Programmatic SEO, the long tail and customer acquisition

The tactic Zapier, Kapwing, Airtable and others use to acquire thousands of users for free

We’ve all heard the adage “distribution is king” or “CAC (customer acquisition cost) is the new rent”. While starting a business has never been easier, reaching customers has never been harder.

So the key question becomes: how does one acquire customers cheaply?

The other day, Patrick O’Shaughnessy asked about clever customer acquisition tactics people had seen to which I responded with the tactic of programmatic SEO, particularly with a focus on the very long tail and niche keywords.

I thought this was a reasonably well-known tactic, but received several DMs asking for more clarification and for advice on how this might apply to them so decided to make that the topic of this week’s newsletter.

I cover:

  • SEO and Programmatic SEO

  • How startups can implement programmatic SEO

  • Rounding up some examples: Zapier, Kapwing, and EquityZen

SEO and Programmatic SEO

SEO, or search engine optimization, refers to optimizing a product or service’s website to rank highly in search engines such as Google for the keywords one cares about to generate free traffic from them.

The algorithms of search engines are pretty complex and search engine optimization has many intricacies to it, but at a very high level, the two things which determine what web pages rank for a particular keyword are:

  • On-site factors: how well is that webpage optimized for that keyword (does it mention the full phrase directly in the title? or some of the phrase? in the body of the text?)

  • Off-site factors: how many “backlinks” (i.e., webpages from other websites) does the webpage have? Are they from authoritative web pages? Are those web pages related to the topic?

Programmatic SEO refers to creating landing pages on your website dynamically on a large scale to target the very niche and specific search terms people may use where your product or service may be helpful.

Yelp, Zillow, and Tripadvisor are some examples of the first wave of companies that leveraged programmatic SEO from the very start.

Search for any restaurant, apartment/house address, or landmark respectively and you will likely come across Yelp, Zillow, or Tripadvisor on the first page of Google. Here, the use case is pretty obvious - they are review/info websites and so generate a page for each place, and each page has some information/reviews about the place.

By generating a webpage for every individual place, they make it more likely that they can rank for that keyword (because of at least a well-optimized webpage for that keyword), and also can capture the traffic searching for specific restaurants rather than just general keywords like (“food review app” or “best french restaurants near me”).

What is the benefit of targeting more specific or niche keywords?

  1. Broad and generic keywords are very difficult to rank for, whereas more specific keywords can be easier to rank for because there is less competition for them. While any of these specific keywords individually is low volume, in aggregate, they can be fairly meaningful.

  2. These specific keywords tend to be higher intent and more likely to “convert” than broader or generic keywords.

Programmatic SEO can be used to generate hundreds or thousands of web pages, each meant to target an individual one of the keywords, such that very quickly a website can also start bringing in free traffic from these keywords without putting in a lot of effort for each specific keyword.

How startups can leverage programmatic SEO

Some of the examples above such as Yelp, Zillow, and TripAdvisor might seem a bit obvious: of course, they should have one webpage per restaurant/address/place.

But this approach can be leveraged by many more startups, including SaaS startups and others which even need users to be logged in to use their product.

The high-level approach is:

  1. Identify the keywords or terms users may use if they’re looking for something like your product or service

  2. Generate landing pages, one for each keyword (typically with some dynamic content)

1. Identifying keywords

This is in many ways the hardest part and is highly dependent on the product. The general goal is to think about all the niche and long-tail types of keywords that people might be using to look for something where your product could help.

Here are some specific ways to identify these keywords:

I. Think about specific vertical use cases for horizontal use-case products

For horizontal use-case products, one useful exercise to think through all the different vertical use cases that customers may be searching for where your product can help?

If you are a note-taking or spreadsheet software, perhaps “note-taking” is hard to rank for but “meal planner template” is easier. For example, Airtable has a template gallery with 200+ templates, each of which has its own page optimized to rank for that type of template.

Many users find Airtable through searching for a specific one of these templates, as opposed to a general keyword.

II. Think about modifiers to your primary value proposition which make it more specific

For products with a clear and specific value proposition, recognizing that people search for that value proposition in very specific ways depending on their own case use, including with company names or geographies. In general, consider appending some of the following to the primary keywords.

  • company names (e.g., “verify employment <company>” vs just verify employment)

  • specific examples of the thing in question (e.g., “<meme such as Willy Wonka tell me again> meme maker” vs just “meme maker”)

  • categories and subcategories (e.g. “hire <category such as web development> freelancer” vs hire freelancer”)

  • geographic locations (e.g., “hire web development freelancer <city> rather than just “hire web development freelancer”)

For example, Zapier lets you link 100s of web apps with each other. But most people looking for integration don’t search for “integrate any two apps”, they search for “<app name> < another app name > integration” or “<app name> integrations”.

Recognizing this, Zapier has basically built a webpage for each integration pair (think of it as having n*(n-1)/2 pages for this purpose where n is the number of apps it supports) to rank highly for many of these keyword sets.

