Programmatic SEO: A Beginner’s Guide for Founders

Published on
May 29th, 2024
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How To
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I’ve been fielding more and more questions from founders about programmatic SEO. I thought it’d be helpful to write this beginner’s guide.
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A beginner’s guide to programmatic SEO, including examples of websites with fantastic pSEO strategies, a recap of mistakes you won’t want to make, and a step-by-step process for identifying keywords.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of increasing your website’s visibility in search engines like Google. Often, that means creating webpages designed to rank well or appear near the top of search engine results pages (SERPs) for specific keywords or phrases.
There are many different types of webpages you can create. For example, many companies create blog posts or editorial content. In 2024, more companies are considering launching a programmatic SEO (pSEO) strategy as a part of their overall content strategy.
But before launching your pSEO strategy, you’ll want to think critically about the types of pages you’re creating, so you can avoid several common mistakes.
In this article, we’ll provide a beginner’s guide to pSEO, including some examples of websites with fantastic pSEO strategies, a recap of the six mistakes you won’t want to make when launching your pSEO initiative, and, importantly, a step-by-step process for identifying the keywords you’ll want to target.

What Is Programmatic SEO?

In brief, pSEO is the process of quickly creating a very large number of pages on your website, often using a data source and landing pages.
When done correctly, pSEO is an attractive approach because it will allow your website to rank for a very large number of keyword phrases and won’t require you to manually create a large number of blog posts — which, if we’re being honest, can take an incredible amount of time.
Companies often use pSEO to rank for large numbers of long-tail keywords. A long-tail keyword is a more specific version of a head term, or a broad keyword, and it often has a very specific search intent (the reason that someone is doing a search). Long-tail keywords are often less difficult to rank highly for in search engines.
As a quick example, a head term would be a keyword like “teacher salary,” and a long-tail keyword would be “teacher salary Charleston South Carolina.”
Your programmatically created pages will typically target keywords that have a head term and a modifier. In our example, “Charleston South Carolina” is the modifier that our programmatically created webpage will serve specifically.
To continue with this example, you could, in theory, create a very large number of pages for teacher salaries in different cities or locations very quickly, thus ranking for a large number of keywords and driving meaningful amounts of traffic. These pages would likely be very similar in structure and design but would be altered or customized with unique data so that each page would answer a specific search query.
You may, however, find that your keywords are just long tails without a head term to modify. That is also totally fine — for example, Redfin ranks for a large number of street address keywords that don’t have a clear head term: the entire keyword is just a long-tail (more on this example below).
The terms “programmatic SEO” and “product-led SEO” are often mistakenly used interchangeably. However, they are quite different concepts. A product-led SEO strategy is one where the product itself is largely answering the intent of the search or the keyword (think “Expedia flights to Miami”), and pSEO is the process of creating a large number of pages programmatically, which could be used for a product-led SEO strategy. However, it’s possible to build a product-led SEO strategy without pSEO.
There are some common mistakes to avoid, and we’ll outline those in depth below. In short, know that most companies struggle to make their pages uniquely helpful enough. As a result, they often run into indexing issues very early on in launching a pSEO strategy. Duplicate content issues, thin content, and keyword cannibalization are common problems (more on this later).

4 Examples of Good Programmatic SEO (with Explanations)

There are, unfortunately, more examples of companies doing pSEO wrong than companies doing it right. I didn’t want to call out anyone specifically for doing pSEO wrong in this article, but if you’d like to see some examples, just reach out to me.
Instead, here are four examples of companies doing pSEO really well. What I like most about all of these examples is that they go above and beyond in creating unique value for the searcher.

Glassdoor

Glassdoor is a website that provides salary information and tools for both job candidates and companies looking to hire. In this example, I Googled “Atlanta copywriter salary,” and I found this URL.

