Let’s call it right off the bat. These are all things you should know. You’re probably already doing some of them.
It’s like doing a project management course. Sure, 20% of the course will teach you something new. The other 80% is providing a structure and process that makes it scaleable and repeatable. That’s where the real value lies. Don’t underestimate how important that structure is.
It organises the mess. It has a name. It must be real.
What is the skyscraper technique?
The skyscraper technique was developed by Brian Dean, founder of Backlinko and announced to the SEO community in 2015. It’s a process by which websites create superior content, coupled with email outreach to gain high quality backlinks. You may also hear it referred to as skyscraper content, but don’t confuse it with pillar content.
Brian claimed that through this technique, he had a 100% increase in organic traffic to his site within two weeks. With a single piece of content, in his case it was his 200 Google Ranking Factors article. Although he clearly used this technique for both Backlinko and his client’s sites. This is how his skyscraper technique works in practice:
- Identify content within your industry that attracts lots of backlinks. Naturally, these pieces will often be associated with high search volumes (relatively speaking).
- Create a superior piece of content. It could be more detailed, better researched, have a more attractive design.
- Reach out via email to those that have already linked to competitor content, and introduce your new and improved version.
To put it in more colloquial language, you’re trying to ‘one-up’ your competition. You then shout about how well you’ve one-uped the others in a bid to gain links. If you’ve seen American Psycho, you’ll hopefully know the infamous business card scene. Classic one-upmanship.
Does the Skyscraper technique work?
Well, it worked for Brian.
It also worked for a lot of other SEOs and no doubt continues to be effective. You only need to Google the technique to see how popular it is. Pretty impressive, Brian.
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All the big boys have thrown their hat in the ring for this search term. The list includes Ahrefs, HubSpot, Neil Patel, Search Engine Journal, the list goes on. Whilst not originally a piece of skyscraper content, ironically Brian’s article is a great case study for link earning, as shown by the article’s backlink profile via SEMrush:
Like most things in life though, it has aged.
5 Years is a long time in SEO and if we’ve learnt anything, it’s that new techniques will be abused by the less the scrupulous amongst us. It would be awesome if that wasn’t the case, but it is.
The core theory remains strong.
Create great content based on data and have a plan to amplify it.
The problem with this particular technique is two-fold.
- The original article was simplistic. That’s effective when introducing a new concept but over simplification leaves too much on the table.
- It was a victim of its own popularity. SEOs are chomping at the bit to get a competitive advantage. If everyone starts using it, the efficacy will drop.
Add these two together and layer in the amount of people that are unable to think creatively about it and you have an issue. Cast your minds back to when Matt Cutts said that guest posting could be a good method to gain backlinks. What happened? Every spammy SEO and their dog started sending mass emails asking to ‘guest post’. Eventually this gave rise to spammy guest blogs and that was no bueno.
Does it mean that either technique is rubbish? Absolutely not, they only need to be adapted to take into account a different SEO landscape.
There are also other factors that will affect the success of your content, as others have commented on already. We’ll include these at the bottom of this article but as a sneak peek:
- The inherent authority of your website will have a direct impact on the longevity of your content. i.e if you are new (like we are) the likelihood that your content will rank is low.
- Similar to the inherent authority of your website, the authority of your brand will make a difference. If Larry Kim reaches out to people, he’s going to have much more success than little ‘ol me.
- Money talks and budgets can have a real influence. We reference social and paid channels, but budgets can also include video production. In some cases, the creation of a tool can be highly successful, but needs budget.
A Skyscraper Technique that works
For those that can’t bear reading Neil Patel style long form articles, we’ve included a quick summary. If you spot stuff from the original technique and fancy leaving a comment ousting me as a copycat, don’t bother. I’ve already said that the core theory remains strong so it makes sense that there would be some repetition 😉
A key part of this improved technique is a focus on the outputs: authority and links. Or more accurately, how a more comprehensive process can deliver higher outputs.
It’s worth pointing out a key aspect of this article.
There is no point trying to ‘one up’ all the other articles that explain how to use a certain tool to execute the research, as an example. It depends on what you might be subscribed to and your preferences. If you want more detail on platform specific processes during each stage, just follow the links that we’ve included as part of the article.
