Scoring a high rank on a search engine can have a profound effect on your site’s traffic. Highly placed content attracts more visitors, expands the sales funnel and drives sales. As you talk to SEO experts, you’ll hear them talk about keyword density and on and off page Search Engine Optimisation. At some point you’ll hear about a content marketing technique called “The Skyscraper” that promises to leapfrog your competitors by building on their success.
In this post I will take a tour of the Skyscraper Technique. I’ll outline what a skyscraper is, how to build your own content and ways to promote it. By the end you’ll have a better understanding of what it is, how to use it and what results you can expect. It’s about a 10 minute read.
First things first: what is skyscraper content?
When you search for something on Google or Bing, you type a few words in the search box and a page of results appears. This page usually has adverts at top and bottom, and in the middle links to pages it thinks you want to see. While there may be other pages with more results, the vast majority of people will click whatever’s top of the list.
The effect of being on top can be dramatic for your traffic. Top ranking content could get twice as much traffic as those further down the listing, and vastly more than anything on page 2 or beyond. There’s an old joke that if you want to hide bad news, just put it on page 2 of Google.
Getting this high ranking doesn’t happy by accident. Pages will be “search engine optimised”; constructed in a way that convinces the search engine to keep them top of the list. They’ll have keywords and phrases embedded in text and headings, hidden in image filenames and buried in the tags that describe them.
Understanding how top-rank content works
Skyscraper Content deconstructs this work and puts it back together in a way that benefits you. The aim is to have better keyword density, more effective image titles and all the on-and-off-page tricks done a little better. In theory, your content will then appear above the one you’ve “skyscraped” and give you more traffic.
There’s a second and oft-ignored part of the technique. As well as posting better content, it’s also shared widely. You contact all the sites that linked to the current top-ranking pages. They’re told about your “more authoritative” content and encouraged to link to it. In theory, the more of these sites that link to your content, the higher in the rankings your page appears.
How do you build a skyscraper?
Everything starts with research. Once you’ve decided on the topic you’re targeting you search for high ranking content and start deconstructing it. Both Google and Bing have tools that will help you find the keywords your potential customers are using. You then search and save the pages that appear high on the page, remembering to ignore the paid adverts.
A good starting point is the narrative flow in each piece of content. Look for the sub-topics being mentioned and how they’re woven into a story for the reader. Once you’ve read through several of these pages you’ll see how they’re structured. You should be able to spot where there are gaps that you can fill with your knowledge and experience that will give your article a unique angle.
Looking deeper into the way the page is optimised needs a keen eye. The keywords they’re using will be repeated two or three times in the text and usually appear in headings once or twice. Another giveaway is text that doesn’t quite read properly. We’re used to seeing a subject introduced in a paragraph and then it being referred to with pronouns. SEO optimised content will often repeat the subject in full to increase the frequency with which the subject appears.
(In case you didn’t notice the first of that pair of sentences was written naturally, the second in a faux-search engine optimised way).
Code matters too
SEO will go further than what you can see in a web browser window. Embedded in the code of the page will be tricks to extend keyword density further. You may find more keywords in the tags used to describe images, the names of the images and in the page’s header. Even the URL (or web address) of the page will have a bearing.
Pay careful attention to the links they have on the page. Linking to other sites, or to pages on your own, can boost the authority of your content. While you may use many of the same links for your skyscraper, it’s often better to find recently updated pages. This is important if you’re using research to support your argument.
How other people link to the page builds the credibility of content and lifts it in the rankings. This is so-called “off-page SEO” and while you can influence it to a small degree, can often feel like luck. You can turn luck to your advantage using a tool like Ahrefs. This shows you which pages and domains have linked to a specific page. It can also show the social media accounts and hashtags that have been used to share it.
Working through these backlinks you can build up a picture of which sites are more likely to reference your work. Keep a note of them and check their contact information for submission guidelines and social media links. You’ll need them later.
Writing a Fresh Skyscraper
Having deconstructed how the target pages works, you can then put together your own page. Your new content should meet three criteria:
It shouldn’t be a direct copy of what’s gone before. There should be new insights or ideas for your readers to take away. This will give people more reason to share and discuss it.
It should err on the side of SEO optimisation as this is content to be ranked by a search engine. This may mean compromising your brand guidelines or tone of voice. However, it should also be readable by a human. Using a readability checker, like the one in ProWritingAid, will help keep your content human-friendly.
It doesn’t have to be longer than the content it’s targeting, but it does need to be better. Don’t fall into the trap more words are better. This leads to SEO Waffle: pointless, hard to read copy that has high keyword density and poor readability.
