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Not many sites can grow from 1,000,000 to 15,000,000 monthly visits in 2 years. The Athletic is one of them.
Founded by two former colleagues at Strava in 2016, The Athletic reached 600 employees and $65M in ARR until the New York Times bought it for $550M in Cash in January 2022.
The Athletic is an integrator. All content, except for maybe statistics that come through an API, is created by full-time journalists. In fact, the company employs the 2nd most sports journalists in the US, right after ESPN.
But The Athletic's growth spurt doesn't come from self-created content, it comes from an aggregator play.
The Athletic’s aggregator play
In 2022, The Athletic’s launched team pages that aggregate news, schedules and statistics. Even though the content is company-created, team pages group it by topic and satisfy several strong user intents: knowing when your team plays next, knowing how they played in the recent game, learning what’s new about their players, etc.
Examples of team pages:
Just the MLB teams subdirectory alone grew to 2M monthly visits within 3 months.
Not every company can go after an SEO aggregator strategy. So, the big question is, “how can you find out whether your site has the potential for aggregation?”
How to identify aggregator potential
Products need to solve a feasible, business-viable problem and provide strong features. That's no different when the website is part of the product. In the case of The Athletic's team pages, the viability is anchored in getting the latest updates about a team, and the features are schedules, statistics, and articles.
There are three types of supply for SEO aggregation:
- Best: UGC
- Second best: inventory
- Third best: programmatic
UGC comes in the form of reviews (G2), templates (Figma/Miro), or inventory (Airbnb), but it can’t be contextual content like “article comments”. Almost all UGC platforms are 2 or 3-sided marketplaces between buyers and sellers (and sometimes advertisers). Many integrators start as point solutions that add a marketplace dynamic on top.
- Figma: users can create and sell templates in the /community
- Miro: users can create and sell templates in the /miroverse
- Typeshare: users can build their own mini sites
The idea of “inventory” is simple: most products create some type of entity when used that can be aggregated and surface to Google, at least partially. For Pinterest, it’s board and topic pages. Trello surfaces boards and cards.
- Substack: users create content that can be aggregated on topic pages (more in Substack’s SEO opportunity)
- Klarna: users can browse thousands of products on Klarna’s shopping pages (more in BNPL growth strategies)
- Zapier apps: users find different combinations of tool integrations
Programmatic landing pages can be created for keyword permutations with a finite amount. They’re typically built with the same template for each page. Directories are a good example.
Other than UGC or supply inventory, programmatic plays are always limited in scale. That doesn’t make them less valuable, but compound Growth can’t be built on them alone.
- Wise: built programmatic landing pages around exchange rates
- Shopify: built programmatic landing pages around selling goods
- Businessnamegenerator: built programmatic landing pages for business names
Questions that help you identify aggregation potential
The path to SEO aggregation isn’t always straightforward. Looking at whether similar businesses have built an aggregator play doesn’t always give you a definitive answer.
We’ve already established that aggregator SEO is a product discipline, so the answer to aggregation has to be in the product. Better said, it’s buried in how users experience the product.
Here are a couple of pointer questions to tease it out:
- What are the steps users go through to receive core value?
- Along the journey, does the user encounter entities you could make public?
- Where do or could users create new entities? (potential for UGC)
- What are all the things the product allows users to do?
- Does the product have integrations, or is it a platform (with apps)?
- Do entities have any keyword search volume?
Conclusion: shifting from marketing to product thinking
Building an aggregator angle is a strategic SEO decision that takes a shift from marketing to product thinking. Builders need to think about product value (does this really help users?), business feasibility (does this help us grow?) and experience (can we provide something better than what’s already out there?).
In his legendary book “Inspired”, Marty Cagan mentions four core risks in product development:
- Value risk: will customers buy it?
- Usability risk: can customers figure out how to use it?
- Feasibility risk: can we figure out how to build it with the resources we have?
- Business viability risk: does this solution work for our business?
For SEO strategy, we need to add a 5th risk: can we get significant traffic from the keywords we target through aggregation? In 2022, Blue Links compete with Google SERP Features for clicks. We cannot ignore the Search landscape when opportunity sizing and how it impacts the potential amount of clicks we can expect (despite high search volumes).
After all, The Athletic fights against Google’s direct answer for sports results: