The Ultimate Local SEO Strategy Guide for Cannabis Dispensaries
And when you consider 8 out of 10 people using search engines to find local businesses and about 75% of their searches taking place on Google, it’s easy to see why optimizing your dispensary’s search engine presence is worthy of prioritizing over almost all, if not every other promotional activity.
You might remember back when your Marketing 101 teacher in high school highlighted and simplified the primary areas of running a quality business into it’s product, people and pricing. The 3 P’s.
And while the 3 P’s are indeed a crucial part of building any kind of successful brick & mortar retail business, including those that sell cannabis products, all of the P’s require traffic in order for them to make any difference. none of the P’s have an opportunity to work their magic without having traffic to begin with.
Word of mouth is fantastic, don’t get me wrong.
But here in Oklahoma, as of September 2019, there is a licensed dispensary for nearly every 50 medical marijuana patients.
In order to attract those patients and retain their attention / business after their first visit, a worthwhile objective would be to position of your business on in the center of their attention, as frequently as possible.
And when you consider every human living in a civilized country on modern day planet earth uses a search engine to gather information and 96% of mobile search traffic comes from Google searches, it becomes clear that Google mobile/local search is (or can be) your dispensary’s best friend.
But the harsh truth is that failure to implement a search engine positioning strategy that directs this traffic to your business is already costing you money, traffic, and sales and this single oversight will eventually prove itself to be fatal for many cannabis retail establishments. Follow this guide to avoid this costly mistake.
Establishing Relevancy: The Name of The Local SEO Game
Shortly we will be getting into the local SEO ranking factors that are used to determine local search ranking.
Just keep in mind that Google’s primary objective is to provide the most relevant search results for the person who is making the search.
In 2015, Google launched Rankbrain, it’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) used to sort and display live search results. In super-simple terms, Rankbrain’s primary function is to utilize all of the information it has about the searcher and how have gone about making their decisions in the past, and then it applies that information to live search results, effectively making a highly educated guess as to which business you are most likely going to select, given the opportunity to do so.
It also understands the ‘meaning’ of words and phrases and the context they are being used in, which means modern-day Google is damn near impossible to trick.
All of the factors which we will soon get into, are each a different way of evaluating the relevancy of local businesses in relation to what they know about a person making a search. And they know everything, pretty much.
Your approach to (or failure to approach) implementing a comprehensive local SEO strategy will literally make or break your dispensary.
You still have to have the right people, product, and pricing (not to mention licenses, a good location, security systems, etc…) in place. Those things are absolutely necessary for the strategy to work but the strategy itself is not an option.
It’s a lot of work growing a successful dispensary but none of it matters if you don’t get the visibility part right.
Finding Your Way Into (and hopefully, to the top of) the Local 3 Pack
Before we get into the ranking factors, let’s make sure we are on the same page about exactly what it is we are talking about, our overall objective, and why it is important.
From 2016-2018, the number of people making searches that include the term ‘near me’ increased by 900%. If you are not positioned in a way that these people find you then they are going elsewhere. It’s as simple as that.
The image below is a screenshot I took on my phone after searching Google for ‘OKC dispensary’. I was at home when I made the search.
The 3 businesses shown at the top of that first page of your mobile search results are referred to as the local pack’. These are the 3 businesses that Google has determined to be most relevant to you and your search.
And with 92% of searchers choosing a business on the first page of their local search results, it’s easy to see why this is important.
That leaves 8% of traffic to split among all of the businesses that don’t make it into the local pack. And the further down the rankings your business is, the less of that 8% you are bringing in.
Full disclosure: I manage APCO’s SEO.
When you look at those search results, keep in mind that I live closer to Samir’s and Herban Mother than I do APCO.
It is also important to consider that your search results are almost definitely going to be different than the ones that I see. Location/distance from the businesses, as well as search history and your actual in-person activities are all taken into consideration here. My results are tailored to me based on the choice Google feels is best for me, based on what they know about me (they know a lot).
Organic Search Results vs Local Search Results
Moving right along down the search results page, just below the local pack you will find the organic search results, which you will see in this other example for Ponca City on the desktop screenshot, below.
