The cannabis industry is booming, and dispensaries are doubling down on marketing and branding to stake their claim in the burgeoning U.S. market.

Over the past few years we’ve seen a steady increase in online searches for local dispensaries. Now that several more states have a seat at the table, the competition is heating up, and online visibility is becoming increasingly limited in the cannabis space. To put this growth into perspective, I included some search trend data below.

This shows the Google search activity for “dispensary near me” over the past five years:

And here’s the same query over a two year period:

To get a better idea of how often these terms were being searched each month, I ran a few keywords through Moz’s Keyword Explorer tool:

Since Google prohibits businesses from using paid advertising platforms – such as pay-per-click – to market cannabis-related products and services, dispensaries rely heavily on search engine optimization (SEO) to tap into Google search traffic.

Unlike pay-per-click results which are ranked according to the highest bidder, organic results are ranked based on a variety of factors that determine the overall authority and relevance of a website. SEO is essentially a series of strategies and tactics aimed at leveraging these factors, in an effort to provide Google with the best possible answer to a users’ search query.

Despite what you may read online, there are no SEO shortcuts or magic bullets that will improve your rankings overnight. SEO takes a lot of time and resources, and in most cases, a decent-sized budget, to get the results you’re looking for.

Fortunately, there are few things that can be done with minimal cost and effort to help get you on the right track. One of these “quick wins” is setting up your Google My Business (GMB) profile.

How Dispensaries Can Use GMB for Local SEO

GMB is arguably one of the most effective tools for optimizing your local presence on Google, and quite possibly the lowest hanging fruit in your SEO arsenal. It’s free to use, and since the data is integrated directly into Google search results, it’s a great way to supplement or reinforce your organic rankings.

For starters, GMB helps your business stand out for branded search queries. Here’s a screenshot of the search results for “Medicine Man Denver”:

See that fancy box on the right? Most of that information is pulled directly from Medicine Man’s GMB profile. This is referred to as the Google Knowledge Panel. Here customers can get directions, read or write reviews, check hours of operation, and see which times of the day are the busiest. Logos, photos, and most of the information displayed here can be managed from within your GMB dashboard. The Knowledge Panel sometimes pulls reviews from third-party sites as well. Here you can see reviews from Leafly, Weedmaps, and LeafBuyer.

In addition to branded search terms, GMB can also help dispensaries rank for high volume, competitive queries such as “Colorado dispensary.” If you search for “Colorado dispensary” on Google, you’ll see that the majority of the of the organic results on the first page link to directories and news sites – not dispensaries – including the number one result. Since many of these directory sites have a relatively high domain authority, it can be difficult for local dispensaries to outrank them organically.

However, you’ll also notice three map listings for Denver-based dispensaries located above the organic results. This highly coveted search feature is known as the Google Local Pack. The best part about the Local Pack is that it’s only available to local businesses, so you won’t need to compete with directories and other third party sites for rankings. Getting featured in the Local Pack can be a major boon for dispensaries since the map is generally displayed more prominently than traditional organic results, which studies suggest could lead to more clicks.

When you compare the Local Pack listings to the organic results, you may notice that Local Pack listings don’t rank well organically, or that dispensaries that perform well organically aren’t included in the Local Pack. This happens because the map results, and the organic results, are calculated and ranked differently. Although the two algorithms share several common correlative factors, they don’t always agree on the best result. The point is, even if a competitor outranks you in the organic results, you can still outrank them in the Local Pack.

Google My Business gives local dispensaries a great opportunity to leapfrog their competitors in search. Even if you already hold the number one organic spot, a Local Pack listing could help you claim a bigger chunk of Google real estate. As more and more cannabis businesses compete for market share, it’s important that brands do everything in their power to develop and reinforce their online presence – especially on Google.

How Dispensaries Can Optimize for the Local Pack

Google bases Local Pack results on three core factors: relevance, distance, and prominence. Google starts by accessing which local businesses are most relevant to a user’s search query – this is mostly determined by the listing category and business description. Google also calculates the proximity between these local businesses and the user’s location. Then Google uses an algorithm to rank the nearest and most relevant results based on trust, popularity, and authority – these metrics are based on things like organic ranking, reviews, and overall rating score.

Although Google won’t reveal their secret sauce for local SEO, there have been several studies conducted over the past few years that give us some insights into where local businesses should be focusing their local marketing efforts to improve their odds of being featured in the Local Pack. Based on the 2016 Local SEO Ranking Factors Survey, I’ve put together a short list of tips to help dispensaries improve their Local Pack rankings.

Reviews – Reviews are the lifeblood of your online reputation. According to a recent Bright Local study, 84 percent of consumers said that they trust online reviews just as much as a personal recommendation. In most cases, the businesses that show up in the Local Pack are those with the highest ratings. Additionally, 70 percent of consumers say that they would leave a review if asked.

Organic Rank – Organic rankings had the highest positive correlation. As I mentioned before, organic results and the Local Pack don’t always tell the same story, but Google’s Local Pack Algorithm most likely uses many of the same signals that are used to rank organic results. In most cases, businesses ranking on first page of organic results are much more likely to be included in the Local Pack.

Links – Think of links as votes of confidence from other sites that are used to help Google determine your credibility on the web. The more links you have the better. And when sites that link to you have a lot of links themselves, more value is passed on to your site. This is why links from authoritative sites are worth more than links from smaller sites.

Complete Listings – Businesses that included cover photos, profile photos, hours of operation, and a physical address, tended to rank higher than those with missing or incomplete information. A great way to maximize your exposure is to ensure that your business listing contains as much information as possible.

Keyword in Business Name – Surprisingly, the second highest correlating factor was keyword-rich business names (i.e. 123 Dispensary). I wouldn’t recommend changing your DBA to include “dispensary” – or any other keyword for that matter – solely for the sake of SEO. But for new businesses still deciding on a name, choosing one that contains your target keyword could be beneficial. According to the study, business names that include keywords will rank 1.5 positions higher than those that do not.

These are just a few highlights from the study – particularly the ones that pertained to GMB optimization. There are several other categories that may also impact your Local Pack visibility, and you can find the full list of factors here. In addition to these factors, you can also refer to the Google My Business Help Center, where you can read up on GMB best practices and instructions on how to setup and manage your GMB listing. If you have any questions about anything in this post, feel free to send us a message.