It’s time to rethink SEO growth. 

Not every strategy needs to start with a blog post regurgitating the same information across the top Google results and end with an agency begging for links. 

In the era of Google Ads becoming more expensive and organic discoverability becoming less effective, companies need to differentiate themselves in SEO. 

We must push the envelope and create something that has yet to be seen online. 

With creativity, thoughtfulness, and CSV magic, programmatic SEO can do this, resulting in millions of new customers per year.

This sounds impossible, but it’s not. 

In this guide, I will walk you through exactly how to get started with programmatic SEO.

Published programmatic SEO site

What is programmatic SEO?

Programmatic SEO is the strategy of publishing unique, high-quality pages at scale using a template and a database. 

The goal of programmatic SEO is to create content with the same depth and thoroughness as a traditionally published article but repeated thousands, if not millions, of times at scale. A programmatic site can be as small as 200 pages and as large as 4 million. The key is ensuring each page serves a unique purpose in the search journey.

An oversimplification of programmatic SEO is building a database, connecting it to a template, and publishing thousands of pages. 

But if this is all you do, congratulations, you just created thousands of pieces of spam. 

Programmatically building content is a powerful tool that can exponentially grow a site or completely spam it. To become a true player in SEO growth, we must start thinking bigger – or should I say, we need to think “deeper” about our content. 

A newly published programmatic site since June 2022.
A newly published programmatic site since June 2022.

The benefits of programmatic SEO

Programmatic SEO unlocks traffic in the nooks and crannies of the internet. You no longer need to pick a handful of keywords, pay for written content, publish the post and hope it ranks for a cluster of terms. Now we can target entire categories and win all available searches in one template.

With programmatic SEO, businesses can:

  • Win keywords at scale.
  • Produce in-depth content quickly.
  • Gain low engineering lift.
  • Get “quicker” results – I use this delicately. Quickly, meaning results and challenges escalate quickly.

The drawbacks to programmatic SEO

As with any strategy, programmatic SEO also has its disadvantages, such as the following:

  • Indexing is difficult.
  • High risk – poor execution can hurt site growth.
  • Limited by data resources.

Remember, if you’re trying to use programmatic SEO to trick Google or create People Also Ask (PAA) scraper sites, you’ll lose. 

Great programmatic content enhances content production through data depth and production efficiency.

What follows is a four-step guide to implementing a programmatic SEO structure.

Step 1: Keyword research for programmatic SEO

Instead of picking out a handful of keywords and paying for expensive bespoke content hubs, programmatic SEO aims to target entire directories of keywords under the same entity. 

Here are the steps in identifying your keywords.

Define your goals and intent

This will start similarly to a traditional SEO keyword analysis. Identify what category or topical group will drive business value. Hard stop. 

Driving traffic to show a cool graph to your client or boss means nothing if the traffic doesn’t move the business forward. 

Remember, business value can be as obvious as full conversions through transactional keywords or as light as a session hit to introduce your brand and possibly trigger a returning visit later in the research process. 

Here are resources to help complete a thorough opportunity analysis:

Identify main topics

Start broadly. Once you’ve identified the target intent and goals, we need to define the category in which we want to rank.

Think of this as one step below a head term. We call this the “niche” of your site, driven by your product.

For example, “trucks” is a main head term and a broad topic. However, it’s not very intuitive and doesn’t have strong intent for a business-driving keyword, so we want to take it a step further. 

“Ford F-150” is a bit more specific but broad enough for our target.

Note that this is a specific brand search; however, that’s perfectly OK. We’ll not try to outrank Ford, but enhance the search experience for the Ford F-150 audience.

Ford F-150 is not our keyword, it is the vessel by which we will morph into a traffic machine. 

We do this by identifying questions surrounding the main topic. This is the jumping point from traditional content assets and programmatic building. 

If your main topic cannot be modified through repeatable searches, your product may not be viable for programmatic SEO. But if you find common questions surrounding a product, you can win traffic at scale.