Since Google’s primary objective is to deliver the most relevant search results, they also modify the organic search results when your search is indicative that you are looking for a local business.
If your dispensary happens to pick up some of the top-ranking organic search positions as a side effect of optimizing for local search, then that’s a nice little bonus. It’s not something worth focusing your resources on too much, however.
That’s because organic search results/rankings tend to be visited more often when searchers are looking for products and services which are not location-specific (point of sale software, for instance).
The strategies involved with ranking well in the organic search results are different than they are for the local search results, but many of the ranking factors overlap, as you will see below.
Local and Organic Domination
Ranking at the top of the local search results and at the top of the organic search results can be a very powerful thing when it comes to generating traffic and revenue, You won’t be hearing the owner of Ponca City Dispensary complaining about SEO – that is for sure (image below).
Just for the record, there are actually 6-7 other dispensaries in Ponca City, all of which have Google My Business listings, but as of August 2019 you must physically be in Ponca City or use some additional search terms in order to find them on the local search results (even when searching for OKC).
The name probably doesn’t hurt.
Full disclosure: I manage Ponca City Dispensary’s SEO, also.
Obtaining these kinds of results requires time, effort, and consistency, all of which the owner of this dispensary has invested in fairly heavily.
I did the same kind of thing for their vape shops, prior to getting into the cannabis industry, so this isn’t a fluke situation. I know what it takes to make it work.
Search engine ranking improvements can happen very quickly but it’s going to take time, especially if you do not have an existing WordPress website in place already. You have to start somewhere, though, so do not get discouraged or allow this to overwhelm you.
The companies that have a year head start on you are going to take some time to work your way in front of, but the efforts are well worth the return.
Now that we are on the same page, let’s discuss the primary challenges associated with planning and implementing a successful SEO strategy for your cannabis retail business Then we will talk about the ranking factors and ways to go about addressing each of them.
The Challenges of Dispensary SEO in Today’s World/Market
It is much more difficult to rank all kinds of businesses (not just dispensaries) in local search results today than it has ever been in the past.
There are 4 primary reasons:
- Market saturation (in terms of the number of dispensaries per patient).
- An increasing number of dispensary owners who have become familiar with the benefits of local SEO.
- An increase in the number of people using cell phones, combined with the weight of importance Google gives to your location from your potential search results.
- The variety of skill sets necessary in order for a search engine optimization professional or agency to be able to produce ROI-positive results.
Additionally, Google has narrowed down the local search results from 7, which is used to provide, down to the top 3. This increased the importance and difficulty associated with local pack ranking to a greater level than ever before.
What About Weedmaps?
Weedmaps is definitely an option worth considering. It is also definitely not a substitute for local SEO – not in the slightest actually.
Additionally, consider the type of traffic you are looking to generate and what kind of budget you are working with.
I know from first-hand experience that paying for the #1 dispensary position on Weedmaps in a city like Oklahoma City/Midwest City can run upwards of $5,000 per month if it’s even available, and that is before you pay more to have a listing in the ‘Deals’ section of the app.
In fact, paying for a #1 Weedmaps listing is pretty much worthless unless you are paying to run deal promotions as well. I find most people use Weedmaps to find good deals. Google is a much greater tool for finding nearby businesses.
And while it’s clear that there are more people using Google than there are Weedmaps, it’s hard to say exactly how many more. This is due to the extremely limited amount of information Weedmaps provides about hits to your page.
In other words, by paying Weedmaps to promote your deals and drive traffic, you are essentially making a large monthly investment to attract patients who are looking to pay as little as they can in order to get the deal. You’re paying good money to attract customers whose sales are going to have much lower margins than visitors who find you on Google.
My personal take on Weedmaps is this.
If you are considering paying $5,000/month for Weedmaps visibility, I’d say you are probably better off paying a guy $5,000/month to wear a gorilla costume with a sign that has your daily deal and having him stand out on your nearest busy intersection waving it all day. I’m not even joking, either.
Online ordering is nice but there are other ways to go which allow you to take online orders without having to pay the $420 monthly subscription.
I also happen to know, after managing both situations, that Google is capable of driving 5-10x+ the traffic that Weedmaps is able to generate.
