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What Is Programmatic SEO? Scale Your Way To Success

Header image for Programmatic SEO
Header image for Programmatic SEO

Programmatic SEO is how some of the biggest websites in the world rank for thousands of keyword variations.

It’s about leveraging low-competition keyword opportunities at scale to boost your online visibility.

But it’s not easy.

You need to publish LOTS of pages. And if you get it wrong, you can create more problems than solutions for your search rankings.

In this article, we cover:

  • What is programmatic SEO
  • Programmatic SEO examples
  • The pros and cons
  • How to do programmatic SEO (step-by-step)

What Is Programmatic SEO?

Programmatic search engine optimization is a strategy that involves targeting a large group of longtail keywords with the same head term and a modifier.

Using a template and a database, you can publish unique pages at scale.

FATJOE graphic providing an overview of what programmatic SEO is.

Many large websites use this strategy to dominate search results for longtail keywords in their niche.

Programmatic SEO Examples

Tripadvisor is one of the most notable programmatic SEO examples. It uses a programmatic template to automatically create pages for thousands of location-specific search queries.

If you search for “best restaurants in (city),” it’s almost guaranteed that Tripadvisor will appear in the top results.

Screenshot of Google results for best restaurants in Nashville

Tripadvisor has thousands of pages targeting similar keywords with the same design and layout.

The only difference between the pages is the content.

Here’s the Best Restaurants in San Diego page:

Screenshot of Trip Advisor best restaurants in San Diego

And here’s the Best Restaurants in Las Vegas page:

Screenshot of Trip Advisor best restaurants in San Diego

It’s important to note that programmatic SEO doesn’t work for every niche. It can be a good option if you have many location-based keywords, content categories, or ecommerce products.

What Are the Benefits of Programmatic SEO?

Publishing at scale with programmatic SEO offers several benefits, including:

Increased Traffic

The search volume for longtail keywords is typically lower. But collectively, they can generate a significant amount of organic search traffic.

In January 2022, startup site Failory revealed it had attracted over 50,000 users from programmatic SEO – around 45% of their total Google traffic for the month.

Increased Topical Authority

Programmatic SEO can boost your topical authority. Covering topics from every angle helps search engines understand the relevance of your website.

It’s Scalable

A more conventional SEO content strategy takes time to implement and is more resource-demanding.

Because pages are generated from the same template, you can scale your content strategy much faster with programmatic SEO.

With programmatic SEO, you can quickly capture hundreds of low-competition keywords.

What Are the Downsides of Programmatic SEO?

There are some risks and downsides to using programmatic SEO, including:

Potential Duplicate Content Issues

Search engines may exclude your pages from their index if two pages on your website are too similar. This keyword cannibalization can lead to a loss of rankings and no organic traffic.

That’s why adding unique content to your programmatic SEO pages is important. But keeping up with content creation can be difficult if you publish thousands of pages.

Tripadvisor achieves this with user-generated content like reviews and comment sections.

Alternatively, you can outsource to an agency or freelancers. Using the right content brief, you can keep things uniform and scalable while allowing for enough unique content to differentiate each page.

Google Indexing Issues

Google assigns a limited crawl budget to each website.

Crawl budget is the amount of resources the search engine uses to crawl your website over a set period. Learn more about crawl budgets and how they impact SEO in our expert guide.

If you publish hundreds of pages, Google may need help to index all your pages.

A good internal linking strategy and site architecture can help you overcome this challenge.

We’ll discuss these tactics in more detail later in the guide.

Google Penalty for Automatically Generated Content

There’s no outright ban on using automatically generated content. But it does need to help the user.

Google’s official spam policies prohibit “automatically generated” designed to manipulate search results without offering value.

This can be interpreted as a threat focused towards AI-generated content, but any form of low-quality content with out a sufficient level of detail or human-editing can face this pitfall.

If this is a potential spanner in the works for your Programmatic SEO strategy, familiarize yourself  with Google’s content guidelines as best you can.

Screenshot of Google's policy on automatically-generated content

How Do You Implement Programmatic SEO?

You can avoid the risks that come with programmatic SEO by implementing it in the right way.

Here’s how to do it.

Keyword Research

Keyword research is the foundation for your programmatic SEO strategy.

But according to developer Allison Seboldt, it’s a task many SEOs overlook.

You’re going to need hundreds or even thousands of keywords.

The way to do this is to focus on head terms related to your niche. Head terms are broad categories that get a lot of search volume.

The amount of head terms you’ll need depends on your industry.

A global travel website like Tripadvisor will need more than an ecommerce store selling pet supplies.

Define Your Goals

Before creating a list of keywords to target, you must define your goals.

How will targeting the topic category or head term help you achieve your business objectives?

Generating lots of organic traffic looks great in your analytics dashboard.

But it’s a vanity metric if it doesn’t help the business.

However, this doesn’t mean you have to focus solely on transactional keywords. Programmatic SEO pages can also be an effective way to attract prospects and introduce your brand, as long as you put the appropriate customer funnelling in place to make the most of this increased attention and awareness.

Identify Your Main Topics

Start by brainstorming a list of potential keywords related to your industry, products, or services.

You can also use keyword research tools to explore related keywords and spy on your competitors’ SEO strategies.

The goal is to identify broader terms representing the main topics related to your business.

For example, Zapier uses programmatic SEO to target a bunch of keywords related to software integrations.

The head term is “integrations,” with the name of each tool acting as a modifier.

