Private Blog Networks, or PBNs, can either be a useful tool in your efforts to rank a website or an immoral tactic on par with terrorism, depending on who you ask.
Only most people don’t ask because they’re afraid of what other people might think.
Today, I’m going to change that by explaining PBNs.
We will discuss the technical side of things as well as myths, ethics, a little bit of history, and my usual snark.
Now I know some self-righteous SEO professionals will get on their soapbox and scream “La la la I can’t hear you!” at the mere mention of PBNs, but that is a position of pure ignorance.
That would be like a doctor saying “Viruses are bad so I refuse to talk about them!”
It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in someone’s capabilities when they refuse to address reality simply because they don’t like the topic.
Whether we choose to use PBNs ourselves or not, we need to at least understand how they work because we’re all likely to face a competitor that is using them at some point.
This knowledge may also help you to build your own PBN if you decide it’s right for you, and it will help you to better understand how search engines work in the real world.
A deeper, well-rounded knowledge makes us better SEO professionals.
So What Exactly Is a PBN?
A PBN is simply a network of websites that you use to link out from to increase the rankings of one or more websites.
There is some debate on the ethics of this tactic.
But before we get into that debate, let’s focus on explaining what a private blog network is and how they work is in a little more detail.
How Do PBNs Work?
A PBN works by passing authority, in the form of links, from a number of websites you control, to one or more other websites.
We all understand the role that links play in the algorithms of search engines.
The more links pointing to a particular web page, and ideally, the higher quality those links are, the better that web page will rank.
But acquiring links is both expensive and time-consuming, so many marketers have chosen to build their own websites that they can then link to their other websites from.
This is a PBN, or Private Blog Network.
As with most things in the SEO industry, PBNs have evolved over time.
It used to be that you could set up a few dozen websites populated with complete garbage, drop links to your “money site” in that content, and then sit back while you dominate the SERPs.
I had set many of these up in the past (pre-Penguin) with shockingly powerful results.
In some cases, I had created massive directory sites where literally anyone could submit their articles.
These websites would then receive a steady stream of free content from other marketers ranging from very well-written, all the way down to something that appeared to have been written by a drunk toddler from another country.
The quality of the content didn’t seem to have any impact on the PBN’s ability to improve rankings for the websites it linked to.
This revelation led me to further experiments.
One of which was to build a platform that would generate a number of new pages, based on a set of seed content, each time a certain trigger was initiated.
I figured that simply rehashing the same piece of content over and over tens of thousands of times couldn’t possibly have a positive effect, but I was wrong.
In this experiment, I set up 20 separate domains running on this platform, and within days, they each had nearly 100,000 pages of the same rehashed content.
But here’s the crazy part:
I had built them all around a local business service and in less than two weeks they had completely taken over the first two pages of the search results.
Today, it seems that some of the PBN tactics that used to work no longer do.
What seems to work today is real websites with original, high-quality content that are self-sustaining.
In other words, they have a purpose beyond simply being a node in a PBN.
This may mean that the individual websites all generate the revenue necessary to support their own maintenance, or it may even mean that they’re separate individual businesses in some cases.
The concept of a PBN today is that a marketer will create or acquire a number of websites that contain useful, original information, and within that information, embed a link (or links) to the pages they want to rank better.
I recently identified a tremendous number of these while conducting backlink research for a particular client.
In this case, a large competitor took this approach to another level by buying smaller, struggling businesses and folding their old domains into a massive PBN to support his main business.
It’s worth noting that he also built a number of new websites for his PBNs as well, using a combination of new and expired domains.
But you can find this exact model used in literally every niche, and you’ll find everyone from one-person operations all the way up to the largest companies in the world engaged in this tactic.
The formula today requires both original, high-quality content published on the websites in a PBN, and quality links from other websites pointing to the websites in that PBN.
The importance of the content should be obvious.
The importance of the links is because a website with no inbound links has no authority to pass so it can’t improve the ranking for your other websites.
But because building a PBN that actually works today requires a substantial investment of time, money, and effort, it’s often not cost-effective for smaller businesses to build their own.
Or, to be more specific, their resources would probably be better spent in other ways.
As a result, many people simply buy or rent links from someone else’s PBN.
Some do that unknowingly…
Could You Be Using PBNs Without Knowing It?
A lot of link builders resort to using PBNs because once their network is in place, creating new links is fast, easy, and cost-efficient for them.
In other words, if you’re outsourcing that part of your SEO, you very well may be using PBNs and not even know it.
This is true of independent link builders all the way up to the biggest guest posting service companies that you see constantly advertising in our industry.
This includes a lot of SEO professionals who profess to be “purely white hat” and claim they only use tactics that adhere to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. (They are most likely lying.)
A large portion of the links you can buy on the gig websites (e.g., Fiverr, People Per Hour) are built on PBNs too.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s something you need to be aware of because it does come with the potential risk of a manual penalty if you are caught by the search engines.
Myths & Misconceptions
There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about PBNs.
If you’re unaware of the truth, it could have an adverse effect on your performance.
Now you might be thinking, “But Jeremy, I don’t use PBNs, so it doesn’t matter to me!”
True. You may not use them, but that doesn’t mean your competitors aren’t.
If you don’t know what you’re up against, you’re willingly giving your competitors an unfair advantage.
