Of all the many and varied link schemes across the history of the Internet, none is so close to, and yet so far from, a legitimate strategy as the private blog network. What is a PBN, how does one work and how can you tell if a blog is part of one?
A private blog network is a network of blogs all owned by one person or a small group of people working together. These blogs can run from autoblog-style low quality drivel to high-quality, high PageRank sites with valuable content. They all work together to point value at other sites owned by the owner of the PBN.
This is, in a sense, a black hat link scheme. The reason is because all of the blogs are used by the same person to promote one site, similar to how a link pyramid or link wheel directs power to a single money site. The other reason is because PBNs are often used to game the search results, giving link juice to a target blog that wasn’t earned legitimately.
There’s a very thin line between a high quality PBN and a legitimate network of blogs working together. After all, if you and three friends each own three blogs, those twelve blogs have reason to support each other and aren’t really attempting to game the system. It’s only when the quality of those blogs drops that the technique becomes more firmly black hat.
The key to running a long-lived and successful private blog network is the first word; private. The fact that the blogs are owned by the same person and are all used to promote a target site is necessarily going to be kept secret. The blogs can’t all have the same WHOIS information, the same IP addresses, the same content, layout or anything else. The more diverse and robust the blogs, the easier it is to get away with running a PBN.
Generally, the way a PBN comes to life is from an expired domain auction. The webmaster will swoop in and buy domains that have expired, typically for a low fee. These domains are typically free of link penalties and have a history of being cared for by their previous owners. Why was the site abandoned and the domain put up for sale? The world may never know. The fact is, the PBN owner buys it while it’s still fresh and the existing PageRank hasn’t dissipated.
Typically, the PBN owner will acquire as many of these domains as necessary and sets up a quick block on each one. Again, the web host, IP address and other configuration options need to be different enough that you can’t tell, at a glance, that they’re owned by the same person.
Each blog is populated with some content, taking advantage of incoming links whenever possible. Low quality PBNs throw up a half-dozen articles in the first day and leave it at that. High-quality PBNs take longer to create more original content. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to identify incoming links and use those URLs to create new posts in the vein of whatever old post was there, to maintain more SEO power.
These blogs will all then link to the target site, in various ways, with various anchor text. This is where the black hat scheme comes in. What’s happening is essentially pirating the domain authority and SEO power of a site that no longer exists, and using that to funnel as much value to a monetized site as possible before things are discovered and collapse.
Done properly, a PBN is virtually undetectable. However, all it takes is a single slip to put the blip on Google’s radar and cause the whole thing to disappear, often over night.
As mentioned, done properly, it’s difficult or impossible to detect a PBN. However, there are a few signs you can look for if you’re concerned.
• Hosting. Investigate the host of the blogs in question and see if it’s the same. You can use tools like BuiltWith to see if the sites were all created on the same framework or host.
• Domains. The key to a successful – and fast – PBN is buying expired domains. Check into the history of the domain and see when the site was released in its current form. Check if the sites were all redesigned in the same week. You can use the Wayback Machine for these kinds of lookups.
• WHOIS. The WHOIS database is the contact information for the owner of the sites. Having hidden WHOIS data is a red flag. If all of the site owners are the same, it’s obvious the blogs are connected.
• Content. This is a big one; how much content is there on the site? More importantly, how much content is there on the sites linking to that site? The sites in the PBN often have very few posts. The money site will typically have more.
• Backlink Profile. Run the site through a public backlink scan, like Ahrefs. If the PBN owner bought the domain, it will very likely have a large number of broken links. The PBN owner doesn’t have the desire to fill all possible previous pages with content; it’s more work than it’s worth.
• Images and Videos. Multimedia content is harder to create uniquely than textual content. If the site uses nothing but stock images, or shares images between multiple sites, it’s possible they’re part of a PBN. This is even more obvious with video.
In essence, the more two sites have in common, the more likely it is they’re part of some low-effort PBN. On the other hand, a site that has avoided all of the common pitfalls is going to escape the notice of the Google anti-spam bots, and is thus that much harder to detect. PBNs are largely a relic of the past, today. Running one well enough to not get caught is an investment above and beyond what most people want to make.