In an idea world, all SEOs would like to say - with hand on heart - that they only ever use white-hat SEO tactics and won’t go near the mirky and sinister world of black-hat SEO. Of course in the real world, things aren’t so black and white (hence the birth of so-called ‘grey-hat’ SEO).
Navigating the blurry lines between white, grey and black-hat can be complex even to experienced SEOs, let alone the small business owners that don’t have the first clue about SEO. It’s no wonder, that so many small business owners are put off by the very mention of search engine optimisation, especially if they’ve been stung by overtly dodgy practices in the past.
Evaluating your tolerance for risk is crucial before making any strategic SEO decision and different people will have different opinions, and indeed, different experiences of certain somewhat grey-hat strategies. Ultimately, you will want to strike a balance between sustainable techniques and any more - let’s call them divisive - tactics that could be classified as grey hat.
One of the most divisive grey hat tactic out there has to be the use of Private Blog Networks (PBNs) in order to build links. Before we begin looking at this, I want to state for the record that the jury is out when it comes to PBNs and their efficacy. In some cases they may have value and others, not so much.
What I want to do in this article is assess the pros and cons of PBNs. First though, let’s look at exactly what a PBN is.
What Is A Private Blog Network?
PBNs are networks of websites which are used to build links and pass page authority to websites with the aim of pushing page rank, domain authority and ultimately bolstering search engine rankings.
In the past, PBNs were used frequently but following substantial efforts from Google to crack down on the volume of what it regards as link spam, particularly with its real-time algorithm update, PBNs are now considered by some to be ineffectual and not worth the effort and others to be a risky strategy that could incur a penalty. There are many others though, that still regard PBNs as a worthwhile strategy if done carefully with the emphasis on creating decent quality content.
PBNs can be acquired in a number of ways but the four main approaches are:
- Auctions – The age of the domain doesn’t drop with this approach, because the blog is picked up before they get deleted and the registered age reset
- Deleted – Not as powerful as auctions but easier to do and less competitive. Of course authority will be hit as the domain age will be rest back to zero.
- Vendors – Vendors buy domains using a variety of methods. Just like anything there are good and bad vendors so be careful if you take this approach.
- Drop Catching – This is a back ordering service to catch domains as they drop out with a pre-selected bid. This approach is somewhere in between auctions and deleted in terms of efficacy.
Reasons To Use A Private Blog Network
PBNs, as you may have surmised by now, are controversial, but there has to be a reason they’re still used right? Below are several key benefits which ensure their continuing appeal.
When you place a link on a website you don't own, you are essentially relinquishing control to the owner of that website and you can’t be certain when or how they will feature your link.
Link building is a time-consuming process and channelling effort and resources into securing a link that might not exist in 3 months can be frustrating. If you own a PBN, however, you retain full control over every site which will help you to realise the full potential of your link building strategy.
Plus, if you do happen to be issued with a manual penalty, you have the power to remove offending links very quickly and en masse.
Leveraging the authority of an established and trusted website is a powerful thing. If you can acquire or purchase these domains in order to build good quality content, then there is a lot to be said for that. The problem (as with most SEO tactics) comes with scale. Buying up lots of high authority domains can get pretty costly, pretty quickly (more on cost in a bit).
There's No Need To Build Relationships Or Conduct Outreach
To secure long-term sustainability, you will ultimately need to invest time into building beneficial relationships. However, PBNs can save you a lot of time in the short-term, delivering results very quickly. You are both the link builder and the link owner.
Reasons Not To Use A Private Blog Network
The benefits of creating PBNs will certainly sound tempting to anyone that’s ever done site prospecting and blogger outreach, but it’s important to remember that they are no silver bullet and the potential shortcomings are significant. The following negatives must therefore be carefully contemplated before adopting any strategy that employs the building of PBNs.
Developing and maintaining an effective PBN is costly, let’s make no mistake. The first cost will come in the acquisition of authority domains and the resulting costs of hosting these domains. When we say private blog networks we don’t mean two or three sites, but a whole network. If you don’t have the cash to invest, then forget it. The second cost and one that can also be associated with time (see below) is the costs associated with creating a steady stream of content for all the blogs in your network. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to produce all of this yourself (if any) so copywriter costs will quickly spiral.
If you think the monetary costs are high, PBNs are also a serious time drain. In addition to the time sourcing decent domains, you will need to spend time setting them up, installing themes and plugins, creating or outsourcing content and setting up various social accounts. Remember, each blog is a website unto itself and must resemble one if you are to pull this off.
Then there are the security and hosting issues you might encounter, which will also take time to rectify. Yes, this can all be outsourced but that will result in higher expenses, which might put a serious dent in your ROI.
Balancing how much you outsource and pay for and how much you do yourself is a key consideration when putting together your PBN strategy.
Although you might see your websites flourish as a direct result of PBNs, the fact of the matter is that this success isn’t built on the sturdiest of foundations. Google is adamant in its quest to target link spam as it sees it and it regards PBNs as a prime source of this. If you are caught creating a stream of poor quality links then you can expect a substantial penalty. In a matter of seconds, your time and monetary investment could quite literally disappear, leaving you with nothing to show for all your hard work.
This is why it’s vital that PBNs be used in conjunction with more sustainable link building tactics that will serve to create a more balanced backlink portfolio that won’t upset Google.
Can Private Blog Networks Be Used Safely?
If you plan to rely on the potential power of PBNs exclusively, the honest answer is a resounding "no". Putting all your eggs into one basket is never advisable, especially if that basket is one marked ‘private blog network’.
If you are willing to factor in a degree of risk (which it should be said comes with potentially high rewards), then PBNs can become a very powerful asset of a well rounded and varied SEO strategy. Whilst there is always a trade off between costs (time and money) and control, the level of control you can gain is huge. Links still play a huge part of Google’s ranking algorithm so being able to control them puts you in the driver seat.
After carefully considering your position then, you may well conclude that PBNs are the ideal supplement to your other SEO strategies, but you must acknowledge the inherent risks and the trade off required to make the strategy work. If you’d prefer a squeaky clean SEO strategy through, then PBNs defintely aren’t for you.
If you want to take a deeper dive into PBNs, how they work, their dangers and how to create them, then I’ve written this in-depth breakdown of Private Blog Networks.