Programmatic SEO: Self Scaling Landing Page Systems

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What do Booking.com, Homeadvisor, Airtasker, Vivian Health, & ZipRecruiter have in common?

They’ve all experienced massive growth whilst leveraging a self-expanding landing page system.

Coincidence?

Self-scaling landing page systems are at the core of what I recommend for clients for this exact reason.

A system that automatically expands as the business grows.

Essentially as close to automated SEO as you can get.

What are they, and how do they work? Let’s take a look!

What is a self-scaling landing page system?

A self-scaling landing page system is just a programmatic build, with rules-based internal linking.

Sounds fancy, right?

Well, it’s pretty much just any programmatic build that ensures it isn’t linking to pages with 0 results, and has a content type that grows.

It’s that simple.

So, how is it self-scaling?

The internal links make it self-scaling.

If a page isn’t linked to, it doesn’t “exist” to Google.

If your internal links point to all pages with at least 1 result, when a page that didn’t have results gets a result, it will then get linked to.

A whole new page in Google’s eyes, that you just created!

Yet it was “there” the whole time.

So as the business grows, as it gets more content posted/shared on it, new pages get results. These pages will then become a brand new page!

It’s the ultimate way to limit your thin pages, whilst growing your SEO strategy over time.

All self-scaling sites are programmatic builds, but not all programmatic builds are self-scaling.

What’s a ‘result’ in this context?

It’s a piece of content.

For portals, classifieds and marketplaces a piece of content is a listing.

Normally user-generated, it’s the core content of the business essentially.

For other systems, it could be;

  • User-generated comments
  • User-generated photos
  • User-written articles

Basically, anything that’s heavily user-driven as this content thrives in a self-scaling build.

 

How much value does self-scaling add to a build?

As with most SEO, it’s hard to say.

It does, however, have definite impacts on content quality. It ensures minimal thin content pages are ‘live’, whilst still being able to target the widest amount of keywords possible.

You can also naturally ‘grow’ the website, ensuring there are always batches of fresh pages being spun up giving Google some nice crawl bait.

 

Limit page ‘creation’ by content quantities

Rather than ‘creating’ a new page when it has a single piece of content, some programmatic builds will benefit more by setting a minimum quantity of content.

Maybe, say, 5 pieces of content.

This would mean that a page would only become actively linked to, and included in the XML sitemap, once it reached that 5 pieces of content threshold.

You could also launch a build with a rule of 10 pieces of content required.

Then 2 months later drop it to 8.

After another 2 months, drop it to 5.

This would allow you to slowly scale up the website and ensure only the highest quality content is initially created.

Excusing my poor design abilities, an example is below.

When the pages reach the page creation threshold, being 5 pages, they get created.

So as time goes on, as the business gets more pieces of content, more pages get created.

 

Natural page degradation

Sometimes locations, or categories, come in and out of fashion.

Sometimes pages you previously had, were no longer needed.

Just like you set page creation rules you could also set page degradation rules.

When a page gets below a specific quantity of pages you could ‘un-create’ it.

Remove all links pointing and, and remove them from the sitemap.

Sometimes you’ll also have pages that float around the minimum content required, bopping in and out, so how can we deal with them?

If you have 8 pieces of content as the creation trigger, you could then have a link removal rule at say 6 pieces. This would let a page get down as low as 6 pieces of content, before being removed.

That allows pages to get created, and then gives them a buffer before having links pointing in removed.

This will then no longer give Google crawlable links into the page, however, it would still have the page accessible to it and it will know about it, due to being previously available.

An additional rule could fully degrade a page once it drops below a separate content count limit, let’s say 4 pieces.

At 4 pieces, you could have the degradation rule setup that automatically 301 redirects this page to its parent.

Some people may prefer no indexing, but I always recommend the 301 to just clean up these pages, and ensure you can maintain any SEO value they might have had, by passing it through to the most related page.

If a page then ever meets the 8 pieces of content rule, it would have the redirect removed, and links pointing in created again.