What I Love About Glassdoor’s Programmatic SEO Strategy

In theory, this search query, “Atlanta copywriter salary,” could have been answered by a single number or a compensation band. But I’d argue that with that simple of an approach, Glassdoor wouldn’t be adding any unique value to their page, and that the page could be considered thin content.
Instead, Glassdoor goes above and beyond in trying to create unique value for site visitors after immediately answering the question posed by the query and addressing the search intent.
For example, on this Glassdoor page, they:
  • Provide filters, such as industry and years of experience, so searchers can get a more precise number.
  • Provide pay trajectory and information about career paths.
  • Provide searchers with a breakdown of the compensation, including base pay and bonus amounts.
  • Provide a clear explanation of the methodology they use to calculate their data, including a confidence score.
  • Provide a list of the top-paying companies for this role in the specific location.
  • Provide compensation band examples at local companies, for example, Home Depot and Delta, which are large employers in Atlanta.
Glassdoor quickly provides the searcher with exactly what they’re looking for. Then they enrich their pages with other helpful information and give the searcher many options for the next step to take on their website.

Redfin

Redfin is a real estate search platform for consumers; it also offers tools for real estate agents. In this example, I Googled “1538 Lauren Dey Way,” and I found this URL.

What I Love About Redfin’s Programmatic SEO Strategy

In this case, the search intent of someone searching for an address like “1538 Lauren Dey Way” would be unknown. This searcher might be interested in purchasing this property, they might already own this property, or they might just be interested in learning more about properties near them.
Redfin generates pages programmatically for basically every address, and they do a great job of adding value and addressing different search intents with their pages.
For example, on this Redfin page, they:
  • Provide pricing information (they do this for properties that are currently for sale) and provide their own estimates of the property’s value (they do this for properties for sale and for properties that are not currently listed).
  • Provide estimates of the value change for the property over time.
  • Provide a mechanism for a searcher to schedule a property tour quickly.
  • Provide a number of helpful photos from different angles of the property, both the interior and the exterior.
  • Provide estimates of cost, including monthly mortgage payment information. They also have a helpful calculator that the searcher can adjust based on their down payment, interest rate, and other factors.
  • Provide a map of the area.
  • Provide a tool for calculating a commute from this location.
  • Provide a tool that connects you to a local real estate agent.
  • Provide a detailed breakdown of the listing, including HOA information, utility information, tax information, and much more.
Redfin addresses virtually every search intent or the reason a searcher would be searching for this given property.
This is a fantastic property, and if Positional works out, I might be able to buy it the next time it's for sale.

Zapier

Zapier is a SaaS company that allows you to connect tools to each other — for example, Stripe to Google Sheets — and pSEO has played an important role in Zapier’s growth and success. In this example, I Googled “connect Stripe to Google Sheets” and found this URL.

What I Love About Zapier’s Programmatic SEO Strategy

In this case, the search intent for someone searching for “connect Stripe to Google Sheets” is very clear. The searcher is looking to automatically move information between Stripe and Google Sheets.
Zapier could have simply generated a landing page with an H1 directly hitting that primary keyword. Instead, Zapier goes a few steps further and adds unique value for the searcher.
For example, on this Zapier page, they:
  • Provide examples of information that you could move between Stripe and Google Sheets. As just one example, using the toggle, we see that we can shift customers who have recently failed payment from Stripe into a new row in a Google Sheets spreadsheet.
  • Provide six clear use cases that show why you’d want to connect Stripe to Google Sheets, including creating a new Google Sheets row for every Stripe event. Searchers can load many more examples, some of which they likely haven’t thought of yet.
  • Provide a list of other related apps you might also want to connect to Google Sheets. This is helpful for the searcher and also helpful from an internal linking and site structure standpoint. (I go on to highlight Zapier’s site structure in detail later in the next section.)
While the search intent for this keyword is quite clear, Zapier lets searchers get even more granular with specific actions they’d want to perform between the tools.

Poly

Poly, a Y Combinator company from the S22 batch, recently posted on the bookface about the amazing growth they’ve seen with pSEO. Poly allows users to generate design assets in seconds, and they’ve leveraged a pSEO strategy to rank for very long-tail keywords with a user-generated library of textures.

What I Love About Poly’s Programmatic SEO Strategy

Poly created thousands of highly personalized pages for specific textures, like “red Spanish marble texture for wedding” and “blue alien texture from Star Wars.” And when people search for a specific texture, they find one of Poly’s highly targeted pages.
On Poly’s pages, they:
  • Very clearly present the searcher with exactly what they’re looking for, a high-resolution texture that the user can then view and edit directly with one click. I imagine that Poly is seeing fantastic numbers for user-experience metrics like bounce rate, time on page, and so on because they are making the next step in their process so clear.
  • Provide helpful tags to direct users to other similar or interesting textures. This is super helpful from an internal linking and site architecture standpoint.
  • They provide other results — again, this helps the searcher find exactly what they’re looking for, and it’s beneficial from a site architecture standpoint. They’re making it very easy for searchers and Google’s crawlers to understand how all of their pages are interconnected and related.
For Poly, this strategy makes a ton of sense because the search intent for the keywords they are targeting and the on-page experience of their product is very natural.

