Case Study 2, Month 08: What Went Wrong with the Programmatic SEO Website?

Yoyao & Dim
Updated on

Hey, everyone!

Dim here with an Oppenheimer-worthy update.

We’re now in the eighth month of our study on programmatic SEO, and the website took a hit.

Programmatic SEO website performance problems

On June 30th—right at the end of the month—organic impressions in Google’s SERPs dropped from 750-1,000 to 100-150 per day. Expectedly, organic clicks dropped from 10-15 per day to 2-5 per day.

There were no official updates announced on that specific day, according to the Google Search Status Dashboard. And there isn’t anything alarming under the Manual Actions and Security Issues tabs.

Clearly, this was an algorithmic penalty.

Something triggered a flag in Google’s algorithms, causing the website to fall in the SERPs.

Sure, it hasn’t disappeared completely from Google’s index, and we’re still getting some organic clicks:

Programmatic SEO website performance problems

But considering we’re already in the eighth month, I was hoping for much better progress in terms of growth, especially for a programmatic website. So far, the website build is failing.

Hey, this is the nature of this business.

I built a site with minimal effort and sold it for four figures (unmonetized) when I tried programmatic SEO for the first time. Now, when I try to do it again with a public case study, it’s becoming evident that I won’t be as lucky as I was the first time—no more beginner’s luck!

Yoyao and I will have to work for it.

The question is, what did we not see and/or do wrong?

Troubleshooting the SEO Performance

We took a good hard look at the website and came to a few assumptions:

#1 Analyzing the Cluster Depth

The second topic we focused on went in much too deep:

Let’s say we were writing content about fish (even though we’re not). 

Instead of publishing a guide called “How to Cook Trout,” we ended up creating separate guides like “How to Cook Brook Trout,” “How to Cook Lake Trout,” “How to Cook Tiger Trout,” and so on.

It’s one of those mistakes that appear obvious when you reflect on it afterward, but not so clear while you’re building the site. 

Regardless, we (or, as the one who took on content production, should I say “I”) learned an important lesson: When building out a programmatic site, think very, very carefully about the depth of each topical cluster before creating the content for it.

Suppose you search for some of the terms in your content plan and notice the general term appears instead of your specific terms. In that case, you probably want to produce content about the general one (i.e., “trout”) instead of the specific ones (for instance, “brook trout,” “lake trout,” “tiger trout,” etc.) 

Otherwise, you risk keyword cannibalization.

#2 Link Building

We postponed link building until late in the build:

We’re now in the eighth month of building the site, and we only have one link so far.

The link?

Number of backlinks for a programmatic SEO website

Not great, people. Definitely not great.

That “scam adviser” check doesn’t necessarily report the site as a fraud… but it doesn’t deem it trustworthy either.

Given the influx of AI-generated content and the massive number of new websites, there’s no way Google won’t prioritize backlinks even more in their algorithm.

If we focus on the backlink profile of this website and set everything else aside for a moment, it’s looking pretty sus.

#3 Internal Links

We neglected internal links:

Jeez, another big one.

Yes, we had put up a good categorization system. We used categories and subcategories to differentiate between the topical clusters and subclusters (think “Fish” > “Trout” > “Lake Trout”). 

But we fell short in creating strong internal links between the posts, which is also a missed opportunity when building up topical authority.

Imagine if we had built out strong internal linking between all of these different levels of content:

Programmatic SEO website categorization

It’s harder to do and requires you to approach the site build a lot more strategically, but looking back from the position of somebody who ignored it, it’s absolutely worth it—if not even necessary.

How did I miss all of this?

The first time I built a programmatic SEO site, I also neglected link building and internal backlinks. It didn’t matter:

Programmatic SEO website performance

But that was earlier in 2022 before OpenAI released GPT-4 and ChatGPT, and when programmatic SEO was still this weird, niche thing that very few people knew about or tried.

It’s August 2023. Things are different.

It takes more time and more effort to build a site. Search engines are more suspicious of new sites. Scaled content creation is in a gray zone between “you can do it if you create value for your users” and “don’t do it at all.”

When mediocrity is the norm, you can’t be mediocre.

As much as I hate to admit it, that’s where we’re at with this website build.

Hey, at least it never gets boring when you’re building websites!

What’s Next?

So, what’s next?

Should we continue doing what we’re doing and hope the site takes a different direction?

(We could, but then we would be ignoring the signs that something is amiss in the way we’re building this site.)

Or should we call this case study a failure, let it sit for another few months, and come back to see if anything changes?

Perhaps we should. There’s no use in trying to salvage a sinking ship.

Or maybe we could try to turn this ship around and make this case study even more interesting. And if we do, how exactly do we salvage this?

Stick around!

(And let me know what you think we should do in the comments!)

June 2023 Metrics



In June 2023, 138 out of 167 posts were indexed by Google.


In June 2023, we published 2 new templates that covered 32 new entities under the second topical cluster.

Topical Clusters2
Entities Covered24
Templates Live20
Posts Published167


In June 2023, the site had 268 total clicks and 26.9k total impressions in Google Search Console, with an average CTR of 1% and an average position of 16.

Who We Are


Yoyao manages his portfolio of niche and authority sites, publishes the Niche Surfer weekly newsletter, and has a topical map service that helps sites build topical authority and drive organic traffic.

Learn more about and


Dim started his first site in 2007, when he stumbled upon a blog about making money online. He’s been buying, growing, and selling sites ever since. Fast-forward to today, and Dim owns an indie media company and runs Publetise, a weekly email newsletter for online publishers.

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Thanks for this update. This is my first time following along but it’s an interesting read and I’m curious how you decide to pivot (or not).


Quite interesting to see if you can actually turn around the situation and improve performance! Looking forward to the updates


Thanks for the update. I would love to see you turn it around and recover.


Why you didn’t index all 167 posts manual via GSC or via a math rank plugin?


I don’t want to celebrate your misfortune here, but if you can turn this around, it will be an amazing case study for those of us who have all our sites follow this same trajectory.


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