When and Why the Skyscraper Technique Can Fail

By | Last Updated: | SEO


We’re going on two years since Brian Dean originally popularized the Skyscraper Technique, and since that time, it has received its fair share of controversy and vitriol. On the other side, though, people have also achieved great success and traffic growth utilizing it.

The reason behind these two diverging modes of thought likely comes down to context, and not necessarily the weakness of the technique. It’s more that the technique isn’t quite as simple as many would describe it: creating better content than content ranking, and then doing outreach to promote it and generate links to it.

If the Skyscraper Technique isn’t working for your site, don’t throw out this incredibly powerful tactic just yet. In this post, I’ll break down why the technique might not be working for you and what you can do to fix it.

How Brian Defines it vs Perception

Re-reading Brian’s definition today, I can’t say that there’s anything off. What’s wrong, then, is how people interpret the definition. Here’s Brian’s TL;DR; three step description from the post:

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 3.02.08 PM

The perception problem I encounter most often is with the word “better”. The thing is, better is a bit subjective. Some people think better means different things. Unfortunately, data tells the real story, and some people’s opinion of what’s actually better is wrong.

Better != Bigger

One of the most common misapplications I see of this technique is that bigger equals better. That is, if they see a result with 25 ideas, they think should list 26. This, in their mind, will give them a clickthrough-rate and content-length advantage that will result in ranking rewards from an engagement perspective.

Unfortunately, it’s rarely this simple, and every topic has a breaking point.

For example, let’s look at the topic “Adwords tools”. Our friends at Clickteq made a post targeting 102 different tools.

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 3.03.14 PM

Unfortunately, this is the kind of result that has limits, because there are a finite number of actually valuable tools to use. You could list every tool known to man, but you’d actually become less and less valuable with every tool added. That would make the user sort through thousands of different options, putting you further and further away from the optimal result.

As it turns out, good curation is not just for social media: it’s for SEO-driven content, too.

In this situation, most users want the most effective tools, and they want them handed to them without needing to think. This means getting the opinion in a well-curated package, from an authority they can trust.

In mathematical terms, this means this topic is reserved for those who can create something solid and punchy on a high authority, topically relevant domain.

Clicteq does a solid job despite the high number, but the results show that most people would rather get the must-haves handed to them in a smaller, more effective package. At the time of this writing there are three blog posts in the top ten, all with 15 or less results.

Screen shot 2017-02-16 at 3.50.38 PM

The hero of our story, Brian Dean, also has a similar post on SEO tools. It has a massive number also (184), and he does a good job using interactive filters to allow for “micro-curation” to quickly match you to what you might be looking for specifically. In addition, he also notes his own authoritative picks.

Screen Shot 2017-02-20 at 8.59.41 AM

Brian’s ranking pretty well with this post — surely a lot of it has to do with his high domain authority and 385 links at the time of this writing. Despite this, though, posts that likely took 1/50th the time his post did are also ranking well. Posts with 15, 24, 21, and 7 results respectively, and each with a lot fewer links.

Screen Shot 2017-02-20 at 9.03.50 AM

Long story short is that I think Brian could have ranked pretty dang well even without doing this, and in many ways may have met the query intent even better. And if you look at many other “tools” SERPS, such as this, this or this, you’ll see the same story.

The answer in this situation is not to create the most amazing tool post ever: it’s likely that you should build domain authority elsewhere and come back to fight another day.

It’s not that doing something like Brian did can’t have a lot of success: it did. But even then, with Brian’s industry reputation and 385 links, he still isn’t ranking position one. For most, it’s quite likely the marginal benefit of doing something like this does not outweigh other opportunities available.

On this topic, and many like it, people want curation. They want quick answers. There’s a threshold area where each content creator must apply discretion.

The creator should give people options while also applying expertise, choosing content that’s there not just to add another result, but to actually add value.

The people who do the Skyscraper Technique incorrectly add another result because it adds another digit. The people who do it right add another result because it adds value to the post.

Better Does Not Occur in a Branding Vacuum

The second most common mistake people make is to assume content is judged simply on the basis of its own quality: not who it comes from. To assume this is a fatal flaw in this strategy, and many others like it… but people keep making it.

A few months ago, I tweeted the following:

It sums up my thoughts on this subject. It’s possible to write an absolutely amazing, A+ post that takes three months on greeting card etiquette that comes from your awesome, well-designed lifestyle blog. But when you’re up against Hallmark’s C+ post, you’ll lose.

An average searcher is going to click Hallmark and be satisfied. This means your lack of brand equity will come up short, and you won’t create a skyscraper. In the eyes of searcher, you’ll create the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

And this isn’t to say the searcher is wrong. Reputation is a qualitative factor that goes into content in the minds of the reader. It just takes years (and sometimes millions) to build it. Unfortunately, no skyscraper will allow you to leap that on certain topics.