Start with new copy (but learn from the past)
I suggest writing the copy from scratch. Use the notes you took from your research to guide how you structure and present your unique take on the topic. This will lead to fresher, more natural content than trying to redo copy written by someone else. That said, the copy does need to hit SEO targets, so there may be times when you riff on a key phrase or two.
Once the copy is written, the page has to be designed. This can be more involved than copy/paste from Word into WordPress as you’ll want to include charts, images and links. Make sure your images have meaningful file names (“results-of-seo-analysis-2019.jpg” is better than “img-0091.jpg”) and use the alt tags to describe the image in SEO friendly way (“chart showing 92% increase in SEO use” is better than “chart”).
There’s usually a bit of to-and-fro between copy and design. Checking your work with a tool like Yoast will help you find a sweet spot between great copy that reads well and the demands of SEO.
Finally, you’ll reach a point where you’re ready to publish the page. It goes live and you wait for a search engine to pick it up, index it and traffic to roll in.
The second phase: sharing your story
Where most people trying to do a skyscraper go wrong is they passively wait for people to find their content. This is the long-term aim, but it needs a bit of a kick to get it heading in the right direction. That means reaching out to people.
You should share this shiny new content on your social media feeds and through email to your (opt-in) mailing lists. Your off-page SEO research should have given you a steer on hashtags to use and other promotional tips. This will only get you so far: what you also need to do is reach out further.
Remember the list of sites that link to your target content? Now’s the time to dust it off and start using it. You will contact the sites and authors that linked to your target content and bring your new and exciting piece to their attention. Some of these sites will receive a personal note explaining how your new content adds value to their readers. Others will get what amounts to a press release. The question is: what goes where?
The personal approach
In an ideal world you’d send a personal note to every site. That’s unlikely to be practical as you could end up spending hours writing individual emails and filling in contact forms for little return. Instead, you need to focus your efforts on sites that:
- connect with your audience;
- welcome contributions from outsiders; and
- are likely to link to you in some way.
The first is fairly simple. If you’ve written a piece on how to choose the perfect TV, there’s little point in investing time on a site for cattle breeding. If that site has linked to a top-ranking piece on TV sets its likely to be a one-off or a quirk.
You can usually find the second from their contact pages. Look for how they ask to be contacted and follow those instructions. Because of high volumes of spam, a lot of sites no longer accept content from outsiders, or insist on a contact form being completed.
The third is a case of looking across their content and seeing what they’ve linked to in recent posts. If the answer is “not much” it may not be worth pursing them. The same applies to sites that have stopped posting. Sending anything to these is a waste of effort.
When you’ve found sites that are attractive and could include a link to your new content, you can contact them. You’ll probably use a boilerplate paragraph or two that explains what your article is and why it’s important. Make sure you customise the text so it makes these explanations specific to their readers.
The “press release” approach
Those who aren’t in your personal list will receive a standard message. It may be personalised, but it won’t be personal. I call this “the press release” because you’ll probably use some of the same techniques and approaches to get it noticed.
You should create two or three different versions that target slightly different audiences. For example, a trade publication will expect to receive a traditional press release, structured accordingly and sent through to their newsroom or the editor. The tone you take with an industry blogger might be more informal and perhaps be close to something they can copy / paste without too much work.
This approach can be hit-and-miss as there’s no guarantee they’ll link to your shiny new content. I have seen bloggers copy, paste and publish the body of the message without including any links. For this reason, I suggest you monitor their sites and check in a week or two later. If they’ve mentioned your work but not included a link, you might want to send them an email asking them to do so.
Forums and online groups
During your off-page SEO research you will have come across LinkedIn and Facebook Groups, Reddit subreddits and discussion forums where content has been linked from. These are places where you could announce your content, subject to some ground rules.
Most important is to make sure you’re not breaching house rules by sharing. Some groups – reddit is notorious for it – will delete your post and ban you if you self-promote. Others have specific tags or sub-groups they expect you to use.
If you’re able to share your skyscraper content give it some context that makes it relevant. Posting, “Here’s something I wrote”, won’t win plaudits. “Here’s how you can solve problem X” might.
Also watch for forums that use nofollow in their links. These tell search engines not to follow and index any links contributors post. As a result they’re not contributing to your content’s off-page SEO credibility. They’re used to stop spammers from dumping inappropriate links into discussions as there’s no advantage to doing it. You may decide there’s no point too.
Once the initial burst of activity has come to an end, you should keep promoting your skyscraper. Repost it on your social media from time to time, perhaps using different times and hashtags. If you find a new blog or news site, reach out to them. Include links to it in online discussions.
