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August 31, 2021 - By Sara Grier

The Comprehensive Guide to Cannabis SEO

COVID-19 brought havoc to a number of industries. Luckily cannabis wasn’t one of them: the industry grew at a record pace. Still, if you’re one of the 28,000 or so US cannabis businesses, you already know how difficult it can be to break away from the crowd. Following a March 2020 uptick in sales, dispensaries were deemed essential businesses. Sales declined a little in April but have remained strong, stabilizing at a rate that is 40% higher than 2019. 

SEO is crucially important for cannabis brands because it is difficult to promote a marijuana business online. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google have prohibitive restrictions regarding cannabis advertising and pay-per-click. SEO is the most comprehensive solution, bringing your customers directly to your most important marketing channel: your website. 

So how do you go about leveraging this power? The right SEO strategy will allow your business to capture its share of the market growth and achieve the online visibility you need.

SEO 101

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of SEO for cannabis, it’s important to understand the basics. Customers don’t just stumble across your website — they find it through a search engine, typically Google. The search engine’s main goal is to ensure its users find what they are looking for, and therefore they prioritize sites that seem to best meet the needs of their users. In part, it determines this by how frequently visitors click through to your site from the search listing and how long they stay. 

Search-engine optimization (SEO) is the method used to appear at the top of these search results, thereby driving more traffic to your website. To earn the highest possible rankings, optimization projects typically focus on targeting the correct keywords. These keywords comprise the search terms your target audience plugs into Google and other search engines. Optimization further ensures that your site is structured so that Google’s crawlers can easily read and understand the content. 

When optimized, your site has the best chance at appearing at the top of the page so that you’re seen by curious people, potential partners, and qualified buyers before the competition. The plan is that these people will then visit your website, purchase your products or come into your business and convert to bottom-line revenue. 

Having a solid SEO strategy is crucial for any business to succeed online, and it is considered one of the most cost-effective ways to enhance your brand image and boost sales. 

Cannabis SEO: Key Strategies

SEO works for every business. It’s even more critical for new products in highly fragmented markets. There are so many players and so little historical data. With no clear industry leaders, it’s difficult for Google to determine who’s the best. That means that the playing field is still relatively even. If you want to be a market leader, the time to establish dominance is now. But you need an SEO strategy.

On-page SEO

Choosing the Right Keywords

Because the cannabis industry is so highly regulated, it can be difficult to find keywords. Keep in mind that the old reliable Google Keyword Planner returns terms that are suitable for ad campaigns according to Google’s policies. Since it is illegal to advertise medical cannabis, you’ll find that when you enter “medical marijuana” in the Planner, there are no results. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the term medical marijuana isn’t trending as a Google search term. But it does mean that it is more difficult to find the keywords that yield good results in the cannabis industry.

Finding good keywords is both an art and a science. A reputable agency will conduct extensive research using tools such as Ahrefs to find the right ones for your business. Ideally, you’ll be able to use manual research and keyword planning tools to conduct competitive analysis and understand what whitespace your brand can fill. The more targeted you can be, the less competition you’ll have. Zero in on your specific niche. What makes your business different? What questions can you answer for your target customer? 

This methodology will allow you to use your site copy and structure to rank for lower competition long-tail keywords. If your site has little authority, you’ll need to build it over time. Until you do, it can be difficult to compete on the most competitive keywords. Once Google recognizes your site as authoritative, you’ll have a better chance at ranking for more popular keywords. 

In addition to selecting the right keywords, there are other ways to optimize on-page SEO using these keywords. They include:

  • Title tags display on search engine results pages (SERPs) as the clickable headline and are important for usability and SEO.
  • Header tags tell Google and the visitor what the article contains and why it’s important.
  • Meta description functions as a short advertisement on the SERP, improving the click-through rate. 
  • Image ALT-text assists the visually impaired and helps search engines rank your site.
  • URL structures tell Google what your site is about and how the pages relate to one another.

