Can the Skyscraper link building strategy help get your business to the top, or is it just another SEO tall tale? We decided to find out…
Here at WPMU DEV, if we’re going to write about something that can improve your business, we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk. So, when we heard about the skyscraper technique, we decided to walk the steps, test it for ourselves, and share the results with you.
In this article, we’ll cover the following:
What is the Skyscraper Technique?
The Skyscraper Technique is an SEO link building strategy that basically works like this:
- Find a competitor’s published article with loads of backlinks related to your site’s content or niche.
- Create a better article (i.e. make it more in-depth or comprehensive, up-to-date, and relevant)
- Contact the sites linking to your competitor’s article and invite them to link to yours instead.
- Watch your page climb up the search engine ladder, then sit back and enjoy the view from the top while new traffic floods into your site.
- Rinse and repeat, and continue building taller skyscrapers until you can’t breathe in any more rarified air from the exosphere.
Sounds simple and looks good on paper.
But we’re not here to write a skyscraper article on the skyscraper technique, so if you want to learn more about it, go here or keep reading to learn how we fared erecting a dozen of these tall edifices (tl;dr … skyscrapers are not a dime a dozen. Read on to learn why).
Let’s start by laying down the foundations…
Our Skyscraper Testing Methodology
You can’t just plonk a ready-made building on a piece of land and start advertising units and floors to rent or sell…you have to plan, research, and lay down some concrete foundations before you start piling on the bricks.
So, let’s start by looking at what it took to get our skyscraper articles off the ground.
Resources – The Crew, Tools, and Time Spent Building a Skyscraper
Our construction crew required everyone and their blog to jump into the pit and start digging. From Savo, our Business Development Manager/Foreman who first proposed to punish us, to Alec, our Partnerships & Outreach manager, who researched suitable topics and ran the outreach campaigns, to our entire writing team who then researched the content and put the articles together, plus members of our marketing team and developers who reviewed articles for SEO, content, and technical accuracy…even James, our CEO, rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty.
While in theory a solo builder could erect a skyscraper article all on their lonesome, it’s probably best to treat the skyscraper method as you would if building a residential apartment complex. You’ll need to get your whole team involved in its construction.
Here are some of the tools we used to help speed up the process in addition to using WordPress (of course) to write and publish the articles:
- Ahrefs – Assess topics, perform competitor analysis, obtain backlink data, watch videos about how to do it
- Google trends – Assess topics.
- Google search (if you need a link, search Google and you’ll find it) – Review competitor posts.
- Jira – Our project management tool for tracking skyscraper topic reviews, article production and outreach tasks.
- Google sheets (Excel, etc.) – Prepare tracking sheets, track campaign results, keep Martin happy
- Email contacts – While using paid solutions to identify contact info or automated solutions to send outreach emails would have significantly reduced the hours we spent on these tasks, it could have veered into spam territory, so we opted not to do it. We mostly checked sites manually to identify contact information tools like Hunter.io (email address finder – free plan), Phantombuster (email extractor – free trial), Verifalia (free email address validator), and our Help Scout account to send outreach emails, and respond/send follow-up emails.
In terms of time spent, taking into account all the regular content production tasks (e.g. assessing suitable topics for articles, researching, writing, editing, moaning about it, etc.), each skyscraper required on average 2-3 weeks to write (we normally take 2-4 days to write a blog post or tutorial.) Also, whichever writer was assigned the article worked on it full-time for the entire period, so the rest of the writing team had to pick up the slack and do some actual work.
Meanwhile, Alec spent on average 8-10 hours per skyscraper running the outreach campaigns and tracking results.
The bottom line: If you have the resources to create a skyscraper article, you can also build an exciting company to rival any of Elon Musk’s (SpaceX, Tesla, PayPal…even a Boring one!)
Now that you know what it takes to build a skyscraper, let’s show you how we did it brick-by-brick.
You gotta have a target, so if you shoot for the moon and miss, at least you’ll clear some trees.
So, we set out with an expectation of achieving a 5% success rate, which is to say that we aimed for 5% of contacted sites to link to our skyscraper articles.
First, we had to come up with a list of article topics and evaluate their suitability for the skyscraper technique.
Some of our considerations for eligibility included:
- Will the topics provide sufficient interest to general users that other websites will want to link to it?
- Do these topics “fit in” with what our business is about? We are a WordPress company servicing web developers and their clients, so our article topics had to make sense to our readers.
- Can we write a better article than the best article there is on the topic? In theory, you just go out and find the article that most websites are linking to and write a better one. In practice, however, you will often find yourself asking something akin to “how would Jesus write a better bible?”
After brainstorming and coming up with over 30 article ideas, Alec set up a project board on Jira and went through each of these topics to assess their suitability as candidates for skyscraper articles and do competitive analysis.
As the goal of doing competitive analysis for the skyscraper method is to ask the question “can we get websites to want to link to ours instead and knock this article off its perch?” and get a “yes” as an answer, our competitive analysis criteria included assessing the number of backlinks the articles being linked to had, and how old (and hopefully outdated) the post is.
Out of 30+ topics that Alec thoroughly evaluated, we ended up with 12 articles – some were written from scratch and some required existing posts to be rewritten and updated:
- WordPress GDPR Compliance
- Website Headers
- Update PHP WordPress
- Parallax Themes/Plugins
- Forminator Advanced Features
- Chrome Extensions
- HTTPS & SSL Guide
- Web Application Firewall Guide
- CDNs & Cloudflare Guide
- Anti-Spam Laws
- Spam Prevention
- Web Accessibility & WordPress
Outreach Campaign Setup
After selecting our skyscraper post topics, Alec created spreadsheets to track each campaign, emails to send out, and documented the process as follows:
- Step 1: For each listed backlink in the Backlink column of each Target sheet (Target #1 to Target #6), find a contact email on their website, via Google search, or online tool, and add it to the Contact Info field. If no contact email can be found within a few minutes, skip it and cross out the backlink in the spreadsheet.
