About six months ago I stumbled across a website called Authority Hacker, which contains a wealth of resources and training materials for people who want to learn how to do their own SEO.
Over the years I’ve come across loads of sites which claim to teach you how to do SEO and most of them fail to live up to the hype. But the more I read the articles on Authority Hacker and listened to back-issues of their weekly podcast, the more it seemed that the guys behind Authority Hacker (Gael and Mark) knew what they were talking about.
So after a couple of months I decided to put one of the Authority Hacker strategies to the test to see what sort of impact it would have in the hands of someone like me who had not done any SEO since the mid-2000s.
The SEO strategy I decided to try out was the Shotgun Skyscraper. You can read the full details of how it works in this article on the Authority Hacker website but, in summary, here's what the Shotgun Skyscraper method of SEO involves.
The Shotgun Skyscraper Blueprint
Create your content
Create a really good piece of content related to the keyword you want to rank for. The aim is to make this content bigger and better than anything that already exists on that topic – hence the term “skyscraper”.
Identify your competitors
Find the sites that currently rank in the top 10 on Google for your targeted keyword. These are the sites you are going to try to outrank.
Check out their backlinks
Make a list of all the sites which link to each of these top 10 sites. These are the sites you are going to target to see if you can get them to link to you instead.
Find the contact details
Find the contact details for each of these target sites. Ideally you want to get the name and email address of a real person rather than just a generic email@example.com type of address.
Ask for a link
Send an outreach email to all of these people asking if they will link to your site (either in addition to, or instead of, the site they already link to.
After a couple of days, send a follow-up email to anyone who hasn’t replied yet.
Rinse and repeat
Repeat step 6 several times until you get a response (positive or negative).
The idea is that, by using this process, you will acquire links from the same sites that currently link to those sites which already appear on page one of Google for your target keyword. And, because inbound links are an important SEO ranking factor, this should help your site to rank on page one of Google for that chosen keyword too.
Why are Inbound Links Important for SEO?
Broadly speaking, there are two things Google looks for when it is deciding if your website should appear on page one of Google for a particular search term.
Firstly, they want your site to be highly relevant to the search term. But relevance on its own is not enough. After all, any idiot can make a web page highly relevant to a particular search term simply by stuffing it full of lots of keywords. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the content of the page will then be accurate or useful.
And that’s why the second thing Google wants your site to have is authority.
So what do we mean when we say your site needs to have authority?
Well it basically means that your website needs to be seen as a trustworthy and respected source of information within its particular field.
One of the ways that Google judges how authoritative your website is by looking at how many other websites link to it. Long before social media gave us the Like button as a way of endorsing good content, Google started to use the number of inbound links as a gauge of how popular and useful a web page is, with each inbound link being the equivalent of a positive vote.
But not all inbound links (also known as backlinks) carry equal weight. A link to your site from another site that’s about a similar subject to yours will be seen by Google as a bigger thumbs-up than a link from a site that’s about something totally unrelated.
This makes perfect sense, and it’s no different from how humans assess endorsements and recommendations.
For example, if I have a choice of two dentists, the first of whom has lots of recommendations from other dentists and the second of whom only has recommendations from people with no teeth, I’m probably going to feel more confident being treated by the first dentist.
How Do Search Engines Measure Authority?
There are two main scores which search engine optimisers (SEOs) pay attention to. The first is the Domain Rating (DR) which is a ranking metric developed by the makers of the SEO tool Ahrefs. The other is Domain Authority (DA) which is the ranking metric used by another SEO tool called Moz.
Both DR and DA scores range from 1 to 100, with 100 being the best.
What’s the Difference Between DR and DA?
You can read an in-depth discussion of the differences between Domain Rating and Domain Authority in this article but, in simple terms, DR is a measure of how plentiful and how strong a website’s inbound links are, whilst DA is a measure of how likely it is that the site will rank highly on Google.
How Do You Get Inbound Links?
In an ideal world, you’d simply publish lots of useful content on your website and people would link to it of their own accord because it was so good.
