If you’ve been in search engine optimization (SEO) for any time, you’ve likely heard the term PBN or Private Blog Network. It is a murky term used variably by different people in the industry, but the overall consensus is essentially the same.
This article will discuss what PBNs are, why people use them, the tell-tale signs of a PBN, and why you should avoid them. After which, you should have a strong understanding of everything you need to know about PBNs, and how to use a more effective and long-lasting link-building strategy.
PBN (private blog network) is a term used to describe a particular black-hat type of website (or group of websites), built purely to place links on with no regard for human readers.
PBNs are low-quality websites that exist for one purpose only. That purpose is to have Google and other search engines crawl the website and pick up on the external links pointing to other websites. These external links count as ‘votes’, which generally help websites gain more organic keywords and higher rankings.
Google doesn’t look too kindly on any black-hat link-building tactic, but PBNs are exceptionally high up on their naughty list and should be avoided, if possible in favor of a more natural approach like blogger outreach.
Link building is an essential part of SEO, and Google tells us that it’s one of the top three ranking factors they consider.
Therefore, anyone who is serious about ranking their website in organic search knows that obtaining backlinks is an integral part of their SEO strategy. However, getting authoritative links is very difficult and takes a LOT of work. Private blog networks are a quick shortcut for blackhat webmasters with a higher risk tolerance to achieve the links they need.
PBNs are an alternative to creating quality content and letting links come in naturally (or using an outreach provider like OutreachPete to land links from authentic publications). It is also an easier way for people to control the anchor text of links than working with third party webmasters who have editorial control.
A typical PBN will have a lot of tell-tale signs that allow someone with basic SEO experience to spot them and avoid engaging in any link building activity with them.
One tell-tale sign of a private blog network website is poor site design and minimal effort when putting together the theme.
Why? Because these sites are not built for human eyes, they are simply there to trick Google. And so lazy blackhat SEOs often leave a default WordPress theme in place when building a PBN.
If they go one step further and use a custom theme, check for other signs of neglect or lack of setup, such as social media icons leading nowhere, or contact forms not working/submitting.
If you use a tool to check other websites hosted on the same IP address and find a lot of other spammy blogs, it requires further investigation.
It could simply be shared hosting which is a natural occurrence for someone wanting to save a buck on hosting costs. However, it could also be someone hosting multiple sites on one server they own, which you should avoid as you want to work with unique sites with real independent owners behind them.
If you find many similar blogs on the same IP address (same theme, same contact details, similar content patterns, they might even link to each other), then it’s almost certainly a PBN and should be avoided.
When you look at a PBN domain under the microscope of an SEO link analysis tool like Ahrefs or SEMrush, you will often find that they have strong domain metrics but no actual traffic and few/no ranked keywords.
This is because the website owner doesn’t care about putting together well-crafted content aimed at pulling in and helping readers. They are simply putting content live that loosely relates to the website’s theme (or sometimes doesn’t) just to send a “topical” link to a target website.
This sort of setup might have helped push the needle in the past, but Google is now wise to websites with strong link profiles but no real-life purpose.
Therefore, make sure that any websites you receive links from have a healthy amount of organic traffic coming in. This undoubtedly shows that Google also values the website and will pass on link juice to your domain.
When you perform a WHOIS search on a domain name, you can reveal a lot of information about the domain ownership, such as – the registered owner, their email address, and which domain registrar they own it under, such as Namecheap or Godaddy.
If someone has used a service to obscure their identity (which is a paid upgrade from domain registrars), it could be that they are running multiple sites under their control to build a PBN to create backlinks.
Although there are hundreds of reasons someone would want to protect their data from being shown in a WHOIS result, the main one is privacy. So, it’s not anywhere near a definite sign by itself that a website is a PBN.
Sometimes people buy up off-topic aged domains/websites to try and repurpose them purely to harvest their link equity. If you see a website like this or receive a link from a website like this, you should question it immediately and investigate if it’s a PBN.
An example would be if you find a domain such as cute-pets-today.com (not an actual website) hosting dozens of articles on car accident lawyers and linking out to injury claim specialists. And the overall content/theme of the website has nothing to do with pets at all – this is likely a repurposed domain being used for PBN purposes.
Google can simply ignore the links on PBN websites if they deem them unnatural, meaning your time and/or money has been wasted. Although this won’t mean your site has an active penalty, it could sometimes feel like one if the PBN links had given you a boost for a short while before Google decided to ignore them.
It also means that anyone looking at your backlink profile through a link audit tool will see all these low-quality links, with no idea of whether Google is counting them or not. This can mean any audits you do (or have done) will be inaccurate due to the presence of these low-quality links.
In more aggressive cases, the PBNs can result in an active manual penalty from Google, which would appear in Search Console, and require a complete fix-job and reconsideration request to reverse.
For more information on manual Google penalties, check out this guide.
With your new knowledge about how to spot a PBN, you will now want to know how you can protect your website from these potentially toxic links.
Like with medical advice, the best cure is prevention. If you’re using a link building provider then make sure you ask for examples of websites they have worked with in the past so you can vet them.
Good link builders should also be happy to give you pre-approval of a website before anything goes live (something we offer for free here at OutreachPete).
Don’t be afraid to directly ask a link-building provider/agency if they work with PBNs, this will show that you’re a savvy client and they can’t pull any cheap tricks on you.
However, should a potentially toxic PBN link make it through, the best thing to do is use Google’s disavow tool. This advanced tool allows you to tell Google to ignore any links from a web page or domain, meaning it absolutely won’t count towards your link profile.
This might be a good move to avoid a manual Google penalty as a preventative step. Although manual penalties are rare these days and the tool should only be used by those who know what they’re doing.
When building links that will add value and stand the test of time, you (or your agency) need to put in the work. There are no shortcuts.
The surest way to build links is by creating truly awesome content pages or having a truly awesome business if you’re in the provision of products/services. You need to have something that people actually want to link to.
Of course, it’s not a perfect world. Even the best content is going to need to be discovered somehow. So, you need to find a way to amplify that content and get it in front of the right people who will find it useful.
You could do this in the following ways:
Most of these efforts are attempting to indirectly get you links through general exposure to the right audience. However, targeted outreach has the highest success rate to gaining links and is also the most cost-effective overall.