If you’re new to SEO you may not have heard of the term private blog networks before but it has been all the rage for the last four or five years and the SEO’s secret weapon for long before that.
We understand that there is still a lot of controversy and risk surrounding private blog networks and therefore we know that it’s not for everyone.
Let’s explore what’s happening with PBNs in 2017:
What is a private blog network (PBN)?
In a nut shell, a private blog network is a group of high authority (and usually closely related) websites that were acquired through auction or scraping the web. These websites get “recreated” or “repurposed” with either new content, or the same content they had before they expired. These websites are then used as a source of links which can point to client websites, affiliate websites, or anything that the person controlling the PBN would like to rank.
I want this post to be an overview of PBNs in general to provide you with enough information to understand what they are, what’s involved in creating them, and what some of the risks are when using them. I’ll dive deeper into each area that needs additional explanation in other posts.
Brief History of PBNs
As you see from the above Google Trends data, there was a fairly consistent increase in popularity in private blog networks from 2010 up until the present day.
You’ll notice a huge spike in September 2014. This was when Google aggressively started targeting websites that use PBNs. You can read about this story here. Due to this update, PBNs caught a lot of attention when Spencer Haws of Niche Pursuits had his income wiped out. He wrote a note to Google here.
However, Google had been aggressively targeting these types of networks in the past. Here’s a story about when BuildMyRank was targeted by Google.
The first increase in popularity of PBNs was when they started becoming public, that is, a Public Blog Network. Some examples of these included LinkAuthority and the old BuildMyRank. There are many others.
But once word got out about just how effective these solutions were and when the public options started to get shut down, SEOs started to more aggressively build out their own blog networks but only use them on their own websites (or for client websites). These types of blog networks – private blog networks – became much safer because they were publicized and were only used on a small amount of websites.
My History With PBNs
I owned a web services company called Websavers for over a decade before selling it and transitioning into purely organic search. Our main service offering was web hosting and being the extremely competitive industry that it is, we needed some additional exposure to drive growth. This is when I first really started paying attention to and learning organic SEO.
Fast forward a little bit, and my first real experiences with blog networks were when I used Post Runner (a guest-posting network) and BuildMyRank. We used both services aggressively and sat happily within the top three results for the search term, “web hosting” (within the Canadian SERPs) for about 8-12 months before getting destroyed during the de-indexing of BMR.
I learned my lesson and began investigating a way to take this service in-house to not only help our own website but to be able to offer this service to our existing clients.
Unfortunately back then there were as many guides on PBNs as there are now, but I fumbled my way through the process. I think I started with about 30 or 40 domains, picked up at auction from GoDaddy Auctions. But that was enough to really get moving, especially in our local market.
From there we spun up a local SEO service that was a link-building-only service. Leveraging that small network to help local businesses rank. As you can see, we had it under-priced but corrected that eventually as well.
This is when I got more serious about SEO and started to put together more of the pieces rather than just link building. PBNs still play a role in today’s SEO industry, but there are so many other aspects out there that they are merely a piece of the pie.
Do PBNs Still Work Today (in 2016)?
Yes. Private blog networks are still very effective at ranking websites both in the short and long-term. I’ve made tens of thousands of dollars in the health and fitness and weight loss industry primarily through PBNs. I’ve also used PBNs in local markets, lead generate websites, affiliate websites, and much more. So do they still work? Most definitely. Here’s my opinion on where they are effective and how they fit into the overall link profile of websites:
PBNs for local websites
If you do any sort of local business SEO or consulting or even if you simply create websites for local businesses, a well planned localized PBN is going to really set you apart from your competition. Even local business owners themselves I feel could benefit from building their own small private blog network. Here’s a few things to consider when thinking about using private networks for local SEO:
Most small business link profiles are very similar. You have some standard partner links, association links, chamber of commerce links, local directory links and then perhaps some local citations to increase their Google My Business profile. Adding in 10-20 local-specific or industry-specific links from high authority PBN domains is going to really set you apart in terms of your link profile. Combining this with good on-page seo and you’ll be ranking well in no time.
PBNs for big business websites
I really don’t like the PBN-only SEO consultant. I have experience with these people and to be honest if you were to have talked to me a few years ago I might have even been one of these people. This is the SEO consultant who’s answer to any sort of link-building is private blog networks, because that’s what works.
In the local and small business space, fill your boots. You could get away with having every local client using a private blog network. However that isn’t the case for many big business websites and the main reason for this isn’t because they don’t work, it’s because as an SEO consultant or service provider, you need to list to the needs and wishes of your clients and you need to be transparent about the strategies you use.