  • Timely: Questions that are impactful in a specific timeframe. 
    • Examples: 2022 F-150, stock prices at November 18 2022, inflation rates last year, sporting event scores from last week. 
  • Comparable: Questions that create value by comparing to others. 
    • Examples: F-150 vs Chevy Silverado, housing costs in 2008, book reviews vs book categories, political affiliation by state, hobbies and interests by zodiac signs. 
  • Hyper-specific: Questions that are only valuable within certain parameters and not the broader audience. Also known as the hyper long-tail. 
    • Examples: F-150 for sale in Marietta, Georgia, 1997 crime rates in Philadelphia PA, David Eckstein’s World Series batting average in 2006, answering public questions (i.e., Reddit and UGC).

For our F-150 example:

  • F-150 vs Chevy Silverado
  • F-150 under $50k
  • F-150 in Marietta, Georgia

If you were using a traditional SEO system, you’d see three pages, potentially 100 if you’re doing the math in your head for states and other car comparisons and weeks to scale handwriting all of these pages. 

But for a programmatic approach, we have at least three templates and potentially thousands of pages to publish as soon as our template is ready. 

Look for signs that the keyword can be modified. In the example, we have three modifiers – “vs,” “under,” and “in.”

A quick way to find the keyword gold within your topic is to go back into your keyword aggregator and type in the [topic + modifier] (i.e., “F-150 vs” / “F-150 under” / “F-150 in”).

This gives you a better look at the opportunity size of each directory.

Take it one step further: identify other topics that can be modified by the same keywords. In our example: F-150 can be swapped out for Chevy Silverado, Ram 1500, and even targeting “Trucks” with additional modifiers could be viable for a strong site.  

Our keyword research should look like this:

Entity Modifiers Parameters
F-150 under 10-100 by ten
Chevy in Zip code
Ram vs All

The additional “parameters” column will define the level of detail you need. You can build this out for as deep or as wide as your product calls for. The more modifiers and entities you find, the more pages you’ll have. 

The sweet spot is a repeatable, mid- to long-tail keyword. 

In the example above, we very obviously made an ecommerce website, which is a great visual, but programmatic SEO as a growth strategy is most effective in targeting long-tail searches for informational intent keywords.

  • Example: Weather in Philadelphia, PA today
  • pSEO approach: Weather in {location} {date}

You might think this is impossible to drive meaningful traffic, but again, think deeper. 

By targeting specific ZIP codes and low-search volume towns, a relatively unknown site with a decent backlink profile wins an estimated 3,000,000 sessions* per month from these searches. *Estimated with traditional keyword research tools.

There’s no denying that Google is absorbing more of their own traffic. Keywords with multi-intents or hyper-specific keywords are usually pulled directly onto the SERP without needing a click.

As a business owner and growth strategist, you must define the value of each keyword group. 

Is showing within a featured snippet helpful for a brand introduction, even if it doesn’t result in a click?

If yes, go after it. If not, look for keywords that focus more on research and action.

The weather example may not be a viable strategy for a casual environmental blogger.

But if your product is a weather app, programmatically winning thousands, if not millions, of keyword variations that are extremely relevant to your targeted audience could exponentially increase app downloads. 

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Step 2: Building the content template

A programmatic template is the most important aspect of the build. 

This is where the art and science of SEO collide by stacking data points to create one cohesive, impactful piece of content that satisfies the user’s intent programmatically. 

The biggest difference between traditional SEO and programmatic strategies is that you’re building templates, not final pages. 

For SEOs, this means all of your traditionally bespoke updates must be done at scale and, yes, through engineering tickets. 

A page template should accomplish three goals:

Goal 1: Create value where the traditional content pipeline cannot

Sometimes, content is better when we stop trying to fit it into a blog post. 

Being able to programmatically compare pain points is a great use case to use a programmatic approach. 

G2 does this seamlessly by comparing prices, reviews, and related products directly on a category page, bringing additional value to the page that handwritten content cannot.

Goal 2: Go a mile deep into the query, but set boundaries

Consider your audience and Google search results (SERPs) when building your template.

Start by setting limits. If you’re building geo-based content, ask yourself when your content stops changing.

Does your offering change state? By county? By zip code? 

Building thousands of pages based on the same content are called gateway pages. They’re easy for Google to eliminate and extremely unhelpful to the visitor. 

The goal of a template is to dive extremely deep into a topic, and the result is scale. Not the other way around. 

