July, 2022 Update: I originally wrote about Zapier’s SEO strategy back in late 2018. At the time, programmatic SEO was relatively unheard of.
Skip ahead to 2022, and while programmatic SEO is still in its infancy, it’s quickly becoming one of the most exciting areas of SEO. No-code tools make it easier than ever to quickly roll out thousands of SEO pages. And AI writing tools are blurring the lines between programmatic and editorial content.
Zapier’s programmatic landing pages are more successful than ever today. But the landscape has changed a lot in the last few years, and there are lots of new considerations (and competition) for companies looking to roll out a programmatic SEO strategy.
So I wanted to do a full revamp of this case study to explore what’s happening in programmatic SEO today, and what might be coming next. Roughly 70% of the content below is brand new. Let’s jump in!
Want to drive more search traffic to your SaaS with SEO?
In this SaaS SEO case study, we’ll step outside the usual content marketing tactics most SaaS companies use. And look at how Zapier leverages SEO to drive millions of high intent searchers to their product every month.
This strategy has nothing to do with blogging (although we’ll take a look at how they added a blog later to enhance this approach).
We’ll also walk through…
- How they created 70,000 search optimized landing pages.
- How they filled these pages with unique content, without having to write it themselves.
- How they launch each page to generate a bunch of high quality backlinks right out of the gate.
- And how they use organic search to create a more powerful network effect.
Capturing Millions of High Intent Searchers Each Month
According to SimilarWeb, Zapier receives 5.8M visits a month.
Of total traffic, over half comes from search.
How to Make Something Invisible Stand Out
Like other middleware SaaS, Zapier faced the challenge of having an “invisible” product. Their app didn’t perform customer facing actions but instead formed connections behind the scenes to unlock new functionality and value from existing apps.
Rather than trying to pitch users on the value of integrating tools, Zapier realized early on that people were already looking for specific integrations. To capture this existing intent, Zapier decided to make the app partners in their integration ecosystem the stars of their marketing and piggyback on their success.
They did this by creating three tiers of landing pages for every app in their ecosystem:
- A landing page for the app itself.
- A separate landing page for every app to app integration e.g. a page all about connecting Gmail with Trello.
- Separate landing pages for every single app to app triggered workflow or “zap” that exists between each app.
Whether someone is looking for general info on an app, how to integrate two apps together, or a specific app to app use case or scenario Zapier has a landing page ready to capture that intent.
That makes for a lot of landing pages. According to data from Ahrefs, there are 69,263 of these landing pages ranking in the top 100 of Google. And 18,585 of the pages have a first page ranking for at least one keyword.
Zapier’s Playbook for Scaling 70,000 Search Optimized Landing Pages
Creating 70k landing pages is one of those things that sounds crazy without some hack or workaround. But Zapier’s “hacks” look a lot more like persistent effort combined with smart systems thinking and a solid understanding of SaaS SEO.
One of the things you might be tempted to hack with landing pages at this scale would be using some kind of repeatable content template, since the content creation side would be the most time intensive. Just change a few keywords for each app and voila, right? But Zapier recognized the SEO value of each page having unique, relevant content.
While their pages do have a templated structure and layout, each page also has human created descriptions of the apps and summaries of each integration. And we’re not just talking about a few lines of unique text, many of the pages have multi-paragraph overviews that drill into deeper features and benefits.
Outsourcing SEO Content to Partners
But rather than write all this content themselves, Zapier created a playbook for onboarding and launching new app partners. Part of this onboarding process includes getting app partners to write the content for these landing pages. If needed, it also includes editorial guidelines for the Zapier team to clean up the content to make it a perfect fit for each landing page.
Not only does this free up one of the most time intensive SaaS SEO elements, but it also generates the most relevant content from the people who have the best understanding of each app’s use cases – the app creators themselves.
Outsourcing Link Building to Partners
Zapier also leverages partner help in getting some initial backlinks to new landing pages. Their onboarding process for new apps includes:
- Getting partners to set-up an integrations page on their site linking back to Zapier.