You’re paying for visibility both ways. You might as well use your resources to attract customers who make purchases that contribute to the financial success of your business, versus cutting into your profit margins and paying heftily so patients can see it.
Now if you can afford to do all of that on Weedmaps and maintain a consistent SEO strategy, then, by all means, do them both. (Only if you feel like your local market/town is capable of generating the sales volume you need in order for it to be worthwhile, obviously).
If you are only in a position to do one or the other, taking care of your Google ranking will be a far greater payoff. It just won’t happen overnight, unlike Weedmaps Deals., which you can pay for and get it rolling pretty much immediately.
Local SEO for your cannabis dispensary is one of the greatest business decisions you could possibly make, in terms of driving sustainable organic traffic and revenue into your business.
WordPress Is Not An Option. It is Absolutely Necessary.
When evaluating the importance of investing in a wordpress-based website, know that it is absolutely essential to your SEO strategy.
Having a professionally designed website is about much more than just giving the right impression and information to patients and potential patients.
Establishing relevancy is all about building up an interconnected ‘web’ of links and resources that point to your website in a consistent and thorough manner.
You see, there are many components of your website which are going to have to be customized in very specific ways, that each contributes to the overall visibility and performance of your web presence.
Having a well-executed SEO strategy requires a combination of efforts on and off of your website (on-page and off-page). The external ranking factors are generally referred to as ‘off-page SEO’, while everything that is done on your actual website itself is referred to as ‘on-page SEO’.
Both on-page and off-page SEO have important roles in competitively ranking your business and without a WordPress website, you will inevitably run into roadblocks which will prevent you from implementing everything that needs to be addressed.
‘But, why a WordPress website? Why not Wix or GoDaddy web builder?’
Because WordPress works and the others are far from ideal.
I have personally worked on at least 100 web design/SEO projects since 2015 when I launched FogPusher a full-time basis.
And along the way, there have been a few occasions in which I was asked to take over existing Wix and GoDaddy websites to manage SEO & website redesign projects.
The two most recent are both in the cannabis industry, actually.
After putting many, many hours into the optimization of websites built with Wix and GoDaddy, you (or the person you hire – if they have not discovered this already) will ultimately run into some pretty basic yet super important problems which cannot be solved on those platforms.
One of the platforms does not allow you to customize your meta titles and descriptions or your image alt and title tags and the other has an issue in the way it does canonical linking (referencing the original source of similar pages in a way that prevents Google from penalizing you).
I don’t recall which was which right now but both of those issues, to which there is no current workaround, are an easy way to spend a lot of time and money on something that is not capable of producing the results you are looking for in the cannabis industry.
If you could pay for advertising traffic, it would be one thing. But that is not the world we live in right now.
You need to be as visible as possible on Google’s local search results.
Wix and GoDaddy will not cut it.
There isn’t a need to go any further into the technicalities of this here but I will say that redesigning your current Wix or GoDaddy website is most definitely worth doing in order to get a website built on the WordPress content management system (CMS) up and running.
There are simply limitations to those platforms that prevent the pages from being optimized in a way that can compete with a dispensary that has their website designed on the WordPress platform.
Local SEO Ranking Factors & Actionable Steps
In the image below, you will see a couple of charts, depicting the local search ranking factors as determined by Moz.com in some local SEO research they conducted back in 2018.
The graph on the left shows the dispensary SEO ranking factors, which is what we are here to discuss today.
Below, I have provided a brief breakdown of what each of these means and some tips for how to implement them into your business immediately.
The graph on the right depicts the differences between the factors necessary to rank in the organic search results, which are the websites listed below the local pack on mobile devices and desktop searches.
The way I look at it, finding your website ranked in the organic search results is a nice little surprise but it generally comes about as a side effect of optimizing for local search and for the humans reading the website.
That said, there is no need to focus your energy ranking your website in the organic search results. Not for dispensaries, anyway.
(The image above is courtesy of Moz.com’s 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors.)
Verify, complete, & optimize your Google My Business profile.
First, you need to create a Google My Business profile and verify your account. Most of the time Google will verify your listing by mailing you a postcard but if you’re lucky, they will verify instantly over the phone.