But the problem is that, however great your content is, these people are unlikely to find it in the first place if it doesn’t rank on the first page of Google. And unless people find your site and link to it, it’s probably never going to be on page one of Google. So it’s a Catch 22 situation.
In reality, therefore, you can’t rely on acquiring inbound links 100% naturally and you have to be prepared to give the process a bit of a kickstart. Traditionally, the way that website owners have done this is to contact the owners of other websites and ask them if they will give them a link. Within the SEO world, this process is known as “outreach”.
Sometimes, your outreach request will simply be for the other website owner to insert a link to your site into an existing article on their site. Alternatively, you might decide to offer to write a guest post or article for the other person’s site on the condition that the article can include a link back to your own site.
Either way, this kind of link building has traditionally been a very time consuming, and often unrewarding, process.
First you have to identify suitable sites to outreach to. They need to be in the right industry or sector and they need to have a decent DR or DA score.
Then you need to find the contact email address for your prospect – i.e. the website owner or whoever else is responsible for the site’s content.This is often easier said than done!
Next you need to email them and request the link, making sure that your email is written in a way that will make it stand out from all the other link request emails which that person is receiving on a daily basis.
Normally, one of four things will happen next:
- The prospect agrees to give you the link you’ve asked for
- The prospect will ignore your email and you will have to send a follow-up message
- The prospect says they will add your link but only if you pay them (we’ll talk about this later on)
- The prospect offers you the chance to submit a guest post instead
The better job you can do at building a relationship with your prospect, the more chance there is that they will respond positively to your link request.
Sniper v Shotgun
This method of carefully choosing the right sites to approach and tailoring your outreach emails to increase the chances of a positive response is called the sniper method – because it is very focused and precise, like a sniper’s bullet.
But it is also very time consuming.
The alternative is the shotgun approach. In the same way that a shotgun cartridge releases a whole load of pellets which disperse over a wider area, this method of outreach is all about making contact with as many potential link-givers as possible in the shortest possible time.
Generally speaking, the sniper method will have a better conversion rate – i.e. for every hundred people you contact you’ll get given a reasonable number of links. This is because of the time and effort you are putting into personalising each of your outreach emails.
The shotgun method tends to have a lower conversion rate because it is highly automated, with each prospect getting more or less the same email and with less time being spent on choosing only the highest quality prospects.
However, because shotgun model is highly automated, it enables you to approach a lot more prospects in a day than you could by using the sniper method.
And therefore, even with the lower conversion rate, the shotgun method tends to get you more links overall than the sniper method. And it has the benefit of being less labour intensive.
Putting the Shotgun SEO Method to the Test
I decided to try out the Shotgun Skyscraper on a website which was about nine months old and which had never had any SEO work done to it before. At the time it had around thirty blog articles and inbound links from about four other websites.
In terms of traffic, the site was typically getting between three and six organic sessions per day, although there were regularly days when Google Analytics recorded no organic visits at all:
According to Moz, the site had four domains linking to it and had a DA score of just 3. So there was plenty of room for improvement.
Instead of writing a brand new piece of content especially for this experiment, I selected one of my existing articles and set about getting links to it using the shotgun method.
Identifying Link Building Outreach Prospects
The first thing I had to do was to find out who my competitors were – i.e. who was already appearing on the first page of Google for the main keyword of my chosen article. These were the sites that, ultimately, I was trying to outrank.
The guys at Authority Hacker recommend using Ahrefs for the keyword research and for finding sites to outreach to.
However, I decided to use Moz because it offers a free 30 day trial instead of a 7 day trial costing $7. I wasn’t particularly bothered about the $7 but I did feel that getting everything done in 7 days would be a struggle.
I’ve since tried out Ahrefs too and it is a bit better overall than Moz. But if you’re taking your first foray into link building I’d suggest you go with Moz. It does everything you’ll need and you won’t be under so much time pressure.
Here’s an example of how you would use Moz to find out the top ranking sites for a given keyword - in this case “equity release mortgages”:
Moz will then show you the sites that rank for that keyword:
Of course, you could find that out simply by using Google but the reason for using Moz is that it makes it easy to do the next step which is to find which sites and pages link to those top ten competitors.
