There's a lot of hype about private blog networks and how they can boost the rank of your website very effectively. Better rank = more traffic = more money right? This time around I've seen slogans like “Penguin proof SEO strategy” and “grey hat link building” aimed at assuaging your fears of breaking Google's rules.
It's a load of bullshit.
Using a private blog network is one of the most dangerous things you could do to your business, and it's going to balloon your budget as well as create a never ending time-suck. In the end, it could be the thing that destroys your business.
I can hear the shouts of link-building fanboys shouting as I type.
“But [insert SEO god] told me that he made $15,000 using a PBN!”
“I saw proof that this works in a case study from [insert niche marketing deity]”
True, I have some unique ideas on SEO and affiliate marketing. But what I also have is first hand experience with link building schemes.
Yes, using a private blog network actually destroyed my business in the original Penguin update.
Flash Back to Private Blog Networks From 2012
I started internet marketing back in June 2010, and by the spring of 2012 I was pulling in about 6k per month from a few sites in one niche. Then I discovered “link networks”.
Some people may distinguish between link networks and PBNs, but as you continue reading you'll discover that they are essentially the same thing. I use the word “link network” here to describe the fact that it was open to the public, however, some of these services were in fact called “private blog networks” back in the day.
I subscribed to 3 services – Linkvana, Linkamotion, and Build My Rank. If you've never heard of these services it's because Linkamotion went belly up after all of their sites were deindexed, Build My Rank also had their whole network deindexed and they changed names (now promoting a similar service), and well, Linkvana is still around but nobody actually uses it.
What started out as just a way to boost my rank for a few keywords, turned into a link building bonanza after I saw awesome results. Rank increased for many of my sites, and I was able to increase my income to over $10,000 per month.
Then one day in April (I still remember it clearly to this day), I saw that the money stopped rolling in. The flow of visitors came to a halt, and after a bit of investigation, to my horror, I found that Google's Penguin update had been rolled out, and I was clearly one that got hit.
In less than two months my sites were receiving 1/10th the traffic they previously had received, and my income had dropped to barely $4,000 per month, much of which was recurring commissions.
Fast Forward to 2014 For PBN Free Rankings
After about 6 months of deep depression, and then another 12 months of figuring out how to recover my sites, I finally was able to remove the majority of the bad links to my sites, and recover my income by building new ones.
Now, I do absolutely zero link building. If you are wondering about the effectiveness of this strategy, I can say that I get thousands of visitors every day to One More Cup of Coffee and was able to build a full time income from this site ALONE in about 12 months time.
Another website I started website made 12 grand in Dec 2018, and basically did no link building at all (I did buy one or two as an experiment, and they produced no quantifiable results).
So, as far as I see it, it's absolutely possible to build a successful, money-making website in one year, without any effort dedicated to building links, let alone spending time and money on private blog networks.
It's A Waste of Time & Money (When You Could Spend It Elsewhere)
Even from the minimal amount of research I've done on the current state of PBNs, it's clear to me that the process of creating one or even measuring the results is extremely convoluted.
The idea behind private blog networks is that you are trying to game the system; to trick Google into thinking that a number of separate entities are actually “voting” for your main money site as the most legitimate information on the web.
There is a significant amount of time and effort spent into preventing Google from understanding that those votes are actually YOU voting for yourself.
Essentially, this means you need to create each website as a completely separate unit from each other site. This includes separate hosting with different IPs, different CMS installation, different login names, different posting schedules, 100% unique content, and other countless SEO “voodoo” tactics aimed at preventing any red flags from getting raised.
At the end of the day, you still run the risk of getting caught. It's impossible to know exactly what type of data Google collects, but one slip up could tip Google off to your link scheme and send the whole thing crashing down.
Are you willing to put in the countless hours it takes to understand, build, and maintain this thing when you know it could backfire and destroy your business one day?
It Takes A Lot of Money To Build A Blog Network
It's time consuming enough to manage 1-2 sites, let alone 10. You are going to need a serious budget to build or participate in these exclusive networks.
All of your costs are going to be multiplied by 10x. First off, you are going to have to buy a bunch of expired domain names. You can find some on the cheap, but because of the current frenzy for high PR, established domain names with good link profiles, getting a deal is going to be tough.
To find those deals, you'll probably need some software, and even then a “cheap” domain could be a couple hundred dollars. Then buy ten of them.
So now you are paying for domain finding software as well as in-demand domain names. Now you'll need to pay hosting fees for each site. Will they all be hosted on the same host with different plans or different hosts? Cha-ching, that's money out of pocket.