- Research topics where a better solution exists
- Identify key amplifiers
- Create the content
- Invite amplifiers to provide further commentary
- Develop a brief, but effective social media strategy
- Personalise every piece of outreach
- Protect your asset
Step 1: Research topics where a better solution exists
Successful SEO is seated in data, like most marketing channels. In order for any skyscraper content to work it must be based on research.
We’ll approach this phase from a different angle. Call it a change of mindset if you like. Searching for the most “link-worthy content” is a good start, but lacks nuance. Remember that our aim is to one-up our competition. SEO and content marketing has increased in popularity over the last 5 years. As such, the most link-worthy content in your field has likely been covered comprehensively. In turn, this reduces your ability to one-up your competition. If you can’t succeed at this playground chest-beating, the ability to gain authority or links (main objective) sort of fails before it starts.
Elise Dopson, a freelance B2B writer who has numerous examples of successful skyscraper content comments:
“Warning: not every piece of content needs to be Skyscraper.
There’s no doubt that Skyscraper-style content helps with SEO. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking every new piece of content has to be the epic, 10,000-word style Skyscraper piece when it doesn’t.”
Check her out on Twitter (@elisedopson) her website.
We should be looking for topics or queries where there is sufficient interest. No argument there. However, we’re investing time into this skyscraper model. As such, we need to give ourselves the best chances of gaining further interest and rankings.
Google is looking to provide the best solutions to a searcher’s query. Or as we progress, displaying the most valuable results via Google Discover in a queryless world.
Our research should be based on this principle:
Which popular queries display results where the searcher intent has not been fully satisfied?
You might argue that this is only a change in narrative or terminology. We disagree. The original advice was to make it longer, better designed, more thorough. All valid reasoning, but longer is not necessarily better. Our job is to provide the best solutions and that can often come in a shorter format.
Neil Patel would have a heart attack. Sorry Neil, couldn’t resist (he probably won’t read this).
Jokes aside, there is compelling evidence for the success of longer form content, when the intent requires it. We believe our statement is more applicable to today’s for the following reasons:
- We don’t get distracted by the big shiny numbers (i.e search volumes or competitor backlinks).
- We focus on how effective our skyscraper content will be in the current landscape.
- It prevents people from investing lots of time on skyscraper content that won’t work. In all content creation there are hits and misses, we need to minimise the misses.
- It provokes thought around exactly what is a better solution to the searcher’s intent. This will be invaluable in the content creation process. Olga Mykhoparkina (I think I spelt that right) wrote for Search Engine Journal stating that one the mistakes she made was not addressing real pain points for the customer.
How do you conduct this research?
We had originally planned on including granular detail on exactly how to conduct these 7 steps. However, this has been covered already by a lot people. As such, we’re going to be providing links to these resources and only commenting on where we feel we can provide additional value.
This way we can keep this article to a reasonable length and avoid repetition of content that already exists.
Some links to great resources on finding subjects, queries and content that attract links:
- Si Quan Ong wrote a great article for Ahrefs recently on how to best use their platform for research.
- Neil Patel looks at how to use Uber Suggest for competitor analysis. There are also some who are trying to promote the ‘Uber Skyscraper Technique’ through the use of Uber Suggest and Postaga to automate a lot of the process. We haven’t fully dived in to that one, but it might be worth checking out.
- There’s also a lot of literature for platform specific research such as SEMrush or Moz.
- Finally, Monitor backlinks provided a lot of information on how to use Keyword Planner and Buzzsumo.
- Have a read of our SparkToro review to see how you could use this platform to understand your audience in more detail.
Remember that some of these articles are helping to promote their own specific platforms!
Step 2: Identify Key Amplifiers
We bring some of the outreach work forward a step. We’re focusing on maximum visibility and links earned, so amplification will be crucial. Rand Fishkin has been a big advocate of amplifying content and he’s done pretty well in the space. It’s going to be pretty important in gaining visibility for your content.
Equally as important:
It can help shape your content.