Common Mistakes Companies Make with Programmatic SEO

When thinking about your pSEO strategy, these are some missteps you’ll want to avoid.

Forgetting to Internally Link and Build a Proper Site Structure

An internal link is simply a link from one page on your website to another. And your website’s architecture is built using internal linking. Both internal linking and site structure are essential to a pSEO strategy.
Internal links are mission-critical in SEO and, arguably, the most important thing you can be doing from a technical SEO standpoint. Internal links help Google understand how all of your webpages are interconnected and related. And they show Google which pages you care about on your website. They’re also helpful for users navigating your website.
I always tell companies running pSEO strategies to make their pages easily findable via internal linking. Typically, using your site’s navigation or internal linking from editorial content, you’ll want to make sure that all your website’s pages are no more than three or four links deep, so they’re accessible to both website visitors and Google’s crawlers.
In the Zapier and Redfin examples discussed previously, both websites provide internal links from their programmatic pages over to other closely related programmatic pages. Zapier also does a fantastic job when it comes to site architecture.
For example, Zapier has this Apps directory, which then links down into their more specific app pages, for example, this Gmail page. From the Gmail collections page, Zapier internally links down to the more specific apps you’d want to integrate with Gmail, for example, Google Sheets. And then, from the more specific integrations pages, Zapier links across to other similar integrations pages, for example, Smartsheet.
Within three or four clicks, internal links take users — and Google’s crawlers! — down to the depths of Zapier’s website and give them exactly what they’re looking for.

Not Starting with Editorial

Many companies want to start with a pSEO strategy. While that’s tempting, I’d highly recommend building the foundation for your website with editorial or blog content first.
When a website is very new, Google’s algorithms are really just trying to understand what it’s about and whether it’s a good source of information. You’ll often hear about building topical authority or topical relevance — in other words, you want to show Google that your website is a good resource on a particular topic.
Before launching hundreds or thousands of programmatic pages, you should first build a content portfolio about your general topic area. For some companies, that might mean creating ten pieces of content; for others, that might mean creating 50 pieces of content. In my experience, it typically takes 20 to 30 pieces of high-quality content for Google to really want to start to pay attention to your website (assuming it’s a very new website).
With this added context on what your website is about and what it’s a good source of information on, Google will be more willing to crawl your programmatically generated pages and actually index them.

Indexing Issues

John Mueller from Google’s search team recently joked on Twitter that “programmatic SEO is often a fancy banner for spam.”
Another big mistake that I see early-stage startups make is that they begin by creating a large number of generally unhelpful pages, with the idea that they’ll come back and improve them in the future.
If anything, I think the quality bar for your programmatically created pages should be the highest in the very beginning, given that you have a smaller number of pages.
If, in Google Search Console (GSC), you see Google reporting that your pages are “Discovered - not currently crawled,” that might be an indication that there are quality issues with the pages themselves.
You can, of course, request indexing on your pages manually in GSC, but that typically isn’t a required step. Plus, Google allows you to request indexing on only a small number of pages each day.
If you’re seeing this reason provided in GSC for why your pages aren’t indexing, you should think critically about the unique value that your pages are providing. And there could be other issues at play.

Duplicate Content, Thin Content, and AI-Generated Content

If you’re reusing large amounts of very similar content on multiple pages, you could run into duplicate content challenges — meaning that Google isn’t able to determine how each of your pages is uniquely valuable.
You could also run into thin content issues. Thin content is often described as pages without a meaningful number of words on them. That is often the case, but thin content can also mean that your pages aren’t helpful or aligned to a given search intent, or that your pages could be described as doorway pages — that is, pages that are simply a thin stepping stone to another page on your website.
Also, using large amounts of AI-generated content might lead to indexing challenges. I’ve seen countless websites with substantial amounts of AI-generated content run into indexing issues. And while there might be confounding factors, Google has said not to use AI-generated content as a means to manipulate search results. Google has gone on to say that you can use AI-generated content, but they’ve reiterated multiple times that AI should be just a helpful starting point and that this content should still go through a normal editorial cycle.

