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Why Cannabis SEO Is As Much Art As Science

Published on
October 20, 2022
Cannabis is subject to strict advertising rules in part due to federal prohibition. Here’s how to boost brand awareness within regulations.
Contributors
MEGHAN O’DEA

Meghan O’Dea is a versatile writer with nearly a decade of experience covering the travel, outdoor and cannabis industries, as well as in digital and content marketing. She prides herself on finding the exact right voice and angle for any given project and on research expertise honed from her years in academia. Meghan specializes in both big-picture content strategy and detailed technical skills like search engine optimization, all without losing sight of distinctive and creative brand messaging.

Prior to joining the Grasslands team, Meghan contributed to publications including Fortune magazine, Uproxx and Lonely Planet. She has also earned bylines in The Washington Post, Playboy, Bitch magazine, Nylon, Willamette Week, Yoga Journal, Subaru Drive Magazine and Different Leaf, amongst others. Meghan holds a master’s in creative nonfiction from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and was a visiting scholar at the international MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. She has also taught writing at the college level and guest lectured on topics such as literary citizenship, urban history and professional development for writers at conferences and universities throughout the United States as well as Madrid, Spain.

Three media outlets I check every single day: The Cut, New York Magazine, The Washington Post

Super inspired by: Women like Isabella Bird, Uschi Obermaier and my maternal grandmother, who dared to travel the world even in eras when global adventures went against the grain.

My monthly #GrasslandsGives donation: PEN America’s Prison Writing Program

When I’m off the clock (in five words): Books. Long walks. Architecture. Mixtapes.

For anyone who was interested in cannabis, psychedelics, digital marketing or all three, 1996 was a watershed.

“RENT” hit Broadway, celebrating the bohemian credentials of—among other things—hallucinogens, men, Pee-wee Herman, German wine, the ACT UP campaign and marijuana. LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, after spending his final years fascinated by cybernetics and the rise of internet technology, documented the last months of his life on a prototypical blog. California passed the Compassionate Use Act legalizing medical cannabis after years of work by queer activists and their allies. And a new generation of search engines launched, including Dogpile, HotBot and Ask Jeeves.  

In the over 25 years since, the legal cannabis industry has expanded to more than 30 states, while almost 10 cities and the state of Oregon have legalized psilocybin, the catalyst ingredient in magic mushrooms. The internet has also changed in ways that make it almost unrecognizable from the mid-1990s, given the rise of social media, Web 2.0, apps and mobile advertising and the early iterations of the metaverse. And the once disparate cannabis and tech industries have collided in myriad ways, including search engine optimization.

These days, cannabis and psychedelics companies have more ways to generate buzz than hoping for a mention in a hit Broadway musical. Now, one way they ramp up their position in the zeitgeist is through SEO, a crucial pursuit for brands trying to reach target audiences through a new generation of search engines like Google, Duckduckgo, Yahoo and Bing. But search engine optimization is as much an art as a science for cannabis companies, which haven’t always been greeted with open arms by top tech companies like Meta, Google, TikTok and Twitter.

Because of federal prohibition, the advertising restrictions cannabis companies face on traditional channels like broadcast television, radio and billboards has also transferred to many of the privately-held platforms that shape our digital experience. Instagram and Facebook, for example, are notorious for censoring content that portrays consumption or appears to advertise consumable products. Google Ads regularly rejects paid content related to legal cannabis regardless of whether it lacks the whiff of black market drug dealing.

Yet cannabis and psychedelics brands can’t afford to stay offline in an era when, according to PEW Research, 31% of Americans self-report that they are “almost constantly” online.

When it comes to SEO, there are a few obstacles cannabis companies face. One is that, unlike other content niches like travel, food and beverage, fashion or cat memes, cannabis is legal in some places but not others—boundaries that are hard to enforce online. There’s also the fact that the volume of searches for content related to legalized cannabis and substances like psilocybin has only recently started to significantly expand. There literally isn’t as much historical search data on cannabis—and especially legal psychedelics—over the same period of time as on, say, celebrity gossip or auto industry updates.

That means that when you use a tool like SEMRush, Moz or Google Analytics to check in on SEO metrics such as your competitive gap analysis or organic search rankings, or to find new keywords to incorporate into your web copy, it takes a little more intuition to interpret the results. It’s not surprising that there’s more people searching for “where to camp near San Francisco” than “where to camp near Albany, Georgia” when you’re trying to decide what a valuable blog topic might be for an outdoor publication.

It’s also not surprising that competition for broad keywords like “insurance” or “software” will be more competitive—and thus harder to rank for—than long-tail or more obscure keywords like “the best dispensary in Tulsa” or “trimming marijuana.” After all, there are many more websites with immense domain authority trying to rank for a term like “insurance” than “trimming marijuana.”

To rank for a popular short-tail SEO term “insurance,” you have to compete with gigantic brands like Aflac, Geico, State Farm and Mutual of Omaha, not to mention thousands of pages of service journalism, user-generated reviews and blogs related to the subject. Comparatively, “trimming marijuana” is the less competitive term for which it’s easier to rank, even in the fast-growing cannabis industry.

Retail operations like dispensaries with a B2C focus have additional incentives to amp up their web presence and SEO rankings compared to B2B or less public-facing operations. Cannabis cultivators, extraction technology manufacturers and some ancillary service providers, for example, can drum up business through networking events, thought leadership, cannabis PR and other tactics beyond content strategy to a greater extent than retailers who are more focused on reaching customers than strategic partnerships.

Cannabis SEO professionals do have to practice a little more creativity, however, when it comes to choosing between pertinent keywords with similar search volumes and degrees of competition when the SEO data available is spotty. A term like “grow tent” might have a search volume of 27,000, but you have to remember that plenty of crops other than cannabis are grown outdoors in tents, crowding out your niche audience. Or take a term like “gorilla tent,” which may have a search volume of 1,600 but requires competing with large e-commerce sites that will be very difficult to unseat from the top 10 SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) on Google. Identifying the most keywords with the truest potential takes more than just raw data.

That’s why it’s invaluable to be fluent in cannabis or psychedelics as well as digital marketing. When you have deep expertise in both, it’s easier to perform your own kind of gap analysis on the data offered up by SEO platforms. Savvy SEO experience also helps you see through the numbers and make choices informed equally by your gut and the latest information available. After all, SEO tools know what people are searching for based on decades of data collection as well as finessing their algorithms. But you—or your trusted marketing partners—know better than anyone what your ideal audience is hoping to find.

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