Next, you want to complete your profile. Fill out all of the fields and include a custom, well written, and descriptive business description, images (for all of the categories including interior, exterior, product,
There really isn’t much you can do about your physical distance from searchers except hope that you chose an ideal location, to begin with.
If you haven’t noticed, dispensaries with great locations and that are easy to get in and out of, tend to have pretty consistent traffic.
This usually isn’t the only reason, as most of the business who have invested the money to get a nice location have also invested in quality budtenders and products, as well (in my experience, anyway.)
As far as the Google My Business category goes, you want to make sure your dispensary is listed as a Cannabis Store, almost always.
There are some debatable advantages to listing your business as a healthcare center or pharmacy, but my evidence shows that proper categorization far outweighs the advantages you get by being able to make posts to searchers who are going to be seeing your business in search results less frequently anyway.
The only potential advantage that you might gain by listing your business under a different category is that it provides you with the ability to make posts on the Google My Business platform (cannabis stores are blocked from doing so).
And while I can see some of the logic in that argument, I have not seen any evidence that this will drive more traffic than proper categorization would have.
Create and implement a high-quality backlinking strategy.
Link signals refer to the quality of the links that point to your website from other reputable websites.
Anchor text is the actual words that are linked to your website. You don’t want these to be too ‘keyword rich’ but you do want the words that are linked to be somewhat relevant to your business. Obtaining backlinks is one of the most challenging aspects of a well-executed SEO campaign but it’s also one of the most important pieces.
The linking domain authority refers to how long the websites that link to your website have been around, how well they are established, and how many high-quality links they have linking to them. This is another component which is outside of the scope of what most dispensaries will be looking to manage in-house but I am always up for a chat if you would like to further discuss.
The quantity of backlinks is pretty self-explanatory and refers to the number of high-quality domains that have links pointing to your website.
Gather as many legitimate positive GMB reviews from patients as possible.
Google My Business reviews are extremely important (crucial, in fact) piece of your overall local SEO ranking strategy. This signal takes into consideration the volume of reviews you are receiving, the interval in which they are coming in, the location of the reviewers when they leave the reviews, and the diversity of the accounts and types of feedback you are receiving in these reviews.
Google is smarter than you might think and you want to avoid doing anything that goes against their policies to collect reviews. Anything that incentivizes customers to leave positive reviews is against their policy and can get your business penalized or removed from the platform.
For some of my clients, I set up an app/web page that asks patients to review their visit on a scale from 1-10. Depending on how the person responds to that question, it then asks them to leave some feedback while they are waiting on their order at the dispensary to be filled. When they do that, they provide their email address for verification that the feedback is legitimate. The customers that leave an 8+ (out of 10) review, will then be emailed an hour later encouraging them to copy and paste the review they left onto your Google My Business profile, making it super easy from them to do.
This is an extremely powerful and effective way to go about collecting reviews, as it is a non-invasive way to remind a person to leave a review, but allowing them to leave before doing so, which is important.
Keep in mind, giving customers/patients incentives to leave reviews is against Google’s policies. I do not recommend incentivizing people to leave reviews as that is a quick way to get penalized or even removed from Google.
Google can see where people are located when they leave feedback and if most of them are inside your business when they leave a review, that is going to look highly suspect. Play by the rules.
Also, do not go leave negative reviews on your competitors’ Google My Business page. Not only is this against Google’s policies but it’s also bringing down your fellow human so that you can have some kind of perceived gain. Gain at another’s expense is not a gain worth having. I do not condone this kind of shenanigan and neither should you.
On the other hand, if you have suspicious reviews on your Google My Business listing, look at their profile and see where else they have reviewed.
If you see that they have given one dispensary a positive review and all of the other negative reviews, that is highly suspicious. And they are really dumb.
Be sure to report those reviews to Google, mark the reason to be ‘conflict of interest’ and if Google determines they are just trying to manipulate reviews, they will remove the one they left.
Ensure your website includes your company name, address and phone number in the correct syntax (particularly the page your GMB profile links to).