Also, Zapier has built a webpage for every single app to target the “<app name> integrations” keyword, and so sometimes for certain keywords, two of their web pages may be relevant and show up as below.

Zapier gets millions of visitors for free from search engines!

As another example, Truework is a startup that provides employment verification. While it may be difficult to rank for the general term “employment verification”, many people who are looking to verify someone might search for the specific company that they want to verify employment for, so for example “employment verification <company>”. Truework has recognized this and built one webpage each per company, to capture this long-tail search across 100s and 1000s of company keywords.

III. Use Keyword Research Tools

Free tools such as Google’s keyword tool or Similarweb can help you understand:

  1. What modifiers and related keywords people are using related to your core keywords.

  2. What keywords competitors are using to drive traffic

Don’t focus too much on the volume of searches the keywords get, but search for patterns in terms of what categories of keywords people are using. Do a lot of people search for these by geography, with company names, with other types of categories (e.g., type of food), with modifiers such as “best or top X” etc.

2. Generate Landing Pages

Once you have your keywords, the next step is to generate landing pages.

Since typically these landing pages are generated dynamically, the key is to ensure that you have the right template for the landing page and the content readily available (in your database or through scraping) such that you can generate a landing page for each keyword programmatically.

A few things to keep in mind:

I. Optimize that webpage for search engines

Make sure your title and the text in the body mention the keyword you’re targeting with that webpage. Ideally, also include it in the URL, and have a clearly definite site hierarchy.

Zapier is a good example, with a well-organized site directory.

  • They have one webpage per company, which shows the list of integrations available for that company to target the "<company name> integration” type terms

  • They have one webpage per integration pair, which has a call to action to integrate the two services, to target the “<company name> <company name> integration” type terms.

  • Each of these pages includes that term in the title, description, and URL

II. Reinforce that you can help users with their *specific* keyword rather than a general one

A good example here is Kapwing, which is a general online photo and video editor. It also has a template gallery with a page each for specific memes. When searching for a specific meme followed by “template” or “maker”, Kapwing often shows up in search results. Over half of its traffic comes organically from search engines, in part because of this technique.

The landing page for each template clearly reinforces that they can help you with that specific ask, rather than the general terms. They show the meme image along with a description. They also have a clear call to action, which brings me to the next point.

III. Have a clear call to action, which if needed redirects the users to a specific state, directly tied to their request.

The landing page should have a clear call to action to take the user to your product/service (if the content itself wasn’t your product/service). What’s important is that, especially if you redirect users to a log-in page, make it clear how they can fulfill their request with your product, by having a clear call to action or even previewing the potential options for a user.

The Kapwing landing page image above is a good example, with a specific “Make it” call to action, which takes the user directly to the photo editor (without requiring a log-in).

Zapier also does a good job specifically showing what the different things you could do are, with a “Try it” button associated with each. This makes the user more comfortable that their specific use case can be addressed before they get redirected to the login page.

Rounding up examples

I’ve mentioned a few examples above of how this has been implemented across different use cases, but just wanted to summarize and call out a few others1. I’ve excluded some of the obvious “consumer” ones here such as Zillow, Tripadvisor, and Yelp, but those are also good examples.

  • Zapier is a master at this and recognized that people search for very specific companies when wanting integration, and gets ~7M visits a month, over half from search engines, thanks in large part to this technique.

  • Kapwing recognized that people typically are searching for a specific meme they want to make rather than a general meme maker, and gets ~6M visits per month, over half from search engines, somewhat thanks to this technique.

  • Truework recognized that people looking to verify someone’s employment will search for the specific companies they worked at. Of the ~150K visits month, 75+% comes from search engines. In fact, almost a whole percent of visits come from one such keyword: “Amazon employment verification”.

  • Airtable recognized that they can onramp people into their multipurpose horizontal use-case product through very specific templates that they might be looking for. This is a smaller channel for Airtable, with only 5% of their 16M visits through search, but is likely a more meaningful channel for new organic user growth.

  • EquityZen, which allows investors to buy stock in pre-IPO companies, recognized that people might search for specific companies (e.g. “<xyz company> stock” rather than just “invest in private companies”. It has a page optimized for each company and typically ranks in the top 5-10 for each of them. Over 75% of its ~800K visitors came from search engines, with 4 of their 5 popular search terms being of this exact form: “discord stock”, “stripe stock” etc.

Additional Reading

A few other resources I recommend for those interested in learning more:

  1. Essay on Zapier’s rise by Sacra, which touches on this growth tactic

  2. Essay on Zapier’s use of SEO for growth

  3. Moz on SEO strategies for programmatic linking

  4. Examples of these landing pages: Airtable, Kapwing, Truework, EquityZen, Zapier

  5. A thread by Trung Phan on Masterclass’s use of SEO leveraging a similar approach (niche) but with content and more targeted at second-order questions.

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