In the screenshot above, you'll notice that for each results Moz is telling us the number of Linking RDs (root domains) which link to that page. For example, in the case of the page on moneysavingexpert.com, there are 25 websites which link to it.
If you click on that number 25, Moz will show you a list of those websites:
For your SEO outreach to be effective, you actually need to know the individual pages (or URLs) which link to each of your competitors. So the next step is to click Inbound Links on the left hand menu in order to bring up a list of those URLs like this:
Note how I've ticked the box under Limit Results to make sure I only get one URL for each linking domain.
Once I had got the list of URLs that linked to the top competitor for my chosen keyword, I used the Export CSV option in Moz to download these URLs as a spreadsheet.
I repeated this for the other nine sites that I was trying to outrank. So, by the end of this process, I had 10 spreadsheets, each of which listed a whole load of sites who had given links to that particular competitor of mine.
I decided to tidy up each of these 10 spreadsheets by removing any sites which had a DA of less than 10 and getting rid of any which were clearly just URL shorteners or RSS feeds.
I then created a new spreadsheet in Google Sheets (not Excel) with the following columns:
I called this my mail merge spreadsheet. The reason I created this with Google Sheets was so as it would be compatible with GMass (which I'll talk about below).
I then copied all the remaining URLs from the 10 tidied-up spreadsheets I’d exported from Moz into the LinkingPage column of my mail merge spreadsheet.
In the Target column I inserted the address of whichever one of the top ten competitor sites the LinkingPage linked to.
Given that each of the top ten competitors had at least 100 other sites links to them, this meant my mail merge spreadsheet now contained over 1,000 rows.
Here's an example of how the first couple of rows of the mail merge spreadsheet might look by this point in the process:
Finding Email Contact Details
The next step was to find contact details for as many of the entries in my mail merge spreadsheet as I could.
The whole philosophy of the shotgun method is that you don’t waste too much time on anything. So I decided that if I couldn’t find the contact details for any of the URLs quickly and easily using Hunter, I would delete that site rather than spend ages searching.
If you’re not familiar with Hunter it’s a nifty little tool which lets you enter a domain name and then it tells you all the known email addresses for people or departments at that company/website. You can do a certain number of searches for free and then after that you have to purchase credits, but it’s not hugely expensive and there are no lengthy tie-ins.
By using Hunter I ended up with email addresses for around 70% of the entries in my mail merge spreadsheet. The remaining 30% got deleted.
Hunter also gave me people’s names for quite a lot of the email addresses. In the other cases, I either filled it in manually if it was obvious from the email address or else just left the Name field blank
Automating the SEO Email Outreach
Now that I had a spreadsheet of all the people I wanted to request a link from it was time to start emailing them.
GMass and Mailshake both do pretty much the same thing, which is to run a mail merge in order to send a personalised email to every contact in your spreadsheet.
The clever bit is that they will automatically send follow-up emails to anyone who doesn’t respond to the initial email. You can actually send several of these follow-up messages. This is really important because, as my own experience proved, the majority of people don’t reply to the first email and many of the links that I did get came as a result of sending the second, third, or even fourth email to someone.
Of the two tools, Mailshake is probably the prettier and more user-friendly one. But GMass does the job just as well once you get your head round the user interface and it is a lot cheaper than Mailshake. So my advice would be to go with GMass.
For my initial link request email I used a template a bit like this:
GMass automatically populates the fields in curly brackets using information from your mail merge spreadsheet or, if the spreadsheet doesn't have a value for the recipient's name, it will default to saying "Hi there" instead. So the emails that the prospects receive end up looking like this:
I configured GMass to send a follow-up message if there was no reply to the original email within three days. Further follow-up messages (up to a maximum of five over a three week period) would be sent until such time as a reply was received.
I also made sure to set a limit on how many emails GMass could send per day. This is important because sending too many emails in a short space of time, especially if you don’t normally do that, can lead to you getting flagged as a spammer.
How Did People Respond to My Link Requests?
