Getting High in the SERPS — a Marijuana Niche Analysis

Watching the marijuana industry grow has been fascinating.  Retail-wise, it’s still a little baby, with only two states allowed to sell it for recreation use.  There are a handful more states that allow medical use.  This is clearly the start of a new billion dollar industry, as long as the trend of states voting marijuana use continues to rise.

Not trying to be too political here, just pointing out that this is a great opportunity to watch the beginnings of a possible mega-industry.  So what doe the SERPs look like for marijuana-related keywords?  And what does it take to rank?

** Update ** I no longer run an agency at Visible HQ, but I have an agency that caters specifically to cannabusinesses. Check out Search Marijuana if you’re looking for SEO help.

Let’s jump in…

Keywords

For this niche analysis, I’m looking at several different keywords:

KeywordMonthly SearchesCPCMoz Keyword Difficulty
legal marijuana54002.3574%
marijuana dispensary24003.957%
medical weed24002.0878%
medicinal marijuana44002.2678%
medical marijuana dispensaries54001.6258%

Because this is a relatively small and new niche, the buying keywords aren’t as well established as other niches, and the monthly searches are low.

But, wow!  Look at the keyword difficulty for those keywords!  That’s the first thing that jumped out at me, and after some quick digging, it was obvious why.

Authority Sites

For those five keywords, in the top 18 spots (first 2 pages of Google), this is the breakdown of authority sites found:

  • 13/90 are .gov sites
  • 7/90 are wikipedia.org sites
  • 3/90 are news sites (CNN etc.)
  • 2/90 are .edu sites.

So 25/90 (27%) of the sites in the top 2 pages of Google (for the combined results of all 5 keywords) are almost-impossible-to-beat generic authority pages.

Dominant Sites

There are several sites that pop up in many different marijuana related searches.  I’m going to take a look at those sites to see if it is due to any clever link building techniques, or something less exciting (for us) like genuine popularity. 🙂

procon.org

Procon.org says its mission is:

Promoting critical thinking, educaiton, and informed citizenship by presenting controversial issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan, primarily pro-con format.

Basically, it is like a pro/con version of wikipedia.  It has a TON of incoming links from authority sites.  The specific marijuana-related page (which is a subdomain) has an impressive amount of authority and incoming links.  This is clearly a case of creating good content that people want to link to.  Here are the OSE/Majestic stats:

procon majestic

procon ose

Keep in mind, THIS IS FOR THE INDIVIDUAL PAGE, NOT THE ROOT DOMAINS.

Look at that page authority!

Look at the # of root domains linking!

OMG, Look at those social shares.

medicalmarijuana.procon.org is killing it on authority.  Here is what it looks like when you are an indispensable resource for a topic a lot of sites are talking about:

procon top linking sitesdem in coming links!

(you can see the page here)

So, shout out to Brian Dean (from episode 7 & Backlinko.com) and his Skyscraper technique.  This is the kind of content you want to strive to create.  It helps that the site is an authority in its own right (from the number of links and authority the root domain carries), but this is where you want to set your aim.

Internal Linking

The medical marijuana procon.org page is also a masterclass in on-page SEO.

1. Holy internal linking!  There are a ton of RELEVANT internal links going on here.  Link juice for all!

2. The content structure: there are several individual pages on the “medicalmarijuana” subdomain that are authoritative pages in their own right, that always link back to the “medicalmarijuana” subdomain.  This strengthens medicalmarijuana.procon.org with each link back, and turns it into a giant authority page, an indispensible resource.  You’d do well to take some notes on how they are set up.  Here’s an example of the structure.

This page is an ongoing, constantly-updated page on states with pending marijuana legislation.  It is a beast of a page, and has a HUGE amount of authority on its own, but it links back to medicalmarijuana.procon.org twice.  It’s a great strategy: create individual issue pages (like “pending marijuana legislation”) and link back from those pages to THE resource on the overall topic.  Emp lays it out in this thread on WickedFire (sorry, but you’ve got to be a member so see, but it *is* free to sign up).

