In your years of practicing search engine optimization (SEO), you might have heard about the strategy of using private blog networks (PBNs). You might have even dabbled in creating one for yourself.
But what are these link building entities, exactly, and are they really worth the time and effort?
Let’s start with a description of PBNs, including how they work—or at least how they’re supposed to work.
A private blog network is a collection (network) of individual, distinct websites (blog) owned by a single person or organization (private), typically for the purpose of generating links for a primary domain.
To understand why this could be valuable, you have to understand the basics of link building. When conducting a Google search, Google’s algorithm considers both the relevance of potential websites (whether or not the results are related to your query) and their authority. Their “authority” is a measure of their trustworthiness, which is calculated based on a number of factors; most prominently, this is determined by the number and quality of links pointing to the domain. If you earn enough high-quality links, your “domain authority” will grow, and it will be easier for you to rank in the future.
So let’s say you have a primary website for your personal injury law firm. If you wanted to build a PBN, you could purchase domains relevant to the law, develop content for those sites, and use them to build links back to your main site. This allows you to forgo conventional link building strategies, which require patience, attention to quality, relationship building, and did I mention patience?
Hypothetically, all the nodes in your PBN could be used as separate avenues for revenue generation, and tightly interlink with each other. However, this is a problematic approach for a few reasons. First, this would be extremely time- and money-intensive, and your peripheral sites probably won’t be as profitable as your main site; accordingly, this bears out a low return on investment (ROI). Second, the closer your nodes’ relationships are, the more likely they’re going to be targeted with a Google penalty.
There are a number of strategies that people have used to improve the effectiveness of their PBNs. For example, it’s common for people to purchase expired or expiring domains for their PBN nodes; these tend to have a lot of existing authority, meaning the links you build with them will instantly be more powerful—without having to wait months for the new websites to mature.
In SEO, everything is about quality. You want to provide high-quality, natural content to your readers, and build high-quality natural links on external publishing websites. Accordingly, your SEO “Spidey sense” might tingle when reading a description of how PBNs work. Are these a black hat or white hat tactic?
If you’re building a PBN for the pure purpose of manipulating your search rankings, and your nodes are throwaway sites with no real purpose, you’ll be violating Google’s terms of service. In fact, it’s even possible to report websites and networks engaging in this behavior. In the past, Google has taken manual action against PBNs to limit their influence and dissuade webmasters from building them (which we’ll touch on in the next section). Accordingly, you can describe PBNs as a black hat tactic.
That said, there’s a lot of room for customization and improvement in your PBNs. You could build a small PBN of just one or two extra sites, and spend a lot of time fleshing out those sites with high-quality content, genuinely intended to be valuable to readers. In this scenario, your websites would function as independently valuable, self-sustaining entities, with the links you build merely as an added bonus. Here, your PBN could mostly be considered white hat.
Because of this, PBNs exist in a kind of “gray hat” territory. Google explicitly encourages webmasters not to engage in PBNs, but there are ways to make them more valuable.
Of note, Google issued a massive crackdown on PBNs back in 2014, and continues to remain vigilant in handing out manual penalties for suspected offenders. The specific violation cited by these manual actions was typically “thin content.” Some SEO professionals reported traffic drops of up to 90 percent over the course of a single weekend, and were never able to recover using the same tactics as before.
If you decide to use PBNs, you need to be prepared for this possibility.
There are several ways to guard yourself from penalty, of course. For the most part, Google brings the penalty down on sites that clearly seem related to each other. It often detects this by noting the link relationships between domains, or by noting the public owners of each domain; domains that tightly interlink with each other and are owned by the same person are frequently the target of penalty.
You can fight back in a few important ways:
There’s also a potential ROI problem with PBNs.
Let’s consider the time and monetary costs of establishing a PBN from scratch. For starters, each new site is going to need a new domain, which you can buy using a domain registrar like GoDaddy or a domain auction site like NameJet. If you’re a good bargain hunter, you might be able to find a domain with potential for as little as $40. But if you want a domain with an existing domain authority footprint, or one with lots of potential, you could pay $500 or more.
Let’s be conservative and estimate $150 for the domain. You’ll also have to pay for hosting, for private Whois information (so the relationship between your websites isn’t as obvious), and for development and content. You could try to design, develop, and create content for the website entirely by yourself, but here, you’re only trading time for money. Either you’ll have to pay several hundred dollars for each site in your network, or you’ll have to invest several dozen hours of time.
Neither of these options is pleasant.
Of course, SEO can be a pricey strategy—and you’ll need to be prepared to spend money to make money, but the long-term return of a PBN isn’t attractive enough to warrant the initial investment in most cases.
One of the major sticking points is that subsequent links on the same domain yield diminishing returns for your authority. In other words, you’ll get one powerful link from each new node in your network, and after that, the benefits trail off.
