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Search engines have changed the way people discover information. More than ever, people look for information about new products and seek out nearby businesses online. In fact, 93 percent of all internet sessions start with a search engine.

As consumer behavior has changed, so too has the importance of ranking in the search results. Most people don’t look beyond Page 1 of search results. If a page isn’t in one of the top 3 spots, it might as well be invisible.

Like consumers, search engines have also become more sophisticated. In the early days of search engine optimization, all people needed to do was add a keyword to their webpage. Then they were good to go.

Today, Google uses more than 200 factors to decide where a page ranks. Simply stuffing a page with the keywords you want to rank for will do more harm than good.

So, how can cannabis companies raise their organic rankings? A more complete SEO strategy focusing on key factors can help cannabis companies rank higher.

Think about Relevancy

Although keywords aren’t the only factor in SEO anymore, they are still important. Search engines still use them to help determine how relevant a page is.

Search engines want to send their users to the content that best answers their query. Keywords are still a good indicator of how well a page answers a user’s question.

Search engine web crawlers are more sophisticated though. The way they look at keywords has changed over the years. How people use search engines and structure their search queries is also changing.

Take a look at voice search. People can ask their smart speakers and home assistants questions. These queries are much closer to natural speech: “Okay Google, what’s the closest cannabis store?” “Alexa, what’s the difference between THC and CBD?”

These are long-tail keywords, and search engines are evolving to handle them better. Google recently introduced the BERT update. With BERT, Google uses machine learning to improve natural language processing. That makes the search engine better at matching content to queries like this. It also puts emphasis on words like prepositions to better understand the user’s intent.

Right now, search engines also prefer longer content. Why? Longer content has a better chance of containing the answer than short content. That means Google typically ranks longer content as “more relevant” than a short blog post. Longer content may provide a more comprehensive or in-depth answer.

BERT and other updates are changing that too. Google may prefer shorter content that answers questions directly.

So, what can a cannabis company do right now to ensure their content is relevant? A good mix of long-tail and short-tail keywords is crucial. Mixing short- and long-form content is also a good plan, especially at the moment.

While keyword research is important, making your site navigable and creating a solid backlinking strategy are other key factors.

The Need for Speed

As mentioned, Google uses 200+ factors to rank content now. One of the most important points to focus on is speed.

Why is speed such an important factor for cannabis companies? Many cannabis customers are searching on mobile. Google’s mobile-first indexing puts website speed front and center.

The logic behind this move is easy to see. According to Google’s own research, most customers won’t wait more than three seconds for a page to load. If a site is taking longer to load, there’s a good chance someone will navigate away.

For that reason, Google gives pages that load in two seconds or less top marks in this category. Although there have been improvements in recent years, most pages still take far too long to load.

Any website can be  docked points by the search engine for slow load times. Improving your own website speed may improve your organic rankings, allowing you to leap-frog your slower competitors.

Curious if your website is up to speed? You can check your speed with a free online test. If your website speed needs improvement, try some of the following actions:

  • Look at the backend code. Code can weigh a website down, making it take longer to load. Lighter, faster code will improve website speed. A site optimized for mobile will usually have lighter code. This lets it load faster on mobile devices with less computing power and slower connections.
  • Optimize images and videos. Compressing and optimizing graphic content will help a site load faster. These elements often take a fair amount of computing power to run. They may not load properly over slower connections. Optimizing them lightens the load.
  • Check in on web hosting. A cannabis company should take a look at their hosting solution, whether they buy services or run their own servers. The right hardware and software will mean faster loading times for the site.

There are many other actions to take as well, all of which can help your site load faster. 

Boost Defenses

The third important category of SEO tasks for cannabis companies to focus on is security. Google and other search engines want to send their users to safe places on the internet.

Further, cannabis has a bit of a dodgy reputation. Many people are distrusting of the industry. Since cannabis is illegal at the federal level, people may worry about data security if they decide to buy.

Cannabis companies are bound to follow federal and state rules around data security. Google penalizes sites that aren’t secure. If a cannabis company asks website visitors for any information, the site must be secure.

The good news is there are several tasks a company can implement to improve security in short order. To start, make sure a secure socket layers (SSL) certificate is implemented on the site. This gives sites their “HTTPS” designation. SSL adds a layer of encryption to the site, keeping data entered into forms more secure. If your site is secured by an SSL certificate, you will see a small padlock symbol next to your URL.

Google now penalizes sites for not having HTTPS designations. In the Chrome browser, sites that don’t use SSL are marked “not safe.”

Security doesn’t end with SSL, though. Cannabis companies will also want to ensure they’re keeping their sites up-to-date. Security plugins for a content management system can also help.

Even using strong passwords and changing them often will improve security.

Advanced Tips: Social Proof

If a company has already looked at the three major categories of relevancy, speed, and security, there are other aspects of SEO that can be explored. Keep in mind that SEO is never “set and forget.” It’s important to revisit elements of security, speed, and relevancy often.

One other aspect to look at is social proof. Social proof can help search engines determine if a site’s content is relevant. It may also help a site earn Google’s trust. In turn, Google will rank it higher for users.

So, what is social proof?

A simple definition is that social proof is anyone else talking about a business or product. Reviewers and referrals are key examples. Encourage customers to leave reviews on products they’ve tried or to tell others about their experience at the shop.

Social proof can also come in the form of social media mentions and shares. The weight of social media depends on the search engine. Google tends not to put much emphasis on social media likes and shares, while Bing and Yahoo! give them more consideration.

Building Backlinks the Right Way

Social proof is also embedded in backlinks. These are links from trusted sources and pointing back to the cannabis company’s site. Say you write an article on the differences between THC and CBD, which is then linked to by the Washington Post. Google looks at those links and assumes your article is an excellent resource.

In turn, Google will be more likely to recommend this article to its users.

Backlinking requires a good strategy, and companies must be cautious to avoid black hat SEO techniques around linking. It’s possible to buy backlinks or trade them via link-sharing networks.

These strategies violate Google’s guidelines, and they can do more harm than good for a site. If many high-quality links suddenly appear on a site, it’s a red flag to search engines. Your site may actually be penalized.

A better way to go about raising a site’s rank is to build a backlinking strategy. This adds quality backlinks to the domain over time, which raises authority the right way.

Advanced Tips: Local SEO

Another consideration for cannabis companies is local SEO. In recent years, the number of mobile searches has increased. People are conducting more “near me” type searches.

Local search is great, because it connects users with businesses nearby. Local search results in more contact, more in-store visits, and even more sales for businesses.

Ranking for local search also presents a good opportunity for cannabis companies. Trying to rank nationally is difficult, in part because of intense competition. The illegal status of cannabis federally also poses problems.

Local search allows a company to connect with the consumers who are near them and able to buy from them.

Improving local search means ensuring consistent name, address, and phone number information everywhere on the internet. Reviews on sites like Yelp and Google’s own My Business can also help.

Keywords are still important to a degree. “Cannabis store near me” or “cannabis stores in Portland” may be opportunities for a business to rank locally.

Develop a Better SEO Strategy

As demonstrated, there are many different ways to tackle SEO, and many different factors to pay attention to. That’s why it’s so important for cannabis companies to develop an SEO strategy.

Not sure what should go in your SEO strategy? It’s time to get in touch with the experts. We can help you create a better strategy and start ranking higher.

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