Kirk Evans is the owner and Creative Director at Sherpa, a Portland-based web development and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) agency. Their focus is on supporting cannabis and hemp brands in the online domain.
An early enthusiast of web technology, Evans began designing websites in his late teens. By his twenties he transitioned to a career in graphic design, when he began working for some of the largest apparel brands and ad agencies in the world. In 2015, Kirk and his business partner started Sherpa. Both had been active proponents of legalization and wanted to make a difference in the cannabis industry by fusing their backgrounds in design and technical SEO.
Since its inception, Sherpa has worked with over 100 cannabis, CBD, and ancillary clients on projects ranging from branding and packaging design to technical SEO and content writing. Some notable mentions include Farma, The Grove, Smoking Crow, Fluresh, and Best Dispensaries. They’ve also worked with prominent CBD brands like Lazarus Naturals, Mana Artisan Botanics, Lux Botanics, and FIND CBD.
C&T Today: When and why did you start Sherpa?
We started Sherpa because we saw an immediate need for better web design and SEO in a new industry that excited both of us. We also have a deeply held belief in the power of the plant to heal and connect with each other.
C&T Today: What exactly is SEO? Why is it important?
SEO is essentially optimizing a website to make it easier for search engines like Google, Bing & Yahoo to “read” or index the website.
The easier a website is to index, the higher a search engine will rank you in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) when a user searches for something specific to your business, which subsequently drives more traffic to your website.
There are innumerable factors that go into their search algorithms and they are constantly shifting (according to Moz, Google makes between 500-600 algorithm changes each year), which requires us to adapt our 100-point checklist constantly.
For a local business, having a website that is SEO’d is absolutely critical to keep up with competitors. We find that around 90-95% of websites aren’t optimized for SEO, which gives a business that utilizes on-page SEO a distinct advantage.
C&T Today: What is “black-hat” SEO? Why is it so dangerous in the cannabis world?
Black-hat SEO is the act of using tactics that search engines would deem “cheating” in order to increase traffic and rankings. For example, “keyword stuffing” is a strategy wherein a site loads their copy with excessive keywords to rank higher in the SERPs.
Often the content itself is thin, misleading, and totally useless– but it gets clicks. 5-10 years ago, SEO developers could get away with these schemes, but search engines are catching on. Eventually, innovations in AI will be able to completely filter out this kind of bunk content.
It is especially dangerous in the cannabis industry because as most cannabusinesses know, we are especially vulnerable to having accounts shut down or removed. Having your site de-indexed (removed from search) is probably one of the worst things that could happen.
C&T Today: Is SEO technically considered marketing?
Although SEO doesn’t technically fall under the advertising or marketing banners, it certainly plays into both. SEO is about generating increased organic traffic. PPC (pay-per-click) advertising like GoogleAds is the other side of the coin.
As most CEO’s of cannabis companies know, GoogleAds are generally not allowed in our industry currently. They also have an 86% lower conversion rate than an organic (SEO) lead. Other marketing services like Social Media, PR, Programmatic and Remarketing are all pieces of a larger pie we call marketing. SEO falls more into that category in my opinion.
C&T Today: As we know, misinformation about cannabis is rampant. How can SEO be used as a tool for elevating not only businesses, but the quality of information available to the public?
Search Engines place an extremely high value on a content-rich website. Most of our clients and other reputable companies that we see in the industry also see how rampant misinformation is about cannabis online.
If a brand thinks of their website as a knowledge base and a place to educate their consumers, not only does it add valuable key terms into their content, it gives an SEO agency like ours a lot of flexibility to add on-page schema which helps the search engines parse content, and helps websites that provide the most value to the public rank higher.
What’s more, as search engines and AI become more savvy to those “black hat” SEO hacks I mentioned above, thin and misleading content about cannabis will be replaced with valuable, well-researched information about the plant. It’s in the best interest of everyone – not just companies looking for higher ROI’s.
C&T Today: What is a common misconception you feel most cannabusiness owners have about creating a website?
I would say that, in general, most cannabusiness owners have a hard time seeing why it is important to have a website that is on-brand and user friendly. Social media has been the predominant marketing avenue for a long time and in some ways is seen as more of a tangible marketing avenue because there is an interaction between a brand and its consumers.
We see social media as a brand awareness tool because of the limitations on placing Instagram and Facebook ads in the cannabis space. The problem is that social media is only one piece of an overall web presence. 61 percent of people research products online before they make an actual purchase. And that’s important, because we know users are immediately turned off by a less than stellar website: in an Akamai study, they found that 40 percent of users will abandon a page if it doesn’t load within 3 seconds. As the old adage goes, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
C&T Today: How is cannabis SEO different than SEO for other industries?
Truthfully there is not much difference between SEO for cannabis and SEO for other industries. There are some slight variations of the on-page schema (markup code) that we use for our cannabis clients, but overall the goal is the same. Off-page SEO (citation campaigns) are a bit different in that we will target listings specific to the cannabis industry, like Weedmaps or Leafly, as well as a number of other high-value listing sites.
C&T Today: What does the process of building an SEO-optimized website look like, from start to finish?
The first thing is establishing great content before building a site. To do that, we use a thorough on-boarding process that gives us a good overall picture of the brand. Having written content that adheres to the readability algorithms is also important to have from the get-go.
Once we have that information, it is our job to build a site that is a great user experience (UX), is custom designed, on-brand and is functionally easy to use. Once we have the site built out we start our on-page and off-page SEO work which consists of the 100+ point checklist I mentioned earlier. Robust sites with more pages often take up to a week to run through the entire checklist.
C&T Today: Why does so much awful information shows up in Google searches? Why is good information often hidden in SERPs?
Truthfully, there are too many factors to list to explain why certain information shows up in search results while other, more useful information does not. It is often a combination of many things, which is why we try to address the whole picture of a website and how it relates to SEO.
We always use industry best practices and our SEO team is consistently doing webinars to stay up-to-date on current trends and algorithm updates.
C&T Today: How do you vet your clients to make sure they share a similar ethos to Sherpa?
When we began our agency we would work with just about any business that wanted to work with us. As we’ve grown and cemented our place among our competitors we began to be a lot pickier about who we worked with. We started asking questions like, is this company dedicated to normalizing this plant? Do they care about the processes used to make these products?
Do they have a strong brand or are they willing to rebrand to help our creative process? What is their ethos? These are all things we take into account when a potential client approaches us. We always discuss internally to make the decision as to whether or not we want to work with certain companies.
C&T Today: What can you tell us about the Google Panda algorithm and what it means for your work and the cannabis industry at large?
Google Panda updates focus primarily on ensuring that low quality and poor content websites receive lower search results so that higher quality content sites can receive priority exposure.
What it means for us is that we have an obligation to our clients to enlighten them on the benefits of having a content-rich website and blogging regularly. Content writing is something that is often overlooked as a marketing tactic, but it’s less expensive than paid advertising and has the potential to yield better ROI over time.