Automating landing page creation is a really bad idea

Tasks associated with SEO generally fall under two categories:

  1. Gathering data to report on performance and help inform decision making
  2. Implementing changes and campaigns based on what that data tells us.

Reporting (tracking search visibility and pulling analytics data) or pulling raw data using crawlers and link tools such as Google’s Search Console can and probably should be automated.

Where an SEO adds value is in interpreting that data and executing on it which, by coincidence, is usually a really bad idea to automate.

Arguably the most effective way to audit links is to manually look at each and every link without relying on tools to speed up the process.

Many websites experience issues with links because they automated their link building so why trust a tool to automate removing them for you, right?

I know SEOs who have had plenty of success removing penalties using both methods. Even automating the link removal process is hardly manipulating search results, it’s doing the opposite, so live and let live.

However, the fact that automating any activity where the aim is to acquire more traffic is suicide for search rankings shouldn’t really come up for debate.

Few businesses would publish automatically generated content or use any automated tool to build backlinks, so why is it considered fine to use tools to dynamically generate doorway pages?

What is a doorway page?

Google’s definition of doorway pages highlights…

“…pages created to rank highly for specific search queries. They are bad for users because they can lead to multiple similar pages in user search results, where each result ends up taking the user to essentially the same destination. They can also lead users to intermediate pages that are not as useful as the final destination.”

Erin Everhart covered Google’s algorithm update dealing with doorway pages in April. It’s a safe guess that a site with an abundance of doorway pages will experience issues with the Panda algorithm too because, as Google states, doorway pages are bad for users.

Although nobody really knows the precise factors that will cause a site to suffer from any particular penalty I would say that there’s little ambiguity that automatically generating doorway pages is a really bad idea.

Example one

The first example I want to look at is well-known ecommerce brand (74,000 brand searches per month in the UK according to Keyword Planner) selling outdoor clothing and ski supplies.

Through use of a tool the website has generated 16,400 landing pages on a search. subdomain which have been added to Google’s index:

site-search

As per Google’s definition of a doorway page, there are “multiple similar pages in user search results”, with the pages generated by the tool and accessible via a sitemap providing a significantly worse experience than the static pages accessible to users via the top navigation.

product-results-page

For example, a category level landing page for a brand sold by the site contains a bold headline with the brand’s name and around 100 words of boilerplate copy. Hardly award-winning user experience, but significantly more useful than the equivalent page generated and indexed using the tool which has none of these things.

product-results-page

Example two

A second example is a fashion brand (450,000 searches for the brand each month) with a similar implementation.

site-search-results

The tool is automated so there’s nothing in the way of quality control.

gilet

…and as a result the website’s visibility is shaky at best.

searchmetrics-chart

Longtail is the new shorttail

Tools such as OneHydra, SLI Site Champion and BloomReach Organic can provide immense value in other areas. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend SLI’s site search applications to anyone, for instance, because it has a massively positive impact on user experience.

But the fact remains that many of the pages automatically generated by these tools should not exist and paint a target on the backs of the sites churning them out.

Identifying longtail search queries and creating content to ensure your website is a relevant result is a great strategy, but you have to be completely sure that your website will add value to the searcher.

Adobe’s Dave Lloyd pointed out the benefits of optimising websites for longtail searches earlier in October, showing what that strategy can achieve. It should go without saying that you can’t automate this SEO strategy or any other in 2015.

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