You may have heard of private blog networks before, but you might not be sure what they are or why they exist. The term private blog network (or PBN) refers to a cluster of websites linked together under a common name or banner to boost SEO.
Since you’re here, you’re probably wondering if PBNs are a legitimate way to improve your search engine ranking or if they are just another scam. To answer that question, it’s important to understand what blog networks are and why they are used.
What are private blog networks?
Private blog networks are a collection of websites created to improve SEO (and therefore increase revenue) for the owner's primary site or blog. Think of it as one main website with ten or twelve micro sites orbiting it, each of which provides backlinks to the "money site." These microsites are usually inactive or contain duplicate content, and are designed to trick Google’s algorithms into thinking they are legitimate.
The PBN concept is built on the idea that it’s cheaper and easier to leverage link equity across multiple sites than it is to earn backlinks organically. However, this is rarely the case. In fact, creating or belonging to a PBN could actually put your business at risk.
Whether you’re a website owner, blogger or a link building consultant, chances are you’ve had the virtues of PBNs explained to you before, probably by someone with a vested interest. Before you get involved in one of these networks, however, it’s important to understand precisely what PBNs are and why they are dangerous
What do private blog networks do?
You can think of a private blog network like a database of websites, all of which provide backlinks to a primary business site. To create a PBN, you would need to purchase a set of expired domain names with established authority online. You would then use these domains to develop multiple blogs in your niche with backlinks to your main site. It sounds smart in theory, but PBNs are incredibly risky in practice.
The purpose of a PBN is to manipulate search engine rankings to increase website traffic. As you can imagine, Google objects to this practice and has recently started taking action against these networks. This move to block PBNs is known as the private network purge.
As a result of the purge, many sites reported a drop of 50% or more in traffic after Google’s Penguin update in 2012, as well as a substantial loss of revenue. For example, Linkamotion was a huge PBN that had all of its sites de-indexed after the update with devastating consequences for the business and its bloggers.
Unfortunately, your site could belong to a PBN without you even realising, which is why it’s important to be aware of Google’s guidelines and make sure you follow them. This is especially important if you outsource link building to a third party; just because you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, doesn’t mean you won’t be held accountable if someone breaks the rules.
Which sites use private blog networks?
Blog network space has become crowded over recent years, but if you’ve never heard of PBNs, that’s because most of them either go bust or hide in the shadows waiting to get caught.
These days, any website can become part of a private blog network, but the culprits tend to be commercial sites or blogs with a marketing focus. Two of the largest and most prominent PBNs are Gawker Media and Weblogs Inc. However, there are many smaller and lesser-known networks that have emerged around them.
Many of these networks go undetected, but make no mistake – their shady tactics will eventually catch up with them, and the penalties could be severe.
How PBNs claim to work
PBNs entice marketers because they offer a quick solution to a common problem. Most new blogs and business websites struggle to gain traction online for the first few months because establishing authority with Google takes time. As with all good things in life, to get onto Google's front page, you have to earn your place.
PBNs have created a way for website owners to jump the queue, but manipulating the system in this way can be incredibly risky, not to mention morally questionable.
Think of it like a weight loss product that claims to help you lose 10lbs in a week. Yes, you might lose weight, but not in a healthy or sustainable way. You can’t go on using this product forever unless you want to become seriously ill, so once you stop taking the supplements or drinking the “miracle” juice, you’ll put all of that weight back on and then some. Worse still, you’ll be out of pocket and your metabolism will be all over the place, making it even harder for you to lose weight the next time.
You’ll be left wishing you’d tried losing weight gradually rather than wasting time and money on a “quick fix” product. The same applies here, as many website owners learn the hard way.
So why all the hype about PBNs?
Private blog networks are effective in theory because they generate backlinks. Backlinks benefit your SEO like nothing else, which is the reason why these networks are so attractive. However, PBNs are neither safe nor sustainable for long-term credibility, and joining one could be what breaks your business.
You can read all about the benefits of backlinks here.
The importance of backlinks
Link building is the number one factor contributing to the rankings of a website. For anyone who is new to this principle, it’s important to know how backlinks gained this status and why they are so effective.
A backlink is a hyperlink that leads an external page directly to your website. When these links come from reputable sources, they help boost your SEO because Google thinks, “Ah, this site is credible.” These backlinks tell search engines that your website is trustworthy because an established domain has linked it.