This is a link building task, so we have to (in part) approach this with a link building mindset. We also have to take into account our desire to provide solutions for searchers.
We’re looking for gaps in the solutions already provided by others. Your amplifiers are going to be included in those ‘others’, i.e your competitors or those linking to your competitors.
Don’t confine yourself to just looking a those linking to the top articles as well. Explore other topics within the subject, explore who links to them, explore who links to the linkers. Have you ever spent too long on a Youtube journey through clicking on the ‘up next’ or related videos? Do that with your research until it becomes irrelevant.
This has been a link building technique that I have used for years. If you can identify these gaps before creating the content, in my opinion you significantly increase your chances of securing a link. It also means that your reach out can be far more targeted and personalised.
More on this in Step 6.
You can often use the same platforms for this phase as you did when researching content. Remember that some of these amplifiers won’t be interested in helping, especially if they are targeting the same content.
That’s okay, you only need a few to say yes which is why you need to be compelling. You can also look at amplifiers that have not covered the topic but are still industry relevant.
Step 3: Create the Content
There are whole swathes of information out there on how to create content. So we’ll try to avoid going too far down that rabbit hole. Hopefully our research and identification amplifiers will provide some further structure.
We want to hammer home the point that you must provide a better solution.
Elise weighed in again on this subject:
“You don’t need to reach a certain amount of words just to hit a checklist. Granted, the top-ranking content in Google usually has a hefty word count—yet that shouldn’t be your goal. You want to write as much content as your audience would find valuable. It’s that value that Google considers when ranking for a keyword… not the number of words on the page.
A great way to figure out whether your content needs to be a Skyscraper piece is to ask yourself: what would I want to read if I were Googling this keyword?
The most obvious way to see this in action is with recipe content. If you’re searching “fish and chips recipe”, you want a list of instructions and ingredients to make that dish. If we’re following the (wrong) guideline that word count matters, you might have just 500 words after you’ve finished those two sections. So, you go back and add a fluffy introduction that talks about the history of the recipe, why it’s important to you, how often you cook it, etc.
But truth is: nobody really cares. They’re just there for the recipe, and you’re annoying them with the fluff.”
The focus of the skyscraper technique is to generate links, and then traffic. Let’s not forget that if the content ranks well on its own merits, you’ll double down on these effects. It can be a chicken or the egg situation in that without the links the content might not rank. However, if the content does get links, and it has been created with the intention of ranking in its own right, it will rank higher than if it had not. More subsequent links earned, more traffic. That’s why delivering a better solution is so critical.
Content is also not limited to text. You might have identified that video content will be more successful or that the addition of an infographic could be great. In some scenarios you may want to create a tool. Although this is probably straying too far away from the skyscraper technique and into normal link building or marketing.
Some further tips on content creation:
- Don’t lose sight of normal ranking factors. If a piece of content can rank in its own right, it will deliver more traffic and earn more links than if it did not. It makes sense to do everything you can to ensure this happens, regardless of the skyscraper technique. Take into account SERP features such as featured snippets or Google images.
- What is going to be attractive to your outreach targets? It could be a piece of independent research or even a funny take on a subject. Simply creating a longer blog post won’t cut it.
- Evergreen content is a good bet. It not only buys you a little more time to create your awesome content (without the potential time decay hovering over you). But it allows for longer term link earning. Have a watch of this White Board Friday on creating ’10x content’ for some additional tips.
Step 4: Invite Further Commentary
Your own research and views on a topic will form the core of the content. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t loop in other people’s points of view. One of the objectives is to create better content than your competitors’, and two brains are often better than one. Don’t be afraid of collaborating with competitors, or at least people in the same industry.
If you can entice one of your key amplifiers to provide commentary, you’ll kill two birds with one stone. Not only will you have hopefully improved your content with their input, but they’ll be more inclined to help share it.
A quick note on agendas. Everyone has one, and that’s okay.
We don’t actually approach our amplifiers with the aim of getting a link (if they have published relevant content). Nor is our primary aim to secure their amplification. These are happy side effects.
The focus is on gaining their input to create the best piece of content possible.