Moving Too Quickly

Rolling out a pSEO strategy should take some time. You don’t want to publish thousands or tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of pages (yes, I’ve seen this) from the get-go.
Instead, you should ramp into publishing your pages. You could, for example, start with 20 or so pages this week, and then 30 pages next week, and so on.
All the while, you’ll want to keep tabs on GSC to ensure that your pages are indexing appropriately and starting to rank. If you see a spike in the number of non-indexed pages, that might also be a signal that you are rolling out your pages too quickly and that it’s time to pull it back.

Hurting the Perceived Quality of an Entire Site

If you’re experiencing indexing challenges, it could be that there is a content quality issue worth investigating.
And if there is a content quality issue — for example, a large number of duplicative or thin pages — you might be causing damage to the non-programmatic side of your SEO strategy.
Know that Gary Illyes from Google’s search team has recently stated that Google looks at sitewide signals to determine the quality of a website, and therefore the ranking performance of all of those pages.

Neglecting to Build Backlinks

In the past, I’ve written that building backlinks should not be an important focus at the beginning of building an SEO channel. And that is still true. Most companies need to get the other 80% of the process right first: picking the right keywords and creating fantastic web pages
That being said, building backlinks and increasing your website’s domain authority will be helpful in a pSEO strategy. Higher-authority websites can often get away with a lot more when it comes to pSEO. For one, the higher your website’s authority is, the more Google will want to dedicate resources to actually crawling all of your programmatic pages, which could number in the thousands. Moreover, Google will want to put a great emphasis on not only crawling your pages but also indexing and ranking them in search results.
I’ll often get asked, “Why do my pages look exactly like Zillow’s pages, but none of them are indexing?” Zillow operates with a different set of rules than you do, and what works for higher-authority websites might not work as well for lower-authority websites. The bar for page quality and helpfulness is typically much higher for a lower-authority website.
In short, building some backlinks will help your programmatic pages index and rank faster. But focus on this after you’ve done almost everything described above.

Identifying Keywords for Programmatic SEO

A keyword is simply a search term. Early on in building this strategy, you’ll want to identify the keywords that you want your pages to appear or rank for in organic search.
Keyword research is the process of identifying and prioritizing keywords based on quantifiable metrics like monthly search volume and difficulty and also qualitative metrics like funnel stage or intent.
As we’ve discussed, with pSEO, your keywords will typically have two components:
A head term, generally a broad phrase like “car insurance,” and then a modifier, like “in Charleston South Carolina.”
Conducting your keyword research process for a pSEO strategy is similar to running a keyword research process for an editorial strategy. It can often be somewhat easier, though, since the head terms will largely stay consistent, while the modifiers change.
To look at the Zapier example once more, a head term for Zapier could be “Integrate Google Sheets with,” and the modifiers might be the specific apps to integrate like “Stripe,” “Airtable,” and “Quickbooks.”
But you don’t necessarily need to have both a head term and a modifier. In the Redfin example, they’re really just targeting long-tail keywords for specific address locations.
With a programmatic strategy, you’ll often target specific search phrases or long-tail keywords. These keywords tend to be less competitive and have higher intent. In other words, you’ll often be able to rank for these keywords and drive traffic to your website faster — and often, that traffic has a pretty good chance of converting and becoming customers.
You want to pick the right keywords, and you want to align your pages to the search intent of that keyword.
There are four different types of search intent:
  • Commercial keywords — searchers looking to investigate brands or services.
  • Informational keywords — searchers looking for an answer to a specific question or general information.
  • Navigational keywords — searchers intending to find a specific site or page.
  • Transactional keywords — searchers intending to complete an action or purchase.
I always recommend starting with a competitor research process. Using your competitors as a reference point is a great way to uncover what your head terms and modifiers might be.
You can then use a keyword research tool like Positional, Semrush, or Ahrefs for further exploration. These tools allow you to get the data you need in order to prioritize which pages to create first and to find other keyword ideas all at once.

