Editor’s note: This editorial was contributed by Tony Ham, the SEO Account Manager for NisonCo, a top-rated cannabis, CBD, and hemp industry PR firm.
The cannabis industry is a fascinating market. Cannabis has always been associated chiefly with counterculture, but in recent years, the United States industry hit $12.4 billion in 2021 and is poised to continue growing. However, the language consumers use to search for and connect with cannabis brands remains firmly countercultural, despite the cannabis industry’s attempts to adopt more professional terms.
This discrepancy leaves cannabis search engine optimization (SEO) professionals with some interesting problems. Do we stay professional and use politically-correct terms like “cannabis?” Or do we use stigmatized but commonly-searched terms like “pot” and “weed” to actually show up on high-traffic SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages)? How do we balance professionalism, brand voice, and consumer accessibility while navigating SEO requirements?
As an account manager at a cannabis SEO and PR firm, I’ve learned a few things about effectively using stigmatized, taboo keywords in a search engine strategy. Read on for my three biggest cannabis SEO tips and how to implement them.
1. Organic traffic is a cannabis SEO strategist’s best friend
It’s notoriously difficult to run paid ads for a cannabis-centric business. You risk having your advertising abilities revoked if your site includes cannabis keywords or content. Though some companies take an all-or-nothing approach and purchase paid ads until they get flagged, it’s usually more reliable to capitalize on organic traffic. In stigmatized industries like cannabis, maximizing organic traffic is more straightforward and less risky than other methods.
To attract as much organic traffic as possible, you’ll want to do your research and tailor your keywords to match what consumers are searching for regularly. Feel free to include other keywords elsewhere in your website content, but the most impactful sections should focus on conversational, real-life search terms.
Optimizing your website with other SEO strategies is also essential — ensuring your site is fast-loading and easy to navigate will go a long way toward retaining prospective customers.
2. Know which cannabis keywords your audience is searching for
Studies have shown that different age brackets refer to cannabis using disparate terms. Millennials are most likely to use words like “weed,” while Gen-Xers use words like “pot” and “marijuana.” Industry professionals usually try to avoid slang terms and default to “cannabis,” so the prevalence of stigmatized keywords like these puts SEO professionals in a difficult situation.
When most consumers search for cannabis products, they use words the cannabis industry tries to avoid. The most commonly-searched term for the cannabis plant in the U.S. is “weed,” followed by “marijuana.” The industry-preferred term, “cannabis,” trails behind in third place, and there are countless other words that different groups or consumers prefer to use. SEO professionals must execute a tricky equation: attract customers using stigmatized but effective keywords while remaining aligned with brand identity and professionalism in the cannabis industry.
The equation gets even more complicated when we consider generational buying power. Generation X consumes the second-most cannabis, just after millennials. Gen Xers generally have more buying power and a greater interest in more refined cannabis experiences, but they use the least industry-accepted terminology. Despite this, most high-end luxury cannabis brands use keywords like “cannabis” that consumers with the most disposable income are unfamiliar with.
However, this doesn’t mean that top-of-the-line vaporizers retailing for hundreds of dollars should begin referring to themselves as “marijuana bongs” for the sake of SEO. It all depends on the SEO strategy of the specific brand, its target audience, and how comfortably they use stigmatized keywords. It’s essential to consider which groups you’re targeting and the language they use to refer to cannabis in conversational searches.
3. Don’t be afraid of using the “wrong” cannabis keyword
Usually, cannabis industry professionals try to stay away from words like “weed” and “marijuana” for a good reason. Terms like “marijuana” have been historically weaponized and slang words like “weed,” “pot,” and even “ganja” undercut the professionalism of the cannabis industry. No matter how we feel about these words as cannabis professionals, they are still valuable keywords in our SEO arsenals.
Successful SEO is about meeting your target audience where they are. Most cannabis consumers use words like “weed” and “marijuana,” so effective SEO strategies also need to use these keywords. Don’t feel like you have to use these words exclusively, though. Consider using higher-value but less-professional keywords like “pot” and “marijuana” in titles and headers and defaulting to the industry standard “cannabis” in the body text of your optimized web pages.
If you’re still uncomfortable using these keywords, remember most other cannabis professionals share your feelings on the topic. Generally speaking, stigmatized cannabis keywords get more impressions. These stigmatized keywords are also usually slightly easier to rank for because most cannabis professionals are wary about incorporating them into strategy.
Engage consumers first, then provide education
Ultimately, connecting with consumers is critical to enabling, destigmatizing, and legitimizing work in the cannabis industry. You’ll likely have to use stigmatized keywords to catch the attention of those consumers. Once you’ve captured consumers, there will always be room for education and activism. To change the narrative, you have to be part of that narrative. To be a part of that narrative, you might have to take advantage of some of the cannabis SEO keywords the industry would rather leave behind.
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