Again, this may feel like a piece of narrative rather than the reality. Of course gaining their amplification and a link would be beneficial to the success of your skyscraper content. The reason we mention this is because it can often affect your communication with the individual. Their expertise is what has driven you to get in contact. Reference this, evidence it, show them you’ve done your research.
This mindset can prevent you from sounding like another person looking to build a link. It should also mean that you approach the individual with a more compelling, better researched rhetoric.
Step 5: Create a brief, but effective social media campaign
As SEOs we often find ourselves competing with social media. We’re fighting for budget with our clients. Agencies try to prove that their channel provides the highest ROI. Funnily enough, they both work. Let’s not throw up walls.
Use social. We’re not going to dictate what your social strategy might be, but we’ve included some ideas below. The aim is to increase the visibility of your content, increasing it’s chances of gaining links.
Brian Dean’s original strategy relied heavily on one-to-one outreach. For good reason as well, contact sites that have already linked to similar content. They’ve already shown a propensity to do so. Why would we limit that? This process is time and resource heavy. Let’s not ignore other techniques that can improve our chances of success.
Here’s some ideas*:
- Create a multiple post campaign to promote your content throughout your outreach period and beyond
- If you have managed to attract contributors, tag them in the posts.
- You might also want to tag other contributors that you have reached out to. Seven points of contact and all that.
- Include some paid promotion to key outreach targets and other content creators.
*Fill in with your own creativity.
Step 6: Link Outreach
Stop! We’re all itching to start reaching out to link targets, but there is a process. If you haven’t already, now is the time to reach out to your commentators. Be patient, wait for responses. If you are a relatively unknown website, securing a better known contributor will add authority to your content. You’ll then be able to piggy back on their authority by mentioning them in your reach outs…
Here’s where a lot of people went wrong with Brian’s technique. The process of reaching out to relevant people still applies. It’s all in the execution.
Even he “was shocked at the overwhelmingly positive response”.
Who wouldn’t want an 11% conversion rate?
Brian very kindly shared the template that he used for his original 160 person email outreach. He included the caveat “(I obviously personalised and tweaked this template for everyone I reached out to)”.
Well, it’s no real surprise that some in the industry might miss the second point. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It did break.
As I mentioned at the start of the article, it was a victim of its own popularity. Half a decade later and verbatim emails are still hurtling through cyber space on a daily basis. It’s similar to HubSpot sales templates….if you know, you know. The first one might work, but the rest act as big red flags. Most content creators nowadays will have received these sorts of emails. The personalisation is so automated that it’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing…..without the sheep’s clothing.
DO NOT copy and paste templates you find online. It’s lazy.
Some of you may be thinking that Twitter DMs might be a good way to contact the higher profile individuals. Bear in mind though that many of these people will prevent people from direct messaging them:
Personalise every piece of outreach
“Well that’s just ridiculous. No-one has the time for that”.
Well…..you do. If your list is too long for personalisation then prioritise them. Cut it down. Still feel it takes too long? Don’t bother with skyscraper content, go back to your previous strategy.
But in Brian’s own words, “remember it’s about quality, not quantity”.
The reality is that link requests are too common place. You need to connect to the prospect on a human basis. Link requests are exactly that, they’re a request. You’re offering very little in return. You could argue that their readers will have access to a better reference and this would be true, but hardly compelling. Show the effort to write something personal and I guarantee you that you’ll have higher success rate.
Widen your perspective
It makes complete sense to approach websites that have already linked to competitor content. If your content really is that much better, they should recognise that and make the switch.
You’ll have some success.
You’ll also find that people are busy. Ever tried to get a major newspaper to add a link that they forgot to include in an article? It’s tough work. They’ve published the article, the world is still spinning, they’ve moved on to the next story.
Evergreen content will give you a better chance, but people are still busy.
A technique that we have seen results with is to identify related content. You’ll see your prospect numbers shoot up. You’ll also be offering more value than a ‘refreshed article’. You’ll potentially be offering an update to their content as well.
Let’s look at an example:
There’s a lot of content written about the Skyscraper Technique. I’ll be reaching out to these prospects for contributions, amplification and links. That makes sense.