Some devs will say “but that redirect is cached and it will create a user-experience issue”. No, no it won’t in 99.99% of cases. The significantly small portion of users that ever visited these pages would probably be long gone. You can also set it to not cache the redirect locally, or cache it for a very small amount of time so that the cache expires quickly, and when they re-hit the page, they’ll get the new page rather than the redirect.

 

An alternate degradation, the ‘pending’ state

Another way of handling this is giving pages a ‘PENDING’ state. Once they drop below the page creation content quantity rule, you flag them.

This flag would last a period of time, say 4 weeks, giving that page that 4 weeks to then re-meet the page creation rule.

If the page doesn’t, it gets degraded. If it does, then the pending state is removed.

If it then drops again, the pending state starts all over again.

This way gives pages specific periods of time to ensure they get the content they need created and could give a page set more natural growth.

 

Teasing new markets with pre-expansion ‘fringe’ pages

There’s a limit to these systems though, and that is that it’s purely dependent on a business having content that matches a landing page, for the landing page to go live.

You can’t build it to grow an audience unless you have related content already.

However, there’s a way you can build in an extra layer to these landing page systems.

You can build out a page template that contains ‘related’ or ‘nearby’ listings, to that of what the page is about.

Let’s call them ‘fringe pages’.

These fringe pages essentially make a page that has 0 content directly related to it, but is close enough that you could include a few keywords to make it seem related.

So they’re on the fringe of having their own content, but just aren’t quite there yet, and you’d like to give them a subtle nudge.

You’ll have a page you can start to hopefully get ranked, drive traffic too, and thus generate actual related content for the page.

You need to keep this under control though.

You can’t just go out and create a page for absolutely everything, that’s not what these are for.

They should only be getting used for pages that you think are directly on the edge of being able to have their own page.

Maybe pages that had a piece of content 6 months ago, but no longer. Or maybe for new categories, where you’ve got a few somewhat related pieces of content that you can use to seed the new categories until you get more content. Maybe even expanding into new areas. Possibly even new countries. Use one country’s content as “examples” until the new country has their own content.

Fringe pages have a somewhat limited use case, and aren’t for all programmatic builds.

But they can be powerful, when used right.

 

Examples of self-scaling programmatic systems

There are a few examples I use when talking about self-scaling.

You can normally tell a website will have a self-scaling part, when there are linking widgets that have weird numbers of links, and that count will change depending on the page.

Maybe one page links to 2 sub-locations, yet another will link to 5. Some will be easier to tell than others, but there are signs there if you look hard enough.

A couple of them I worked directly with the dev teams to build out, but you’ll be able to easily find all the shared info yourself.

 

1. Booking.com

Not a build I’d normally use as a self-expansion example, however, it turns out to be a pretty great one.

I’d be lying if I said I found a good example nice and quickly…. because no. This took way too long to find.

The site went through way too many design changes that it just wasn’t clear what was a design modification, verse a self-expansion.

As booking.com grew its brand, its property counts grew. As the property counters grew, all of their location pages grew.

The only clear case of this I could point out though is in their district linking widgets.

Sources: January 2012, June 2013August 2014, October 2015March 2017, November 2017March 2018

You’ll see the Melbourne Hotels page go from 16 districts being listed in 2012, to 31 districts in 2018. They then changed their design and it was no longer easily trackable.

They also possibly moved to a less ‘auto-expansion’ focussed set up, as the linking widgets included distances to suburbs rather than counts. Unsure if it continued being count driven after this.

They doubled their page count at the district level alone.

This might not seem massive, but scaled across the entire site, this is a pretty great setup for somewhat hands-free targeting of new but highly related pages.

After March 2018 they started to reach the maximum page count growth possible due to, well, being booking.com. They had all the hotels.

This is where they really shifted their focus into the UX and ‘pretty’ things, and started to clean up the linking to include imagery.

 

2. Homeadvisor.com

One of the original builds when it comes to self-scaling as far as I have found, they’ve done really well over the years.

The self-scaling is a bit hidden, and you might not even notice it.

At the top level, let’s compare two categories. Painting, and Permit Services.

