Private Blog Networks (PBN): The Myths and the Risks

James Brockbank

Nov 12, 202011 min read
Private Blog Networks

If you want to increase your website's organic traffic, you can't ignore the importance of link building. Google confirmed back in 2016 that backlinks are one of the top three ranking factors, alongside content and RankBrain. 

Building links is a powerful SEO tactic, and the right links can supercharge your rankings and organic visibility. However, earning backlinks isn't easy. At least it's not when you use tactics that don't violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

Some SEOs choose to use tactics against these guidelines to accelerate their website's organic growth, including using private blog networks (PBNs).

In this guide, we're going to dive deep into this controversial link building tactic and address some of the common myths surrounding it, specifically looking at:

What are Private Blog Networks?

A private blog network (PBN) is a network of websites that place a high quantity of links to another website. These link networks consist of low-quality links designed to manipulate search engine rankings.

SEOs who choose to use PBNs to build links typically use this tactic as a way to be in "full control" of their link building efforts. Other white hat link building tactics such as digital PR, broken link building, or resource link building involve third parties editorially placing links, and SEOs or webmasters can't always "control" where those links are coming from. 

For this reason, PBNs are often built using expired domains. These expired domains used to have a site that had earned links and had built up some level of authority in the eyes of the search engines. These expired domains are purchased and turned into a site that's part of a private blog network, usually having new content added so that it's outbound links pass PageRank.

Black hat SEOs who use this tactic tend to go to great lengths to prevent Google from identifying that their sites are part of a network or finding any footprint between them, including:

  • Hosting with different hosting providers
  • Registering the domains with different registrars
  • Using different domain extensions
  • Using different themes or layouts
  • Creating content that doesn't link out to money sites in an attempt to disguise posts that do

While PBN sites are often talked about as being part of a network, the intention is that they appear to be independent sites. 

Just think about it this way... rather than earning links, owning a private blog network would mean you could place links to your site(s), with the exact anchor text that you want to use whenever you want, and to whichever page needs boosting.

All this sounds great, right? Wrong. PBNs are a clear violation of Google's Webmaster Quality Guidelines and can result in your site being penalized. For this reason, it's not a tactic that we'd condone or recommend.

PBNs Violate Google's Webmaster Quality Guidelines

Using PBNs isn't a recommended link building tactic. If we take a look at Google's Link Scheme guidelines, we can see that:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.

Private blog networks clearly fall within this, as the links that come from such sites are intended to manipulate Google search results (these links aren't earned, rather placed by someone acting on behalf of the site).

The main issue is that PBNs are used as a way to 'cheat the system.' If we continue reading these guidelines, we see that:

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.

PBN links aren't editorial links that are placed as the result of great content. They are just a way to artificially impact search rankings, and it's not something that will work in the longterm. 

The Risks Associated With Private Blog Networks

So, if PBN links are a violation of Google's guidelines, what are the risks? We can break these down into two key scenarios:

1. Your Site Is Penalized/Loses Rankings

Usually, in the most significant cases where the use of manipulative link building tactics is excessive, there's a chance that your site may be penalized and hit with a manual action.

But what is this? Reading Google's guidelines on this, we can see that "Google issues a manual action against a site when a human reviewer at Google has determined that pages on the site are not compliant with Google's webmaster quality guidelines. Most manual actions address attempts to manipulate our search index. Most issues reported here will result in pages or sites being ranked lower or omitted from search results without any visual indication to the user."

In short, if your site receives a manual action, this will result in lower rankings either for specific pages or the entire site. 

In the most extreme instances, a manual action can see your whole site removed from the index. Most commonly, if links are the cause of the action, this will trigger one for 'Unnatural links to your site.' You can learn more about this in Google's video below:

Youtube video thumbnail

To recover from a manual action, you'll need to fix the issue (remove links or submit a disavow file) and file a  reconsideration request

Even if this is successful, it's unlikely that your rankings will return to their previous position, given that unnatural links artificially propped them up.

Unnatural links can also trigger an algorithmic adjustment, where the algorithm detects that links should not contribute towards a site's rankings. In most instances, especially in 2020, it is more than likely that the links are being ignored by the algorithm rather than directly resulting in an algorithmic adjustment.

Previously, Google's Penguin filter refreshed periodically and contributed to sites losing rankings as a result of unnatural links. As of Penguin 4.0, this is now part of the core algorithm.

For most SEOs who are using private blog networks, the reality is that links deemed to be unnatural by the Google algorithm are likely to be ignored, rather than trigger a manual action. 

Nowadays, manual actions are usually only seen when there is excessive use of manipulative tactics that trigger a review of a site by Google's web spam team. But what does it really mean if Google ignores links pointing to your site?

In short, it means they're having absolutely no impact on rankings. Google's John Mueller has previously confirmed that they ignore links that are unlikely to be natural. And let's not forget that Google now has the data from large numbers of disavow files. For many years now, SEOs have been helping the search engine better understand the sources of unnatural links.

If a link isn't impacting rankings, either positively or negatively, resources allocated to building these (time and/or money) are effectively wasted. No one wants to realize that their efforts are going to waste. 

Why Do Some SEOs Still Use Private Blog Networks?

You're probably wondering why some SEOs still use private blog networks as a way to build links, given the risks associated with this tactic. It can be broken down to two reasons:

1. Earning Links Is Difficult and Unpredictable

Earning quality links is difficult. It takes time, and the results aren't guaranteed.