Now we’ve covered backlinks, we can talk about why Google likes them so much, and why it dislikes PBNs being used as shortcuts.
How Google determines website authority
Authority is a major factor in getting your website to the top of Google results when people search your keyword. This is because all search engines strive to find the best, most relevant answers to people’s queries, which they achieve by pointing us to credible sites.
Google uses a number of markers to assess a website’s authority, including:
- The number of backlinks and where they come from.
- The number of shares on social media.
- The quality of the content posted.
- Your use of keywords and metadata.
However, gaining authority is not always as straightforward as it sounds. Exactly how Google’s algorithms work is a long-standing debate, and not even top SEO consultants have all the answers.
We do know, however, that backlinks are a major player in building SEO. According to a recent survey conducted by Moz:
“21% of Google’s ranking algorithm depends on link authority features, or the number of links to a domain and the quality of those links, and 19% depends on the page-level link features, or the number of links to a specific page.”
The attraction of joining a PBN is that they allow websites to establish authority quicker by buying lots of other credible domains and creating a link cycle. It’s essentially rising to the top through shady business tactics rather than earning trust organically.
But don’t private blog networks give your site authority?
The line we are fed about private blog networks is partly true: joining a PBN can improve your search engine rankings. It can also generate passive traffic to your site and, in theory, grow your business. However, the risks of using one far outweigh the benefits, and your credibility could just as easily be destroyed.
Joining a private blog network can expose you to many dangers, so professional SEO consultants will always recommend you steer clear. It’s much better to build your links organically using white hat strategies, which we'll talk more about below.
The dark side of private blog networks
There is a lot of misinformation about private blog networks, the primary myth being that they are safe and acceptable. In fact, you may find reputable blogging sites endorsing them as a means to improve rankings.
Make no mistake, however – the owner of the site waxing lyrical about PBNs probably already owns one. Much like the miracle weight loss pill representative endorsing the product, you should take what any blogger with an active interest in PBNs says with a pinch (better yet, a handful) of salt.
So, what are the dangers of using a PBN?
Private blog networks are often painted as a “get rich quick” scheme for bloggers and website owners. However, like most opportunities that sound too good to be true, they almost always are. Whether you own or simply belong to a PBN, the dangers include:
- Significant fall in rankings.
- Loss of credibility.
- Difficulty regaining SEO status with Google and other search engines.
- Being removed from Google’s index.
- Penalties issued by Google (see below).
- Further legal action taken against your site.
What is a penalty from Google? What are the risks?
Google wants your site to be found organically by its users, so its algorithms will ensure your content is relevant and spam-free. Therefore, if Google suspects you have flouted its guidelines, you will be issued with a penalty.
How Google penalises you will vary according to the severity of your breach, but it could have dire consequences for your website and business. Penalties typically fall into two camps: manual penalties and algorithmic penalties. They are defined as follows:
If someone from Google reviews your site and suspects you’re using a private blog network to build links, they could issue a manual penalty. This involves being contacted via your Google Search Console account and given a warning.
You should be given a chance to amend your practices to remove the penalty, which will mean deleting all your microsites and changing your link building strategy. Either way, it will be costly and time-consuming for your business and you will have to start from zero once it’s all over.
Algorithmic penalties are more severe and harder to undo than manual ones. These penalties are given when Google’s algorithms spot a red flag. You will most likely suffer a sharp drop in your rankings, usually without warning. Individual pages can also be penalised, or entire sites can be removed from Google’s index as a result.
That’s not all, however. There are several other downsides to using personal blog networks. These include:
A lot of your precious business hours will go into manipulating Google into thinking your microsites are legitimate. Once you’ve set up these sites, you’ll need to commit to creating content for them on a regular basis. If Google suspects your sites are inactive, they could issue you a penalty.
Posting once a week is recommended, and the sweet spot is usually between 500-1000 words. If you have ten microsites providing backlinks, that's a minimum of 50,000 words per week for sites that aren’t even making you money. Plus, if you’re not writing those articles, you're going to have to pay for somebody else to write them, which leads us to our next point.#
Loss of money
If you want to participate in a PBN, you’re going to need a lot of money to invest in these different sites. Established domain names with good link profiles are not cheap; then you'll need to design and maintain them. You’ll also need to pay hosting fees for each site, and you will probably need to use separate hosting platforms if you want to avoid getting caught.
In essence, you are spending money to create fake websites that don’t contribute to your income and could destroy your business.