Here is a screenshot of the page.  Look at all these internal links:

procon internal links

There’s also a section on the page that expands into EVEN FOR MORE CONTENT, that has several .pdf downloads, and a link to an “authority site” (which, in this case, is the state’s own page about medical marijuana:

pdf and authority link

So… that’s what you’re up against.  A super authoritative, super smartly done site with a ton of relevant and well written content that literally (figuratively) everyone has linked to.

Time to up your game!

Here’s another site that has popped up in several different marijuana-related searches:

Weedmaps.com

Ah, Weed Maps.  It is what it says, and it says what it is!

People love Weed Maps.  This site is basically a Google Maps-like/Yelp-like site that shows where you can get recreational and/or medicinal marijuana, and has all kinds of info like the store’s hours, what kind of policies they have, a link to the website, and other super-relevant info.  As far as sites that deserve to rank, this one hits the mark.  If you are looking to buy some marijuana legally, you couldn’t do much better than finding this site.  Here’s what it looks like:

weed maps screenshot

As far as I can tell, there’s nothing fancy going on here with internal linking, or siloing, or anything like that.  They just straight up have a site that people love, and is useful.  It has become an authority site in the cannabis niche.  Here’s a quick shot of the top domains linking to them (as reported by MajesticSEO)

marijuana marketing

…and their trust flow/citation flow profile with the CF/TF graph:

weedmaps trust flow citation flow

To put this plain and simply, to out rank Weed Maps, you’d need to get hundreds of domains linking to you.  And not just a1kz3foo.com, but killer sites like Time.com, Techcrunch.com, WashingtonPost.com, and so on.  But here’s the thing, WeedMaps is a monster of a company.  They make more than $400,000 per month (as of 2010!!!) and have 12 employees.  So your marijuana-related site is probably not going to outrank them.

A Bit of SEO Philosophizing

One thing that’s not discussed very much in the SEO space is having a reasonable idea of whether or not you can rank in a niche, or outrank certain sites.  You, by yourself, are not going to rank a site in the Insurance space without dropping some serious dough.  Even then, it will probably only be temporary.  Thinking that you’re going to outrank WeedMaps with a similar “yelp of weed” type of site isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  Similarly, trying to outrank procon.org is going to be tough.  It will require thousands of hours worth of work, and even more money spent on creating ultra-shareable content, among other things.

So what’s an entrepreneur to do?

The point of this niche analysis is not to dissuade you from going after this niche.  Rather, I’m trying to give an idea of what to expect, and to try and emulate what the successful sites are doing.  Just, sometimes, those sites are doing things that “the little guys” have trouble copying.  Which, as far as business goes, is a smart play.

Gaps in the SERPs

So hearing about all of the sites that you won’t be able to outrank is only so helpful.  I get it.

Now, we’re gonna look at sites that aren’t as authoritative, and have a chance at being unseated in the SERPs.  When you’re looking to get into a niche, these are the kinds of sites you want to look for.

Let’s dig in…

tgscolorado.com

This is the website of a marijuana retailer with six locations in Colorado.  The domain name was purchased in 2012, making it relatively new compared to some of the other sites showing up in the search results.  The domain doesn’t have have ton of trust and authority yet.  Here are the majestic number:

tgscolorado trust and citation

But what it does have going for it is many relevant links.  Just look at the domain names:

tgscolorado referring domains

With just a minimal amount of research, you can see that this domain will continue to do well in the SERPs if it keeps getting these relevant names.  And with just a quick glance at this niche (for all keywords), the one thing that is clear, is that relevant sites are HUNGRY for content relating to marijuana/cannabis.  It’s new, it’s exciting, and people are excited about it.

Many of these links are from Marijuana Dispensary Lists (similar to WeedMaps), so you end up with entries like this on a lot of site:

tgscolorado listing

tgscolorado.com is getting many links from similar sites.

There are also many links from “cannabis news” related sites, such as http://thecannabist.co:

ranking marijuana sites

and of course they linked to the site they are reviewing.

