The Complete Guide to Reverse Engineering Great Content

What’s your relationship with your competitors like? Do you shake your fist when you see one of their articles doing well online? Do you get jealous of their successes?

You shouldn’t. Every time your competitor produces a successful piece of content, it’s an opportunity for you to get some easy insight into what you can do to produce great content yourself.

I’m not talking about stealing ideas or ripping off existing successes: when your competitor posts a stellar piece of content, you can learn from their efforts to make sure your own content is perfectly targeted to your audience.

You can learn key lessons from looking at existing content, such as what topics perform well, how to format your content, and which influencers will be most likely to share your content furthest.

There’s a lot of great information you can learn from quality content that’s already out there. Let’s take a look at some simple techniques you can use to reverse engineer the success of other pieces of content.

The SkyScraper Technique

One popular technique for reversing great content is Backlinko’s Skyscaper technique. Brian Dean, the creator of the technique, has explained how using it has led to a massive increase to the number of backlinks to his site – in one case, it even doubled his traffic over a two-week period.

organic traffic increase google analytics

The Skyscraper Technique has three key steps to it:

  1. Find link-worthy content
  2. Make something even better
  3. Reach out to the right people

A lot of marketers rely on these simple three steps to produce and distribute shareable content.

At the same time, though, there’s a fair amount of criticism for this approach: especially from marketers who feel that by simply copying existing content, it’s impossible to stand out from the crowd.

Ultimately, using a formula to produce knock-off content won’t work: what many marketers fail to understand is that it’s the originality and quality of your content that’ll turn heads and get people’s attention.

I’m going to add a few clarifying steps to help explain what you can do to make quality, unique content that will share just as well (or better!) than your competitors’ work.

The Key Steps to Reverse Engineering Content

While the skyscraper method can have its benefits, I’d recommend breaking down the process even further:

  1. Research your competitors
  2. Research influencers
  3. Make high quality content
  4. Publish and publicize
  5. Start again
Steps, Staircase, Climbing, Steps To Success, Stairs

The focus of these steps shouldn’t be on finding something popular and making more of it. Instead you should be:

Here’s how this should play out if you want to reverse engineer your competitors’ successes, while making something unique enough to stand out:

Step One: Researching Your Competitors

The first step to reverse engineering anything is to take a good look at the original. And to do that, we’ll first need to identify what content works.

There are a variety of online tools available for locating the most successful pieces of content in your field. All of them work slightly differently, but each one has the same basic focus: helping you spot subjects, topics and individual pieces of content that people are reading and sharing.


One of the most useful tools out there for quickly and easily spotting killer content to reverse engineer is BuzzSumo.

It’s exceptionally easy to use: just type in a relevant search term and boom – you get a page of articles that are highly relevant and broken down by how many social media shares they’ve received.

Now obviously, social media isn’t everything when it comes to traffic, but this site can give you a quick and easy way to spot which websites – and, in particular, which individual pieces of content – you should be looking at for inspiration.

BuzzSumo can happily handle even obscure phrases and topics, so it’s worth playing around with and seeing what you can discover, and which articles are getting the most attention online.


Ahrefs is a tool that focuses primarily on link building. Through Ahrefs, you can identify key backlinks in a variety of pieces of content, where the links are coming from, where they’re going, and how successful different traffic sources are.

This tool can tell you a lot about a piece of content and how you can go about reverse engineering it, including:

  • Which websites to reach out to build a relationship with.
  • The kind of content, keywords and topics that people in your field are sharing.
  • What titles, URLs and text are going to grab attention and bring you more traffic.

If you’re interested in raising the profile of your content and tailoring articles to make sure they get picked up by influencers, this is a useful tool for analyzing the specific content pieces you’ll want to reverse engineer.

Social Crawlytics

If you’d like to see a greater breakdown of which articles are performing best on social media, Social Crawlytics might be helpful for you.

Using social crawlytics - The Tomorrow Lab

With this tool, you’re able to search an entire website to spot which pages are getting the most interaction on social media, helping you to spot which articles you should be copying. This can be useful if you’ve already identified which site you’d like to emulate, but you still want to find their most successful pieces of content.