An occasional review and update to the content can also help keep it relevant. Adding new sections as learning evolves, or rewriting parts to accommodate new keywords might give it a boost. Just be wary of turning a tight, well-written piece of content into a bloated, unreadable mess of words.
Careful with Social Outreach
Sometimes on social media you may see posts which tag a half dozen influencers after the link. The people doing this are hoping the influencer will see their post and either reshare it, or read and somehow reference their content. What often happens is the recipients report the post as spam. Not only is that message lost, the account risks being restricted or even banned.
Avoid “contact form spam”
An increasingly common tactic is hiring someone to copy and paste text into a contact form. The message usually includes an email address different to the domain being promoted and is sent without caring whether the content is appropriate. You can buy services to share thousands of these spam messages for just a few dollars.
Not only do they not work, there are growing blacklists of companies that use these techniques who are finding themselves cut off from legitimate content outlets.
How long does it take to write a skyscraper?
Putting together a basic skyscraper feature can take many hours. Keywords and content has to be researched and analysed, content drafted and optimised for SEO. There may also be images, charts and infographics to put together too.
All of this takes time. A 1,200 word, good quality, well researched and referenced skyscraper can take about 2 days to put together. That’s a large chunk of time and effort, perhaps too large for your business. If you’re going to make best use of the technique, you may have to think about how you’ll use it and who does it.
When to use a skyscraper?
Because they’re so time consuming, skyscrapers are often used strategically. They’ll be focused on “big issues” to draw new audiences in rather than the run-of-the-mill blogging. If blog posts are the news stories of your business that get people talking, skyscrapers are the in-depth features that form opinion.
Skyscrapers also tend to be evergreen. They’re not something that will only have a few weeks of life because it covers a current event or time limited information. Instead, they’re used for content that readers could find valuable for months or even years after it’s been written.
Should you outsource?
Using a content specialist makes sense for a lot of businesses. While I might be biased, paying for quality will often outstrip cheap when it comes for good quality content. I’ve come across two issues repeatedly with clients who paid little money for what is quite a big job.
First, be wary of the “cheap and cheerful” offers. From experience, these will often plagiarise the target content, leading to search engine penalties and occasionally unpleasant emails. A good skyscraper takes time to put together, so don’t expect to get a good one if you’re paying peanuts.
Second, if outreach is being included in the service make sure you understand exactly what is happening. Again, I found from experience a few low-cost “specialists” spamming content forms and harming the brands they were representing.
After all this effort, does the skyscraper technique work?
Whether skyscrapers work is a hotly contested source of discussion. There are examples of bloggers and companies who have lifted their rankings substantially with the technique. Equally, there are plenty who say it hasn’t worked for them.
A reality check
Getting a high rank on Google, Bing or any other search engine is hard work. Search engines can return hundreds of millions of results for search terms. Trying to get to the top of that list will be nigh on impossible without sophisticated (and expensive) optimisation.
Also, my research into high-ranked content suggests it might not be worth it. You’re up against content that often reads as if it was written for a computer, not a human. Repetition of keywords can make for a clumsy and confusing read. Paragraphs can feel incomplete. Narrative flows sometimes vanish. The worst example I found spent a third of the copy making keyword rich analogies with US Presidents before it even started to address its supposed topic.
I wonder how many of these top-scoring pieces of content have high abandonment and low time-on-page scores.
Why it succeeds
The real value in a skyscraper is the new content. It drives you to produce something that’s high value to your audience. Reading other people’s work to understand it and identify why and where you are different has tremendous value in crowded online market places. Writing something unique forces you to think about how to express it in terms customers will appreciate. You’re then encouraged to promote it, extending the reach of your brand and hopefully leading to profitable exposure.
Should you try it?
I am an advocate of using the skyscraper technique to create new content for your site. While the results may be dubious compared to some claims, I think it adds value to you and your readers.
Your readers will enjoy something fresh and relevant, and learn how you can help them meet a need. You will benefit from timely content that extends the reach of your brand and leads more potential customers into your sales funnel. If your outreach programme works, you may also start to build new PR relationships that could also become profitable in the years ahead.
Try creating skyscraper content and make it work for you
This article should have given you enough to understand what it is and hold a meaningful conversation with a content specialist.
My suggestion would be to try it. Find a topic that matters to you and your customers and put together your own version of a skyscraper. Reach out to the websites, bloggers and journalists who could help you promote it. Test the idea, see how it works for you, learn some lessons and try it again.
Need a hand creating your own skyscraper content?
If you’re thinking about a project or you just want a chat about content, drop me line.