And that’s just stupid.
Myth #1: PBNs Don’t Work
This is something I hear all the time, mostly from people who take public statements from Google as gospel.
They will often claim that Google’s algorithm is simply “too advanced” for these types of tactics to work.
But they are dead wrong.
In researching links over the years, I’ve identified thousands of PBNs that clearly had a positive impact on the websites they were built to support.
Now, some will scream “Yeah, but correlation doesn’t equal causation!”
While that statement is technically true, it’s also largely irrelevant.
Anyone who has ever conducted link research has likely seen plenty of examples where a website ranks well with nothing but PBN links in highly competitive niches.
PBNs do work, as many experiments and case studies have proven.
Myth #2: PBNs Are Garbage
Some PBNs are garbage.
There is no denying that.
However, some PBNs are just regular websites filled with high-quality content that people happen to use to help their other websites rank better.
The truth is that if you have access to other websites and you include links to one or more of your websites from any of them, you are technically using a PBN.
For some people, that statement may sting a little bit.
Welcome to reality.
Myth #3: PBNs Are Easy for Search Engines to Identify
As with the previous myth, this one can be, but isn’t necessarily true.
I would argue that most PBNs are actually quite difficult to identify because eliminating footprints is relatively simple.
By mixing up registration info, hosting, themes, content, and linking out to multiple other websites, a marketer can very easily make the sites in their PBN appear to be completely unrelated to each other or to the websites they’re trying to make rank higher.
Between the ingenuity of SEO professionals and the vast quantity of websites online today, identifying PBNs algorithmically or on any sort of scale, is virtually impossible.
There is a caveat here though – this generally only applies to your own PBNs.
It’s a completely different scenario when it comes to buying or renting links from someone else’s PBNs because you generally won’t know how selective someone else is in what websites they link out to.
And you won’t have an idea of how careful they are in eliminating footprints because they aren’t going to tell you all the websites they have in their network.
People who sell links from their PBNs rather than only using them to improve the ranking of their own websites, tend to care more about their short-term profits than the long-term health of their PBN, which makes it somewhat easier for search engines to identify these PBNs.
Myth #4: PBNs Are Unethical
This is open to interpretation.
Google believes that PBNs are unethical.
Most rational, objective SEO professionals, however, know that is not the case.
While PBNs are a clear violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, so is literally every other link building tactic – including simply asking someone to link to your website.
Anyone doing anything to acquire links is guilty of the exact same violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines that someone using a PBN is.
There is no gray area.
(Note: This is literally only a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines – not any law, statutes, or legislation.)
It’s important to point out that what you do for your own websites is completely up to you.
However, if you’re working with clients, and you use a tactic like this for their websites without fully informing them of the risks of being manually penalized, that is, in fact, unethical.
Myth #5: PBNs Are Dangerous
This myth has already been covered to some degree under Myth #3, where we talked about PBNs not being as easy to identify.
It’s also been covered to some degree under Myth #4, where we talked about the ethics of PBNs.
That being said, there are some risks that come with PBNs, but those risks are generally no more or less significant compared to any other tactic.
The reality is that literally every decision in business is a matter of weighing the potential risks against the potential rewards.
This is no different.
There is a potential risk of a manual penalty, which is true of any link building tactic.
However, it’s important to note that if a PBN has been set up sloppily or the owner sells links, that risk goes up dramatically because the chances of being identified by the search engines increases.
I’m not going to get too deep into building a PBN because there are so many variables involved and so many different approaches someone could take, and the tactics will continue to evolve over time, but I do want to give a quick overview.
The first step is to secure the appropriate domains.
One option here is to buy brand new domains and start from scratch, ensuring higher quality.
This is generally better in the long term, but it takes more time because you have to build up the authority of these sites before they can pass any value.
Another option is to acquire existing websites or buy expired domains.
While this tends to produce results more quickly, you also have to carefully evaluate the domain’s history.
Trying to create value from a domain that had previously been used for spam can be the digital equivalent of trying to rehab a house that used to be a meth lab.
Next, you’ll need to install WordPress on the domains in your network and keep them up to date.
This is especially important because PBNs tend to get attacked by hackers more frequently than regular websites.
Since less attention is typically paid to them and plugins and themes are often not updated frequently, they are easier targets.
Then you’ll need to create original, useful content for these sites. The amount, depth, quantity, and frequency will be determined by what your competitors are doing.
And finally, you will need to build quality links to your PBNs so that they are able to pass authority to your other websites.
As you can clearly see, building and managing a PBN is a lot more than spinning up a bunch of WordPress sites and filling them with garbage spun content,
It’s a specialty skill set and it requires constant maintenance.
It also typically requires a certain scale to make financial sense.
So Should You Use PBNs?
I can’t answer that for you.
You could be the kind of person who prefers to play it absolutely safe, or you could be completely comfortable taking significant risks.
Some people may work in industries where the SEO landscape is relatively uncompetitive, while others have to brutally slug it out with competitors that are willing to do anything to get ahead.
Maybe you have a strong technical background and the time, money, and resources to build a PBN, or maybe you’ll have to invest considerably more to have someone else do it for you.
A lot of variables go into this decision.
Ultimately, you’ll have to make this decision based on your competitors, the risk versus the reward, and your level of risk tolerance.
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