- Getting partners to write a post announcing the integrations on their blog.
- Adding links to a few of the top “zaps” directly in the partner’s app.
Not only do these partner promotion tactics generate a stream of new users for Zapier, but they also provide an initial set of backlinks to help boost the page rankings. Then there’s the initial exposure that may get the integrations written about on industry blogs, or shared on social media. Garnering more backlinks.
Zapier Transitions from an Editorial Driven to Pure Programmatic Approach
One of the biggest changes Zapier has made since I originally outlined their approach in 2018 is streamlining the original content editorial process described above. At the time, they had created roughly 25,000 landing pages using partner written original content.
Skip ahead to 2022, and you can see they have switched to a much shorter snippet of original content on each app partner landing page. Instead of multiple paragraphs of partner written original content, Zapier’s newer app partners receive just a single line of unique text on an otherwise templated landing page.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact impact this change has had on Zapier’s programmatic page rankings.
However, if we look at historical rankings data from Ahrefs we can see that there was a slow and steady drop in first page rankings for Zapier’s landing pages over the last several years.
On the flip side, we can see that over the past year rankings have improved sharply, hinting that the pure programmatic approach is still very effective (keeping in mind that older app partner landing pages still incorporate the longer form original content; only newer landing pages have the shorter original content snippets).
This recent uptick in rankings is most likely driven from the recent surge in referring domains (backlinks). However, it still shows that with the right backlink strategy pure programmatic landing pages with minimal original content can rank very well.
Amplifying and Protecting Your Network Effect With SEO
Middleware SaaS platforms like Zapier are one of the most obvious examples of network effects in SaaS. As Zapier adds new app partners to its integrations list, its platform becomes more attractive and valuable for end users. And the more end users attracted to the platform, the more apps want to join the platform. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Zapier’s programmatic SEO strategy plugs into this network effect seamlessly and amplifies its impact. Each new app partner leads to a new set of app landing pages, expanding Zapier’s ability to capture high intent searchers. The more new users Zapier generates from this search traffic, the more enticing the platform becomes to new app partners. Which leads to more app landing pages. Another virtuous cycle.
These landing pages also have a protective effect on Zapier’s expanding network, essentially surrounding it with an “acquisition moat” that competitors must cross if they want to effectively compete with Zapier. This adds an extra layer of difficulty for a fresh competitor entering the same space.
This is in contrast to acquisition channels like paid search and paid advertising, which allow you to quickly expand your reach to a large audience but aren’t ideal for protecting your network long term due to the high cost of sustaining paid acquisition.
But Just How Protective of a Moat Does Programmatic SEO Provide?
Four years on, we have a clearer sense of how effective Zapier’s programmatic landing page “moat” has been at insulating it from competition.
For the long tail, low competition keywords that these landing pages thrive on the main competition for Zapier has been either a) native integration knowledge base pages, or b) other connector services similar to Zapier.
Because of the low competition nature of these keywords, it has been quite easy for competitors to land on the first page of results alongside Zapier with similar programmatic landing pages.
However, in many of these cases, Zapier is still at the top of the pile – appearing higher in the results than competitors.
While appearing higher on the first page of search results may seem inconsequential, it likely means Zapier is taking home the lion’s share of the traffic from these searches. Below you can see data from Backlinko highlighting just how important your ranking is to the real world clicks you’ll receive from searchers.
Zapier’s ability to rank higher than competitors likely comes down to their backlink authority. This is a key point for anyone considering a programmatic SEO strategy in a space where competitors are following a similar strategy. In order to win rankings in both the short and long term, an effective backlink strategy will be essential.
But are backlinks the only way to go head to head and win with programmatic SEO?
Beyond Backlinks: The New Programmatic SEO Battlefield
As we’ve discussed so far, Zapier has been able to maintain dominance with it’s programmatic pages largely because of it’s monster backlink authority.