You’ve been approached about joining a PBN. What should you do?
It’s not uncommon for private network owners to approach bloggers, website companies, and even SEO agencies to convince them to join their PBN. Some so-called Internet marketers may even recommend the tactic to help you build website authority quickly. However, no reputable SEO consultant will recommend private blog networks for increasing traffic online. So, if anyone asks you to participate in a link exchange, you should run a mile.
Don’t be tempted to buy links online, either. Sites like Fiverr tend to participate in link swapping, but this is still seen as black hat, and it could put your site in danger.
Could your site belong to a PBN without you knowing?
In a word, yes. If you outsource your link building to a third party, there’s a chance you could belong to a PBN without even knowing it. Therefore, it’s in your interest to find out everything you can about white hat and black hat strategies and make sure you know what your SEO team is doing.
Remember: your SEO strategies are being carried out in your company's name, so you will be held accountable if Google’s guidelines are flouted, even if you were unaware of the breach. When you employ someone to enhance your web presence, you're essentially handing over the reigns of your business. Therefore, you should only hire credible SEO and Internet marketing agencies that use white hat techniques, which will be outlined below.
Protecting your business against private blog networks
PBNs are dangerous. They can result in professional suicide for website and blog owners, so it’s important to protect your organisation against the risks.
The easiest way to avoid the dangers of a PBN is not to join one. However, as we’ve already discussed, it’s not always that simple. To protect yourself against PBNs, you need to understand how SEO works. This involves learning which strategies Google considers legitimate and which are seen as link schemes.
Understanding white hat and black hat SEO
When it comes to private blog networks, the link juice is never worth the squeeze. Moreover, using these networks can be dangerous and costly for your business, so they are best avoided at all costs. Luckily, there are many safer link-building alternatives to improve your SEO organically. Before we discuss these alternatives, here is a little background on how SEO works and the difference between white hat and black hat techniques.
(A note: PBNs are not strictly black hat, but they aren’t considered white hat either. However, Google doesn't see it this way. To Google, PBNs are a link manipulation tactic, which means they fall into the "black hat" category.)
Here is a quick guide to what Google considers white hat and black hat SEO:
White hat strategies
- High quality, original content creation.
- Effective keyword use.
- Site optimisation.
Black hat strategies
- Duplicated content.
- Keyword stuffing.
- Doorway pages.
- Hidden text.
- Link manipulation.
- Article spinning.
Legitimate SEO strategies
Private blog networks are dangerous and could destroy your credibility. Therefore if you want to climb the ranks without posing a threat to your business, you’ll need to choose another strategy.
Many experts talk about SEO as a self-sustaining cycle: the larger audience you attract, the better your SEO, and better SEO attracts a larger audience, and on it goes.
So how do you raise your status without joining a PBN? Here are some risk-free SEO alternatives:
High-quality content creation
It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many website owners want exposure but aren’t prepared to do the work. Google loves content, and the more consistently you post, the better. The key is to garner attention through your content so that people want to share it. Share-worthy content usually has all of these attributes:
- An enticing, click-worthy title containing keywords.
- Inbound links to relevant content.
- Outbound links to authoritative
- High-quality images, infographics or both.
- Well-written, skim-worthy content. You should avoid long sentences and break up paragraphs into small sections and bullet points.
- A call to action. What is the purpose of this content: to inform, entertain or sell? Make this clear in as few words as possible
Bear in mind that if you want people to share your content, you need to give them a reason to. It’s not enough for them to enjoy reading the article or agree with its points. You have to appeal to the ego of the reader.
For instance, by sharing your content, will that Facebook user look a bit cooler to their friends? Are you posting about an emotive issue or something they care about deeply? Perhaps your content is extremely informative, so the reader will want to share it with co-workers to show they are knowledgeable.
Social media users will only share content that reinforces the image of themselves they want to project, so this is what you should appeal to.
If you take the time to create engaging and share-worthy content, you’ll generate far more backlinks and brand awareness than you will through a private blog network. You don’t need to do this yourself if you don’t have time. You can hire a professional copywriter with SEO training or an Internet marketing agency that can outsource content for you.
Just make sure the tactics they use are legitimate. With Google being stricter on their guidelines, many agencies will now advertise themselves as “white hat” and actually outline the strategies they use, so these are the ones to look out for.
