Cannabis, marijuana, pot, weed: The terms all generally mean the same thing. So what’s the right way to refer to the plant? Which words are people currently using to search for information?
I’m a senior content strategist at Leafly, which means I use trends in online and offline behavior to help inform our writing, editorial calendars, and other channels used to connect to our audience. One of the most interesting things I’m noticing is the evolution of cannabis consumers. They’re getting smarter. And the way they refer to the product is changing.
Here’s how cannabis consumers search for common variations of “cannabis” on Google right now:
There’s a clear preference, but you can’t rely only on search volume to determine how you discuss a topic. Search volume provides just a snapshot. Taking a look at data over time and getting a feel for the long-term trend can be just as important. For example, look at trends in searches for “marijuana” vs. “cannabis” in Google since 2005:
“Marijuana” searches remained relatively stable over the past several years. Meanwhile, “cannabis” searches are trending up. In fact, “cannabis” is expected to surpass the use of “marijuana” within the next few years.
A similar trend can be found in the number of searches behind each term as its own topic — in other words, the collective search volume behind all subtopics that Google associates with that specific phrase. Back in July 2014, subtopics associated with “marijuana” still had more collective search volume. However, somewhere between July 2014 and June 2016, the collective search volume behind “cannabis” associated subtopics surpassed it. And it continues to increase:
“Cannabis” is the more scientifically accurate term, and writers are increasingly recognizing that. If we’re trying to further establish the legitimacy of the industry, using the word “cannabis” is moving us in the right direction — even if, in the short term, search volume data has yet to catch up.
This linguistic evolution is even making its way into legislation. Leafly deputy editor Bruce Barcott recently noted that California’s landmark “Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act” was being renamed the “Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act” — a significant milestone in the change from marijuana to cannabis.
Here’s another interesting trend. “Medical marijuana” is still a widely used phrase. But change is coming in that area, too. There was an uptick in searches for “medical marijuana” and “medical cannabis” around 2009, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced it would no longer raid state-approved dispensaries — a huge turning point for the industry. What happened next is similar to what we’re currently seeing for “marijuana” and “cannabis” searches. “Medical marijuana” search interest plateaued around the same time. Even though “medical cannabis” still has less search interest right now, it’s slowly trending up and is projected to eventually catch and surpass usage of the other phrase.
See the trend of “medical marijuana” vs. “medical cannabis” use in Google below:
I saw a similar example of the daily evolution of the vernacular during a recent conversation with Leafly associate editor Ben Adlin. We were discussing an article about Utrecht’s rules on cannabis coffeeshops, and he wondered whether it should be “coffee shop” (two words) or “coffeeshop” (one word). I dug into the data. There are far more searches for “coffee shop” than “coffeeshop,” and it’s generally agreed that the two-word version is correct. However, I noticed in a Wikipedia article about “coffeeshop” that the single-word version is strongly associated it with the Netherlands. It seems that Google and consumers are starting to differentiate the two variations; two words refer to your local coffee company, and one word references those famous cannabis establishments in Amsterdam.
Search interest for “coffeeshop” by itself is quickly trending up as well. Here’s a graph mapping out the average number of searches per month over the last couple of years for “coffeeshop” – notice how it’s exponentially becoming a more popular search phrase, especially over the last couple of months:
Cannabis consumers aren’t the only ones gaining knowledge. While search interest in “cannabis” and related subtopics is growing, you can’t ignore the fact that search phrases using “weed” or “marijuana” tend to be more popular:
If you’re publishing an article on growing cannabis, the potential loss of 30,000+ website visitors based on a single word choice is a difficult dilemma. However, when you look at Google search results for “how to grow weed” you’ll notice something else: Google is starting to correlate the terminology. Here’s what I mean in the screenshot of the search results below:
- A search for “how to grow weed” is serving a page that primarily uses “marijuana” – it even goes as far as bolding “marijuana” as one of the words from the “weed” search query.
- While the domain name uses the search query, the Title Tag uses “cannabis” and is being considered an answer to this question in search results. “Marijuana” is also bolded in the Meta Data.
What can a cannabis company glean from all this?
- The times — and the terms — are changing. Be aware that using terms like “weed” or “marijuana” may begin to sound dated as “cannabis” becomes more mainstream.
- Know your audience. A lot of people still search using the terms “weed” or “marijuana.” If your target audience is particularly prone to using slang terms, communicate to them in their language.
- Some businesses see “cannabis” as a term with less political baggage. The prohibition era and war on drugs are associated with terms like “dope,” “weed,” and “marijuana” (or the archaic “marihuana”). Using a neutral, science-based name like “cannabis” may help the plant — and the industry — shed the baggage from that era.
- If you’re trying to stay ahead of trends, review your use of terms both online and offline. That can include websites, menus, conversations with customers, or your cannabis dispensary page on Leafly.
What cannabis industry and/or terminology trends do you predict for the coming months? Tell us in the reader comments below.