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Essentials to Drive Growth for Cannabis SEO

In conversation with Joseph Babi

In this episode, Dawood chats with Joseph Babi, founder of Joseph Paul Digital Agency, and Hashly, a cannabis SEO agency. Joseph talks about link-building strategies, recent trends, optimizing mobile websites, and much more. Dive in for a closer look at the essentials of Cannabis SEO to elevate businesses to an all-time high.

It is vital to document, document, and document if you want to be an SEO agency rather than a freelancer.

Joseph Babi
Founder of Joseph Paul Digital Agency, and Hashly, a cannabis SEO agency
Hello everyone, today we have Joseph Babi, founder of Joseph Paul Digital Agency and founder of Hashly, a cannabis SEO agency. Joseph, welcome to the show man.

Hey, how’s it going?

Going well. Very excited to have you. I have wanted to interview an SEO that works in the cannabis industry. Cannabis SEO is taking off. A lot of new trends are happening. A lot of stuff is happening there. But before we dive deep into it, it would be great if you could introduce yourself to our viewers. And also, tell us more about your story and what brought you to this specific career path. And now cannabis.

Yeah, so my path to SEO is very uncommon. I got my degree in accounting and got an accounting job. And read a book that Tim Ferriss recommended about developing iPhone apps. So I quit my job that day without an app, developed an iPhone app, and went into credit card debt, and then I was too broke to market it. And so, the cheapest way to market it was to do SEO myself. And that’s how I realized I enjoyed doing SEO. And so, from there, I started Joseph Paul Digital Agency doing SEO for other companies. And then, long story short, I ended up getting a cannabis company, and some of the initial results we got were so tremendous, and we didn’t even realize it because we’re so used to having big numbers. Some of the bigger companies came to us and said, “hey, whatever you guys are doing, you’re doing it correctly, because your client is one of the biggest clients”. So what we ended up doing was starting Hashly and focusing on and doubling down on the cannabis industry. And it’s a lot more fun than your typical mortgage broker or insurance agency client because you get to talk about a lot more fun topics.

I understand cannabis is competitive as well. What are the main trends you're seeing regarding cannabis SEO?

So the main trends I’m seeing when it comes to cannabis SEO, right now, it’s very young, so I don’t think anyone’s cracked the E-commerce code in terms of ordering online. Many of these dispensaries have embedded menus, which we all, as SEOs know, can’t be crawled by Google. And so you need to be able to figure out what factors need to go into those store pages to send indicators of location and what they’re selling.

The new robots tag update came index embedded. I know it is useful to people publishing many media and videos and stuff. But do you see, it is used in cannabis as well when it comes to like embedded menus and stuff?

No, because the thing is, I don’t know that it will be hot unless you’re a vertically integrated brand and you have your product. I see it being useful, but for your typical dispensary that’s selling a bunch of different brands, the brand descriptions, and the product names are identical, and so even Google does crawl, it just looks like a bunch of duplicate content.

So how do you take care of these websites or dispensaries that are selling a lot of brands? How do you take care of the product pages and category pages, how do you do that?

So, we don’t have your typical access like WooCommerce would. What we do is, there’s a lot of big mistakes that are obvious to SEOs that aren’t to dispensaries. And so, the first thing we do is make sure the URL structure has the city name and location in the actual URL. The next thing we do to make sure that when someone’s searching dispensary near me is, we have a Google Map embed of the store’s location, and then all your NAP information should be on the page. And on top of that, if they are doing delivery, we’re placing these zip codes on the store page itself of where they delivered to because delivery is so restrictive. So when someone searches cannabis delivery and their city Google understands their zip code, based on their location, and it reads cannabis delivery, and then zip code under that heading tag. So they realized that, well, these people deliver here, so let me serve them.

So in such cases, I'm sure leveraging schema markups would give a lot of value because these are local dispensaries and stuff?

So schema markups are just highly important. And because some of our clients have upwards of 15 locations, we started to use schema Pro, the plugin for WordPress. That way, we’re able to specify what schema goes to what page so that way, we’re not applying it globally. And it ensures that we don’t screw things up, and we can put processes around that.

Also, when it comes to Link Building for cannabis, I know it's a very atypical link building strategy, and expertise is required. So how do you approach link building for cannabis clients?

So for now, we’ve been extremely lucky to hire high-quality writers. These are writers for High Times, wiki leaf and some of the other bigger cannabis publishers. We create content that is so compelling that we naturally get organic backlinks without doing any outreach. We haven’t had to pursue too much. We worry more about MAP citations and getting them on all the cannabis menu websites, like weed maps, duchy, I heard chain, etc. So we’ve been really lucky about getting backlinks in terms of reaching out.

Also, do you see pillar pages and pillar content used in cannabis as well?

Yes and no. It’s just not as obvious as it would be for a mortgage broker, where a pillar could be refinancing and all the nuances that go into refinancing. With cannabis, it’s a bit more high level, and it takes a little bit of selling on our part to the client. We talk about a pillar that would be a lifestyle, and then you have to relate a lifestyle to cannabis. And then a part of that lifestyle, too, is you have to figure out how to make it local, especially if they’re multi states. So if I have a dispensary located in Michigan, I’m going to write about the best places to go that are cannabis-friendly, that is indoors in the winter. Whereas Arizona, it’s the best hiking route, because it’s nice there all year round. And it’s just the two different lifestyles and understanding that.