Guest blogging on someone else’s website is a legitimate and effective way to gain backlinks. Not only are you providing search engines with value (which is great for credibility) but you’re also pointing an established readership straight to your site.
Here are some tips for guest blogging:
- Stick to smaller, niche blogs in the beginning and work your way up to larger media outlets.
- Make sure your blog is worth linking to: is it easy to navigate, pleasant to look at? Do you provide regular, high-quality content?
- Display social sharing counters on your site. Publishers want to see that you have an established audience who share your posts because this helps them get more views.
- Be sure to include your name and a short author bio on all your content -- you want to be recognised for your work.
- Include links to authoritative sites in your blog content. (When writing a guest blog, however, you should always check the submission guidelines to see how they use external linking).
Finding the right sites to guest blog on can be time-consuming, but the exposure is worth it. If you're not sure where to start looking, you can perform a search query by trying one of the following search terms in Google:
[your niche] + “write for us”
[your niche] + “submissions”
[your niche] + “contribute
Look for websites in your industry or niche that allow guest submissions. Bear in mind that open calls for bloggers may not be displayed on the site. Blogs that already receive hundreds of submissions per day may not advertise for contributors, but that doesn’t mean the opportunities aren’t there. You may need to find the editor’s email address and pitch directly.
Make sure that the site you want to buy for allows backlinks. Otherwise, readers won’t know where to find you. Usually, these backlinks will appear in your author bio rather than the article itself, where you can also include links to your social media pages and “share now” buttons. Either way, you get a backlink that boosts your SEO ranking and gives you exposure.
You can also find out where prolific bloggers in your niche contribute and try to follow in their footsteps. To find out where influencers guest blog, you can try searching:
[blogger’s name] + guest post
Regular guest blogging gigs may also be displayed in an influencer's bio or shared on social media.
Lastly, to get a spot on someone else’s blog, you need to provide value. Written content should be grammatically correct, as well as informative and engaging. Anything you submit needs to read like it belongs on the site you’re writing for.
Guest blogging can be tough when you don’t already have a platform, but don’t be disheartened if you don’t get a response right away. If you pitch to enough sites and follow their guidelines, you will receive a reply eventually.
Commenting on other blogs
If you don’t have time to guest blog, leaving comments on other websites is a great way to boost your SEO through backlinks. Most websites will allow you to leave your blog link in the comments section, either in the body of the message or as a hyperlink in your bio.
Ask yourself if your website is relevant to the blog you're commenting on. If you run a graphic design blog and you're trying to pitch your services, it’s a waste of everyone’s time to leave comments on a food blog – and vice versa. They key is to attract followers from an already established readership. That way, you know will be interested in your content.
Avoid leaving promotional comments like, “If you liked this post, you should check out my blog NOW” or trying to sell your services. If the blog owner suspects you are a robot or that you're using their platform for private gain, they won’t publish your comment.
You should also avoid posting comments that are too short or generic. Aim to provide a valuable opinion or ask questions – it’s all about getting your comment noticed. Remember: this is a networking opportunity, so present yourself well and make your comment count. You want to leave an impression on blog owners and readers so they feel compelled to find out more about you
Leaving testimonials on other sites is another great way to win backlinks. Most blogs and websites will be glad for a positive review, so it is a mutually beneficial situation. Just make sure your image and backlink get included in the byline.
Social media engagement
Again, Google wants to know your website is active and relevant, so the more engagement you get on your Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn pages, the better.
Social signals play a major role in SEO, so it’s important to be active on at least one or two platforms, even if you don't use them all. It is well known that bloggers who stay active on their social media accounts and generate content shares tend to rank better than those who don’t.
Being active on social media will help generate backlinks, drive traffic and lead to better website conversions. Social media is also the best way to build a loyal audience, and this is an SEO technique in itself. The more popular you become, the more authority your domain will have in search engines.
Building a loyal group of followers is vital for your link building strategy, and there are several white hat ways you can do this:
- Automation tools and analytics software: Tools like Squarelovin are great for Instagram, whereas IFTTT links popular apps like Facebook and Twitter together so you can keep track of all your platforms.
- Networking with other bloggers: One of the most effective ways to amass a large following is to connect with other bloggers and influencers in your niche. By leaving comments and likes on their posts, you can piggyback on their following and attract a similar audience. Choose 3-5 influencers and get active on their platforms.
- Blogging: Get your content out there. Blog on your site, blog on other sites and keep it up. The more content you publish online, the more likely you are to gain a following on social media and boost your SEO.