The painting top-level category pages link out to a tonne of state pages;

But then if we look at the permit services page, we see significantly fewer state page links, in the same widget.

They just have less permit services-related content, and thus don’t have enough for a heap of the state pages.

If we then compare two of the state pages for the Permit Services, we can see the following linking widgets in the sidebar;

There is a maxed-out widget for Arizona, but Illinois only has a small portion of the cities available, and thus significantly fewer links are showing.

It would be safe to assume, that as the business adds more contractors/jobs in the missing areas, then they would be added to the list and linked to.

If we actually look at the permit services category page over time (via Wayback machine!), we see the following with the state linking widget:

You’ll clearly see the links increase as time goes on. Their landing page system naturally grew with the business.

It then also actually decreases at the end! They have a degradation strategy in place.

One of their degraded pages is still accessible though and has a noindex, nofollow tag on it, so they went with a meta robots degradation strategy.

A pretty old system, yet shows how it could have propelled home advisor to where it is today.

 

3. Airtasker

One of the first self-scaling systems I worked with a development team to build out whilst working for Airtasker as a growth marketer.

I’d say I managed to get the MVP live 90% of the way I wanted, and apart from a redesign and some additions, it doesn’t appear too much has changed for the core system 4 years later. They’ve definitely made updates, but the actual core build appears to work just like day 1.

That is, other than the business getting much much bigger, with much more content being created, and the self-expansion doing its thing driving page counts up and up!

Due to the sheer volume of pages and new targets, you can see it took a little while to get a foothold. Some updates were made, and as time went on, you can really see how the domain has grown in SEO strength over time.

Both in the primary Aussie market, and now internationally as they expand out into other markets.

Unfortunately, the system is using JS for the view more expanders *mutters under breath* so Wayback machine won’t work to show a side-by-side comparison due to most the locations being hidden behind a view more.

However, if we just take two different live pages we can see the difference.

This is comparing the cleaning gold coast (left), to the building gold coast pages (right).

You can clearly see that there are significantly more pages created for the cleaning category, than there are for the building category.

This isn’t saying that the LP system is the key to their growth.

By no means.

It’s just a small portion of a larger pie.

The brand marketing. The endless campaigns. The paid spend. The content marketing.

Aussies got to know what Airtasker was through all of this.

The landing page system was then able to be in the right place, at the right time, to leverage that growth when consumers were searching for related services.

It was able to take what was being done with the company anyway, and help scale that, in a way that improved the marketing reach.

Without the extra marketing, the domain strength growth through brand placements, the content market, the growth would have still been there.

Just significantly less, and much slower.

These systems work hand-in-hand with a solid core-business strategy.

 

4. Vivian Health

Another large system I helped build out, it’s clearly been a solid win for the business.

The team were very receptive to SEO, and were able to take the SEO-first approach to the initial build, with more user-friendly updates made over time.

This helped skyrocket the growth of the pages.

Originally launched under their old name, you can see the immediate growth, and then additional growth post-rebrand & migration.

They are competing in a world dominated by some large online Jobs websites, on top of the ever-growing difficulties of SEO in the health space due to how Google treats the market.

We can see their automated growth at play when comparing the location links for two of the categories;

We can then see another location of the self-scaling within the subcategory links widget on some of the location pages;

 

 

5. ZipRecruiter

Another jobs space portal with a self-scaling setup.

We can see this in play when you compare two of the different categories of apprenticeships available on the site;

ZipRecruiter has a pretty serious linking sidebar setup. If you delve in further, you can really see how vital SEO has been as a part of their overall strategy, so you can really pull some good ideas out of their system.

 

How can a self-scaling setup help you?

A self-scaling setup can really help some businesses, and other businesses not so much.

It really comes down to how often your content expands, and whether that is often enough to be worth focussing on one.

Either way though, any good programmatic system shouldn’t be linking out to pages that don’t have content, so they should all naturally scale as you build it out.

If you’re only linking to pages with content, then naturally, any good programmatic build will be self-scaling by default.

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