I've tried quite a few, but have never been able to get the same great results as what the original authors led me to expect.
I've put a lot of effort doing everything that the leading SEO authorities recommended, and yet the best I could do was rank on the 2nd or 3rd page of search results.
So today I want to share my case study of replicating a very well-known link building technique along with some of my thoughts on why "guru techniques" will not always work for you.
My experiment building a "Skyscraper" ... and falling from it
Like I said, I’ve tried many different white hat SEO techniques over the last few years, but this was the one that finally made me realize that something was seriously wrong.
If you haven’t heard of the skyscraper technique, give it a quick skim. The basic idea is to pick popular pages, improve upon them, and then reach out to sites that linked to those lower-quality pages and get them to link to you.
It’s a great strategy, and it obviously works for some, so I decided to give it a go.
This was on a brand new site that I had high hopes for: RawResume.com (note that the site was sold in March of 2015, so it may have changed since then). This was a site dedicated to helping people improve their resume and find jobs.
Step 1: Pick a Keyword to Target
After a bit of digging, I decided to target keywords similar to “how to write a great resume.”
As you can see in the screenshot below, Ahrefs Keywords Explorer suggested me a bunch of relevant keywords with low to medium keyword difficulty and a good traffic potential (considering both "Search volume" and "Clicks" numbers.
Step 2: Create Better Content
I went through the first few pages of results in order to look at the quality of the competition’s content.
What can I say... The results were pretty poor.
Here was the page that was in the first position back then:
It’s a complete guide but is basically a wall of text followed by another wall of text, with very few examples or actionable information at its core.
The second result was even worse from a content standpoint.
Could I make a better guide to writing a great resume? Hell, I could!
After 20 hours of research, writing, and formatting, this was the result (You can see the full guide here):
I can confidently say that this is the best (free) guide to writing a good resume online, by far.
When you create the highest quality content, it not only satisfies readers more, but it also makes other site owners more likely to agree to link to it.
Step 3: Get High-Quality Links Through an Email Outreach Campaign
First off, I made a list of similar guides and articles that were about writing a great resume. And I was about to "steal" their backlinks. All you need to do is compile the first few pages of Google search results, and you will find 90% of the most linked-to pages.
From there, take a look at each page’s backlinks by using a backlink checker like Site Explorer by Ahrefs.
Let us analyze the backlink profile of the top search result for "how to write a resume" keyword:
You’ll see that it has 252 backlinks from unique domains. In my mind at the time, a few dozen really solid links, in addition to the better content, should have allowed me to overtake this page as the #1 result or at worse get a position in #2-#5 range.
To get the links, I made a list of all of the pages that linked to the top pieces of content ranking for relevant keywords and decided to target only the ones with UR 5 or higher. (Please note that this cut-off was arbitrary; you could go lower if you wanted to expand your list of prospects.)
Once I had a decent number of prospects, it was simply a matter of sending an email telling them that I had a new and improved guide that would fit well on their page. I also pointed out any broken links on the page to improve my success rate.
Check out this post to improve your email pitch:
I Just Deleted Your Outreach Email Without Reading. And NO, I Don’t Feel Sorry
In total, I sent 232 emails and obtained 15 links, for a 6.5% success rate. This is decent; some niches will be slightly worse, and some will be a bit better.
I must say that 6.5% link placement rate is really great! Hats off to Dale!
In addition, I also picked up a few more links from Reddit and other blogs that came across my guide naturally.
Overall, I was able to pick up some very high-quality backlinks:
Step 4: Profit? (Wait for rankings)
So far, this looks like any great case study you might read on an SEO blog, but here’s where it changes.
I didn’t even get to the first page of Google...
Here were the rankings for a bit over the first 60 days (I started tracking a bit late):
6 months later the rankings did not change significantly.
There were periods where rankings have improved for a few days, but then they dropped back down:
I did everything right:
- I targeted low-medium competition keywords
- I created truly “epic” content
- I was able to get great links from about 20 pages
- I was very patient waiting for rankings to come
And yet, no results. A few visits a day from random long-tail search traffic, but nothing significant.
So I had to investigate want went wrong.
Comparing my results to others revealed two things...
I needed to get to the bottom of this.
There were 2 main things I learned and observed.
1. You Only See a Highlight Reel
Have you ever heard of "survivorship bias"?
Survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.
Guess which post would get more attention:
“I used the super awesome secret SEO technique, ranked #1, and get 20,000 visitors per month”
“I used the super awesome secret SEO technique, ranked third page, and got a few hundred visitors per month”
I’m not blaming blog owners, it would be silly to post every case study - good or bad - for many reasons.
But you need to keep this in mind: whatever case study you’re reading is the exception, not the norm.
If bloggers could post successful case study after case study, they would. The reason they post case studies rarely is that there aren’t many.
2. Your Starting Point is the Most Important
Let's take Brian Dean as an example. Best known for his extremely detailed guides and case studies at Backlinko, Brian shared that he was able to get a post to rank #4 for the fairly high competition term “backlinks” (this post if you’d like to take a look).
Do you think if you or I would have been able to rank so high if we had published the exact same post before Brian did?
Not a chance!
Most of us don’t have the traffic (SimilarWeb reports 800k monthly visits), nor do we have the domain strength.
Check out these stats for the Backlinko domain:
10k referring domains is no joke.
You think: “If I do everything else right, and get a few extra high-quality backlinks, I’ll still be able to get great rankings.”
But it doesn’t work like that. Almost all people are absolutely terrible at estimating personal results. We make optimistic predictions and rationalize the failure later.
Those few extra backlinks won’t even come close to matching the power that hundreds or thousands of links pointing at other pages on the domain.
Let’s Look at Some Case Studies...
I don’t expect you to just take my word for it, although I suspect the realization is forming in the back of your head right now.
I’ve collected a few published case studies to analyze the results and their link profiles.
|Keyword Difficulty||Ranking||Referring |
|URL Rating||Domain Rating|
|My Resume Guide||Medium||3rd page||22||17||45|
|Case Study 1||High||2||326||45||65|
|Case Study 2||Medium||1||85||37||60|
|Case Study 3||Very high||7||122||21||58|
|Case Study 4||Low||4||30||29||49|
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference in domain ratings between the domains, but there is.
Domain rating is based on a logarithmic scale, which means that it is 10 times harder to go from 55 to 65 than it is to go from 45 to 55.
At these ratings, every single point is highly significant.
My page had the lowest URL and domain rating; no surprise it had trouble ranking.
What stands out to me is case study #4. Even though the URL rating is decent, and it’s a very easy keyword, he still couldn’t crack ranking 4th. This is due to having a decent, but not great domain rating.
The other 3 case studies went after more competitive keywords. Despite having obviously lower quality links (look at the URL rating), case study #3 was able to rank pretty high for a very competitive keyword based on its domain rating.
So is the Skyscraper Technique useless for an average blogger after all? (A few words from Ahrefs blog editor)
Let's make it clear. It's not!
After this post was initially published back in 2015, Doug Cunnington shared his own case with us and we were glad to publish it on our blog.
Here's what he did apart from traditional Skyscraper Technique we all know:
He placed his stake on guest posting, not on email outreach to build backlinks.
- #1 on Google for the god niche keyword
- 471% increase in organic traffic
Learn all the details of Doug's experiment here.
Over to you
As you see, simply following the Skyscraper Technique practices does not guarantee you any decent results. But with minor adjustments can make it work like a charm.
What's your take on this method?
Considering the survivorship bias we mentioned above, what are your failures? Please share them in comments!