Social Crawlytics is also useful if you want to spot the key influencers that send traffic towards the content you want to copy (more on that in the next step). You’ll also be able to generate graphs which tell you the social media platforms that you should be putting most of your focus on.

Social Crawlytics is a pretty simple tool to use – you just enter the domain of the site you want to research, and it’ll provide a detailed breakdown of the most popular pieces of content on the site.

Google Search

An alternative, very simple way of finding out the kind of content that resonates most strongly with your target audience is the humble Google search. This doesn’t take much effort at all: simply put in your search terms and see what comes up.

If you’d like to, you can set specific filters such as date settings so you’ll only see recent posts.

Google (and other search engines) won’t give you a detailed breakdown of the popularity of every piece of content, but it will point you in the right direction if you’re looking to find good examples of quality content.

Step Two: Researching Influencers

One thing I’d recommend doing differently to the Skyscraper Technique is not leave it until the end of the process to identify the key influencers you want to share your work.

Research is key to producing excellent quality work, and if you’re able to identify the influencers for a particularly topic, you’ll be able to take cues from the kinds of content they regularly share. This can mean making content that their audience will be guaranteed to enjoy, and it’ll mean increasing the chance that these influencers will feel your content is worth sharing.

As with researching content, there are plenty of tools available online to help you identify the influencers that you want to appeal to, and the kinds of content they regularly share.

Simply Measured

Once upon a time, there was a fantastic tool called Topsy which would search through social media for you to spot which influencers were most relevant to your topic. Sadly, this tool shut down at the end of last year, but there are other similar tools available.

With Simply Measured, you can search for a keyword to identify which social media influencers are making noise about it.

You can see a detailed comparison between each influencer to spot who’s going to be the most helpful in spreading the good word about your message, helping you spot who to target your work towards.

Social Media

Sometimes there’s no better strategy for finding key influencers than taking to Twitter.

Run a search on the hashtags that are most relevant to your intended subject, and you’ll be able to track down the big voices online who are getting a lot of retweets and likes. These are the people you’ll want to contact to help you reverse engineer the viral success of the articles you’re copying.

This approach isn’t as nuanced as using some other available tools, but if you’re after getting a vague idea of the influencers you should be appealing to and the kind of content they regularly share (and doing all that for free), directly searching any social media tool will at least point you in the right direction.

Step Three: Make High Quality Content

With this step, there are no shortcuts: quality content takes time, effort, and resources.

Creation Of Man, God Finger, Michelangelo, 1508-1512

Remember that it’s not enough to simply copy the content that you’re reverse engineering: you need to break down a sample piece, see what works, and then use those parts to assemble something new.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

From your research you should have a solid list of good pieces of content that you want to reverse engineer. Now’s the time to start picking them apart and seeing how they work.

Digital Camera, Disassembly, Component Parts

Look really closely at the piece of content you want to emulate, paying particular attention to:

  • Subject matter
  • Title
  • Formatting
  • Images
  • SEO Keywords

Make a list of all the positive aspects of the content that you think made an impact on its popularity.

I find that the attention-grabbing aspects of an article – its title, images and subject matter – tend to get people clicking, but it’s the actual content of the article that leads to social media shares, so it’s important to cover all bases and not focus on style over substance.

Appealing to Your Influencers

Mic, Microphone, Sound Check, Sing, Singing, Perform

In designing your content, if you’re really looking to reverse engineer success, look at the people who’ll hopefully be sharing your content.

The trick is to take ideas from the content you’re reverse engineering, and, in building another similar piece, make it more noteworthy for your influencers. If the influencers think it’s derivative or unoriginal, they won’t bother sharing it.

If, on the other hand, you can convince them that your new piece of content is superior and more relevant than the piece you’re drawing inspiration from, they’ll be likely to give it as much love and attention as they’ve given to the original.

Ultimately, if your content is of a high enough quality, it’ll stand out and influencers will want to share it.

Making Sure Your Content Stands Out

Red Tree, Green Tree, Grass, Stand Out, Different

So what can you do to make your content unique?

  • Take the structure, approach and style of the piece you’re copying, and then apply it to a different topic entirely.
  • Alternatively, take the topic of the original piece, but approach it from your own perspective and with your own signature style.
  • Provide personal analysis or commentary on the subject and argument of the piece you’re copying.
  • Perform additional follow-up research that adds something useful and important to the discussion.

