What are PBNs and should you use them in your SEO strategy?
PBNs, for Private Blog Networks, are still an SEO strategy used by many SEOs and web agencies today. However, their use is controversial because it’s considered a high-risk practice. Google's algorithms are in fact becoming more and more powerful, and would now be able to detect those kinds of website networks. What are they really? Do PBNs still have a future? What are the different criteria for a good PBN? Let’s take stock!
What are Private Blog Networks, and what is their purpose?
A PBN is a website network set up most of the time by an SEO professional or a web agency. It’s intended to improve a money making website’s ranking on Google and other search engine results. Its purpose is quite simple to understand. The PBN aims to build fake popularity through websites whose theme is similar to the one of the money making websites. For this, the network’s websites are supplied with more or less qualitative articles, and send backlinks to each other or to the money making site. This creates a "cocoon" of sites that cover the same topic, suggesting to Google to visit the money making site.
Origin and Categories of PBNs
PBNs are almost as old as SEO. They draw their origin from a simple observation: Google ranks better popular websites that receive backlinks. In the past, backlinks’ quality was not a big deal, but today it is of the utmost importance.
Low in content PBN
This first type of PBN is still quite common. Nevertheless, it’s the one that is the most easily spotted. These generally focus on the website's quantity rather than their content’s quality. Then, we can observe private website networks of several hundred websites, generated automatically and which sometimes contain only one page with highly optimized text. Used by Black Hat SEOsthis technique has the advantage of pushing a website to Google’s top results very quickly. However, that particular website will come down almost as quickly as it went up! And for good reason: what could be easier for Google to track down than websites with poor content, never or hardly ever updated? This pseudo-SEO strategy is window dressing only aimed at quickly showing results to often impatient advertisers. It’s not in any way a sustainable strategy aiming to rank a website in search engines' first results.
Content-rich PBNs are the closest to true SEO as defined in Google's guidelines. Indeed, the network’s websites are built and fed to please users above all. They offer quality content, which responds to real issues. In other words, a user who stumbles upon a website on the network will not take it as a "spammy" website, but as a "real" website. The result is a low bounce rate, growing interest, increased traffic, and even some virality on social networks. SEOs who use this type of PBN often use news websites.The "hot" news indeed makes it possible to publish content very regularly, and to keep the Internet user coming back regularly.
What's more, this type of website can appear on Google News, which is a major advantage in terms of visibility. Other types of websites built into a content-rich PBN: forums and other community sites. Their main advantage is that they are self-sustaining through member content. With a community manager’s help, these websites can even be used to “solicit” on social media. At this point, you may be wondering why communicating on network websites rather than on the money making website? The reason is quite simple: by making network websites popular, you greatly increase the strength of the links they send. Thus, the money making website benefits directly from their popularity while passing under Google’s radar.
Do PBNs have a future?
It’s difficult to come up with a 100% reliable and universal answer. Indeed, in SEO, what is valid today may not be valid tomorrow. One thing is certain, PBNs with poor content have no future. For several years, they have been in the sight of Google, which has already shown that they have lost a lot of their power. However, well-constructed website networks, which have a moderate number of websites, and that have a real interest for users, should still have a bright future ahead of them. As Google prioritizes user experience, how could it decently penalize a website that provides relevant answers to its users? In addition to that, if the network is technically well built (different hosts, different IPs, different CMS, etc.), it will be very difficult for the robots to understand that the websites belong to the same entity. Be careful, we are not saying that this is impossible and will never happen, but today in 2020 it is.
NB: PBNs will not be able to completely disappear, because for certain very specialized niche sectors, they remain the one and only way to acquire backlinks.
How to create networks websites?
The first step in creating a websites network is to purchase domain names and a subscription from a web host. It’s possible to start from scratch for each site or to pool costs. A clean and efficient PBN is generally based on expired domain names, which are already receiving quality backlinks, and hosted by different providers and/or on dedicated servers.
How do I find expired domain names?
Many expired domain name buyout websites have flourished in recent years. They are not intended only for PBNs, and can simply be picked up by a website builder who does not necessarily have a clear idea of the NDD (domain name) they would like. This helps him/her not to start from scratch in terms of backlinks.
Among the most popular domain name buyout websites in France: YoudotSeoh, Amen, Domstocks, Kidom. These websites auction various domain names that are expired or about to be. The number of bids depends on the websites’ metrics: Trust Flow, Domain Authority, etc. This helps us to assess the domain and its link profile quality.
Use a PBN for whom, for what?
To improve our own website's position
You are an individual or a professional and want to reach the top positions on Google. You’ve already worked on on-site optimization (performance, content quality, internal networking, etc.), and you are now lacking quality “juice”. Then, you can go for a content-rich PBN that could help you grab the few coveted spots. Nevertheless, this technique requires a certain budget, because it’s costly in time and human resources. If you're in a rush and haven't read our paragraph on PBNs with poor content, then you can automate the process and see the results. But beware, getting out of an algorithmic or manual penalty of that level is far from easy, even for the best SEOs.
For customers who are aware of the risks
Some SEO agencies and professionals offer both types of PBNs with a clear benefit/risk balance. Then, it’s up to the customer to decide what they prefer. However, we remain convinced that an SEO professional’s job is also to offer long-lasting and the least risky solutions. Our clients sometimes have no notion of organic ranking. So, it may be far too risky to go for the low-content PNB’s “fast and efficient” solution. If you ignore penalties’ consequences, and how algorithms work, you run the risk of losing money by having to make up for everything!
For unscrupulous SEOs
Some SEOs clearly hide their strategies’ risks from their clients. This is a very questionable tactic as some clients generate the majority of their business through their website! Some SEOs will say they are sufficiently experienced to attempt risky strategies, without bothering with the client's opinion. Yet, how many SEOs have ever failed facing off a major algorithm change? How many SEO supporters of once content farms had to change their tune in the space of a few days? In SEO, it’s essential to remain humble and not to think that you are stronger than the almighty Google!
The risks with Google and the penalties incurred
The penalties for bogus links are the most dreadful ones. Indeed, whereas Panda and other Hummingbird algorithms, dedicated to on-site SEO, penalize only part of a website, Penguin penalize an entire domain name. In other words, it can make a website disappear from its search engine by deindexing it (for the most severe penalties) or by downgrading it very brutally. Some websites never got over a Penguin penalty, and simply had to start from scratch with another domain name. Of course, by calling on an SEO professional, it’s possible to clean up your link profile (not without difficulty!) and recover some of your positions. But very often, it remains more profitable to put in place a clean and sustainable strategy, rather than taking big risks which could be very expensive in the end.
In the SEO sphere, PBNs have been controversial for several years. At SmartKeyword, we do not provide PBNs. Some now see them as a black hat technique, too easily detected by Google, while others continue to squeeze into the small loopholes that still exist. But it's a safe bet that Google's engineers will one day be able to plug these loopholes, with the promise of severe penalties for SEOs who have played with fire. Therefore, when it comes to netlinking, it’s better to bet on a “natural” link profile, with varied anchors, from radically different websites, whether they belong to a PBN or to third parties.