If a secondary website (a node) gets lots of traffic, you can use nofollow links to generate traffic for your primary domain—but even then, the amount of effort it would take to build traffic for the secondary site could be spent on your primary site instead, increasing your total return.
On top of that, most PBNs rely on a sizable network of different sites, so you’ll be multiplying the costs for each new development. And that’s not even considering the possibility that all your hard work will be undone by a manual Google penalty.
There are two main ways you can make up for the ROI problem, and possibly make the strategy worth it:
Right now, you might be thinking of ways you can spin PBNs to your favor. If you have $5,000 to invest in PBNs, how can you spend that money in a way that gets you a positive return?
If I were to make a blanket suggestion, I’d tell you to spend that $5,000 on more sustainable strategies.
Instead of buying and developing content for a new domain, you can invest more heavily in high-quality content for your primary domain. Instead of worrying about whether Google is going to shut your network down, you can build long-term relationships with external publishers, where you can publish new guest posts regularly.
Overall, PBNs are nowhere near as effective or as reliable as standard, sustainable SEO practices—and you’ll probably end up paying less for an SEO service anyway.
Now that we’ve trashed PBNs a little bit, let’s take a step back. The key takeaway shouldn’t be that PBNs are exclusively black hat, time-wasting, expensive options; instead, it should be that PBNs are notoriously difficult to implement in a way that yields a positive ROI—and not all businesses will benefit from one.
If you’re able to manage a PBN in a sustainable, valuable way, you’ll enjoy several benefits, including:
Investors and financial experts caution you to “diversify your portfolio.” The basic idea is that you should be investing in a wide range of different assets; that way, if one type of asset crashes or starts performing poorly, you won’t be hit as hard. You’ll be shielded from the risks of any one asset, since all your other assets can support you.
It’s good to think about link building the same way. If you invest too heavily in any single link building strategy—even the safest ones—it could compromise your ultimate results. If you’re hit with a penalty, or if you’re not able to grow, you’ll be stuck.
Accordingly, I can see using a PBN as one element in a broader portfolio of link building tactics. Integrating natural link earning, regular guest authorship, link outreach, and just a splash of a PBN could give you exactly the combination of tactics you need to grow consistently and well within “white hat” territory.
I also want to explore a strategy similar to PBNs that can give you more powerful, more sustainable results. It all stems from the use of expiring or expired domains.
We’ve written a comprehensive guide on purchasing domains for SEO, so I won’t repeat myself here.
Expiring domains (and sometimes domains that have already expired) can be extremely valuable for SEO because they already have authority; you don’t have to wait months and invest lots of time and money into establishing that baseline value. Think of it as a developmental shortcut. You can use these as part of your PBN network to cut down on costs, though keep in mind the prices of high-authority domains tend to be higher than entirely new ones.
Perhaps even more valuably, you could use these expiring domains as part of a broken link replacement strategy. Here’s the idea.
After buying an expiring domain with ample authority, you’ll be able to use a backlink analysis tool to see the dozens, or even hundreds of links that point to a site that is (or will soon be) dead. In other words, there are dozens to hundreds of broken links that need to be replaced.
Reach out to the domain owners of these websites and notify them of their broken links. You can then offer your own onsite content, assuming it’s similar in nature, as a replacement. If you don’t have an onsite article that fits, you may be able to rework the content from the expiring domain. It’s a variation of link outreach that functions as a win-win for you and the domain owner with broken links.
In a straightforward PBN, you’ll be using one site to pass secondary authority to your primary domain; the link juice from other sites gets filtered through the node and passed to your main website. But with this strategy, you’ll be capitalizing on a more diverse network of external publishers, getting links directly from them to fuel your primary domain. It’s also 100 percent white hat, so you’ll bear almost no risk of manual action from Google (unless something changes in their terms of service in the future).
Keep in mind that for this to work, the industry or topical focus of your domain acquisitions should be closely related to your primary, existing domain. You’ll probably be doing this for any kind of PBN-related strategy, regardless.
You might have skipped ahead to this section to get a bottom-line summary of whether or not PBNs are a worthwhile strategy for SEO. This topic is a nuanced one, so it pays to learn more about the individual components, but for the average optimizer, PBNs simply aren’t worth the time or money. Your efforts are better spent on more sustainable strategies, like content development, publisher relationship development, and link outreach.
That said, you can use elements of PBNs, or use them in moderation to enhance your campaign—as long as you’re careful, and as long as you’re creating high-quality content in the process.
If you’re interested in learning more about our SEO services, or if you’re ready to improve your existing SEO campaign, reach out to us at SEO.co today! We’ll provide you with a free consultation on your link building efforts, and help you figure out where to go next.