What if I don’t get responses? Does it mean that this article is total crap? Perhaps, but I like to think it offers good advice.
I’ve also invested a lot of time creating it, so I need to make sure that it gives me some return.
There is a LOT of articles about creating content and link building for SEO that DON’T mention the skyscraper technique. If at first I don’t succeed, I’ll move on to the other lower hanging fruit.
Get the point? There’s more opportunity to use this asset than only people who have linked to competitor content. We like to do our outreach research, plug it into a spreadsheet, provide a reason as to why you need to contact them and then add a priority/difficulty number. This allows you to view a snapshot of who you’ve contacted, how important they are to your strategy and whether they need to be followed up on. Here’s a screenshot of one of our spreadsheets, we’ve pixelated the names for privacy (and to protect some of the work we’ve already done!):
Don't forget about your contributors
Keep them in the loop, they’ll be some of your strongest amplifiers. Give them pre-warning of when the content will be published so that, should they want, they can get their ducks in a row to help spread the word.
If you are so inclined you can suggest previous content in which a link to your piece would be suitable. This is very much a matter of preference. On one hand, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. On the other, it’s their choice as to whether they provide a link or not.
Step 7: Protect Your Asset
By now, you’ll have put in quite a bit of effort. You’ve put the content in the best possible position to deliver those all important links and traffic. Hopefully it has worked and you are reading the benefits.
Time marches on though.
Developing content that is better than the status quo isn’t a state secret. Disregarding the skyscraper technique, there will always be competitors. Your piece of content will be under constant threat. You must keep an eye on it. Protect your asset.
It’s similar to losing weight. Achieving results can be difficult, it requires some sweat. Once you’re where you want to be, it’s a lot easier to maintain it. On the flip side, it’s all too easy to let it slip. It’s a tricky little bugger. Complacency gets us all at some point or another.
The process is there to give you the best chances of success. Though it’s naive to think that it enables everyone to get incredible results.
Different websites are going to experience varying results.
We see this in almost everything we do, and it’s not exclusive too SEO. From an SEO perspective, there are lots of factors that are going to influence the results. We mentioned these at the start of the article and hopefully we’re pointing out the obvious here.
We are social beings. We judge each other on metrics, or a perceived authority. The higher inherent authority of a website or brand, the more success they will have (everything else being equal).
Look at it this way. If Moz, Wordstream, Search Engine Land or any of the other well known brands contact you with this method, you’ll have a more positive response than us. We’re a new agency with a much lower brand authority.
The kudos of being associated with them is larger than with us. It’s the way of the world.
The rich get richer. They have more resources to apply. It sucks for the little man but it’s another reality.
To give another example, this is a long article. It would benefit from a summary video or infographic. It would also add another content type to which people could link (i.e Youtube). We may well create one, but again we’re a new agency and budgets are tight.
Another website with larger resources could develop this further. They could assign more budget to paid advertising. More time could be spent on reach outs. All of this could give them a higher chance of success.
We can only focus on what we can do, to the best of our ability. You need not worry about it as long as you don’t short change yourself.
That sounds like a cheap self-help book so we’ll leave that one there.
Recognise the other benefits
We’ve approached this with the view of gaining links and traffic. If we don’t get a load of links, it’s disappointing but not the end of the world. As long as we’ve produced high-quality, solution led content, it will serve a purpose.
It can be sent out to prospects or clients, helping to inform them of our working processes.
It is an asset that can be used on our social media or via email.
It should attract some search traffic, regardless of whether our outreach produces links.
You may even be researching particular topics that you are not highly knowledgeable on. Congratulations, the process has helped to upskill you or your team members.
Appreciate the additional benefits of putting in the work.
Some pieces of skyscraper content will fall flat on their face.
That does not mean that you shouldn’t try. If you don’t give it a go, you’ll fail 100% of the time (back to the self-help, even if I’m a fan of that saying). Go into it with the mindset that you’ll have to execute that much better.
If you do use this process and find success, do let us know. We’d love to discuss what you did and perhaps feature a case study!