Private blog networks do come with some level of risk. Sure, there is a lot of things you can do to mitigate that risk and to be honest, I consider PBNs one of (if not the) safest forms of manual link building. That said, I understand some clients don’t have the same risk tolerance as others and in these cases you need to be able to develop another off-page seo strategy that doesn’t involve PBNs. That’s your job as an SEO. Stop giving the rest of us a bad name. If you can’t service these clients don’t call yourself an organic search professional, call yourself a PBN link-building service provider.
I got a little carried away there, lets move back on point.
PBNs for “other” sites
I suspect this is what many people are using their private blog network resources for. These types of websites could include affiliate websites, personal branding / business or “money” websites, or lead-gen websites. Building out a website on a particular industry and leveraging PBN links to try to rank that website to either turn it into a business or simply generate an Adsense or Affiliate income.
PBNs still work very well in this situation but you are going to have to be really careful in terms of your footprint and link profiles. Unlike local SEO, where you could probably get away without actually blocking robots or diversifying hosting too much, that isn’t the case when you’re using a lot of PBNs for affiliate or money sites. Please heed this warning – I’ve seen far too many people lose money creating large link networks with this as their primary focus (myself included).
Types of Private Blog Networks
The “types” of PBNs are determined by how you create them. I like to reference three main “types” when chatting about different strategies for private networks. The first being the general PBN, then the industry-specific, and then the exclusive PBN.
It’s important to note that for the most part you’ll need to follow the same rules on how to build the PBNs and what footprints to watch out for, but their uses will be a bit different. I’ll explain what I mean and how you might use each kind a little different.
The “General” PBN
What I’ve found in the past is that most people that control private blog networks, usually have generic or multi-industry content on them. This is consistent for a lot of service-providers and agencies, and a lot of affiliate marketers or independent SEOs.
On the general PBN a website within the network may link out to completely different and unrelated industries and business websites. Perhaps there is a link to a local dog grooming website and also a link to an auto body shop within a completely different province or state. While the authority of the domain will still benefit both of those websites, there is not the same level of relevancy and there is added risk to this type of network. It’s unusual for a high authority website to be so generic – short of news sites and other much higher authority websites. But for the most part, websites are usually about a specific or at least a general topic.
I understand the attraction of building these networks. They are cheaper and easier to build (you don’t need to find domains with historical relevant content or link profiles) and they can be used across many different websites or clients as a source of links.
This type of link still has a place, but going out and getting 1000 of them may raise some red flags.
This is a much better solution to help increase the link relevance of your network. In this situation, you find expired or auction domains that have a topical relevance to the industry you want to serve. You can use a tool like Majestic SEO for this, but the idea is to make the network as relevant as possible to the websites you are going to link to.
For example, a network built for the “housing industry” may have a variety of different websites that used to be somewhat related to the industry and you would be able to use that network to link out to a variety of types of clients or websites – mortgage brokers, realtors, home inspectors, home insurance companies, home builders, condo developers, landscapers, etc. I think you get the point.
While this type of network may be more time consuming to build – you’ll need to narrow your focus on the types of domains you buy – it will be much more beneficial for the related websites than a generic network would be. This is a great solution if you take on clients within a specific industry.
The Exclusive Network
This takes things a step further and not only is relevant and high authority, but you would only use the network to link to one “money” or client website. I will say with experience that when you add highly relevant domains that only link to one client site (with the exception of some other related links) this will get you the biggest impact.
Obviously, this is much more expensive to operate as you can’t spread your cost out over multiple client or multiple web properties, it is something to consider if you have been in this game for a while and are looking to take a particular site to the next level.
What’s Involved in Creating a PBN
Creating private blog networks can be both expensive and time-consuming when not done properly. You’ll need to invest a little bit of both but they don’t need to be as daunting as you thought. There are a few different steps to creating a great private network that include choosing and buying the domain, hosting the domain, and protecting the domain from competitors and being de-indexed.
Let’s review some of the process.
Buying The PBN Domains
As I’m sure you would have imagined this is one of the most important steps in the process. If you pick up a spammy domain or don’t do all the due diligence in this process then you may end up with a dud before you even get started. I’ll create a guide on buying PBN domains in another post for the sake of keeping this one to a decent length, so lets just highlight some of the factors and metrics to consider when buying a domain:
History – I can’t stress this enough. You need to check the wayback machine to see if the domain has ever had any sort of spam or was ever part of a PBN in the past. This is even more important if you’re picking up expired domains (as they could be expired for a reason).
Domain & Page authority – Be sure to check Moz’s DA and PA of the domain in question. There’s no minimum necessarily but I like to see a DA of 15+ whenever possible. Depending on just how relevant it is and what it’s being used for, I might pick up something a little lower.
