This article is a back and forth conversation between LaunchPad’s two Outreach Strategists, Gabby Miele and Khris Marcial. This format is meant to feel like a back-and-forth conversation with follow-ups that explain a bit further how we determine how to identify a private blog network.
What is a PBN?
To start this conversation, a private blog network (or PBN) is a network of blogs that sell links to sites for the sole purpose of manipulating that site’s organic search rankings.
Many are previously expired authoritative domains that have been redesigned to look like a trustworthy site and typically openly invite sites to contribute content to their site.
Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to pass over a site that’s part of a PBN.
You either notice them quickly, or you pass it as a normal blog that has a lot of different topics the write about. These have the potential to ruin your site.
Khris and Gabby are going to further analyze what they’ve seen on a daily basis that makes a PBN site, typical patterns of a PBN site, and the effect of linking to these sites in the long run.
The next few sections of this article will highlight the different qualitative metrics we use to vet sites properly.
What is the problem with PBNs?
Gabby: The problems associated with links from a PBN could be detrimental to your site or your client’s site. PBN sites have the potential to get a site slapped with a Google penalty which will cause your rankings to tank. From there, you’ll most likely need to submit a disavow file to eradicate the spam sites in your backlink profile. This entire process will cost you time and money, depending how much you paid to get the links placed.
There are some obvious answers why PBN sites are not the best to get links from though, particularly when it comes to ranking.
Some site owners, SEOs, and link builders out there will build links from sites that aren’t of high enough quality. There are a lot of ways to determine quality: the domain rating, the trust flow to citation flow ratio, and the topical trust flow.
For those of you who don’t know what those terms mean:
- Domain Rating (DR): Ahrefs link metric that indicates the strength of a given website’s overall backlink profile, on a logarithmic scale (1-100)
- Citation Flow (CF): Majestic link metric that measures the link equity or “power” the website or link carries (1-100) aka “link juice”
- Trust Flow (TF): Majestic link metric that predicts how trustworthy a page is based on how close a sites backlinks are to trustworthy, authoritative sources (1-100)
- Trust Ratio: (TR): Calculated by dividing trust flow by citation flow, TR can indicate a site as potentially being spam or have a “spammy” backlink profile. A high CF and low TF indicates a site has a lot of link equity but not a lot of trust from those links, red flag for potential spam. A low CF and high TF means the links pointing to the site very trustworthy sources, you want links from this site.
- Topical Trust Flow: Majestic topic categorization through authority and trustworthiness of a domain e.g., Travel/Fitness
If you use tools like Majestic or Ahrefs, you can get a good idea of how frustrating it is to come across a site that’s part of a PBN. Sometimes, PBN sites look relatively good on the surface, but have no clearly defined topic.
That’s a definite first sign.
If you come across a site that isn’t a high authority site that has miscellaneous topics that makes no sense, you’re probably looking at a PBN site.
I’ve seen some sites tank only because they’re getting links from a few blogs that pose as topics within their niche, but really those sites are PBN sites that link to and form completely different topics.
For example, A home buyers blog doesn’t really make sense if it’s also linking to ‘adult’ content.
Khris: If you don’t have a strong vetting process for PBN sites and you accept any site willing to post your article, you have an issue.
PBN sites have a bad habit of leaving identifiable patterns for search engines to pick out. This leaves any site that is associated with a PBN site at risk of receiving a penalty.
Gabby mentioned using TF, CF, and TTF when vetting your prospect list. We use these metrics along with other tools to identify some general patterns PBN sites may exhibit.
What are some patterns you look for when identifying a site associated to a PBN?
Khris: I want to preface this by saying that there is no one size fits all filter for identifying a PBN site. It’s easy to avoid detection by making PBN sites not match each other or have no visible patterns. Some site owners that own PBNs have varying sites and a wide array of niches.
However, there are other ways to vet the sites you’re planning on getting backlinks from.
Here’s a few questions I ask myself when vetting sites:
- Where are these sites getting their links from?
- What percentage of these sites look spammy?
- Are there spikes in their backlink history?
- Is their trust flow abnormally low compared to citation flow?
- Does their topical trust flow match up with the overall site?
- Is their monthly traffic suspiciously low?
- What types of links are in the articles/homepage/ads?
- Do their categories match up?
- Did they email you with a list of different but similar sites?
- Is their layout similar to other PBN sites you’ve seen?
- What does their site Archive.org history look like?
- Do the links in their articles make sense?
Gabby: There’s a couple of ways that I like to identify a PBN site. There are a lot of factors considering that some sites don’t really have a tell-tale sign to *reveal* itself.
