Skyscraper articles: an essential tool for small business marketing

Ross Hall

May 3, 2021
(Updated on July 27, 2021)

Constructionist image of a skyscraper reaching up towards a red circle

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’m going to take a tour of the Skyscraper Technique. I’ll outline what it is, how to build your own skyscraper 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.

First things first: what is a skyscraper article?

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 is usually structured with 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.

Graphic showing the structure of a typical search engine results page

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 put them at the 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.

Skyscraper Content deconstructs this work and then 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. All the sites that linked to the current top-ranking pages are contacted, 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 start to see how arguments are presented. 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-seach engine optimised way).

SEO will go further than what you can see in a web browser window. The way the page is coded also has an influence on its ranking. You may find more keywords in the tags used to describe images, the names of the images and in the page’s header and URL.

Pay careful attention to the links they have on the page as well. Linking to other sites, or to pages on your own, can boost the authority of your content. While you may choose to use many of the same links for your skyscraper, it’s often better to find more recently updated pages. This is particularly important if you’re using recent research to support your argument.

The flip-side of this is finding which pages link to them. These “back links” can help build the page’s credibility and move it further up the rankings. Keep a note of these sites, 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 critera:

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 rework something done 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 done, 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.

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.

It goes without saying you should be sharing this shiny new content on your social media feeds and through email to your (opt-in) mailing lists. What you also need to do is reach out a bit 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’re going to 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:

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 it’s 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 site that have stopped posting. Sending anything to these is wasted effort.

When you’ve found sites that are attractive and could include a link to your new content, you can go ahead and 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.

Graphic showing the different components of an outbound email

The “press release” approach

Those who aren’t in your personal list are going to 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 appropriate 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 a bit hit-and-miss as there’s no guarantee they’ll link to your shiny new content. I have seen bloggers simply copy, paste and publish the body of the message without including any links. For this reason, I suggest you keep an eye on 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.

Keep promoting

Once the initial burst of activity has ended 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 can often happen is the post is reported by one or more tagged individual. Not only is that message lost, the poster 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 or not. 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.

There are no hard and fast rules for how long it takes to write a skyscraper. A reasonable rule of thumb is 2-3 days to get 1,200 words ready to post. This includes the research, drafting, optimising and designing. 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.

Chart showing an approximate timeline for effort in writing a skyscraper article
Rough guide to how the effort in writing a skyscraper breaks down.

When to use a skyscraper?

Because they’re so time consuming, skyscrapers tend to be used strategically. They’ll be focus 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. That is, they’re not something that’s only going to have a few weeks of life because it covers a current event or time limited information. Instead use them for content that readers could find valuable for months or even years after it’s been written.

Should you outsource?

Outsourcing skyscrapers to a content specialist makes sense for a lot of businesses. There are a couple of possible problems you should keep in mind.

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 inappropriate content forms and harming the brands they were supposed to be representing.

After all this effort, does the skyscraper technique work?

Whether skyscrapers work or not is a hotly contested source of discussion. On the one hand there are examples of bloggers and companies who have lifted their rankings substantially with the technique. On the other, 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 is going to be nigh on impossible without sophisticated (and expensive) optimisation.

What’s more, my research into high-ranked content suggests it might not be worth it. You’re up against content that often reads as if it’s been 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 (and unrelated) 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. The process of 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 what’s claimed, I think it adds value to you and your readers.

Your readers will benefit from 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 quite profitable in the years ahead.

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.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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