Case Study 2, Month 1: Topical Authority + Programmatic SEO 

Yoyao & Dim
Updated on

Hey Case Study Lovers! 

Dim, Paul, and Yoyao here to bring you a fun project. 

We’re combining 3 of the hottest strategies to drive organic traffic to our brand-new niche site:

Topical Authority + Topical Mapping + Programmatic SEO

We won’t reveal our niche and URL initially to allow the site to grow organically, but we’ll reveal them in later months. 

We will be covering everything along the way and if we miss any details, feel free to comment below and ask us

Case Study Goals

The goal of any niche site is to grow it to millions of pageviews and tens of thousands of dollars of revenue every month – ours is no different! 

We want to see what happens when you take a Topical Authority approach to building content and combine it with the scalability of Programmatic SEO (pSEO) in creating content. 

We will be blogging the first 12 months of the project for everyone to follow along. 

This is a large project, but we’re also taking the approach of regular niche site builders out there. Things we’re NOT doing: 

  • Not hiring a team of 10 writers to start right away
  • Not putting thousands of dollars into this immediately
  • Not putting $0 into this, either


The general process and budget for this project are ones that almost anyone can replicate. It’s more about the sweat equity we’re putting in. 

One last major goal is to build a brand. 

With all the Google Updates and the proliferation of AI-content generation tools, niche sites have to stand out and above the competition by building a brand. 

Players and Roles

So how did it all start? We had both been talking and going to each other about our various projects and strategies for some time. 

We wanted to find a project we could work on together and thought our skills complemented each other well. 

Yoyao is more of an expert on topical authority and topical maps. 

Dim is more of an expert on programmatic SEO and creating quality content at scale.

Other case studies do one or the other, but not both. They take slightly different approaches and skill sets, so it’s not common for anyone to have both. 

Paul from LowFruits is also a key player, as our keyword research and topical clustering work will all be performed on the LowFruits platform. He will be checking in on us from time to time and helping out where needed. 

That includes kicking our butts to get these monthly articles out! 😉

Niche Selection

Choosing our niche wasn’t as easy as we initially thought. Our criteria for selecting a niche: 

  • Brandable niche.
  • Broad niche with many topics. 
  • It will require hundreds to thousands of articles to build topical authority.
  • Enough topics where the content could be created programmatically.
  • Topics will not go out of date quickly and will not require regular updates to content. 
  • It doesn’t have seasonal ups and downs as much as possible. 
  • Most Importantly – it has to be interesting enough to both of us that we wouldn’t be sick of it three months in.

With those in mind, it took us a while to brainstorm ideas and find a good niche. 

We’ll be sharing our niche in the future, but in the meantime, try and guess what you can come up with!

Branding and Domain Selection

Branding is a part of building sites that we believe is necessary now due to many factors: 

  • Google rewards sites that demonstrate Expertise-Authoritativeness-Trustworthiness (E-A-T). 
  • Users reward branded sites with longer times on site and repeat visits.
  • The influx of AI-content generation tools means many crappy AI-content sites are flooding the internet. 
  • More and more people are going online to generate income, which includes content sites.
  • Omnichannel marketing can increase brand awareness, traffic, and revenues. 

A big part of creating a brand is getting a memorable, brandable domain name

We first considered aged domains and went to several marketplaces, but nothing piqued our interest. Many aged domains with a good backlink profile had a lousy domain name. If the aged domain had a good name, it didn’t have a good backlink profile. 

So we decided to go with a fresh domain

That would also help keep the case study clean and not be influenced by the existing backlink profile, for better or worse. 

We bounced around a lot of different ideas in coming up with the name, including putting our niche in the domain name. 

In the end, we chose a brandable name that didn’t include the niche in the URL. If we want to, we’ll be able to expand into related niches in the future. 

Topical Map Creation Process

Yoyao here! Since this is my area of expertise, I’ll be writing up this section, but Dim had a big part in the process. If anything is wrong here, don’t blame Dim! 

I will keep the talk about topical authority as simple as possible. I could spew a bunch of terminology (entities, NLP, semantics, etc.) that usually goes along with topical authority, but I like to keep it as simple as possible.

