Note: This is part 3 of a multipart series on programmatic SEO.  

Once you’ve identified which keywords you’re going after and have a good sense of the competitive landscape, it’s time to start generating landing pages.  This is one of the key challenges with programmatic SEO, as each one of your thousands of landing pages needs to be highly unique.

In this guide we will:

  1. Talk about the importance of creating one page for searcher intent
  2. Touch on what ‘doorway pages’ are and how to avoid them
  3. Go over strategies to ensure your product creates enough content
  4. Give you a dead-simple, surefire way to choose the optimal landing page design

One page per search intent

Google is pretty good at synonyms and related topics these days.  So no need to create a landing page for every possible keyword.  Rather, you’ll want to create landing pages for each searcher intent.

It’s important you focus on what Google defines as intent – not what you define as intent.  Google uses user data and an algorithm to determine this, and algorithms aren’t perfect.  Anybody who has seen Google’s exact match substitutions knows this.

How to figure this out?  In the previous section on competitive landscape analysis, we looked at which competitor pages rank for multiple head terms.  Additionally, you can spend an hour just browsing the serps, observing which keywords rank for which terms.  Pay specific attention to which words Google highlights in bold, as well as what ‘People also searched for’.

Do competitors have multiple pages per intent?  What about competitors that aren’t the 800 lb gorillas – often giant sites like Yelp will have multiple pages for similar intents.  That’s because they have plenty of content and link equity to spare, and also don’t specialize in a vertical.

At the end of the day, this is a judgement call, and you have to start somewhere.  If it turns out you guessed wrong, you can correct it later (we’ll get into this in the section on technical problems).

Avoiding doorway pages

Google has taken a stance on doorway pages, defined in their own words as follows:

Doorways are “pages created to rank highly for specific search queries”.  Well shit, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, isn’t it?

Before we freak out, let’s remember that Google’s guidelines forbid any form of link building other than ‘creating useful content’.

Here’s some questions the folks at Google have given us to assess whether our pages are doorway pages or not that are a little more inline with reality.

  • Is the purpose to optimize for search engines and funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site, or are they an integral part of your site’s user experience?
  • Are the pages intended to rank on generic terms yet the content presented on the page is very specific?
  • Do the pages duplicate useful aggregations of items (locations, products, etc.) that already exist on the site for the purpose of capturing more search traffic?
  • Are these pages made solely for drawing affiliate traffic and sending users along without creating unique value in content or functionality?
  • Do these pages exist as an “island?” Are they difficult or impossible to navigate to from other parts of your site? Are links to such pages from other pages within the site or network of sites created just for search engines?

So yes, all SEO-oriented pages are doorway pages to some extent, but Google seems fine with them assuming that they have a real reason to exist and that each page has some sort of unique value.

Ideally, you can demonstrate to the algorithm that your landing pages have a reason to exist other than searchers. In travel, for instance, it would be highly likely for you to present a curated list of destinations in a city, even for a visitor who came to your site from somewhere other than Google.  Plenty of sites get away with a lot less – just a ton of cheap handwritten content below the fold.

As you’re creating these pages, ask yourself the following:

  • Is there a plausible reason for this page to exist were it not for Google?  If not, how can I arrange the page as such?
  • Is there some sort of ‘value’ that this page could add, other than me making money?  If not, would an algorithm interpret as such?
  • How will a machine be able to know that this page is different from the thousands of others on my site?
  • What can I do to make this page linkable?  If you figure this out, you win.

To sum up, at a bare minimum, you need each landing page to have enough unique content.  To be truly defensible (and good for users), you need the page to have some sort of unique value, or at least be perceived that way.  And to really win, you want to give people a reason to link to your pages.

Strategies for filling out landing pages

The key challenge in programmatic SEO is getting enough unique, useful content to fill out thousands of landing pages.

Chances are, you’ll use a few of the following elements to fill out your landing pages:

  • Photos
  • Business listings
  • Reviews
  • Price sheets
  • Questions and Answers
  • Product listings
  • Statistics
  • Relevant data
  • Bios
  • Anonymized user data
  • Curation
  • Maps
  • Calculators
  • ….the list goes on

All of your landing pages need to be filled out with unique content, at a bare minimum.

Ideally, all the content is super useful to users.  But those of us who live in reality and not some whitehat fairy land understand that what’s good for humans isn’t always what the search engines favor.

Knowing what fills out a landing page isn’t the hard part, nor is coding the landing pages.  The real challenge is generating that content.  Companies that succeed at SEO build their entire business model and product in a manner that generates content that can be put into landing pages.  The business model and landing page content strategy is two sides of the same coin.

Here are six high level, non-mutually exclusive strategies that companies use to create enough content to fill out thousands of landing pages.

Two-sided marketplace

Examples: Houzz, Yelp, Ebay, Care.com, Rover, Expedia, Thumbtack

Two sided, online marketplaces and SEO are practically synonymous.  On one hand, you have the vendors or businesses, who are incentivized to contribute content as that is what will help them get more business through the platform.  Vendors can provide photos, listings, prices, business info, Q&A, and more.