After you've set have those set up, you'll have to create content for those sites on a regular basis. Posting once a week is recommended, probably 1000 words or more. That's at least 50,000 words per week for sites that are not even designed to make you money. Since you won't be writing those articles, you're going to have to pay for them.
Some guys would have you believe that you can pay a native English speaker $2-$3 for an article. While not impossible, you have to look far and wide for that kind of deal, and prepare to accept some low quality content. “Quality” simply goes out the door when you are paying someone $6 per hour to type.
$50-$100 is more like what you'll pay for a legitimately researched and written 1,000 word article. This will still probably be very “general” in nature (not written by an expert), and not include the time it takes to add images, video, links, etc. Since you probably won't want to pay that much per article, your sites will filled with low quality content that also has a chance of getting penalized, thus diminishing the value of this “vote” you created for yourself.
Will they pass Copyscape? Yeah. Will they help anyone? No. They will just clog the search engines with more spam. These articles were not meant to help people, they were created as a shill to boost the rank of your true money site. Basically, you are paying money to create fake websites.
Creating Your Own VS Subscribing To Private Blog Network Clubs
The majority of what I've talked about so far is with the idea that you'd actually create your own link network. Actually, a lot of the creators of link networks are starting to open their doors, for a cost of course, and allow others access to their “private club”. This opens a whole new set of things to consider. Things like:
- What's the quality of the content on the network?
- Will the owner maintain a decent posting schedule?
- Will popularity of a network catch Google's attention?
- Is your niche relevant to the niches + sites in the network?
I haven't signed up for one, so I'm doing a bit of guesswork here, but it seems to me that it would be hard to have a “general” niche network that would accept all types of blogs. Even if they are somewhat related, there are still a lot of unknowns. Is your weight loss website even going benefit from a link network containing blogs about investing?
I highly doubt that the owner will expose private information related to the network (though a quick search for articles you submit would give you some insight).
Since you'll be paying a hefty fee for these links (which, by the way, is also buying and selling are both clearly against Google TOS), you'd better make sure your site is converting, otherwise it's money thrown down the toilet. I don't know if these networks charge a 1 time fee or a recurring fee, and how much these fees are.
Aaaaaaand It's Still A Deceptive Link Scheme
At the end of the day, you are just trying to game the search engine ranks. At it's worst, it could be considered unethical link building, but when ethics are brought up, there's always some numpty that chimes in to say, “But..but…but… my competitors are doing it!” So I'll leave it at that this strategy is at the very least, artificially passing page rank, which is high priority on Matt Cutt's list of future animal slaps.
There's so much talk about erasing your footprint, it's clear that the guys who are promoting these link building methods know that it's against Google TOS and make their best efforts not to get caught. Is this any better than black hat marketing?
Private blog networks might work today, and they might work for another year down the road. You might be in a blog network that never gets taken down. But that's a pretty big “might”. Google is very aware of these tactics, and it's silly to think that they aren't, as you read this, thinking of a way to prevent gaming of search engines in this way.
As with most loopholes, they work for a while, grow in popularity, and then stop working. Or worse, you could become the target of an algorithmic penalty. I'd much rather invest my time, money, and effort into creating valuable brand than artificially boosting my rank to game the search results.
At one point, BMR was also “legit”. Here's a video from 2011.
True “Money Sites” VS Niche Site Experiments
Many of the people promoting PBNs are professional niche marketers, or people with an interest in niche marketing. One thing you need to consider is that their business is to see what works and what doesn't.
They have more than a few sites, and if one gets taken down or loses rank, they have other income to help them out. In fact, I would guess that their “main site”, ie the site that teaches you about niche marketing is NOT wrapped up in these networks. Most of these success stories are not income streams that the builders depend on. They use it for a case study and content ideas for their blog, or they end up selling the site to the first sucker that doesn't know any better.
The point I'm trying to make is that an algorithm update could wipe out all of their niche experiments and they would still be OK. That's fine – it's smart on their part. But that does not mean you should take your main project and try to replicate what they have done in their experiments.
If you have a budget, the time, the interest, and want to build niche sites on multiple topics, then maybe PBNs are for you. It might be fun to test and tweak your sites, and find a system that works for you.
But if you are on a budget, are just learning about niche marketing, and only plan to create 1 or 2 websites that you plan to build out into authority sites within your niche, I think joining a private blog network is one of the most damaging things you could do to the future of your business.
There's no reason to risk the health of your business just because one case study by [insert SEO guru] showed that he was able to jump a couple spots over night.