10x Effort != 10x Value


Another problem many fail to realize is that putting 10x effort in does not mean 10x value comes out. For the same reasons users are often satisfied with a mediocre content piece from a brand, not every query deserves the most amazing parallax experience, original photography, high-quality video, or copy written by an acclaimed author.

On queries like “verbose definition”, you don’t need any of that: you just need a definition and a shred of credibility.

Even on queries somewhere between that and something worthy of complexity/elegance in design and UI, like a mortgage calculator, there are gaps where people take the query just a bit further than is really necessary.

It is in these gaps that the value created to the end user is negligible. It’s not that a user wouldn’t appreciate or care about a fun animated video defining verbose and walking you through iterations of its use: it’s just that the value difference to the end user is more like 1.01x versus 10x.

Think of it like a $100 bottle of wine given to someone who has only had a glass or two in their life: they won’t be able to discern a difference in quality no matter how elegantly you worked the grapes, so you would have really been better off serving them a 7-11 alternative versus wasting all that effort and cost in development.

Linkable Post != Topic Matching Post

The final and most erroneous, confusing piece of this strategy is when you build something that contains your keyword, generates a ton of links.. but doesn’t match the query.

An important thing you should never forget: the people who link to you in early stages aren’t in the same mindset of those that would be making that search when they actually need it.

They might have done that search at some point in their life… or be generally interested in the subject. That’s possible, and even likely. But they are not in that exact frame of mind when they get your pitch, or read your post through social or email distribution. These are two different psychological states, and they can sometimes result in content that’s highly linkable, but not necessarily topic matching.

This often means this content floats around and ranks OK, but never hits the engagement bullseye. It leaves SEOs confounded. The content still likely has benefit for its trickle-in traffic and domain authority boosting awesomeness, but it’s still not a great fit for the topic. It’s doing the concept wrong.

Here are some examples of that in practice:

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 3.42.02 PM

The Advanced Guide to SEO” for the search [SEO] – 222 LRDs, but people want the basics, not an advanced guide. Look at the front page of this search: beginner’s guides and definitional posts.

Screen Shot 2017-02-20 at 8.44.57 AM

Printable Calendars for a More Floral 2017” for the search [printable calendars] – 67 LRDs, but most people searching this aren’t looking for a high-end design solution: they want customizable blank calendars. It still ranks page one, but if only considering the number of links, you’d think it should rank higher.

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 3.43.40 PM

Free Stock Photos: 73 Sites to Find Awesome Free Images” for the search [best free stock photos] – 219 LRDs, but like Brian’s example, people want the best options when doing this search, not 73 of them.

That’s not to say the above three examples weren’t valuable for reasons outside of ranking #1. They’re all page two or better for massive terms, and generated a ton of links. That in itself makes all of these wins.

However, if judged solely on the validity of the Skyscraper Technique, they may be the wrong content to point to. Not every piece of content’s goal is to rank #1, even if it can rank well overall.

Skyscraper Technique: Yay or Nay?

The answer is a resounding yay. The technique works, and it’s the foundation of our content marketing services.

However, it doesn’t always map to every piece of content you create.

Sometimes, content strategy means truly matching the topic won’t make sense (try pitching a luxury brand on a roundup post with 50+ results). Yet, it can still have value from a link development/social/ancillary traffic perspective, even if it doesn’t dominate the search results.

And sometimes, a consistent and effective blog strategy means it’s just not feasible to do this with frequency. We used this strategy on our own blog in early 2016: it caused us to rarely post. If your market analysis tells you people want to hear from you daily or even weekly (see: news), you aren’t building many skyscrapers.

Like the name states: it’s a technique. A valuable technique in any toolkit, but one many can misapply if incorrectly assessed. Think it through, have the self-awareness to know what you can’t rank for, and understand up front when you might not be a great topical fit.

Those recommendations, applied in addition to this technique, can result in the growth Brian and others frequently observe with this approach.

  • Yes Ross! People don’t have the time to be trawling through lists of 100+ best WordPress plugins, or 100+ home life hacks. Well some people might…

    Give me less and I know then your more likely to have a made a conscious effort to include only the VERY BEST.

  • digitaluncovered

    Moz recently came out with an article on topical authority. Like you rightly mentioned if the content comes from an influencer, brand or someone with topical authority its unlikely that your content can rank better than the content published by the brand.

    • Good call! In many ways “topical authority” can also mean brand in most instances, at least in the eyes of the searcher. Such as if it’s about babies and your domain is babies.com, people will most likely click you over other unrecognizable domains.