We also highlighted the hypothesis that Zapier’s rankings may have fallen over time by switching to a pure programmatic approach; adding only single line unique descriptions of partner apps to new landing pages vs. their previous approach of incorporating multiple paragraphs of editorial content for each app.
Indeed, one of the key ways to compete in SEO beyond backlinks is to create more and better original on page content vs. competing pages. If Google is given the choice between a page following a template with only a few snippets of unique content, and a page with many paragraphs of relevant, unique content – the latter will likely win, all else being equal.
The key word here being relevant content. This is where a lot of templated programmatic approaches lose. It’s hard to maintain a high level of relevance across thousands or tens of thousands of pages by only replacing short text snippets across each page. Today’s Google algorithm is extremely sophisticated in how it understands semantic text in the context of the topic being searched. And it can be difficult for a templated page to match a page with editorial content that includes semantic text more closely aligned with the target topic and keywords.
When formulating your programmatic SEO strategy, there are two new approaches worth considering to address this issue:
Adding More Unique Text Snippets to Improve Semantic Context
Manually written text snippets are of course an option. And as described earlier in this article, they can even be scalable with the right process in place (like how Zapier originally outsourced text descriptions to their app partners).
However, adding any kind of editorial content development to the workflow will inevitably limit speed and scale on some level. This is likely why Zapier themselves switched to a more simple programmatic approach.
But is there a way to expand original content on programmatic pages in a more efficient and scalable way?
The easiest approach is to simply add more unique text snippets, ideally from an existing database of some kind. A great example of this is Pitchbook, which incorporates dozens of unique snippets into their company profile pages.
Pitchbook’s pages follow a clear programmatic template. But the template is populated with dozens of placeholders for unique data from Pitchbook’s database.
SaaS companies are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this approach, since they are more likely to have access to relevant, proprietary data that could be incorporated into templated pages.
The point on proprietary data is worth highlighting here. If the nature of your SaaS (or any type of product) means you have collected a database of useful information that you’ve established ethical rights to share in some meaningful way, this gives you a huge potential edge over competitors without that data. You have the power to create richer, higher context programmatic pages that will be challenging for competitors to knock off. Which means you can much more easily dominate those organic search keyword categories long term.
But even if you don’t have exclusive access to a database of relevant data snippets, we live in a world of APIs that grant you access to all kinds of interesting data and information. With a little creativity, who knows how these could be mixed and matched into a highly valuable set of web pages that funnel visitors into your product solutions.
Responsible Use of Emerging AI Writing Tools
Rather than rely on manually written text snippets to add to your programmatic templates, you can now leverage AI writing assistants to compose draft text for you, and dramatically accelerate your content development workflow.
As they stand today, I don’t think these should be set loose unsupervised i.e. there should still be a human editorial process in place to ensure content quality. And they won’t make sense for every programmatic SEO use case.
But I think programmatic pages are one of the best places to begin experimenting with AI writing tools, because you’re starting with a solid human guided content structure and page template that the AI written content can be added to. This will allow you to ensure your pages are providing genuine value and delivering on the search intent. And avoid the potential issues of clogging up the internet with rehashed garbage that will inevitably flow from some of these tools.
Today, it’s easy to imagine an AI writer that could visit each of Zapier’s app partner websites and write a great summary of the product, along with a list of each app’s top features and benefits.
Using Content Marketing to Increase Search Traffic and Generate Demand Early In The Customer Journey
Zapier’s network of app and integration landing pages work great at drawing in visitors searching for a specific app or integration. However, there are also a lot of people searching for more general app categories and use cases that these landing pages don’t rank as well for.
These searchers haven’t yet narrowed their search down to a specific app, and are performing mid funnel research on apps available in a specific category. Or they’re doing top of funnel research on solutions to a specific problem or use case, and may not even be aware that an app is a good way to solve their problem.
In order to connect with these searchers, Zapier created a blog and content marketing strategy that focuses on exploring different app use cases and reviewing apps in different categories.