The consistency of your business name, address, phone number, and website (NAP or NAPW) across the web, including on your actual website is another highly regarded consideration in the ranking of your business on Google My Business and the local pack.
You want to use the exact same syntax on all directory sites and on your actual website that you have on your actual Google My Business listing, which is obviously another essential component of all of this. Utilizing some of your target keywords in the titles of your pages and heading tags throughout the pages is also important, but what is even more important than that is optimizing for human reading and not for search engines.
Google’s AI has now evolved to the point where it can understand the content of a page and the context of that content. It knows when your content has just been created to fill space and attempt at ranking your website vs genuine, authentic content that happens to use your primary target keywords
Determine the most important industry and geographical local business directories and obtain listings with the correct syntax on each.
This refers not only to the consistency of your business’ name, address, and phone number across the web but also the quality of where it is listed and the consistency of those listings.
The idea is to include citation (directory) listings in all of the highest-quality internet directories which are relevant to your local market and also to the cannabis industry. I find that most businesses fail to implement a quality citation strategy and most of the time, even when they do, they fail to submit their citations to the local data aggregators.
Local Data Aggregators (LDAs) are companies that gather data about local businesses and then sell or distributes that data out to a network of local search engines, third-party directories, mapping services, GPS services, and mobile apps.
Submitting via LDAs and to all of the various directories involves creating a separate account for each one and updating or submitting business data into the LDA’s database.
It is an absolute must if you plan to rank at the top of your local search results. There is no question about it.
Fill in your business name below to receive a free report that compares your citation strategy to local competitors in your market. This will give you a good idea for where you presently stand as well as some of the work that needs to be done.
Optimize your website for human accessibility. Create content that retains the attention of visitors.
In addition to all of the other signals, Google also takes visitor behavior into account. This gives them some additional context as to how your customers are engaging with you, your website, your Google My Business listing, etc…. This is why it is important to make sure your website is mobile-friendly, loads quickly, and is easy to navigate. Having a complete GMB profile will also improve engagement with your listing.
Google’s primary objective is to direct customers to the most relevant business based on the way they are going about searching for it. That being said, if people keep visiting your website and leaving immediately, that is a good indicator that your business is likely to be less relevant than another, where visitors click the button to call and ask for directions and spend more time on their website.
This is also another reason to make sure your page content is optimized. You want visitors to stay as long as possible and this is a great way to accomplish that.
Personalize your GMB profile with every kind of photo they ask for.
If you are using a desktop computer, you will see this menu on the back-end of your Google My Business profile. This is where you will navigate the various parts of your profile in order to personalize everything.
Personalization is all about completing your Google My Business profile and personalizing it with all of the questions they ask.
If you have a video, be sure to upload it (on the Photos tab).
Fill in every field and upload everything they ask for. The Photos tab, across the top of the page, allows you to navigate all of the photo categories and to ensure everything is complete.
I would also recommend getting a 360 virtual tour of your dispensary and integrating that with Google street view. I will not get into that here but if you would like some assistance feel free to give me a shout.
Another great idea here is to turn on your Messaging on from the Messaging tab. This is a great way to increase engagement with your customers as they can message you directly through your profile.
Maintain an active and engaging social media presence.
In addition to Google collecting all of their data points, they are also collecting as many data points as they can from everywhere else they can collect them from.
It would be a fairly safe assessment if you said they are ‘creepin’ on you’. That is exactly what they are doing.
The key to this is to maintain an active presence on all social media platforms. Stay away from promotional jargon as you will get banned from Facebook for doing so.
Address each of these ranking factors in a way that is better than the way your competitors are going about them and soon, you will be glad you did.
If you would like to arrange a free strategy call to discuss the possibility of working together to increase the volume of traffic coming into your dispensary as a result of organic search optimization, feel free to schedule a free 30 minute strategy call.
After you answer all of the questions, you will be redirected to my calendar, where you can schedule a call or Google Hangouts session with me (your choice).
If you are looking for more tips on utilizing your social media profiles in a way that will not get you banned from Facebook or for more tips on optimizing your dispensary’s overall marketing activities and approach, be sure to check out Dispensary Marketing & SEO Domination in 2019+: The Dopest Guide
Business Development Strategist