The question consistently comes up and many feel as if they know the answer… “Do PBNs still work?” Didn’t PBNs die years ago over a million algorithm updates? Some SEOs say it’s black hat. Some say it’s only good for “churn and burn SEO” and some swear by it. So what is the real deal with Private Blog Networks in modern SEO?
What is a PBN
A PBN or Private Blog Network is a series of websites built for the purpose of linking to other websites in an effort to increase a websites rankings on search engines like Google. These networks of websites strategically duplicate natural backlinks as an off-page SEO strategy. PBNs became known as black hat SEO and could be dangerous if incorrectly implemented.
History of PBNs
Scores ago, people that fancied themselves as SEOs, understood that the backlinks that pointed to your website moved the needle in Google’s rankings. We are not going into the technical details here on how or why, just the 10,000 foot view. Once SEO gurus knew that they could create backlinks and it would directly affect their rankings on Google, they started building tons of new websites whose only purpose was to link to their “money page”.
Back in the day, an underground group of people calling themselves SEOs started finding expired domains, with existing backlinks and building those sites out to strategically send out backlinks. Some digital marketers simply redirected these domains to their website. Some SEO experts would build out mulitple tiers of websites or link wheels and other more elaborate link schemes.
Next came scraping, spinning and auto posting. As technology advanced, systems would scrape the internet, “spin” that content and automatically post it to a blog, social media account or Web 2.0. This flooded the web with sentences that obviously should have had the word “home” in it, but was written as “abode”. Depending on how many times the content was spun, it would get worse and worse.
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With Google’s goal of providing the best results for a specific query from a particular person, they didn’t take kindly to being gamed. Google started looking at the relationship between backlinks (to find the link networks) and gave more credence to “authority” of the referring domain/page.
It is important to remember that Google want’s to please their “customer”. Who is Google’s customer? Well, one could say it’s the people paying for Google Ads. Truth is, their customer is the person doing the search. If someone makes a search query and gets unhelpful results, they won’t come back to Google and their ads are not seen.
Google has done a lot of crappy things like use resources to remove the “don’t be evil” wording from their official charter. But one thing they did well was outperform everyone else in the search industry. Some may argue they simply assimilated any competition, but that’s a different conversation. Either way, they want to please the person doing the search. They don’t want their SERPs (search engine result pages) to be gamed by some kid in his garage.
Google went on a rampage to stamp out SEO’s from gaming the system with their PBNs. There were massive Google algorithm updates that whipped out thousands (maybe millions) of private blog networks that were built to only boost rankings and not truly add anything to the internet. Lord help you if all of your sites were on one hosting or all in one name.
Anything that stood out from the scraping of the site, such as the same theme, the same plugins or email address was considered a “footprint” in the SEO world. The fewer footprints you had, the safer your PBN network was. The SEO’s fought back by spreading their domains over multiple hosting accounts, creating personas and domain based email addresses for every site and using VPNs to access everything as to not create footprints.
Footprints were also things like the same set of domains linking to the same websites or the same social media accounts posting content from the same domains and of course, interlinking between PBNs.
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How Indexing is Involved
In the past, we have looked at an indexed URL to generally be of decent quality. At least if it stayed indexed. As a general rule, crap content gets deindexed from Big G which is constantly pruning the system. I believe they have divided up how the “index” works (more than we know). It’s no longer, and hasn’t been for a long time, a system where every indexed link is a positive or negative vote for the quality of your website. They have divided the index into at least two (most likely many more) levels of indexing.
Google has said for years that it “ignores” spammy links. They have all but done away with using a disavow file and adamantly states that you don’t need to create a disavow file unless extreme circumstances exist. If they play no part as a ranking factor, why keep them indexed at all? Because they stay indexed to keep them up so other SPAMY sites have the opportunity to link to them — showing their cards right to Big G. No one doing black hat SEO would spend the resources to link to a non indexed page/domain.
Old school PBN still exists.
Old School PBNs are spammy websites that may not even have a static homepage and are flooded with keyword rich content. Some of the blogs may sound like the writer is having a stroke, since it may be spun content and the pictures may not be relevant. Although these still get used, they no longer work for long term search engine optimization. These are generally only used for “churn and burn” style of SEO.
Chat GPT and PBNs
With the influx of ChatGPT and other LLMs creating content at will, PBNs could potentially explode. There are already many systems being sold that leverages AI to populate websites with automated content. What is different from old school “spinning” is the content is substantially better with AI. At best, spun content read funny at worst is was absolutely nonsensical.
Although the content is better, there are still telltale signs that the content was not written by a human. Terms such as: vibrant, diverse, hey there, picturesque and “picture this” show up at an unusual clip. Without human intervention, ChatGPT is easily picked out. Although AI is constantly improving, so is AIs ability to sense AI content.
I can readily identify any content that hasn’t been significantly altered by human intervention; it’s immediately apparent to me when something has been written by AI.
As an example…AI wrote the above statement 🙂
It was not unforeseen that large players in the PBN world are not integrating AI into their systems. With the recent upgrades to ChatGPT they can write the post, create the image(s) and post it to a particular domain. Read our article on Should You Use AI on your website.
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A Network Empire vs Private Blog Network
There was a time when Google wouldn’t give you any link credit if those links were obviously owned by you. You might even be penalized if. Meaning if most of your backlinks were coming off the same IP or even same C – Class IP, you looked like a PBN.
Google eventually stopped penalizing the site being linked to and just deindexed the referring domains (the private blog networks). Today, they do not care. They now simply care if you create quality content that brings something fresh to the internet. You can own Zillow and Trulia and link between yourselves and grow, as long as the content brings something new to the internet and isn’t written for SEO.
So do PBNs still work for SEO?
As is the answer to many questions about SEO… It Depends. Old school PBNs that are having automatically generated content (even if it’s good AI content) may see a bump in the rankings but will eventually fall off. This is still used for Black Friday sales, churn and burn and other unscrupulous campaigns that only are anticipated to run for a short period of time.
But what if you own multiple websites that produce REAL content? Google doesn’t care if you own two hotel chains, produce quality, ranking content and happen to link between themselves. It’s important to explain that the more backlinks from a domain the less they count with Google.
If you can create multiple websites on topically relevant domains, each with their own value proposition, unique and fresh content…you have a definitive advantage. You can control the pages linked to, the link velocity, the anchor text and more. Domain stacking strategies where high authority links point to Tier 1 backlinks of your money pages still work. The key is the quality of the content.
You NEED to have quality backlinks if you expect to rank well in a competitive vertical. Many digital marketers believe in “write it and they will come”. Which is no active backlink acquisition strategy other than create quality content. That’s a lonely place to be 🙂
Other options for acquiring backlinks include HARO (help a reporter out), outreach, citations, niche edits, guest posts and a bunch others.
Creating a ton of great content for multiple sites is not easy or cheap, it still does move the needle in the SERPs. I would still recomend having multiple hosting accounts (preferably one per domain) and pay very close attention to your interlinking as I’m sure some link schemes are still red flags.
Although great content PBNs can be an effective tool they should still be intertwined in a larger strategy for the best results in the most competitive niches.
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