But, I think that in light of there being link farms of the past, it’s worth noting that any site that seems irrelevant to your site, doesn’t have any of it’s content attributed to someone or something (like a blog owner or a place), has poorly written content, or has bad metrics is highly likely to be part of a PBN.
For example, here’s a PBN site:
Let’s take note of things we notice about the PBN site.
The navigation topics on this PBN site are varied and not related at all especially for a blog that is supposed to target lifestyle topics.
The intention of The Old Hag is geared toward people interested in lifestyle subjects, according to Edith’s ‘About Me’ section.
Now, let’s look at the individual content
Gabby: There’s no real line of content strategy on the site. There’s a piece of content about buying real estate in Texas, a Q&A from a Dentist in Maryland about veneers, “How Private Tutoring Improves your Education”, and an article about safety management in a factory setting. Why are there articles about any of these topics if this site is supposed to be about lifestyle subjects?
The dates that all of these pieces of content were posted are sporadic.
Why did they have two back-back articles and then an article posted a week later?
If there is no linear content schedule, then you can almost guarantee that it’s a PBN site.
Now, there are some businesses that might not have a content schedule. If this is the case, then this would be the time to take a look at some of their individual articles to determine whether the site is spammy or not.
So, let’s go back to that site: The Old Hag. Let’s click on one of their posts. For this article: Startup Management: How to Prioritise Safety in a Factory Setting.
There are a couple of links in the article, like so:
I’ve gone through the on page links in this article and identified the first two links as internal links and the last link is the (only) outbound link.
To keep the integrity of their site, what I want to point out is that the site’s “intention” doesn’t match this post at all. The post links out to a brand that sells Hydraulic Power Units.
If you’re still unsure, take a look at their metrics.
The metrics for The Old Hag are: DR 26, TF 44, CF 36. As stated before, If the TF is higher than the CF, that means that there is something potentially fishy about the site’s backlink profile.
At LaunchPad, we have very particular metrics that we consider as ‘potentially’ safe until we take a closer look at the site.
If their domain rating (DR), CF/TF ratio, traffic, and keywords are all low, consider not working with them.
Can you always tell whether or not a site is a PBN site?
Gabby: After looking at thousands of sites a month, we can still sometimes get it wrong once in a while. Our vetting process is ever elaborating and evolving.
What I think we’ve learned through training is that there are particular indicators that can help guide us to make the right choice when we’re thinking of working with a site or not. There can be big indicators that building a link on a certain site is not worth it in the long-term.
Link building, organic rankings, and the way Google values a link is always changing. However, what won’t change is the importance of site quality.
Khris: After having gone through all of this information, it’s still impossible to truly know if a site is a part of a PBN unless they outright tell you. After all, these are indicators- not rules. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vet your site lists for potential PBN sites. In the gray area of SEO that is link building, there is always a possibility for people to get a penalty.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not you should get a link from a site, don’t. Go with your gut and look for more legitimate sites like businesses, or sites that are more clearly maintained. Improve your vetting process.
How Do PBN’s Affect Your Site in the Long Run?
Gabby: In the short term, you’ll could potentially see a major boost in rankings and your domain authority, traffic, etc could increase. But, over time, Google will start to notice patterns of a PBN and see the PBN sites linking back to your main site or client site.
However, the really disappointing part about this quick upheaval of links is that quite literally, it can be a scam. Google tries to penalize these people who are using these PBNs and devalue all of their hard-earned links.
If you’re more of an accounting type of person, maybe this will help you decide if it’s worth it: many of these PBN sites require payments, sometimes up in the $100, $200, $300 range — do you want to afford to risk your site getting penalized after you spent all of that money?
I hope not! Keep in mind, there are blogs that aren’t part of a PBN and are worth your money.
In the long-run, aside from penalizing your site, you’re most likely placing a link on a fairly inactive site that doesn’t get a lot of organic traffic. It ends ip looking strange in your backlink profile and no one will probably end up actually reading the article you placed.
Khris: It’s simple. Harboring a PBN link carries risk. With every PBN link you obtain, your site increases it’s risk of receiving a penalty. PBNs create patterns. Patterns give Google a reason to penalize you. Using a PBN is a way for people to attempt to manipulate search results.
PBN owners usually entice you with cheap links. But that’s exactly what they are, cheap links. Owners will send you a list of the sites they’ve built along with their prices. Don’t do it.
Instead, reach out to site owners and see if they have writing guidelines. Learn how well sites edit their content. If a site has strict guidelines, you’re in a better position to receive a link with less risk. Sites that request any links inserted be topically relevant are sites that you want to look for.
In the long run, if you want to lessen the risk that comes with link building, vet your sites. Don’t link out from PBNs.