So here is some easy SEO advice:

If you are trying to rank ANY kind of marijuana related site, and you’re looking for some natural links, start reaching out to people.  Here’s what I would do:

  1. Find several sites similar to your own (or, really, any marijuana related site)
  2. Run your favorite backlink checker (moz, majestic, ahrefs, etc)
  3. Look at what kind of links they are giving (is it news?  is it a review of something? is it listing resources?)
  4. Make a list and start emailing those sites.  Talk about why your site/product/whatever is awesome.  Offer to do an interview.  Ask them to review you.  Ask them to include you in a resource list.
  5. If you really want to be awesome about this, right a couple KILLER articles relating to the niche and ask if they are interested in publishing it.  Include a small sample

Seriously, if you can’t get sites to link to you, either you aren’t trying or you have a product or service that is unremarkable.  Do something awesome or unique or funny, and start reaching out to people.  [Actually, if you want to hire me for this, send me an email and we’ll work something out.  I’m very good at this for many different niches]

News Sites

When considering gaps in the SERPs where you might be able to hustle and slip your site into a gap, look at what sites are ranking that AREN’T niche-specific authorities (such as, in this case, weedmaps.com), and aren’t giant authoritative sites with some relevance (such as a .gov or .edu site talking about something related to (in this case, medical marijuana) your niche.

For instance, when I’m looking at the sites ranking for “legal marijuana” (a 5400 searches per month keyword), I see a lot of news sites going in and out of the search results.

For example: a CNN opinion article from 11/19 is ranking 6th (as of November 21st), and started ranking on 11/20, just one day after it was published.  There are several more examples of this: an RT.com article written on 11/19 ranking 8th–it started ranking on 11/20, again, just one day after it was published; and a rollingstone.com article published also on 11/19, and ALSO started ranking on 11/20–it currently is ranking 18th.

As I discussed over twitter with @eliquid (one of the founders of my favorite SEO tool SERPwoo.com), this is a niche in need of authorities.  If news sites can published a moderately related article and be ranking the very next day, that really suggests there is room to come in and start being a permanent fixture in the SERPs.

Again, using SERPwoo (which I track niches with), you can see the volitility present in the top 20 for this big keyword (legal marijuana): SERP ChurnGoogle basically can’t decide who to rank where.  This is your chance.  Put your nose down and get the work done.  Be an authority.

Conclusion

This niche analysis took a very long time to write because the search results kept bouncing all over the place.  Here’s the summary of the nearly 2,700 words that make up this post:

Study your niche enough to know what ranks are possible.  If you’re in the health niche you’re unlikely to outrank the CDC.

Look at the niche-relevant authorities and see what they are doing to get links.  Let this inform your content and outreach strategy

Look at niche-relevant non-authority sites to see what they are doing to get links.  You can easily emulate this to gain similar links, and then keep going past the sites linking to them and earn more links.  These sites are possible to outrank by gaining some authority. [To start, check out my Authority post on how to use podcasting to earn links]

Make a note of the number of news sites ranking in your niche.  Are there several?  If so, there is definitely room for you to move in and kill it.  Bonus points if you can reach out to these sites that insta-rank and get them to write about you.  Easier said than done, but you should try anyway.

Next Steps

Here are some suggestions for ranking in this niche:

Get Links From Authorities:

What can you do to get a link from norml.org procon.org mpp.org Is there some content you could write for them, or something noteworthy they would be interested in linking to?

Get Listed

Have you got a place that sells recreational/medical marijuana?  You should ABSOLUTELY be trying to get listed on every possible service that provides listings, such as: weedmaps.com leefly.com t hcfinder.com Some of these services cost money (such as weedmaps), but some of the services are free.  Target newer services that are just looking for companies to add to their pages, because they badly want content.

Link Out

As I showed you in the example with procon, link out to helpful and authoritative resources.  The current SEO climate has optimizers thinking they need to hoard link juice.  While you should be selective about who you link to (and don’t just have a site full of outbound links), let your content direct who will receive links naturally.  Look at the big players in the industry.  They are ranking at the top AND linking out to related sites.  It’s been said that linking to sites in the same niche (especially authorities) is a quality indicator, and helps show Google what your site is about, among other things.