My first reply came through fairly quickly. It said:
Thanks for reminding me that moldy old post was still out there. Ugh. I've now taken it down and redirected it!
This was a bit disappointing. Instead of getting a link I’d simply prompted someone to remove the page I wanted a link from. And he’d had a go at me for emailing during a holiday weekend which, being from the UK, I knew nothing about!
Rather than let this get to me, I emailed back explaining that I didn’t know about the US holiday and that I was glad my initial email had been useful in terms of helping highlight an out of date article.
This turned out to be the right approach because Tom then added a link to my site from another of his articles instead, without me even asking him to. We even had a bit of a joke about both Brexit and the Trump presidency.
From there on, the responses came in at a fairly regular rate over the next days and weeks – either in response to my initial email or to one of the automated follow-ups.
I got a lot of positive responses in the form of people agreeing to link to me or offering to do so if I linked to one of their sites in return. I said yes to most to most of the requests for a reciprocal link, but only if I was satisfied that the content I was linking to was good quality and would be relevant to my readers.
If someone said they wanted payment to add my link I either politely declined or offered to provide them with a guest post (free of charge) instead.
In terms of negative replies, I had hardly any. I got a few people who asked me (usually politely) not to email them again and I had a few people complain that I had sent too many follow-up emails. With hindsight, it would probably have been better to send no more than three follow-ups because I don’t think I got any additional links due to sending the fourth or fifth ones.
My Link Building Results
In total, I sent emails to around 3,200 people asking for links to thirteen different articles on my site.
For each article it probably took me about two hours to identify the outreach targets, find their contact details, and configure GMass to send the emails.
Dealing with the replies probably took a total of about four hours but spread out across several weeks as obviously not all the replies came in at the same time.
In total, this project got me 44 new inbound links to my site spread across those thirteen pages.
Interestingly, some of my thirteen articles attracted more links than others and it appeared that the ones people were most keen to link to were the ones which contained real-life case studies or which included video demonstrations.
I also had guest posts published on three other websites, all with links back to my site.
How Did I Improve My SEO?
In the month before I started my Shotgun Skyscraper experiment (August), the site in question received 107 visits via organic search. In July there had been 84 organic visits.
In September, which was the month when I began the Shotgun outreach, there were 143 visits from organic traffic.
The following month, this figure jumped to 408. It crept up a bit further the following month to 418 organic visits, before dipping a bit in December due to Christmas.
At the time of writing, it looks like we’ll go past 500 organic visits this month even though I haven’t done any additional link building work since that initial blast.
In terms of inbound links, Moz says that the site has gone from having links from only four other sites in August and now has 64 other sites linking to it. Clearly I’ve acquired some other links naturally in addition to the 44 I knew I was getting from the Shotgun campaign.
The DA score has climbed from 3 to 26 during the same period.
Does Shotgun Skyscraper SEO Actually Work?
Considering I had never done any SEO to this particular website and that I had no previous experience of doing link building, I think the results I was able to achieve using the Shotgun Skyscraper method were pretty impressive.
It's only fair to point out that, at the same time as I started to do this link building, I did do three other things designed to improve the site’s SEO:
- I installed the Link Whisper plugin for WordPress and used it to create some additional internal links
- I created some silo pages as recommended in this SEO course
- I moved the site to a new hosting provider which may have improved its speed slightly
However, whilst these might have helped improve the levels of organic traffic a little bit, there’s no denying that it was the Shotgun Skyscraper work which got me all those extra inbound links and those are what’s likely to have had the biggest impact on the overall SEO of the site.
And don’t forget that, apart from my time, this whole exercise cost me hardly anything. I didn’t pay for any links and so my only costs were the $100 (approximately) that I paid for the subscriptions to GMass and Hunter over that three month period.
If you want to give the Shotgun Skyscraper method a try on your own website then I highly recommend you check out the information about it on the Authority Hacker website. They do also have a course you can buy that goes into more detail but I was able to do everything I’ve described in this article simply by reading the advice that’s freely available on their site.
Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments box below and/or let us know what results you get from implementing this link building tactic on your own site.