Goal 3: Give access to information previously unavailable

Programmatic content can give access to data that was previously unobtainable because your template is built for a human, powered by a database. It becomes a storytelling medium. 

Election data today is so refined that we can visualize results down to the individual county. Is this new data? 

Of course not, but through visualizing an extremely large, overwhelming database into an easily consumed medium, we’ve created new value to the conversation. 

High-quality templates Low-quality templates
Answers multiple questions Answers 1 obvious question
Unique data points Scrapes other websites
More page value than traditional pipeline Provides little value but can scale quickly
Each page is uniquely valuable Gateway pages created to trick Google

A great template will check most, if not all boxes. 

Be warned – low-quality templates checking only one box are spam, and Google will quickly drop them from the index.

Step 3: Connect to a database

Your database can be any source of information used to build content. 

It can be as simple as a CSV export from a government data source or as complex as a proprietary data warehouse updated by the second. 

The key is building a database that meets the goals set by your template. 

And don’t let the term database scare you. You don’t need to be a data scientist to find the right data. 

Being in tune with your audience’s needs and potentially a few skills in Excel are what’s important. (You can always outsource if you don’t have Excel or Python skills).

Ian Nuttall, creator of Niche Site Metrics, built a depository of where to find all publicly available data.

But it doesn’t only need to be open-source data. 

  • Listen to your customers. 
  • Build a repository of reviews. 
  • Group support ticket questions by topic. 
  • Track industry prices over time and by geography. 

Build your database around transforming your product or brand into a uniquely useful resource. 

Step 4: Publish and get indexed

Your first challenge in successfully driving traffic with programmatic SEO is indexing because everything happens at scale. 

Don’t be alarmed when you do everything by programmatic SEO best practices and your indexing is less than 30%. 

Programmatic SEO - Indexed pages

Programmatic pages will be similar in nature, kicking most pages into Discovered – currently not indexed or Crawled – currently not indexed.

If you publish more content at once, more pages start in the abyss of discovered or crawled but not indexed. 

Don’t panic. Take a hard look at the published templates and ask yourself, are you bringing something new to the SERP? 

If yes, move forward with these three steps

Internal links for programmatic SEO are 10x more important than traditional editorial pages. 

You are building hundreds, thousands, or even millions of pages from one directory and will need to build context between each related page.  

Create link silos from Directory > Leaf pages. Hardcoding the same 20 links into every page will be disregarded by the visitor and Google, rendering it useless. 

Just as you would for traditional SEO, dedicate time to contextual linking and work with your engineer to set the correct logic for each individual page.

If you forget internal linking, you’ll create thousands of orphaned pages and increase the number of dead ends on your site. These will almost entirely be seen as non-influential pages and may never be crawled. 

Create a robust sitemap structure

Programmatic SEO sitemaps are as important as robust internal linking. The maximum list of URLs on a robots.txt sitemap is about 50k. For larger sites, you’ll need dozens of sitemaps and sitemap indexes. 

Structure your robots.txt file as you would your site structure. If possible, build a sitemap for each individual directory. This will categorize sitemaps by subject rather than publishing date and allows Google to index each category more easily.  

Once it’s set, make sure you force crawl each individual sitemap (yes, even if you have hundreds of sitemaps) two times or until Google has returned to the page multiple times.

Create HTML sitemaps

These are not your HTML sitemaps from 2009. Identify each directory page and use it as a linking guide for every “milestone” page. 

For a site with millions of leaf pages, you won’t be able to link to each individual, but you can target Category > Subcategory links. 

This allows your directories to function as link hubs and creates an easy flow from Homepage > Category > Subcategory that enhances your internal link structure. 

To recap, below is a repeatable process for implementing a programmatic SEO structure.

  • Identify a repeatable search opportunity.
  • Build a diverse content template.
  • Build and connect a robust database.
  • Implement internal links into templates.
  • Create robots.txt sitemap structure.
  • Publish.
  • Optimize and repeat.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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About The Author

Jake Gronsky

Jake Gronsky is a former professional baseball player in the St. Louis Cardinals organization turned SEO growth advisor. He’s directed Growth teams and led SEO departments for VC-backed tech companies and Private Equity firms worldwide.

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