  • Google Docs integrations
  • HubSpot integrations
  • Salesforce integrations

Target Longtail Keywords

When you have a list of head terms, the next step is to find modifiers that create longtail keyword searches.

Each landing page will target a longtail keyword that consists of a head term and a modifier.

One of the easiest ways to find modifiers is to use Google’s autocomplete feature.

Simply type your head term into Google and see which words are added to the search query.

Google autocomplete for best places to live in

Then, you can check the search volume using tools like Semrush or Ahrefs.

SEMRush best places to live in results

In the above example, you can see that the search volume for these related terms is high. But so is the keyword difficulty.

You can discover longtail keywords that are easier to rank for by adding an additional modifier to the search query.

For example, adding “young” to the query gives us a list of terms with much lower keyword difficulty.

SEMRush modified best places to live in results

This approach enables you to identify thousands of longtail search queries.

Build a Content Database

Now, you need to combine your head terms and modifiers into a giant list using a tool like Airtable. This will form your content database.

Airtable screenshot

You’ll also need to think about where you will source all the data you need.

That could involve scraping third-party websites, manual collection and entry, or user-generated content.

Your content database should detail the key SEO attributes for each content piece. This includes titles, URLs, target keywords, publish dates, and meta descriptions.

It pays to plan your internal linking strategy at this stage. Consider the relationships between different content pieces and how you want to interlink them.

Build Your Content Template

The content template is one of the most important parts of your programmatic SEO strategy.

In most cases, your landing pages will have an identical layout. The structure and design will be the same, with the title and body content changing for each page.

You can use automation tools to create identical pages with blank sections for unique content.

Ensure the Brief Is Scalable

A standardized template makes it easy to scale and ensures consistency. But you also need to leave enough room to adapt the page template based on the needs of each keyword you are targeting.

You typically won’t need to create in-depth, long-form content for each page. But you will encounter duplicate content and other issues if the pages are too similar.

Understand the User Intent

You need to understand the search intent for each target keyword.

Search intent is the motivation behind a search query. You can learn more about intent and how to identify it in our search intent guide.

One of the benefits of targeting specific longtail keywords in your programmatic SEO strategy is that the search intent is usually clear. Users are typically looking for specific information or to find a particular solution.

Define the Additional Value Your Content Will Provide

One of the biggest reasons programmatic SEO strategies fail is content that doesn’t offer value to the user.

Website owners build landing pages from a template and publish thousands of pages containing low-quality, automatically generated content. The sole purpose of each landing is to direct the user to a money page.

All this achieves is to flood the internet with more spam.

Google prohibits these “doorway” pages in its spam policies.

Google doorways screenshot

Image Source

Think about how you can add value and incorporate that into your content template.

Then, as you begin to scale, you’ll still create a worthwhile experience for your visitors.

Utilize Internal Links

You’re going to be creating hundreds of landing pages.

Internal linking is essential to make sure that your pages are connected. This allows search engine crawlers to discover and index your programmatic pages more effectively.

You don’t want to create orphan pages that impede on your crawl budget.

Wise is an excellent example of a successful programmatic SEO strategy that utilizes internal linking.

It targets the head term “Send money to” with lots of location-specific keyword modifiers.

At the bottom of each landing page, Wise includes internal links to the other location landing pages:

Wise screenshot

Image Source

Internal link building also allows link juice to flow between your pages.

When a page receives external links from other websites, it accumulates authority. You can pass some of that authority by linking from a high-authority page to other pages on your site.

This can improve the rankings of those pages in search engine results.

If you created a detailed content database, you should have a pre-planned internal linking structure to follow.

You can leverage contextual links to help establish the semantic relationships between your pages. Google uses these links to understand the context and relevance of your content.

This can boost your semantic SEO and increase your visibility in search results for relevant queries.

Publish and Index the Content

Because you are publishing at scale, getting Google to index all of your web pages can be challenging.

You need to make sure that each page contributes value and is optimized for search intent. Otherwise, you may find that Google kicks a bunch of your pages into Crawled – currently not indexed.

There are technical SEO strategies you can use to encourage Google to index your content.

Create HTML Sitemaps

An HTML sitemap is a web page that links to all the important pages in a category on a website. It’s a structured outline that allows users and search engine crawlers to easily navigate your web pages.

Here’s an example from Target Careers:

Target careers screenshot

Image Source

Once you’ve published your landing pages, create individual HTML sitemaps for each category on your website.

The sitemap should contain links to all the relevant pages within that section.

If you are using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal, you can use plug-ins to create HTML sitemaps.

Create a new page specifically for your HTML sitemap. Then, follow the plug-in instructions to add the HTML shortcode to the page.

Once you’ve published the page, use the “Request Indexing” feature in Google Search Console to manually request a URL crawl.

This will prompt Google to crawl and index the pages linked within the sitemap.

Take Your SEO Strategy to the Next Level with Programmatic Techniques

Programmatic SEO can speed up the traditional SEO process. It’s a tactic that can quickly drive organic traffic.

But it comes with challenges. It is not a replacement for quality written content and building topical authority in your niche.

Instead, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of your content and your topical authority at scale.

You still need great on-page and off-page SEO to rank well and achieve long-term success.

Remember, don’t be robotic with your programmatic SEO. The pages will still need a spark and unique content to set them and you apart from your competitors!

Daniel Trick
Daniel Trick

Head of Content

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