What Type of Link Building I Endorse
Am I biased against link building in general? Yes. I got burned by it, and I would never do something like that ever again. But at the same time, I realize that a lot of ranking power is derived from quality links to your website. This is not a tutorial on how to get backlinks, but I wanted to quickly cover some things I do, and what I think counts as “white hat” link building.
In fact, I'd say that the links built in these ways are a secondary benefit of the connections you make by being involved in your niche.
Be Social To Gain Trust
That doesn't mean you have to be one of these social media evangelists that spend all day on Google+ and Twitter repeating the same BS over and over trying to get attention to their website. What I mean is that you should check out other site's in your niche. Ask questions, offer answers. Get involved and see what you can bring to the table.
This includes blog commenting, guest posting as well as chatting on whatever social media platform you prefer. You don't have to overdo it, but check out who's active and try to connect.
Guest posting could be good if the posts are on relevant blogs and you are doing it in a non-robotic way, creating actual value instead of just paying for a backlink. Accessing other people's audiences this way can be useful. Just don't overdo it, since some sites you post on may be selling links to other people, and you could unintentionally get caught up in a link scheme.
Create Link-Worthy Content To Naturally Attract Links
The idea of “high quality content” has been beaten into the ground so many times by people that don't actually understand it. Just because it's not crap doesn't mean that it's good.
As a new blogger, this can be a real challenge. A lot of what you want to say has probably been said by other people, in a better way. There's no real way around this challenge except to try to find your voice, and your niche within a niche.
I don't really want to write another 1,000 words on how to create content that people want to link to, but ask yourself before you publish a piece of content if this is something that really helps people or is just there to fill the content machine.
This may seem like you are leaving a lot to chance, just throwing your content out there and hoping for results. In some ways, it is. But if you are truly involved in the social aspects of blogging and creating content on a regular basis, something is going to get picked up at some point. If it's worth of shares, clicks, etc etc, success snowballs from there.
Proper keyword research can tell you which way you should go a lot of times. Many new affiliate marketers overestimate the value they create for competitive keywords, thus turn to voting for themselves in the Google machine to try to artificially boost rank.
Update 2019 (This Stuff Is Still Going On)
Well, of course this stuff is still going on, and PBNs are just as popular as ever. The basic rules of engagement are:
- don't use a PBN on your main money site
- accept that at some point you might get caught
Apparently lying and getting caught is just part of the game. This does not sound like a long term business strategy to me! Actually, a lot of these authority figures on niche websites just offload these damaged properties on Flippa and other website brokers to turn a big profit before the hammer comes down.
Thankfully, Empire Flippers has finally implemented tag to notify buyers of PBN activity on websites being sold, however, I suspect that a lot of buyers are not aware of the danger.
Think I'm exaggerating? These charts tell a story of how shady backlinks can harm your business in the long run. Sure, you'll see exponential growth in the first few years, but what about after that? I've still got another 50 years to live, so these 5-year churn and burn websites are not something I'd rely on to feed my family.
Update 2020 (This Stuff Is Still Going On)
I'm in an SEO group on Facebook. They do a bunch of stuff I don't do or recommend, but it's interesting to keep up with what's going on in the industry.
Recently someone posted how cool it was that Majestic allows you to graphically see tier 2 links, and how they were going to discover their competitor's linking strategies.
The commenter highlighted below has the right idea though. If we can do it, you can be sure that Google can do it. There are still people out there recommending building PBNs and doing shady shit to “tier 2 links” because supposedly Google cannot detect it and it's not linked to your main site.
Google is always getting smarter, and always trying to crack down on algorithm manipulation. If they can't get you now, they'll get you later.
People seem to think there must be an easier way of gaining authority in search engines other playing by the rules. There's no other industry can you create fake endorsements for yourself and feel good about it, so why is it different on the internet?
And if you are reading this in indignation, hands poised over the keyboard waiting to educate me about how, if you are really careful, they can really boost your rank, my answer is that being really careful not to get caught doesn't factor into my business plan. For those of you ready to explain that you don't have a choice because your competition is doing it, my answer is that “he did it first!” wasn't even a valid excuse back in grade school.
Google isn't perfect, but I believe that the majority of the time it gets things right. There's always a few examples here or there that send people into rants or meltdowns about how life isn't fair and Google is a douche, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.
For me, I'm happy with 1 or 2 sites that I can grow for decades to come, without worrying about future algorithm updates. There will always be low competition keywords to target, new angles to explore, and ways to grow your business from the ground up, rather than from the top down.
Oh, and by the way, the EMD, Hummingbird, and recent Panda updates all gave me boosts in traffic, which I guess was in part taken from the low-quality websites gaming search engines.
What are your views on PBNs and other link building tactics?