If you're able to do it, it's a beautiful way to get high-quality links.

So, that’s what we like to do. We like to create content that people are naturally going to link to the right, so we don’t write about – why you should buy from us type content. Or why should you smoke cannabis? People who smoke cannabis and are searching for it, already know why they smoke cannabis. And the people that are going to write content related to that already have their own opinion. Creating lifestyle stuff would be one of the best pieces of content that you can create from a blogger standpoint. And then like another pillar that would be uncommon is your locations page. And then having that location page internally linked to each of the dispensaries if there’s more than one occasion.

Also, recently, I talked to an SEO again. They have clients with a lot of locations. And we were talking about leveraging videos and embedding videos, mainly YouTube videos, and getting them ranked. A very interesting tactic that they use is that apart from the normal schemas and markups on location pages, also for every location, they create a video of that location's manager. So it gives a unique video for every location and helps rank that location so quickly on Google, which I found was a very good tactic for location pages.

So what we do is, for a location page, we will actually get images of the location and then embed the Geolocation into the image and then post it onto the website. So when Google crawls it, it appears that the image was taken there. Even though in reality, we make sure that the image is saying, Hi, I was taken here, and you double-check that.

Joe, how do you spy on your competitor's SEO? What things to look at while doing competitive analysis?

So, we don’t do anything too crazy from a competitor analysis perspective. We look at H refs data. We are Team H refs, not team SEM rush. But in terms of some of the things that we do uniquely, there’s an extension called GMB crush. And so what we’re able to do is pull out the categories and all this stuff from their Google My Business. And so what we found was, is like, in certain areas, the category of cannabis store is the best one. And then, in other areas, holistic health is the best category for it because you can see that the top five in the map pack are all holistic health stores. And so it’s just seeing what signals Google is sending, and then just out doing what the competition’s doing. So if they’re posting once a month, we’re doing it once a week and things like that. And so with every location it is different.

Also, when you're doing keyword research, how do you calculate the ROI or value for different search queries, like an exact match keyword versus a longtail?

When we’re doing keyword research, we know we’re going for a dispensary near me, so the bulk of our efforts will go there because we know that that is somebody ready to buy. And we know that the average ticket item is like $100 to $150 at a dispensary. And so we know that as many people as we can get in through dispensary near me is how much they’re making times $150 -$200. In terms of like the blog content, what we do is we place a higher value on like, let’s say, a recipe for cannabutter. Where someone’s looking up a recipe to see how they make cannabutter. And they need cannabis to make it, so if they got the information from me, they’re likely to come to me to get the cannabis. And so it’s really hard to put a value to it, just because of the nature of the e-com stores being embedded. We only get what information Duchy or iHeart Jane or Weedmaps provides to us. And so not all of our clients are on top of it and want us to look at that data. So it’s really hard to understand the ROI on a per keyword basis. If you were to ask us what the ROI is on the SEO effort overall, we can give that pretty easily because we know exactly how much traffic is going to the store and how much time they’re spending on that page so whether they are shopping or not.

Also, how much importance do you give to internal links, and do you follow a thumb rule, that these should be the maximum internal links on a page or anything like that?

We don’t have a hard rule. We do have a rule of thumb, in terms that we should have an internal link within the first paragraph of the blog post. But in terms of having a hard rule, though, if it can’t happen naturally, we don’t do it. So we try to be as white hat as possible. I don’t think there’s an SEO in the world that’s 100% white hat. But we try to be as white hat as possible. And then for internal linking, outside of Link whisper, which is a fantastic plugin, we created a proprietary tool that’s built-in Google sheets that takes Screaming Frog data. It then extracts all the text and tells it to look for certain key terms. And then it’ll point it out to us. And then, we go back to the website and manually do it. We found more success with that than link whisper. But the link whisper is very nice just to write it. I like to call the rotisserie chicken method, set it and forget it.

Joe, what are your tips on optimizing mobile websites?

Our tips on optimizing mobile websites, like the cannabis industry, are very art-focused. And so if you look at, wearehashly.com , our website, and compared it to Joseph Paul Digital Agency. Joseph Paul Digital Agency is square, very professional, whereas we are super funky. And so what we noticed with these cannabis websites is they’re using huge pictures. And some very beautiful names as well. So we’re starting to notice that most of these dispensaries are using huge photos, and they look great. But you have to start coaching them on speed. And then a lot of these dispensary websites because they don’t know better, it a very young market right now. And so they’re either great at selling weed, or they’re great at growing weed, but they’re not necessarily internet marketers. So you have to teach them that the last developer has their CSS file massive like, Or they use WP bakery and loaded every plugin possible onto the website. And so a lot of the low-hanging fruit that we used to see in the industry probably like five years ago but today.

Also, we talked about link building briefly, but when it comes to press releases, how much value are press releases, particularly in cannabis?