Topical authority is about fully covering a topic you want to discuss on your site. 

That’s it. 

No need to think about entities, semantic SEO, the Google Hummingbird algorithm update, patents, or anything else. 

The key is to learn everything about your topic. Do the research. It will take a lot of time, but it will be well-spent. 

You are front-loading all your keyword research, so you barely have to do any of it for hundreds to thousands of articles. 

Once we selected the niche, I started to get into my keyword and topical research process. 

1. Topic and Subtopic Research 

I always start researching the niche to find the main topics and subtopics. I’ll start getting an idea of the topic hierarchy and structure. 

If I were to put the niche into a keyword tool right off the bat, I’d get thousands of keywords but not know how they all fit together. 

Depending on the niche, the primary sources I go to for topical research include: 

  • Wikipedia
  • Competitor Sites
  • Forums
  • Google and its various products, including SERP features
  • Books

For this niche, I actually got the crux of my topical research from books. 

I rarely turn to books for topical research. Online resources are often more than enough to get topical information, but this is one where books really came in handy. (Dim was the one who found the books, too.) 

Creating a rough topical hierarchy will give you an idea of how broad and deep the niche is. 

For example, imagine if the niche is cars. 

If you think about the vastness of the niche, you’ll start to understand why you want to look at the main categories and topics before jumping into a keyword tool. 

Cars are a broad and deep niche because there are many types of cars:

  • SUV
  • Hatchback swings upward
  • Crossover
  • Convertible
  • Sedan
  • Sports Car
  • Coupe
  • Minivan

If you wanted to categorize it differently, you could also break it down by: 

  • Brands – GM, Ford, Toyota, Tesla, Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, BYD, Ferrari, etc. 
  • Fuel Sources – Gasoline, electric, diesel, solar, hydrogen, vegetable oil, etc. 

If you wanted to use Types of cars to structure the niche, you’d have brands and fuel sources under each Type. Or if you wanted to structure by Brands or Fuel Sources, each would have Types to break it further down. 

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider here. Here’s an example of a topical hierarchy:

  • Niche – Cars
    • Type – Sports Car
      • Brand – Audi
        • Model – Audi R8
        • Model – Audi TT

Once I had done a rough topical hierarchy, I started doing the actual keyword research.

2. Keyword Research and Clustering

When I first started keyword research, I would put “cars” or “types of cars” into a keyword research tool and get thousands of keywords. But then I’d be so overwhelmed I wouldn’t know where to start. 

Then there will always inevitably be gaps in the keyword research too. The broader you go with the keywords you put into a tool, the more gaps you have in the results. 

Putting “types of cars” into LowFruits, it says there are 2,666 keyword ideas. 

LowFruits generates over 2000 keyword ideas

When you have a topical hierarchy, you’ll be able to put more specific keywords into the tools to give you the depth needed to cover a subtopic

This is similar to the concept of niching down. Get more specific and get complete coverage. 

Continuing the cars example, I’ll put “Audi R8” into LowFruits because it’s specific enough to get complete coverage (or at least very close to complete) in the tool. 

LowFruits returned 3,370 keyword ideas. That’s more than the 2,666 from “types of cars.”  The great thing about these keywords is that they’re also relevant to Audi R8 cars.

How LowFruits generates 3370 keyword ideas

See how if you start with more specific keywords, you’ll get more complete coverage? 

Out of those 2,666 keywords, only 2 keywords mentioned Audi. 

Part of the reason is also because of how LowFruits works. LowFruits works by putting your keyword into Google and extracting the Auto-Complete keywords.

The great thing about this is that you get current and past keywords that users search for on Google. (Other keyword tools like Ahrefs and Semrush will usually lag depending on their data sources.)

The last part of keyword research is creating the topic clusters and organizing them hierarchically within your topical hierarchy. 

Putting everything together in an organized and logical way will tell Google and users that you know what you’re talking about. They will perceive you as a topical authority. 

Laying the topics out in a structured way is the topical map. 

