is a long-term strategy that, on average, takes a year to see the full effects. It takes work to rank ahead of your cannabis competitors online.
If they’re willing to put that work in and you aren’t, their site will outperform yours every time.
Tyler Zdenek is the content strategist at Sherpa, a cannabis-focused web design and SEO company. When he isn’t performing Google Analytic deep dives, he can be found working on a wide variety of passion projects involving comedy, carpentry and fiction writing.
This article is the first of a two-part series on search engine optimization for cannabis-related websites. Part II will be published in the November 2018 issue of Marijuana Venture and will take an in-depth look at content for cannabis sites and how to improve content to maximize website traffic.