Originally published on the Findable Digital Marketing Blog.

Yes, it is true, advertising cannabis goes against Google’s policies. Yet, companies have and continue to get around it. But how is that possible?

At Findable Digital Marketing, we work with search engines day in and day out, and we are going to share our expertise on how there is a loophole in Google’s policy that can make Google ads for cannabis possible.

To realize the loophole, we first need to understand Google’s advertising policy in relation to cannabis, look at how people have managed to get around it, realize the different risks that are involved and finally the different alternatives available to us.

Before we get into it, we want to be clear that we are in no way encouraging you to violate Google’s advertising terms and conditions.  This blog post is simply for educational purposes. Use this information and make a decision at your own discretion.

So let’s start by looking at Google’s advertising policy for cannabis, CBD and hemp.

Can cannabis companies advertise on Google?

No, Google doesn’t permit ads that promote the use, sale or even provide informational content about cannabis. It doesn’t matter if it’s medicinal or recreational cannabis, Google doesn’t make a distinction and classifies it as a recreational drug in their Advertising Policy.

Below is a complete list of prohibitions that are listed in Google’s policy under “Dangerous products or services”:

See Google’s full Advertising Policy here.

These prohibitions include cannabis dispensaries, delivery, accessories like pipes or rolling paper or the actual product like dried flowers, concentrates or edibles.

Running ads for any of these products or services is forbidden. However, If you type in “marijuana near me” in the Google search bar, you are likely to notice relevant ads on the search engine results page (SERP).

If you want to learn how brands manage to run Google Ads for cannabis products despite Google’s policies, you first have to understand how these ads get approved.

What does Google evaluate to approve and display an ad?

To be able to get an ad approved by Google, start by putting the following three things together:

  1. The ad copy
  2. A landing page: the website or page you are aiming to bring more traffic to.
  3. A list of keywords to bid on *

Once these three things are ready, you can submit the ad or campaign to get approved by Google. During the approval process, Google will start looking for signals that suggest you are selling cannabis – or anything else that is part of the prohibited list in its policies.

The following terms are signals that can be considered as “bad words” or “trigger words” as per Google Ads policies:

  • Marijuana
  • Weed
  • Cannabis
  • Hash
  • Ganja
  • Vapes
  • Pipes
  • Rolling paper
  • Dispensary

Using any of these words in your ad copy, website copy, or website domain could trigger Google Ads and your ad campaign won’t be approved.

How to get cannabis ads approved by Google

There are three things you need to submit a Google ad:

  1. Ad copy.
  2. A landing page.
  3. A list of bidding keywords.

Here’s the loophole to getting cannabis ads approved: Google only scans your ad copy and website for the previously mentioned “trigger” words but it does not do the same for your bidding cannabis keywords

In other words, this means that you can bid for the word “marijuana” but you cannot use it in your ad copy or your website.

Let’s take a look at a real-life example. 

We started by searching “marijuana pickering” and studied the ads and websites that came up. Take notice that these ads are bidding for the keyword “marijuana” but the keyword is not actually used in the ad copy nor the page URL.

Next, we clicked one of the ads and studied the landing page. Again, pay close attention to the copy or use the “Find” tool in Google Chrome and you’ll find that the keyword “marijuana” is never used.

Carefully planning and editing their ad campaign is how cannabis companies get their Google Ads approved.

To be clear, we are not looking to shame any brands or anyone out there. In fact, we think companies that uncovered this loophole are quite clever. Besides this information is available on the Internet for everyone to see.

Google’s advertising policies make a clear distinction between recreational substances and pharmaceutical drugs –  but the policies do not differentiate between recreational and medicinal cannabis.

On paper, Google considers cannabis as a recreational drug. It doesn’t matter how or why people use it, the policy does not allow you to advertise it.

Google’s list of unapproved pharmaceuticals includes CBD, prohibiting it from being advertised. But, Google’s advertising policies for pharmaceutical drugs are less strict than those for recreational drugs.

The reason we say “on paper” is that behind closed doors Google is testing and tweaking its policies.

Since 2019, Google has been running closed test programs for CBD companies. This means they’ve approached specific CBD companies and have given them permission to run ads.

But, what happens if Google detects your attempt to advertise cannabis on its platform?