The important thing here is to make sure that, when someone reads your article, they don’t instantly suspect that you’ve just copied verbatim from another source. While no content is 100% original, the trick to making your piece come across as more than just reactionary is giving it your own personal twist.

SEOgadget Content Strategy Generator

Builtvisible’s SEOgadget has a lot of potential uses, but its main benefit in reverse engineering content is helping you to generate content ideas that actually build on and improve upon the original piece you’re borrowing from.

CSGT Search

The tool lets you break down existing content sources, popular sharing platforms and up to date news, to help you generate ideas.


It also gives you trending topics that you can pay attention to, in order to make your take on the original piece of content as topical and relevant as possible.

Using it, you’ll be able to pull ideas from a variety of sources to combine the best bits from several high performing pieces of content, meaning that your new content will not only reverse engineer the success of previous pieces, but you’ll also be able to take it further to new audiences.


It also helpfully breaks down influencers, so you can see who’ll appreciate your latest creation. Clearly, this can be a helpful tool for anyone who’s after generating truly unique ideas that incorporate pieces of existing successful content.

Step Four: Publish and Publicize

When reverse engineering quality content, it’s not enough just to reproduce the content itself – you also want to be able to generate similar levels of public interest.

This is where all the research on your subject’s influencers becomes important. Hopefully, as you’ve produced your content, you’ve kept this audience in mind – now’s the time to share your content with the people who can make it travel just as far as the original article you’re working from.

Reaching Out to Influencers

In my experience, most influencers are generally pleased to see a piece of quality content. In my work as a writer, I’ve developed plenty of relationships with influencers through the up-front method of cold-contacting them and telling them about my latest piece of content.

When it works, it works well – if you don’t get a response, you haven’t lost anything and you can move on to new influencers.

Going back to the Skyscraper Technique, Brian Dean recommends sending out a simple template email to influencers alerting them to your content.

skyscraper technique outreach template

Using this template, Brian got 17 out of 160 influencers to share his link, which he felt was well worth his time as they all provided quality sources of traffic.

I wouldn’t recommend using such a strict template, nor would I try blanket contacting to many influencers at once. I find it’s better to send a direct, personal email or social media message to the most potentially helpful influencers, working not just to get a link from them, but also to take the opportunity to build a relationship. For Brian’s template emails, he received short and sweet responses.

Email Response

If you take the time to engage with your influencers, you’ll find they’re far more willing to chat. Bouncing emails (and content) back and forth enough, you’ll soon be able to count on them to share whatever content you’ve produced, which is far more useful.

Once you’ve written personally to the most important influencers, you can look at blanket messaging other, less notable influencers. The important thing to getting the most coverage, though, is making a personal connection.

Step Five: Start Again

That’s it. Job done.

You’ve analyzed what content is succeeding online at the moment.

You’ve tracked down key influencers.

You’ve made unique content that draws inspiration from the quality content you identified, and sent it out to the influencers who are going to make the most impact online.

There’s no time to put your feet up and relax, though – now it’s time to begin all over again and start work on your next piece of epic quality content.

Regroup, Analyze, React


Just in closing, let me point out a simple but important step: Don’t forget what you’ve learned.

If you’ve found a site that’s producing high quality content regularly,take inspiration from it whenever you can.

If you’ve opened up a dialogue with a key influencer, keep talking with them – even if you don’t have content to share. You want to develop a solid relationship, and you don’t want them to think that you’re just using them for publicity.

Once you’ve had a big success with a piece of content, while you should keep reverse engineering other competitor works, you can also reverse engineer your own success.

In many ways, that’s easier: just wash, rinse, and repeat your initial successful strategy.

What other steps do you take to create high value content, whether by emulating others or starting from scratch? Share your best tips with me by leaving a comment below:


Pixabay, Wikipedia, Backlinko, Pixabay, Ahrefs, The Tomorrow Lab, Rocket Mill, Google, Pixabay, KissMetrics, Pixabay, Pixabay, Pixabay, Builtvisible, Backlinko, Flickr.

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