- Share images and videos: The most impactful blogs share images and videos as well as written content. Readers like to put a face to a name, so don’t be afraid to use different media to connect with your followers. YouTube is a popular platform, but you don’t have to create your own Platforms like Instagram and Facebook allow users to see snippets of your life through “stories” images and videos, and these can be just as powerful.
Again, growing a following on social media is reliant on consistency. Your readers and followers want to know when you are going to post and what kind of content to expect. Even if you can only post once a week at first, that’s better than not at all. Once you get into the swing of things, you can up it to twice a week, then maybe even every day.
Now you know there are many safe and effective ways to build your SEO without using PBNs, you can stop considering risky strategies and work on building your site organically. However, the Internet can be a shady place, so how do you spot private blogs networks so you can avoid the dangers?
Avoiding private blog networks
The easiest way to spot a private blog network is to look out for similar backlink profiles. If multiple sites all link to one website numerous times (especially if there are a lot of links or they don’t seem relevant to the content), then the blog is probably part of a PBN.
Old PBNs often shared servers or IP addresses, and some even used similar names or the same content across multiple sites. These breadcrumb trails were easy to follow, hence Google's recent PBN purge.
However, since the infamous Penguin update, PBNs know they have to be smarter so they are harder to spot than they used to be. A modern private network site might cover many different subjects, industries or niches, or have different layouts to throw Google off the scent. They might also use “filler content.” This content serves solely to clog up search engines rather than provide value or information.
If you decide to work with another blogger, you need to make sure you're not inadvertently joining a PBN. To determine whether a website belongs to a private blog network, you should check the following:
- IP address: Do multiple sites share the same hosting? You can use online spy tools like SpyOnWeb.com to check a site’s hosting.
- Duplicate content: This is a dead giveaway for PBNs. An easy way to check if content has been duplicated is by copy and pasting a paragraph into Google to see if it appears in multiple results. You should also check to see if the same images and videos are being used across different sites.
- WordPress themes: Check the WordPress code to see if multiple sites have the same name. You can check the source code in your Internet browser.
- Website design: Another giveaway is multiple sites using the same colour scheme, navigation or layout.
- Blog ownership: Lastly, you can check the WHOSIS database to find the contact information for the owner of the blog. If all of the blog owners are the same, then it’s obvious the sites are part of a PBN. However, most PBN owners will leave their details blank so they don't get caught. Missing information across a number of similar sites is a glaring red flag.
As our head of outreach highlights:
“When you are looking for a link building partner and trying to avoid PBN’s, the first thing you should consider is price. We all know good content costs a minimum of £30 per 500 words, so if you’re buying links for the same price as a decent piece of content, be wary!
Another factor is traffic. PBN networks normally have a similar set of characteristics such as strong metrics including Moz’s domain authority and Majestic’s trust flow but are missing the most important element - traffic. If a site is naturally generating a lot of traffic, this will be looked at favorably by Google, and if it has little traffic, then surely this would have the opposite effect.
As you can see, there are several telltale signs that a lot of PBN’s have in common, so if you run your due diligence and apply common sense, you can spot these sites from a mile off. Remember, if one goes down, they can all tumble with a devastating impact on your business so be on your guard!”
Are you in danger of being penalised if you own multiple sites?
Not necessarily. It’s perfectly possible (and in fact, common) for blog owners to have many different sites on the go. Chances are, these blogs will fall into similar niches or have a common design theme, but that doesn’t mean they are using shady tactics.
For example, media companies like The Huffington Post own lots of different sites that are linked in content bylines. However, these sites wouldn’t be flagged as PBNs unless there was a pattern of repeatedly linking to the same sites, or if several of the websites were inactive.
One of the main signals Google uses to detect PBNs is inactivity. So as long as your sites are maintained and marketed well and you’re using legitimate link-building strategies, you won’t have a problem.
If you don’t adopt an approved strategy, however, and Google finds out you are link spamming, they could ban all the websites in your PBN, take your pages out of their index and possibly even take further action against your business.
As you can see, the risks associated with PBNs far outweigh the benefits.
The final word on private blog networks
Avoid private blog networks, and you’ll save your company a lot of headaches, as well as resources, money and time. Rather than opt for the risky black hat techniques, focus on white hat tactics that allow your site to grow in a natural and sustainable way, and be assured by the knowledge that you’ve earned your place at the top.