Yes, You Do Need a Blog

If you want to improve your website’s search engine ranking, you need to blog. A blog can help you build trust for your website, pushing it above other cannabis businesses in the search results. A blog is also the best format to use to attempt to rank for keywords with an educational search intent that your target audience may be looking for. For example, a keyword like “will cannabis make you sleepy?” likely has lower difficulty than “cannabis for sleep.” Creating a blog post that answers this question will allow you both rank for a relevant search term, and introduce potential customers to your products in a way that prioritizes value and information over sales — thereby establishing immediate trust. 

Furthermore, because many cannabis brands have a limited number of products available online, blog posts are often the best way to build out the large number of content-rich pages your site will need in order to climb its way to the top of the search results. By regularly publishing content and providing useful information to your audience you can entice users to stay on your site longer, prompting Google to boost your rankings.

Site Structure and Technical SEO

In addition to great content, make sure that your site is easy to navigate on computers and mobile devices alike for both human users and crawler bots. To meet the technical SEO requirements needed to top the rankings, your site must be… 

  • Fast: A critical factor that you shouldn’t overlook is how quickly your pages load. A site that is too slow will negatively impact the user experience. Studies show that site visitors have little patience waiting for your site to load. 
  • Mobile-ready: Be sure that your site is mobile-friendly. This is how many people access the internet and so your site must look good on the small screen. 
  • Free of dead links: Visitors don’t want to land on pages that no longer exist. This frustrates users and may signal that your website is out of date. 
  • Free of duplications: When you display duplicate content, search engines are confused about how to rank them. They may rank the duplicate pages lower as a result.
  • Secure: Implement HTTPS. This will assure your visitors that their data are safe and will not be intercepted. Plus, Google ranks secure sites higher. 
  • Crawlable: Google uses robots to discover content on your site. When your site is crawlable, search engines know what’s important content and what’s not. This will improve your ranking. 

Off-Page SEO

The SEO techniques discussed so far are only half of the story, because one of the biggest factors search engines like Google use to evaluate the authority of a website is the number of other sites that refer back to it. Having a robust off-page SEO strategy can help complement the hard work you’ve done on your site, and ensure you have the best possible chance for achieving the rankings you need to reach your target customers.

Backlinking and Link Building

Think of backlinking as search engines’ version of social proof. The more sites — and the more authoritative sites — you have to direct users back to yours, the more likely Google will be to prioritize your blog posts or product pages above others. So how do you gain these links?

Link building is getting other websites to link to yours — and there are multiple link-building strategies you can employ to earn the backlinks your site needs to be considered authoritative. Here are a few of the most common:

    • Link exchanges: One of the simplest ways to earn backlinks is to conduct outreach to websites and blogs that cover similar topics to yours to offer link exchanges in which you’ll feature a link to their site if they feature a link to yours. Keep in mind that ideally, you’ll earn backlinks from sites with higher domain authority than your site, as that link will help transfer some of that site’s credibility with the search engine to your own. 
    • Add your website to common directories: One of the most basic ways to gain backlinks is to submit your business to a reputable cannabis directories. These could include Bing Places, Yelp, Yahoo Local, etc. 
  • Backlinking agencies: To grow your backlinks at a steady pace, you could engage with a backlinking agency. These companies work with freelance writers to create content for top websites that link back to your brand for your target keywords. Keep in mind that though this content will feature a link to your brand, it will likely be more educational than promotional.  
  • Public Relations: If your goal is to get backlinks from sites with extremely high domain authority such as Healthline or The New York Times, traditional PR efforts are likely your best route. To make the most of these efforts, ensure your PR partner is equipped with a list of the keywords you’d like to target so that they can request publications include do-follow links within these words and phrases within their content. 

Put Your SEO Strategy Together

The most successful cannabis SEO strategies are intentional and long-term. Don’t expect to achieve success overnight — the companies that master SEO will do so because they have invested the necessary time and resources. You won’t get immediate results. But once you establish authority with the search engines, you’ll be unstoppable. 

SEO is more than throwing together a quick post for your blog. You need to regularly publish high-quality SEO content and optimize that content using the right keywords. That’s a tall order for growing cannabis companies. If you need help with your SEO strategy, Hawke Media can deliver. We are experts in propelling businesses such as yours to the top of search engine results. Schedule a free consultation today to learn more. 


Statista – U.S. Number of Marijuana Businesses