Working in the cannabis industry can be daunting with the looming threat of a federal crackdown and the frequent ambiguity about what’s legal and what isn’t. This legal grey area restricts many traditional marketing and advertising options to dispensaries and other cannabis companies. With limited options available, prioritizing search engine optimization (SEO) is essential for any cannabis business interested in using digital to grow their customer-base.
SEO is a marketing channel that focuses on improving a website’s visibility in search engines’ unpaid listings. Fortunately, there are many companies and consultants (often called “SEOs” or “SEO agencies”) that can help you. However, there are many SEOs that aren’t genuine and can take advantage of the state of the industry, or worse, implement bad tactics that don’t adhere to Google’s guidelines; these are referred to as “black hat” SEOs. Black hat tactics can lead to Google penalizing or even blocking your site from their results, which can be detrimental to your business.
Luckily, there are several red flags to watch out for so you can find an SEO service that will help, not hurt you. Follow these guidelines to ensure you’re hiring a consultant or agency that has your best interests in mind.
Bold and Unclear Claims
Many SEOs will say they can get you on the coveted 1st page of Google for some highly competitive term. This isn’t only unrealistic, it doesn’t connect to any sort of strategy. The algorithm also prioritizes personalization and localization; the search results for any given word or phrase will vary greatly depending on the searcher’s location, browsing history, and many other factors. What’s ranking #1 for one person could be completely different for someone else, so this claim is meaningless.
Another red flag is the promise of your website(s) ranking permanently or for a long time. The consistent algorithm changes, along with plenty of other companies that are also vying for Google visibility, makes “permanent” and sometimes even “long-term” not a sure thing.
There are also some SEO companies and professionals that claim they “know someone” at Google or have inside information on the algorithm, which gives them an advantage. The truth is that no one really has inside information about the algorithm because Google intentionally keeps it pretty wrapped up to keep their results authentic. Genuine SEOs use data and strategy to make a hypothesis on an intended outcome.
Questionable Tactics and Strategy
Numerous factors play into Google’s algorithm, and they sometimes change in priority or even become irrelevant. Some tactics can even hurt your rankings or get you blocked from the results. Here are a few things to look out for as you review potential SEO service offerings:
The importance of meta data has lessened over the years, but it’s still a simple tactic that many cannabis companies don’t take advantage of. It can also potentially help you better position your website in Google to reach more customers. However, anyone highlighting meta data as one of their key strategies either isn’t up with industry trends or is trying to pull one over on you. And if they mention meta keywords (other than to say that Google doesn’t pay attention to them or Bing penalizes abusing them), run the other way.
A link from a quality website that’s topical to your business is basically a popularity vote that tells Google you can be trusted, and it’s an important factor in the algorithm. However, good links are earned with quality content, a solid promotion plan, or creating something that is very useful to your audience (although you should still have a promotion plan when you invest in creating content).
If a link appears to be “unnatural” to Google–meaning it was most likely bought–they will potentially penalize your website, as well as the website linking to you. I’m not saying all “link building” is bad, but you should proceed with caution. And any SEO company that is promising “X number of links to your site” is likely purchasing them and/or they’re not focusing on quality, relevant links.
Search Engine Submissions
If someone is telling you they’ll submit your site to some ridiculous number of search engines, or even just major ones, you’ve spotted another red flag. Overall, submitting sites to search engines is a waste of time. There are also many free and simple ways for you to submit pages to search engines, so being charged for it is a rip-off. Dispensaries usually don’t have the kind of budget to throw at nothing.
I wouldn’t recommend this tactic if you’re trying to improve your SEO because there are many other things to focus on. In fact, major search engines say that over-submitting your site to be indexed can yield negative results.
Anything ‘Secret’ or ‘Quick-Fix’ Recommendations
There are many industry-wide, agreed-upon best practices that any knowledgeable SEOs know and follow. If your potential SEO partner is secretive about their methods, they’re likely performing some of those black hat tactics. This can include the “bad” link building methods, cloaking content, and several other frowned upon practices.
Also, make sure that the company or person you’re talking to has some sort of maintenance or retainer option for you to select. Otherwise, they’re likely doing one-off optimizations that may be dated after the next big algorithm update. SEO is never a “one and done” deal.
Confusing or Sketchy Website
A big part of SEO is having quality, relevant content that is useful to users and answers the questions they’re asking about your industry. If an SEO company’s or consultant’s website isn’t accomplishing this, how can they successfully execute a content strategy on your site?
One major red flag is if the company website is filled with thin, nondescript content. SEO is an often-misunderstood industry, so unfortunately many companies will take advantage of this lack of education with their clients. Make sure their tactics and strategy are clearly explained, in human language. “If we increase the keyword density and build links to the page, we’ll get you more link juice and improve your PageRank in Google” is not human language.
Some SEO companies will use plenty of jargon in website copy to confuse uneducated potential clients. If you’re confused about what a website is saying because it’s full of unrecognizable terms, they’re likely not going to be a good partner with your business.
Lastly, take note of how professional the website looks. Are you afraid submitting your email will infect your computer with malware? Does it look like it might have been designed on the Geocities platform? If the website doesn’t look professional, you’re most likely not dealing with professionals.
Too Good to Be True Pricing
When reviewing pricing for SEO, shop around and see how much other comparable companies or consultants cost. If something seems too good to be true, there’s a strong chance it is. If someone can charge an unnaturally low price for a service, it’s because that’s how much it’s probably worth. Avoid looking for SEO on sites like Fiverr or Elance, because you’re more likely to find the “quantity over quality” SEO approach.
An even bigger red flag is when a free trial period is being offered. Companies that advertise SEO services with a free trial aren’t always bad; just proceed with extreme caution. Remember that you’re giving them access to your data and information, and what they do with that is unknown; you didn’t pay them, so they have no ties to you, which can be incredibly risky.
What to Look for in a Good SEO Service
After reading through the above list of red flags, you might be starting to develop some SEO trust issues. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent SEOs that genuinely want to help your business. Here are signs of a trustworthy, effective SEO company or service:
- They communicate with you. A good SEO will ask questions about your industry, competitors, target audience, and business goals. They’ll want to understand the full picture to determine how they can use their expertise to improve your business.
- Their website uses human language. The content is clear, their services make sense, and you’re not having to look up every word’s definition and essentially learn SEO on your own. At the very least, there should be an SEO glossary to help you better understand some of the terminology.
- You can trust them. Browsing around the website will make it easy to see how authentic the business is. Look for accolades, client testimonials, media mentions, information about the person/people behind the scenes, and companies they’ve worked with.
- Their reputation isn’t tarnished. Google can help you here; simply do some searches for the company/person’s name to make sure they’re not flagged on sites like the Better Business Bureau or from an angry ex-customer’s social feed. As we all know, bad behavior rarely escapes the scorn of the internet.
Hopefully this provides you with the right information to find a quality SEO partner in your path to grow your cannabis business. For every scam or unethical service, there’s also a worthy one. Just keep your wits about you and recall this advice before bringing on some outside help!