What happens if you violate Google’s policy with a cannabis ad?

Google will slap you on the wrist and will move on to disapprove of your ad. If despite the disapproval, you persist in pushing your cannabis ad, Google can decide to suspend your account altogether.

If Google decides to suspend your account, you have the option to submit an appeal. Google only reinstates accounts if it looks like an honest mistake was made. But, if you make a mistake and try to violate their policy again, it will definitely not be seen as an honest mistake.

If you do not want to take on the risk of advertising cannabis on Google ads, what are your possible alternatives?

What are the alternatives to advertising cannabis on Google ads?

Let’s consider your alternative options to advertising cannabis on Google ads. One option is running display or programmatic advertising on a private or closed network. That is, you buy banner ad space directly from the website instead of going through Google Ad Sense.

Your other option is using organic means like content marketing, SEO and public relations.

What’s great about organic website marketing is that it “prepares” you for the day Big Tech platforms, like Google and Facebook, finally decide to change their advertising policy to allow cannabis ads.

It is important to keep in mind that ads work best when they have substantial data about your target customers such as:

  • Who are they?
  • When are they online?
  • What keywords do they use?
  • What’s their search history?
  • What other content do they like?

Depending on the data that you provide, the algorithm changes the way it shows the ads.

The more data they have, the better your ads perform and the lower your cost-per-click (CPC). In the marketing world, this is known as maturing your Facebook pixel or increasing your Google Ads quality score.

But how do you provide big platforms, like Google and Facebook, data to improve the performance of your ads and to lower your CPC?

You can provide your website traffic data through Google analytics or by signing up with Facebook pixel. By granting permission to track your website, you are providing these platforms with updated data about your website traffic.

You can create content on your website and include SEO practices, such as targeting relevant keywords, to get more organic traffic on your website and invest in public relations campaigns or partnerships.

The more data you have now, the better prepared your ads will be when Google’s and Facebook’s advertising policies do change.

Can cannabis companies do SEO and Google Ads simultaneously?

SEO and Google Ads typically work together quite well and go hand-in-hand to make a campaign more impactful – but not in the cannabis industry. In fact, the two channels contradict one another.

Say you are competing for the keyword, “weed grinder”.

If you want to rank for this keyword organically using best SEO practices, you must use the keyword in the page URL, metadata, and in the copy of the entire page. However, if you want to bid for this keyword in a Google Ads campaign, you’d have to do the complete opposite to bypass the loophole in Google’s Advertising Policy. This is because “weed” (and perhaps even “grinder”) is a trigger word.

A work-around I’ve seen some companies take is create and run Google Ads on a unique landing page, one that lives on a separate domain. This separates your SEO from your Google Ads efforts.

An exception would be if you’d like to bid for a keyword that doesn’t contain a trigger word but is still relevant to the cannabis industry. For instance the keyword, “seed to sale software”.

You still wouldn’t be able to use trigger words like “cannabis” on the landing page or URL, however, it would be much easier to rank for this keyword organically with SEO and also bid for it in a Google Ads campaign.

This is a situation when yes, a cannabis business can do SEO and Google Ads simultaneously. Nevertheless, it requires careful planning.

The future of advertising cannabis: Will Google and Facebook change their advertising policies for cannabis?

A common question we get asked is “do you think Google and even Facebook will change their advertising policies for cannabis?”

We are optimistic that they will but it all depends on several external factors.

For one, we think it will first take the USA to federally legalize cannabis for Google and Facebook to then change their policies. Given the circumstances and traction in the 2020 USA election, we don’t think is that far off.

No matter where you want to run the ads, a majority of these big Tech platforms, like Google and Facebook, are American companies and are going to comply with local laws regardless of Canada’s Cannabis Act.

However, it also depends on Big Tech’s investors since much of the advertising money holds the majority of control over the on-goings and decisions of Big Tech’s next steps.

We are most curious to see if cannabis will be treated the same as alcohol, tobacco or pharmaceutical drugs. Google is much more flexible with alcohol and pharmaceutical but not with tobacco. But the real question here is, how will cannabis be different?

Last Updated on August 31, 2021 by ADCANN

Daniela Furtado

Daniela Furtado

When Daniela isn’t managing Findable Digital Marketing, you can find her learning a new language, salsa dancing, or cooking up a storm!