On the other hand, you have consumers to leave reviews – probably the most prevalent form of user generated content.  Additionally, the data collected by the marketplace’s operations, whether it’s prices, quote requests, or preferences, can be used to generate more content.

Many of these marketplaces are designed around a compare and contrast experience.  That same experience can create great landing pages.  Others, like Homeadvisor and Thumbtack, are just designed to capture a lead, but they can create the facade of a compare and contrast experience, while baiting visitors away into another flow.  Sneaky?  Sure, but it works.

Community

Examples: Stack Overflow, Quora, Chegg, Pinterest, Reddit, Wallstreet Oasis, Tripadvisor, every forum out there

Online communities naturally generate a ton of unique content that can be organized into user-friendly landing pages.

Quora and Stackoverflow have a Q&A experience, creating questions and several answers that themselves often rank on Google.  Additionally, the sites categorize their questions into topic pages to rank for more broadly terms.

Forums are designed around a conversation.  Reddit and Pinterest are designed around submission of 3rd party content in a structured manner, and comments on said content provides more written content.

Nextdoor, while a closed network, surfaces snippets of neighbor conversations to rank for neighborhoods and local business related searches.

Proprietary Data

Examples: Zillow, Walkscore, 42 Floors, Thumbtack’s Small Business Survey

If your company inherently generates data – or you have access to data nobody else has, it can create great landing page content.  Zillow is the canonical example of this, creating a page about home values in a market for nearly every city.

One clear benefit of using proprietary data to fill out your landing pages is that it is easily linkable.

Curation

Examples: Indeed, Yellowpages, Coupons.com

Indeed appears at the top for nearly every job related search, but they actually collect very little of their own content.  Rather, the company runs its own web crawlers designed to get every job and put it into curated listings.

Note that Google generally frowns upon scraper sites, but Indeed has enough links and has done a decent enough job about putting the content together in a usable way that they’re fine.  It’s ill-advised to rely solely on content that exists elsewhere on the web – this is why Yellowpages doesn’t win in any individual space.

e-Commerce

Examples: Amazon, Ebay, Wayfair, Creditcards.com, every e-commerce store out there

When users are searching for specific products, they typically would like some sort of top list that presents the specifications, benefits, drawbacks, and prices of each.  If you sell products online, well, you’ll want to make sure you leverage all the data that comes with.

Reviews are pretty much table stakes for e-commerce, so make sure you’re collecting these.  Also, avoid Bazzaarvoice for SEO purposes as those reviews likely show on other sites.  Proper product categorization is also key.

Where to go from there?  Many e-commerce SEOs go to great lengths to write custom descriptions and take custom photos of their products, especially when the product is not unique to their store.

Editorial

Examples: Eater, Medium, REI, Airbnb’s neighborhood guides

If all else fails, you can always hand write content.  Eater is a great example that dominates in all sorts of food niches by hand writing lists of best [food type] in [city].  Though somewhat expensive, editorial content has a ton of advantages.  For one, you don’t have to wait on users to create it, making it a great way to jumpstart a new site or product category.  Additionally, you can use a tool like Clearscope to determine exactly which keywords to include in it, giving you the best possible chance to rank.

Additionally, handwritten content can be a great way to beef up pages even if you already have plenty of UGC.  That’s why Houzz buries these useless walls of text at the very bottom of their pages

The practical shortcut to choosing a landing page design

Let’s drop the ‘focus on user intent’ mantra for a second and get really practical.

By now you know all the big players in your pace.  You have a sense of who is ranking well, and who isn’t.  You also probably have a sense of which players seem to be punching above their weight class.  Chances are, some of those big players have even done a good amount of testing to figure out the optimal landing page.

Why not use their learnings to your advantage?

So, take a guess at which competitors have the best landing page experience.  Pay special attention to those that have similar business models as you do.  If you want, you can rank them and choose the top few.

Then copy them all.

Have your engineering team create identical clones to all of them, as best that you can.  Since you may have different content to work with than some competitors, you may have to get creative.  Or, some may have different business models than you – one site may be designed to capture leads while another may be designed to peruse.  Do your best to imitate them, while still using your own design palette.

Then, split your landing pages across these templates and get the pages out in the wild and test them against one another.  If you have an established, authoritative website, you’ll probably be able to get results within a couple weeks.  If it’s a new site, it may be 6-12 months before you have an answer.

If your site is established, and is already playing around on page 1, you’ll be able to measure traffic differences directly.  However, if you’re less established, you’ll want to measure rank as your primary indicator.  Additionally, you’ll want to measure user engagement metrics like bounce rate and dwell time, as these are indicative of a good user experience and are highly correlated with rank / traffic. Finally, pay attention to conversion rate.  A traffic increase may mean nothing if conversion rate drops.

Ideally, one comes out as a clear winner across the board.  From there, you can run your own experiments on the pages.  Originality is highly overrated, at least when it comes to SEO.

And that’s it for landing page creation.  Next week we’ll cover all the technical challenges that come along with programmatic SEO.  Enter your email below and we’ll let you know when that post is live.