By not waiting until a need for a specific integration arises and exposing users to Zapier’s integrations early in the customer journey, Zapier is able to cast a wider net and generate new demand for its service.
This also positions Zapier’s integrations as a key consideration when choosing an app and building a software stack – rather than an afterthought that comes when you are trying to fill gaps in your existing stack.
Programmatic SEO as an Early Stage Growth Strategy, While Growing Long Term Blog Rankings
One of the most interesting things about Zapier’s overall SEO strategy, is that they used their programmatic pages to drive bottom funnel, high intent visitors early in the company’s growth journey. Without losing sight of the long term potential of blog traffic.
As you can see from the Ahrefs snapshot below, these programmatic pages achieved significant traffic volume relatively quickly after launching. Likely due to the low competition nature of the long tail branded keywords these landing pages were targeting.
But factors like increased competition (among others we discussed earlier), have meant their traffic to these programmatic pages more or less plateaued. Despite increasing the number of apps and programmatic pages over time.
Even without other entrants into the app integration space competing for similar terms, programmatic pages targeting low competition, low volume keywords would still be likely to plateau quickly. If the pages achieve good rankings out of the gate due to low competition, there’s just not additional room for growth outside of expansion into other keyword targets.
However, Zapier wasn’t only focused on their programmatic pages. While these app landing pages were churning out new customers early on, they continued to focus on slowly and steadily building blog content and backlink authority.
Below, you can see a snapshot of Zapier’s blog traffic over the same time period:
On the 15th of May, 2018 the blog and the programmatic pages were essentially tied for the amount of traffic they were generating.
But while the programmatic landing pages more or less peaked at that traffic level, the blog continued to grow. Today it receives 3X that traffic, and is the main organic traffic engine for the company.
This highlights the slow growing nature of blog content targeting competitive, high volume keywords. Blogs tend to take much longer to gain traction, due to the large backlink authority that must be built in order to rank for more competitive keywords. In this way, the programmatic pages acted as a great early stage booster engine while the blog was still gaining momentum.
Creating Synergy In Your Content Funnel
Programmatic landing pages can be a highly effective part of your SEO and content marketing strategy. In fact, I think it would be fair to hypothesize that even though Zapier’s blog receives 3X as much traffic today, their programmatic pages may actually drive more new user sign ups due to the bottom funnel nature of the keywords these pages target.
However, Zapier’s full funnel content strategy clearly wins over a straight programmatic play. Each month they are attracting millions of new visitors into their ecosystem, to be nurtured and educated in a way that fits the stage each visitor is at in the journey of a potential Zapier customer.
The blog also helps build a tremendous amount of backlink authority, by acting as a magnet for external links with its broadly appealing blog content. And this backlink authority flows back into the programmatic pages with internal links like the one shown below, helping to boost rankings across the entire content funnel.
What The Future Holds for Programmatic SEO
Zapier provides a leading example of how to successfully leverage programmatic SEO to fuel SaaS growth, particularly in the early stages of an SEO program. But emerging technologies and increasing competition are already driving the development of newer, more effective programmatic strategies.
Programmatic approaches seem likely to become a much bigger focus in SEO moving forward. But more than that, I see it also becoming much more integrated into a variety of other SEO strategies. In the future, the lines between SEO strategies will become more and more blurry – with hybrid approaches playing a larger role.
For example, there are already many sites with user generated content that also have programmatic elements (like Leafly or Tripadvisor). It’s easy to imagine how programmatic data and content snippets could enrich editorial content, bringing web pages to life with the most up to date contextual information.
Meanwhile, Natural Language Processing algorithms continue to evolve at a rapid pace, and are showing up in easy to use AI writing tools. Potentially creating a perfect storm of new content marketing possibilities when combined with programmatic tactics.
In the end, it will be up to all of us to decide whether we want to use these new technologies and approaches for good; developing creative ways to extract and share valuable new insights with the citizens of the web. Or if we will give into the temptation of easy KPI wins, and clog up the internet with more useless garbage.