      • digitaluncovered

        The flip side is that it doesn’t work always. After the Google EMD update having the domain name doesn’t mean you will rank higher. Google will also look for contextual relevance.

  • I’ve had clients have lots of success employing the Skyscraper Technique and have steered other clients away from it for many of the reasons you have mentioned, namely competition vs big brands (understanding you can’t possibly win). In addition to seeing who is ranking top dog for a proposed Skyscraper topic, I think many content strategists miss the mark by not doing the most basic of SEO research: plugging their target keywords into Google to see the context of results.
    Often, people will try to go after a keyword because of volume, but underestimate that the content they are creating doesn’t really lend itself to the sale of the products/services on their site. This can be avoided by looking at the search and how Google interprets the context (something you can’t fight).
    For example, my client and I are looking to employ the Skyscraper Technique for the keywords “personal trainer course.” Looking at the SERPs for this keyword, there is a contextual mishmash of results that relate to branded personal trainer certifications, personal trainer options for people who want to employ them (not become one), and even personal trainer jobs. The context that Google provides to this search is important, and will sway the way we create our content to rank for this term, or decide if it is not worth it for our causes (selling client’s products).
    Now, Google often will have SERPs like these — ones that display lots of different contexts for the same keyword — but sometimes, like in the “SEO Tools” example, there is generally one context shown. This can save the content marketer time if they understand this before putting 100s of hours into a blog.
    Finally, I agree that sometimes there is Skyscraper overkill and people don’t want to sort through 100 options. Perhaps the happy medium is always providing the most exhaustive resource on a topic (which is pretty much the basis for this technique) without beating it to a pulp and overwhelming the reader with analysis paralysis (i.e. too many choices).
    Sorry for the long-winded comment!

  • debramastaler

    You’re right of course, the concept behind the tactic isn’t new or even a little bit earth shattering but that’s not why it was launched IMO. If you want your name synonymous with a link building technique and are looking for a way to get a lot of attention fast, putting a fun/easy name to something and flooding the cyberwaves is one way to do it. And it looks like he was successful initially and even now given you used his name 11 times in your article. Every business needs a spark and he found it with this.

    “LINKABLE POST != TOPIC MATCHING POST” 100 points for this section, we used to call that smart SEO 😉

    • That’s true but also sounds a bit negative. 🙂 Personally don’t have a problem with Brian’s marketing: he’s helped hundreds understand and wrap their head around something that may have been tried and true, but they hadn’t previously grasped until it was packaged in a way that made it easy to remember and implement.

      Of course it results in misapplication as this post talks about, but net net I’m still a fan. It didn’t just help his business, it helped ours by helping communicate the value of such a technique/making it public knowledge in an accessible way.

      • debramastaler

        Ugh, was not trying to sound negative but reading back I can see how it might sound that way, sorry about that. I have a different opinion, that’s all!

        I 100% agree that using a descriptive term like skyscraper is much better than “do something better”. If videos had been launched using that phrase over skyscraper it’s doubtful the concept would have caught on.

        But I’m slightly baffled as to why the term’s taken off, reminds me of the initial push behind the phrase “inbound marketing”. Once people caught on it was just another name for marketing, the shine wore off.

        Like you said in your post, the suggested concept behind skyscraper is anything but simple. I’m of the opinion using a simple term to describe a very complex technique doesn’t do anyone justice except the person originally promoting the term.
        And I say this next part seriously and sincerely — I have no issues with the term being created and promoted, it is called marketing after all. Labels are created to associate concept to brand so brand sells and that concept is working for skyscraper. But, if you’re going to create a label concept, let it have some substance.

        I am surprised and saddened that a lot of SEO’s jumped on the term as a way to market when the concept is not new, does not address the needs and wants of target markets and overlooks possible conflicts between short run wants and long run welfare.

        Or basically, it lacks SEO Marketing 101. Skyscraper? It’s little more than a catchy phrase developed by a smart man who understands the need for labels. I appreciate any term that’s short and easy to say but feel we’re selling ourselves short thinking his label helps us sell a complex concept to clients.

        We’ve been doing that for years, we just didn’t call it skyscraper.

        I’ve enjoyed this Ross, hope you and your family are doing well!

  • Hey Ross,
    Awesome post, thanks for sharing these insights!

    You did an incredible job by debunking those common myths.

    About this one: “BETTER != BIGGER” I totally agree. As I can tell you from my experience, that in one of my sites I was ranking over giant list posts with a simple yet UNIQUE method that went viral (waaay shorter than the rest).

    Off to share this post now, some marketers have to learn thing or two 🙂