I love them. Especially for a brand new dispensary or brand new cultivator. So many of these press releases say, hey, we do not allow the sale of cannabis stuff there. And we’re not going to publish that. But when you can take the angle of a community and say that a new dispensary has opened up in this community. It’s employed this many people in the city. And it’s projected to add this money back tax dollars to the city. It makes for a great press release, and it helps Google index the page quicker.

So, you’re naturally going to get backlinks. If you’re opening a new location in a new city, it makes perfect sense to do a PR campaign, even if it’s just a newswire. You’d be surprised that a lot of these news wires go to local publications.

You give such an amazing pitch for press releases and cannabis, by taking the community's angles. So thank you for that. I'm sure our viewers in that space will benefit from that.

I think anyone would benefit. I think people overlook how well press releases can do. If either A- they’re interesting or B- if you can make it about the community that you’re in. It’s amazing for locals.

Joseph, what is the biggest challenge you have ever come across during your SEO career? I know there will be many. But what is the biggest or the one that stands out or comes to your mind?

Yeah, I think the biggest one stands out in my career outside of trying to do SEO for an iOS app, which is completely…

You will not tell me like, what was this app?

So the app was an alarm clock, where you had to play a game to turn it off. And there was no snooze button. And so the SEO worked because it was the number 12 utility app in the United States. I was number seven in Japan and number two in Ukraine. And I didn’t even translate the app into those languages. They just loved it. And so that all came from SEO, I ended up getting it on to NerdWallet through outreach, and then getting it onto the local news. And then also getting it reviewed by forgot his name. He is the little brother of the person who wrote the book- I’ll teach you how to be rich.

Okay, I don't know.

Something Sethi. He’s super popular. But anyways, his little brother reviewed it. And it went wildly. It went on fire. The next hardest one I ever did was a company called Wind pack founded by a former pro bowl NFL player. And it was like an engineering company. And the content was super complex. It was padding that went into helmets, and we had to hire a neuroscientist to write the content for it. And just finding ways to get backlinks for a website was extremely hard because it’s extremely niche, and then figuring out keywords for that that had volume and had monetary value behind it.

Joe, what are your thoughts on optimizing for voice search?

So for the voice, we think that if you get your schemas right, your page structure is correct, and you’re presenting information, voice search will take care of itself. When it comes to voice search, we also have the advantage of not being one of those people who think you wrote 100 words, so we’re going to write 1000 words. We find that we went on voice because we’re more concise. Especially with local and frequently asked questions, we try to be as concise as possible.

Do you see its use or value in cannabis as well? And I'm sure because the dispensaries are local.

So, it is very valuable. If I were to use Siri right now and say, Hey, find me a dispensary. It’s my client. Two out of my three clients pop up. And that’s what people are doing. I think that it will be more and more prominent as more people adopt the hey Google, hey Alexa.

Any particular tactic or strategy working for a voice that you think is helping your clients or your dispensary pop up on voice as well?

I think our ability to take over their Google My Business has helped us tremendously. And their Yelp. So we dedicated a person per client to handle the reply to every review and geo-tagged upload pictures. And so the reason why we focus on Yelp and Google My Business or Google business profile, whatever they want to call it now, is because obviously, Google is Google. But Apple is using Yelp for their information. And so there are rumors that Apple is going to come out with their review system, but until then, we’re going to be focusing on Yelp. So that way, Siri loves us just as much as the Google Assistant does.

Any special tip that you would like to give our audience that they could use and benefit from?

In terms of my special tip, it’s pretty unorthodox in terms of SEO, because like everyone wants to give you that secret bullet. I think if you’re serious about being an agency, and stop being a freelancer is to document, document, document. If you’re going to run through something and figure out how to do it, you might as well write on a Google Docs down exactly what steps you did on a Google Doc. It’s going to be annoying up front, but when you’re ready to get to that point where you’re only making sales, or where you’re only worried about sales, and you’re no longer in SEO, you’re going to be so happy that you got it because it’s going to free up so much of your time. And it creates repeatable processes so that you’re more confident that you have a playbook to follow and you tell someone that you can help them. And you can adjust when certain steps don’t work.

Joseph, thank you for your time. But before I let you go, I like playing a quick rapid-fire round of three to five questions in the end. So I'll just start the rapid-fire, and whatever comes to your mind, don't waste time and just quickly answer.

Okay, let’s do it. I’m ready, I think.

Describe yourself in three words.

I would say crazy, fun, optimistic.

If a movie was made about you, what genre would it be?

I think it would be an action-comedy.

Who is your favorite superhero?

Woof, it’s tough between Batman and Ironman.

Oh, my favorites as well. But I think for me, Ironman would have an upper hand.

Yeah, exactly. He resembles more of the lifestyle. At least in Ironman one. A lifestyle that I like,

Are you a morning person or a night person?

Honestly, I am just generally if I’m awake, let’s go get it. I describe myself as a golden retriever. If I’m up, I’m optimistic. Let’s get going.

What was your last Google search? Do you remember?

My last Google search? I think I was looking for scented candles for my office because I’m a big scented candle connoisseur.

Well, Joe, thank you so much. It was fun having you and I wish you all the best.

All right, thanks. Great.

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