Those tactics that result in quality and authoritative links are typically earned using email outreach in conjunction with digital PR, broken link building, link reclamation, resource link building, or other similar techniques.

In short, the one thing these tactics all have in common is that they involve reaching out to relevant journalists or webmasters and trying to convince them to link to your content. These tactics are all about raising awareness of a piece of content and hoping that the recipient likes it enough to link to it from new or existing content. 

But this in itself means that the results are unpredictable. Even the best efforts can't guarantee to return a set number of links per month or quarter. Using a PBN, on the other hand, means there's more control to be had in regards to reduction in the uncertainty.

2. A Desire To Control and Manipulate Anchor Text

Step back 10 years, and most SEOs were building exact match anchor text links. 

You see, the anchor text of a link is used as an indication of the topic of the target page, and SEOs figured that the algorithm could be manipulated in this way.

In many ways, the Penguin algorithm put a stop to this, but there are still SEOs who want to control the anchor text of their link profile. Earn links editorially, and you'll find that journalists and webmasters naturally link with anchor texts such as:

  • Click here
  • an article's title 
  • a naked URL
  • a business name

It's much less likely that a keyword you're targeting is the anchor text. Such as those given as an example in Google's Link Schemes guide:

exact match anchor text

Private blog networks allow control to be had over the anchor text used, with some using this to further manipulate rankings. 

Debunking The Myths Around PBNs

Despite the risks associated, there's still a lot of confusion around PBNs, with it often being a hot topic discussion among the SEO community. Below, we debunk five common PBN myths.

While links from a private blog network violate Google's Webmaster Quality Guidelines, this doesn't necessarily mean that they won't help you to rank. Actually, there's a chance that they will help you to increase your site's rankings... but this is likely only temporarily.

Building links using a PBN is risky, and in the worst-case scenario, your rankings will drop. But let's not forget that many factors are taken into account to determine the weight of a link.

It's more a case that these links won't help you to rank in the long term.

They may artificially increase your rankings for a time. However, as soon as the algorithm (or a manual reviewer) detects unnatural activity, it's likely that you'll see a decline in your site's visibility.

2. Google Can Easily Identify Private Blog Networks

There are several ways that Google can identify private blog networks; however, the algorithm is primarily looking for footprints across sites that may belong to a group of sites.

In some cases, badly put together networks are easy to spot based on things like a shared IP address, duplicate content, or the same domain owner. Although, SEOs who are building private blog networks are fully aware of what can create a footprint and work to prevent this as much as possible. 

However, one of the often forgotten footprints is when a group of sites all link out to the same domain(s). When we're talking about identifying unnatural links, this is often a key indicator. When a group of links are largely using commercial anchor texts, and they come from relatively thin or topically irrelevant content, it becomes easier to identify them as part of a PBN.

It's easy to confuse paid links and private blog networks as the same, but they're not.

We work in a world where many bloggers openly sell links or sponsored posts, but that doesn't mean that these are PBN sites. Many 'link sellers' are selling links on private blog networks, and some of the services that are often marked as 'guest posts' sometimes end up being this type of link.

That said, all paid links should be marked either with a rel="nofollow" or rel="sponsored" attribute, regardless of the source. Just because they are sponsored or paid links doesn't necessarily mean that they come from a PBN. 

4. There's A Difference Between Public Blog Networks and Private Blog Networks

While the concept remains the same, you might hear both 'private blog networks' and 'public blog networks' discussed. These are both groups of sites used primarily to place links on, but there's one key difference.

A true private blog network is just that; it's private. Often well disguised by the owner with little in terms of a footprint. These links won't be sold and are used for the owner's own sites. 

On the other hand, if links are sold (we've all received lists of sites with a price list attached on LinkedIn or by email without asking for them) openly, these aren't private at all. They're public blog networks.

However, the key takeaway is that the risk associated with public blog networks is even greater than private blog networks.

It's not uncommon for a business to own more than one website and link to one another. These aren't, for the most part, unnatural, and these don't form a PBN.

Many companies run more than one website, and it's only natural to want to ensure that visitors discover your other websites. Often, these links are placed in the footer.

There's no need to be concerned about this or any need to stop linking between your properties, as long as it's natural and not done in a manipulative way. Just don't go using optimized anchor text for these links. A group of sites only becomes a private blog network when the primary purpose is for building links, and multiple sites owned by a business isn't that. 

If you believe that your site has links from a PBN or other low-quality sources for that matter, it's good practice to spend time cleaning these up.

First things first, you'll want to identify any unnatural link, and you can do so using the SEMrush Backlink Audit Tool. 

Specifically, you can select specific toxic markers to analyze your site's link profile against, including ones that typically signal a link network.

SEMrush Link Network Audit

However, it makes sense to audit your link profile based on wider markers, too, including those deemed to be manipulative or from a harmful environment. You can use our guide on backlink analysis to learn more about backlink auditing and how to identify toxic links.

Then, you need to clean up links deemed to be low quality, harmful, or from private blog networks, either through link removal or by adding the links to a disavow file. 

Overall, using private blog networks isn't a link building tactic that we recommend or endorse. 

You should be using techniques to earn links editorially that position your brand as leaders in your space, come from sites that your audience is reading, and also send referral traffic. The risks that come with using PBNs aren't worth taking.

Author Photo
James is Managing Director of award-winning digital PR and SEO agency, Digitaloft, and has been involved in search marketing since the mid-2000s. He‘s a regular writer on topics including link building, content marketing and ecommerce, having previously contributed to the likes of Search Engine Journal.