Building Programmatic Pages

There are many different ways to build your programmatic pages. In general, you’ll typically use a data source and a landing page template.
There are, of course, many CMS platforms, too, like Webflow and WordPress, that can be used to create and host your landing pages.
Given that there are so many paths to choose from, I don’t have strong opinions on where you should be storing your data or how you should be hosting and creating your pages.
I do know that a lot of startups have had success integrating a CMS platform like Webflow with data sources hosted on platforms like Google Sheets and Airtable. Whalesync, a Y Combinator company, actually specializes in creating programmatic SEO pages by allowing you to move data from a platform like Airtable to Webflow.
As I’ve mentioned previously in this article, I think websites like Glassdoor and Redfin do a great job of maintaining a friendly and helpful UX/UI while pulling in a ton of really helpful data programmatically.
And again, you want to think critically about the unique value that each of your pages is providing. You want to avoid large amounts of duplicate content from page to page.

Permalink Structure

As far as the permalink structure goes, you should keep your slugs short and focused on the primary keywords you’re trying to rank for. While this isn’t the most important ranking factor, it is one of them.
In this Zocdoc example, I searched for “plastic surgeons Charleston SC”, and I found this URL. I like how Zocdoc is using /plastic-surgeons/charleston as their slug. Zocdoc is very clearly using the primary keyword in their slug, and they’ve kept the slug short. Zocdoc then links down to the specific doctor pages using this URL structure: /doctor/name-of-doctor.
Whatever you decide in regards to permalink structure, just make sure that you keep the structure consistent across your pages and choose a structure that you can live with for a long time.

Traditional SEO vs. Programmatic SEO

If you’re just getting started in building your content and SEO channel, you might be wondering: Should I go with an editorial or blog strategy, or should I go with a pSEO strategy?
For many companies, the answer is to do both.
But I think the right answer for many early-stage startups is that you shouldn’t worry about pSEO at the very beginning of building your channel. It’s often best to start with an editorial approach and then layer on a programmatic strategy later.
You’ll also want to verify that there are enough keyword variants to justify investing in a programmatic approach rather than just addressing those keywords with traditional landing pages or blog content.
I’d argue that if there are at least 100 keyword variants to target (100 pages to create), then building a programmatic strategy around these keywords would make sense. If there were fewer than 100 pages to create, I’d likely just want to create these pages manually and follow a traditional SEO approach.
And if you’re ever confused about when to create a programmatic page for a given keyword or a blog post for a given keyword, simply Google the keyword and look at the existing search results. If you see, for example, that only blog posts are ranking for a given keyword, take that as a signal that you should create a blog post and that it would be tough for you to rank a programmatic page. And vice versa.
For some companies, like Redfin and Zapier, where there are very clearly thousands of pages to create, yes, it would make sense to roll out a programmatic strategy. But I’d start with an editorial strategy to build the website’s foundation and topical authority.
As a final point here, I’d recommend against launching a programmatic strategy if you can’t create uniquely differentiated pages or if there isn’t enough data or content to allow you to tailor your pages specifically to each keyword.

Final Thoughts

Programmatic SEO is a fantastic strategy.
There can be a lot of gotchas, though. As we’ve highlighted in this article, you want to think critically about the unique value that your pages are providing. As Mike Haney would say, what is your page adding to the internet? If your page isn’t adding anything new to the internet, it will be hard to find success with this channel.
We’ve highlighted a handful of examples in this piece. Companies like Zapier have found tremendous success with pSEO by ranking for many search terms related to integrating different products, and they do a fantastic job of giving the user the next step to take. Companies like Redfin rank for a very large number of very specific keywords and go above and beyond in providing a lot of unique value to searchers, even though the search intent of someone Googling a street address might not be that clear.
It’s often best to build an editorial or content strategy for your website before launching your pSEO strategy. Positional offers several tools to help with content optimization and keyword research and even provides tools for content analytics.
About the Author
Nate Matherson is the Co-founder & CEO of Positional. An experienced entrepreneur and technologist, he has founded multiple venture-backed companies and is a two-time Y Combinator Alum. Throughout Nate's career, he has built and scaled content marketing channels to hundreds of thousands of visitors per month for companies in both B2C (ex financial products, insurance) as well as B2B SaaS. Nate is also an active angel investor with investments in 45+ companies.
This article was first published on Positional's blog.
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