Hemp companies should ‘sharpen pencils’ to shape industry debate

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Sandy Templeton is the owner of Digital Oil LLC, Backus, Minnesota, and a partner in HempStrategist, a hemp-focused marketing communications specialist. Templeton has worked in digital marketing for more than a decade and helped many clients boost Google search performance and ultimately generate business organically. He holds degrees in electrical engineering and physics, and previously worked in the renewable energy and semiconductor industries.

HempToday: Major social media are still restrictive on hemp and cannabis advertising. How much does this hurt the industry? Do you see that changing?

Sandy Templeton: Digital marketing techniques have been developed for the products and services available online today. Unfortunately, many of those techniques are not available for hemp products except in very restrictive cases, such as obtaining FDA approval for the product.

For most hemp companies, Google has effectively issued a complete ban on hemp product ads. On social media, however, we’re allowed to talk about hemp and cannabis and share product experiences with others. That has opened the door to one of the most effective forms of social media advertising; the use of influencers in the hemp and cannabis space. Influencers are more expensive typically, but arguably more effective since they are trusted by their followers and speak directly to the target customers.

HT: What can companies do in the meantime?

ST: There’s no doubt the industry is hurt by the lack of mainstream advertising, but creative solutions that help gain mindshare are available. It’s incumbent on any leadership team to find where their company can both make a noise and be heard under the current restrictions while at the same time prepping traditional channels with content that will eventually form the backbone for a sales funnel deployed in traditional search and social media advertising once regulations allow, as they surely will.

HT: It seems like the ground constantly shifts when it comes to the parameters driving search engines. What does the landscape look like now? What’s on the horizon?

ST: Google is by far the only search engine that matters in business, so users need to understand what Google feels helps and hurts its paid search customers. The shifting goalposts on search criteria are rather like tax loopholes that are fixed every year by local and national governments. Creative accountants quickly find new ways to get around the new regulations creating new loopholes. Every algorithm update shuts the door on several sets of poor practices but opens a new area of creative exploitation which is addressed in the next update.

HT: So what makes up the sound fundamentals in 2023.
ST: Despite the recent noise about Microsoft’s plan to apply AI to its Bing search engine, Google continues, by far, to be the only search engine that matters. Google’s system of 200+ indicators of web page rank worth has evolved well beyond the point where on-page keyword use and a few backlinks are no longer enough to merit prominent placement in search. Today the idea of continuous improvement in content quality has really taken hold.

A website must add value to the debates it participates in and offer insight and information for its readers, viewers and listeners if it’s to become prominent in search results.

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Google is certain to raise the bar further on content quality to improve the search experience for everyone. That means to continue to rank in the future, we all need to sharpen our pencils and create an environment in our marketing organizations that demands comprehensive content our users will find truly useful.

HT: What’s driving search of “hemp” generally?

ST: Momentum in the hemp industry has largely been dictated by the state of legal battles. Passage of the 2018 Farming Bill and the expectations regarding the SAFE banking act in 2022 had a huge effect on the number or new pages created, and in particular the depth and breadth of keywords with meaningful search answers on these topics.

The root term hemp oil has more than 42,000 keywords associated with it, and while SAFE banking has only around 6,000 terms these two have understandably dominated web design and SEO activity in the hemp world.

HT: With hemp’s potential in a number of major global industries, what can we say about the industry’s overall position, for example, in the food and construction (+green building) sectors? How competitive is the landscape there?

ST: These sectors are extremely competitive and will protect their business from hemp newcomers. The green argument makes sense in some quarters in Europe but not in the USA where the economic case for lower costs in installation and maintenance will need to be made.

HT: What are the common mistakes, or common weaknesses among companies’ strategies and execution?

ST: Almost every company we’ve discussed this with underestimates the difficulties they’ll encounter when they try to promote their products and get mindshare from potential partners and customers. The absence of traditional support mechanisms like the press, advertising, and online marketing make it difficult to take a strategy that works well in a traditional industry and implement it in a hemp equivalent.

By necessity, then, the best hemp strategies are organic in nature. They rely on high-quality, value-added content and SEO to make sure the keywords searchers are using to find brands and products land on excellent pages that satisfy the search criteria and broaden interest so that visitors want to stay on the website and read more. Engaging content that offers value and improves page experience is still Google’s biggest ranking factor.

HT: You also specialize in hyper-local search engine optimization. Talk about that part of the SEO value matrix.

ST: Local SEO is especially useful for hemp and cannabis businesses that operate in larger cities and have local clients and customers. The sectors that benefit most from Local SEO are cannabis lawyers, dispensaries and distributors. In Local SEO we’re not competing at the national level with everyone in our niche, we’re interested solely in making a website the dominant source of information among competitors within a 50-mile search radius. Google introduced its Local Pack in 2014 which allows local companies to rank at the top of page 1 for keywords that have local relevance. It’s one of the most effective means of selling to a local community.

HT: What are the limits of AI in addressing the SEO needs of marketers?

ST: The major use of AI right now is in writing articles and blog posts. A keyword is fed to the AI program and it produces a coherently written piece in your chosen language complete with related keywords. Programs from sources such as Jasper used in conjunction with content moderators like Surfer are becoming very popular because they promise to take the hard work out of writing content for a website.

In theory Google rankings could skyrocket with minimum effort. AI tools have a place in every digital marketer’s tool bag, especially for relieving writer’s block, but there are significant limitations.

But there’s no personality; humor and irony are missing and it’s pretty easy to conclude there was no human touch added during writing by the robots.

Also don’t be surprised if there’s a clampdown on web pages written by AI in the next couple of years, especially if the market for these tools booms. It may be very tempting to curate your hemp content with AI, but one morning you may wake up and find your website somewhere below the 10th page in search thanks to an algorithm update designed to eliminate this type of content. Think that can’t happen? Google eliminated every Affiliate Marketing website from search overnight in 2012 because of duplicate content.

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