Trust Flow and Citation Flow – Check Majestic SEO’s TF and CF. It’s important to not that this is a URL-specific metric and doesn’t account for the entire domain necessarily, but I like to see a TF of 10+ and as close to a 1 ratio as possible.
Topical Relevance – This is another Majestic metric, which will tell you what industry the domain is related to based on its link profile. This is great if you’re building out an industry-specific or client-specific network.
Link profile – you’ll need to weed through the link profile of the domain in question to see how many and the type of links it has. If its link profile is all spam, move along. If it has some high authority websites it might be worth exploring.
While there are so many other things you *could* consider, that’s a good starting point. Now that you know how to determine if a domain is good or not, lets go into how you might buy them.
Using Expired Domains
Personally this is my favourite as there is less pressure to buy the domain immediately and it is extremely less expensive (about 3x-10x cheaper). I find it much easier to scrape the web to find relevant expired domains than having to find them at auction. Also, there are a ton of people out there that scrape the web themselves and sell high value domain names – as in the name itself. You can pay $5 for a high value domain in a specific industry and then you just need to register it on top – still much cheaper than buying it at auction.
If you’re thinking but Adam, expired domains don’t work, let me stop you right there. If you’re thinking this then I guarantee you’ve never actually used this method before. If you heard this from someone else then I guarantee you that they haven’t actually used this method before. Sure, a domain loses some value when it expires and it does get de-indexed. However, if the links still exist to that domain, when you re-register it, it is going to pick up the value of those links again.
Public Auction Domains
GoDaddy Auctions is the big one and certainly the most popular but there are a lot of different auction websites out there that you can use to pick up great high quality domains. You’ll end up spending much more – likely $30 USD including private registration for something decent, but you can easily spend upwards of a few hundred depending on the quality and industry of the domain.
Whether you choose public auction or expired domains there are some tools that make it a bit easier to find the domains. One tool that I love is DomCop, although screaming frog (one of my favourite SEO tools) also does a great job at finding expired domains.
Also, be sure to register your domains at a variety of different registrars and with a variety of different whois information.
Now that you have a domain name you’ll need to host it. I’ll create a separate guide for PBN hosting as this is worth a serious lesson in and of itself. I’ll highlight a few things that you need to know:
- Host the websites across as many different C- and B-class IP addresses as you possibly can.
- Don’t use public SEO web hosting websites. They will leave a big footprint.
- Don’t be afraid to use CloudFlare and other popular DNS-hiding solutions for a small percentage of your websites.
- The more variation in hosting between websites the better.
There are some PBN hosting solutions that are out there that do make things easier. Easy Blog Networks is one of them – they consolidate accounts from multiple different providers as a way to mimic the experience of you having a shared or vps account with each of the different web hosts. It’s a great solution that has gotten a lot of attention lately.
You can expect a PBN hosting solutions from us in the near future. With more and more reliance on PBNs for many of our affiliate and lead-gen websites, we want to control as much as the process as possible – and that includes hosting – which means we will be developing our own hosting solutions for private blog networks which we will share on a limited capacity to some of our followers.
Content for the websites
Don’t forget about content. I know a lot of people that strip old web archives of the domain and re-create what was already there. Personally, I like to recreate the site similar but not identical – just by using a similar content theme to the original.
That said, make sure that your content is top notch. Don’t spin content and don’t use crappy content – it might work for now, but it’s not a long-term strategy.
Protecting The Domains & Footprints
Now that you have your domain purchased, hosted, and with quality content on it, you’ll want to protect it as best as possible. Again, I’ll cover this in more detail in a specific post, but lets review some of the main factors to consider:
- Outbound link diversification (don’t only link to your client/money websites)
- Block as many bots and crawlers as you can (don’t let your competition see your link profiles and find your PBN)
- Make your websites great standalone resources (protect them from manual action)
- Diversify hosting and registration as best as possible given your budget.
Overall Risk of Using PBNs
In my experience and from what I have seen so far the biggest risk in using private blog networks is having your network de-indexed and therefore losing its value.
If you’re using the PBN for your own websites this might mean you’re income will disappear. If you’re using it for client websites it might mean you’ll need to rebuild (a better) network quickly to keep them happy.
I haven’t seen much in terms of permanent penalties to a website. Most of the risk I’ve noticed is in losing the network itself, not necessarily having a large impact on the sites that it links to. You can avoid this from happening by diversifying as much as possible and considering as many of the footprints as you possibly can.
Since this post has turned into a short book I’ve decided I will follow it up with a series of posts on PBN specific. I’ll focus on the creation process and what you’ll need to do to really get a PBN up and running. If you have any specific questions that you would like answered feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll be sure to include it in a follow up guide.
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