Put Together An Amazing Resource

Again, look at the top sites in the niche.  Weedmaps is an amazing resource if you’re looking to find dispensaries.  Procon in an amazing resource if you’re looking for info on Marijuana Laws in each state.  MPP.org is an amazing resource relating to marijuana policy.  Be the resource that all the news sites want to link to when they write about a certain topic.  Easier said than done, I know, but that’s how you’re going to be able to rank and stay popular.

Mine Competitor Links

There are tons of opportunities to get links from all around the internet.  Bonus points for relevant links!  There’s an easy way to find these opportunities, just run competitors through your SEO tool of choice (for me, it’s MajesticSEO) and find out what sites are linking to them and why.  Then pursue.  Each case will be different, so I can’t give blanket advice on what to do when reaching out sites.  But be genuine, enthusiastic, and if possible, unique.  That will help. I hope you enjoyed this niche analysis.

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  • kyle

    My strategy would be long tail keywords for traction, then reach for the money keywords in about a year. There are better and profitable niches than weed.

    • Sean Markey

      I agree that there are currently more profitable niches, but it’ll be big time in several years. Slow and steady, like you said, is a good approach.

      I’d have to say starting to rank a dispensary or a state marijuana resource for states that don’t have legal marijuana now, but will in a year or two, would be a solid play.

  • OnSynergy

    Interesting read. It’s definitely not the easiest keyword / group of keywords to target, but your point on getting in now is good, if we continue to see legalization hit more states in US – which we probably will. However, the target keyword is still a tough challenge. I had a niche site a while back, where the main KW was related to the main KW highlighted in this post – The difference was “ganja” was used, and it was a long tail keyword. There was a high level of search volume and low competition (according to long tail pro) but I ultimately decided to drop the site because it was part of a project which was a bit too ambitious. I think, if I were to try to make money from that industry today based on expectations for further legalization, I would buy in on some cheap stocks for companies ready to bring ganja to the shelves 🙂

    • Sean Markey

      Hey! Yeah, I hope it didn’t sound like it was going to be EASY to rank, because I don’t think that’s the case. But if you don’t start now, you’ll be that much further behind when you do.

      As for buying in on stocks, that’s not a bad idea, especially if you can use your knowledge of SEO to evaluate who will might be killing it, as discussed in Glen’s ViperChill post: http://www.viperchill.com/seo-stock-market

  • Grampa Scott

    A good read! I agree with most of it – We have been working for 10 years to gain what I call “SEE” = Search Engine Exposure. You also want to be found across as many search engines and directories as you can as well… i.e., Duck Duck Go, Google, Bing, Yahoo! etc. The small guy can still compete quite well (IMO). weedsthatplease.com – grow marijuana, growing marijuana indoors, germinating marijuana seeds, cloning marijuana plants, marijuana growing tips, buy marijuana seeds, harvesting marijuana, marijuana growing supplies, marijuana seeds for sale, IT CONTINUES TO GET TOUGHER as more competitors get on board (the topic). And also remember, (as you touched on) – To take these same searches and replace the term marijuana with the word cannabis, pot, weed, ganja, will also drastically improve your chances of multiple finds for the same re-arranged search phrase under multiple engines. And then the longer tails just find you when the search (and content) contains other terms like “seeds” and “indoor” and “safely” and even “USA” – Because people search with many varying terms for the same basic information – it is up to you to be found for that content. I gave you nine examples above – these 9 turn into hundreds of phrases when done properly. So each and every page ends up addressing hundreds of potential queries every month around those phrases. And I do NOT think we link near as well as we should.

  • matija krunic

    useful, deep research. Very inspiring.I have ranked a few licensed producers in google. I also made a video about ranking SEO and the Cannabis space, may interest people reading this – being attractive to people and google (rankbrain)
    : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTNVi5wLmUI&t=147s