- Step 2: For each backlink with an identified email in the spreadsheet, send an initial outreach email via HelpScout using the email outreach template (provided below). Refer to the example email as needed. Then, add the date to the First Contacted field.
Be sure to swap out the placeholder text with the relevant information (e.g., target post title, competitive site). Double-check the email before sending it to avoid making any mistakes! A HelpScout workflow has been configured to route these to the project folder.
- Step 3: Review responses as they come in, and set the flag in the Responses column to ‘Yes’ accordingly. If a site has added our URL, first verify this, then set the flag in the Changed column to ‘Yes’, and reply with a ‘thank you’ email. If a site says no or asks for money, don’t reply – just set the flag in the Changed column to ‘No’. If a site asks for a link exchange, don’t respond right away – assign it for further review.
- Step 4: 3/7/15-day follow-up response (await further guidance)
Here’s our email template…
And here’s an example of a spreadsheet we used to track each backlink outreach campaign.
Each spreadsheet contained the following information:
- Target # – The URL of the article other websites are linking to that we’re competing against.
- First Published – Date competing article was first published.
- Last Modified – Date competing article was last edited.
- Backlinks – The competing article’s number of backlinks (obtained from Ahrefs).
- Contacted – Total number of sites contacted with a request to point to our article.
- Changed – Total number of sites that changed their links to point to our article.
- Link Exchanges – Total number of sites that entered into a reciprocal link exchange agreement with us.
- Success Rate – This figure is automatically calculated by dividing the number of sites that changed their links to point to our article by the total number of sites contacted.
Each of the spreadsheet columns below was used to track results and most are fairly self-explanatory.
- Backlink – This is the URL we are targeting for our article.
- Domain Rating – The backlink URLs domain rating (from Ahrefs).
- Contact Info – Who we are sending our email request to.
- First Contacted
- Followed Up
- Replied (Yes/No)
- Changed (Yes/No)
- Link Exchange
We then embarked on a systematic process of writing and publishing the articles, then implementing, tracking, and documenting outreach campaign results.
The results are shown in the section below.
Alec created this fancy-shmancy spreadsheet report to document the results of our skyscraper outreach campaigns…
Here are the columns in the Outreach Campaigns section of the report and what they mean:
- Campaign – Clickable links take you to the posts.
- Month – The month we focused on for the outreach campaign.
- Posts – Number of targeted competitive posts.
- DF Links – Number of do-follow backlinks across all targeted posts.
- Contacts – Number of sites contacted from the list of do-follow backlinks.
- Replies – Number of new backlinks earned as a result of outreach campaign.
- Backlinks – Number of backlinks earned from all outreach emails sent.
- After 1st – Number of backlinks earned from the initial outreach email.
- 3 Days – Number of backlinks earned from a 3-day follow-up email.
- 7 Days – Number of backlinks earned from a 7-day follow-up email.
- 15 Days – Number of backlinks earned from a final 15-day follow-up email.
- Success Rate – Success rate = backlinks / contacts.
Here’s a condensed and more legible version, so you can see that we’re not fudging our results…
Our final Skyscraper Strategy results:
- Campaigns – 12
- Sites Contacted – 1,108
- Replies – 205
- New Backlinks – 72
- Success Rate – 6.50%
Skyscraper Technique – A Tower of Link Power or Just SEO and So?
So, did the skyscraper strategy increase traffic to our blog? Did it drive new business? Was it worth it? Would we do it again? And what could we have done better?
First, here are some thoughts to help us analyze the process:
- We targeted 71 competitive posts across all campaigns which had a combined 3,657 do-follow backlinks. However, only 1,108 (30.3%) warranted reaching out. The rest were largely reposted articles and/or spam, or were otherwise of insufficient value.
- The GDPR post performed the best (19.3%) and the Accessibility post performed the worst (2.2%). So it’s unclear whether broad appeal had as much of an impact as we first expected, considering a niche post like ‘Forminator Advanced Features’ had above-average success (6.9%).
- 19 (26%) of the contacted sites that provided us with a backlink didn’t respond by email or follow-up in any way. So it was important to check for added links across all contacted sites, not just those that responded to us.
- 58% of the contacted sites that provided us with a backlink did so after the initial email, 14% did so after a 3-day follow-up email, 15% after a 15-day follow-up, 13% after a final 15-day follow-up. Clearly some diminishing returns from repeated follow-ups, not to mention some grumpy responses after the 3rd or 4th email (e.g. “stop emailing me!”).
Additionally, in terms of increased backlinks from outreach campaigns vs organic SEO, here’s how our skyscraper articles fared…
- Although articles like HTTPS & SSL Guide gained over 27% of its total backlinks from outreach activities, on average over 90% of total backlinks came from organic SEO.
- Ironically, most of the total backlinks gained for our Spam Prevention article were spam links from a single domain.
Keeping in mind that we started with a target of getting at least 5% of contacted sites to link to our skyscraper articles, our tests show that if you can find a good topic with LOADS of potential backlink opportunities, this method may be worth pursuing (for example, our WordPress GDPR article, which gained 52 backlinks). However, while a skyscraper post may be good for passively gaining more backlinks (after putting in a lot of active effort), we also ended up with posts like Update PHP WordPress, which only netted 2 backlinks, so this method might be worthwhile to use for evergreen posts with lots of stats and facts that appeal to a wide number of sites in your industry or niche.
So, if you have the resources and the will to build articles that will tower over those of your competition, you may want to put on a hard hat and give the skyscraper method a try.