3. Topical Map

The topical map is your visual representation of the different topics on your site. 

The topical hierarchy above is the foundation of your topical map. You start filling out that hierarchy with keywords and topic clusters to create a full topical map for your site. 

Here are two examples from a portion of a large topical map. 

It comes in two forms – a mind map and a spreadsheet. They are the same in terms of topics and hierarchy structure but differ in visual representation. 

Examples of a topical map in SEO
Examples of a spreadsheet topical map in SEO

Content Creation and Programmatic SEO

Hello, fellow LowFruits addicts!

Dim, your friendly neighborhood blogging coach, here.

As you may know, I’ve been doing the BBQ site case study for a year now. After switching to quarterly instead of monthly updates, I missed our email exchanges and conversations in the comments section in the middle of every month. So I agreed to do another with my good friends Yoyao and Paul.

Hop onboard and follow along because this case study is shaping up to be even more interesting than the first.

Why?

Because we’re going to be doing programmatic SEO.

It’s a hot topic as of late, one shrouded in mystery. Everyone has their own approach to getting it done, and most prefer to keep theirs a secret. So Yoyao, Paul, and I thought to shake things up and do a public case study.

Will it shoot up like a rocket and be the most successful site that either of us has ever built? 

Or will it get shot down by the Gods of SEO and come crashing down with the speed of a lightning strike?

No one knows for sure, and that’s the fun of it.

Let’s Talk About Programmatic SEO

Programmatic SEO.

Sounds technical. Intimidating, if you will. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s called that way, so not everyone tries to do it, and we all end up wrecking the Internet.

Here’s the problem: I think “programmatic SEO” is a good term. It describes what’s being done in two words, and it does so accurately enough. But, like many other SEO terms, it focuses on the wrong thing.

Programmatic SEO is simply a means to get something done. And that something is to create content at scale.

It’s not the only way to create content at scale, though — and it’s important for anyone to keep this in mind if and when they are considering it.

You can blast out tons of content with an AI writing assistant or AI article generator. If you research keywords well, they will rank in Google’s SERPs sooner rather than later and start bringing in organic traffic.

But if you want to do this at scale, you must either hire an army of editors or completely give up control over content quality to the AI writing tool (and, except for a few tools, almost all AI writers are powered by the GPT-3 algorithm under the bonnet).

With programmatic SEO, you approach scaled content creation differently.

Why Do Programmatic SEO?

The first step, as Yoyao showed you, is figuring things out.

You take a topic, uncover the subtopics, and identify the recurring patterns.

Take cars. There are different types of cars. Within each type, there are different makes and models

That’s your bird’s eye view of the topic and its subtopics.

Now, people — car enthusiasts, car buyers, and car owners — are likely to have questions about cars, the types of cars, as well as about the makes and models within each type.

Cars, the highest-level topic, is easy. 

You answer a hundred questions like, “Can All Cars Use Synthetic Oil” and “Do All Cars Have Replacement Tires?” and you’re pretty much done. But chances are these terms will be pretty competitive in the SERPs, and you’ll have a hard time ranking a new site without topical authority or backlinks.

The topics in the middle will be somewhat underserved. 

Just run a report for “do saloon cars have wipers” and “do pickup trucks need winter tires,” and you’ll see low fruits on Page 1 of Google here and there. These searches are usually car buyers figuring out what type of car they want to buy.

The lowest-level topics, or the questions about specific makes and models of cars, is where you’ll have the least competition and be able to rank the quickest. But these topics don’t have much traffic. 

Many are interested in cars, fewer in buying a car, and even fewer in buying or troubleshooting a specific car.

If you hire a writer to write about each of these low-level topics, you’ll put in a lot of money and get them returned to you very slowly; at best, each article will have a few dozen to a few hundred pageviews per month.

So you, as somebody in the content creation business, have a dilemma to solve. You’ve identified unmet demand, but you don’t have a way to meet that demand in a way that’s profitable enough.

Meet programmatic SEO.

Does Programmatic SEO Work?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I do have a take on it. And my take is based on experience.

See, in June of this year, I created a programmatic SEO site, published 460 articles on it in 30 days, then just left it there to see what would happen.

Although it could be better, it hasn’t been doing too badly, either. Depending on the day of the week, it gets anywhere between 75 and 125 clicks a day. And, so far, it has survived quite a few Google algorithm updates.

Performance of a niche website using programmatic SEO

Is this a one-hit wonder, or am I onto something?

Well, Yoyao and I are building a new site in this case study. This means that, over the course of the next 12 months, we’re going to find out.

And I wanted to partner up with Yoyao not just because he’s a great partner but because he knows topical authority and topical mapping inside and out. 

As long as the new site survives, my take is it’ll grow bigger.

How Does Programmatic SEO Work?

What’s my approach to programmatic SEO, then?

On the one hand, it’s simple:

You’re not publishing individual articles.

You’re building up a database of facts and opinions and creating content templates to give those facts and opinions to the user in the form of blog content.

Some of those facts and opinions are true for all the entities in your database. Others, only for a group of entities. And then there are those unique to a single entity.

To give you an example of how this works:

  • All cars have tires.
  • Different types of cars have different tire sizes. Pickup cars have bigger tires than SUVs, which have bigger tires than saloon and estate cars, which have bigger tires than city cars.
  • A Ford F-150 truck of a given year will have a unique tire size, and so will a Hyundai i30 of the same year.

With programmatic SEO, you can satisfy the information demand for each make and model of car without having to write an article about each from scratch.

Instead, you create a template for a regular blog post — title, introduction, sections with headings and 2–3 paragraphs each — and “program” variables into that template.

The tool you use then generates blog posts by swapping out the variables with the values for each item in your database.

Suppose you have the following paragraph:

A {generation} {brand} {model} pickup truck is sold with {rim-size} rims and {tire-size} tires. However, it can also fit {rim-and-tire-alternative-sizes}.

With programmatic SEO, you can create a spreadsheet, import it into a tool that integrates with WordPress, and turn the above template into a paragraph like this:

A 9th-generation Ford F-150 pickup truck is sold with 17-inch rims and 245/70 R17 BSW all-season tires. However, it can also fit 18-inch wheels and 275/65 R18 tires or 20-inch wheels and 275/55 R20 tires.

See what you and I did there?

Now imagine scaling this to every generation Ford F-150 pickup truck. Then to the rest of Ford’s pickup truck models. And then to other brands and their models.

And so on, and so on.

You’ve already written the template. So all you’d have to do to keep scaling is research information, build up your database, and run imports in the programmatic SEO tool every now and then.

Suppose you’ve written a whole blog post with variables inside the title, the headings, and the paragraphs.

It takes a while to write the template and build up the database, but it’s more cost-efficient than producing posts from scratch for every single make and model of a pickup truck.

And you’re not just limited to the blog post format. 

If you know your way around HTML/CSS, PHP/MySQL, and WordPress development, you can create custom page templates that lay out this information in an informational portal-like site.

These days, you can even pull this off with a visual page builder, a few WordPress plugins, and a ton of trial and error.

Of course, this is all easier said than done.

And the fact that you can do it doesn’t mean it will work.

Even if it works out and your programmatic SEO site brings in hundreds of thousands of page views every month, there’s no guarantee that it won’t get hit in some future Google update and have its traffic reduced to zero.

To keep this from happening, the challenge is to create the highest quality content that you can — and do it at a scale big enough to yield returns and turn a profit. 

This is both a science and an art, so avoid listening to anyone who tries to tell you there’s only one way to make things happen.

Then again, this is true for any site build, programmatic SEO or not. So follow along, and let’s observe what happens to this one!

What’s Next

This update was long! Whether you read through it all or scrolled down to the bottom, thanks for making it this far.

We’ll publish these updates in the middle of every month. 

The next update will be out in mid-January, and it will:

  • Tell you the number of posts we published in November (Month 1) and December (Month 2)
  • Give you details about some of the tools we use and the way we use them to create content at scale with programmatic SEO
  • Show you the first two months of data — impressions, clicks, CTR, pages indexed — in Google Search Console

Stay tuned, and see you soon!

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!


Who We Are

Yoyao

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 NicheSurfer.com and TopicalMap.com

Dim

Dim runs a small media company. He started his first website in 2007 and has been building, buying, scaling, and selling online media properties since. Every now and then, Dim publishes case studies and coaches bloggers, media operators, and website investors.

Learn more about Dim

19 Comments

This will be a really interesting case study.

The part I want to know more about is “collecting data”

Although we have templates to produce the content at
scale, the user is visiting our site for helpful information.

So from where do we collect the data that we can feed
into the templates?

Do we get data from other competitor sites, forums, youtube?

How do we make sure the date is accurate?

It will be helpful if you guys can comment on the “data research” or
sources to gather info from and how to make sure the data is
helpful and accurate.

Thank you,

Midhun

Reply

Hey there, Midhun,

Thanks for following along and excellent question.

I’m making a note to include this in next month’s write-up!

Dim

Reply

So can you tell us what tool YOU use for integrating CSVs -> database -> templates in WordPress?

Reply

Hey, WF,

It’s a Google Sheets spreadsheet, exported as .CSV files and imported into WordPress with WP All Import.

In the past few months, Yoyao and I tried a few other tools and plugins out, but WP All Import came out on top.

We’ll go into details in the months to come!

Dim

Reply

wondering this as well.

Reply
Hamza Khurshid December 15, 2022

This is one of the most interesting case studies – didn’t skip a word. Read through it 100%

Excited for the months to come!

Reply

Thanks for the kind words, Hamza!

Dim

Reply

Hey Dim! Quick question about your Barbehow site.

I noticed that for the affiliate disclaimer text at the top of your page “Barbehow is reader-supported. If you buy through the links in our posts, we may earn a commission.”, you use a CSS Pseudo Element to display this content to users.

Is there a specific reason you did it this way?

To intentionally “hide” it from Google? (They can render it, but don’t index it).

If you are trying to intentionally hide it from Google (no judgment) — why?

Genuinely curious. Thanks!

Reply

Joe, great question.

No, that’s just me being lazy. See, I’m using the Twenty-Twenty One theme with the Twentig plugin on most of my sites. But when I was setting up BBH, I forgot to create a child theme as I normally do.

Were it a child theme, this would have been a regular element in the DOM. Inserting it with a CSS pseudo-element was a good workaround. It’s begging for a redesign with more compact fonts, though.

Dim

Reply

Hi! Interesting journey to follow 🙂 How will you approach Google indexing? GSC sitemap submit and wait until Google natural crawl it or will you tackle it differently?

Reply

Hi, Michal!

Sitemap submission. We’re already seeing some indexation and rankings. Details to follow in January’s update 😛

Dim

Reply

I completed it in 2 days because I have read this twice and tried to understand it deeply. However, I’m very excited to see the result and want to learn more about it.

I really appreciate your hard work.

Rahul 🙂

Reply

Thanks for following along, Rahul!

Dim

Reply

Hi Dim,

As above – very interesting case study and looking forward to the next month.

Looking forward to understanding Programmatic SEO a bit more and how to use it – as well as the topical map as keen to understand how you are creating pillar pages / silos and the process behind this.

Can’t wait to see the next update for the BBQ site.

Reply

Alfie, thanks for following along! Yoyao and I will make note of that and explain accordingly in the coming updates 🙂

Dim

Reply

hello,
It’s interesting to read !
i have a question : how do you build your database/dataset ?

Reply

This is a fascinating case study. I am especially interested in learning how to create a topical authority map. If there is already a good course that covers this, it would be very helpful to hear about it.

Reply

Hello Julia, yes – Yoyao has a course on Topical Maps (coming out soon) : https://courses.topicalmap.com/

Reply

Hey Dim,

Thats the first programmatic case study I have come across. So…REALLY EXCITED for the following updates.

BTW I wanted to know how you created the sitemap for your BBQ website? Is it actually better to have that kind of sitemap than your old generic XML plugin generated sitemap?

Best,
Maaz!

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *