Greg Elfrink

March 20, 2017

PBNs can be pretty controversial.

For those who don’t know what they are, PBN stands for Private Blog Network.

It is an search engine optimization (SEO) strategy both loved and hated by many SEO professionals. While someone just getting into the marketing game might think that PBNs are just a “flavor of the month” strategy doomed to fail, be assured that PBNs have been around for well over a decade as a successful SEO strategy.

What is a PBN and what are the risks and rewards of using these networks? SEO professionals and website buyers have widely differing opinions on whether or not PBNs are good, and they have advice you can use on why you should or shouldn’t buy a site that was built using a PBN.

Making an educated decision on whether or not to buy a website built with a PBN is critical. I’ve done analysis comparing sites we have sold on our marketplace that have used both PBNs and non-PBN methods to attract organic traffic that you can use to make that decision.

First things first, though…

What Are PBNs?

PBNs in layman’s terms are dead websites. Website owners have let the domains expire; you can no longer go to that domain and see the website unless you use something like the Wayback Machine to see what kind of site the domain used to host.

Some of these domains have a lot of “link juice.”  In other words, they have authority with Google and can rank for keywords faster because of this authority. Any site that these domains link out to passes that link juice on, giving it authority in Google’s eyes.

SEOs will hunt for these domains in many different ways. Sometimes they will scrape the internet using software that picks up dropped domains. Other times they will go to places like GoDaddy’s domain auctions to look for good domains. Each domain they find will be put through a tool like Majestic or Ahrefs. These tools are to make sure the domains used to be real, healthy sites, and not spammed sites with questionable content.

They check to make sure there are still real links from other websites being pointed at these sites (most webmasters will have no idea that legacy or old links might be pointing towards an expired domain, so they keep the link up giving the expired domain link juice).

If the stats look good and spam-free, then the SEO expert would label that domain as a real site that once had linkable content. The SEO expert buys that domain, hosts it (usually on different hosts from their money sites and other PBN sites), and rebuilds the website that used to be on the domain while also adding links slowly to their money sites.

Some SEO experts will sell links on their PBN network to another website owner. You should be careful with these kind of offers, since most of these kind of vendors are really operating a Public Blog Network rather than a Private Blog Network. In other words, by selling links to other webmasters, it can open up the network to being found out by Google and thus be penalized even easier, and means it’s not really a private network anymore, as anyone can buy a link on it.

These kind of link services greatly increase the risk to the website’s traffic, much more than a traditional Private Blog Network, where the expert is not selling links to other webmasters, but just using the network for their own sites. We will be mainly talking about Private Blog Networks when we say PBNs going forward.

This method of buying and rebuilding expired domains into PBNs allows the SEO to control the exact amount of links they point at their website. It also means their content may be not as high quality, since their careful arrangement of multiple links ensures their standing with Google. They can focus on the highest return on investment style of content pieces such as consumer guides, reviews, and Best X for Y style posts that bring in commissions, rather than investing heavily in informational content that can get “win” editorial links via an outreach campaign.

Nevertheless, many people who use PBNs also invest in high-quality content. They just prefer PBNs because it makes their job easier to get links. Other SEOs disagree with this method, saying it’s easier to get links via the white hat style. They argue that it is cheaper and less of a hassle than PBNs, since PBNs can pose a major traffic risk if Google penalizes them and the cost of operating PBNs can grow substantially as the network itself grows.

Regardless of which argument you agree with, if you’re in the market to buy sites then the main question is whether PBNs are a “flash in the pan” method doomed to die off, or if they are capable of supporting long-term organic traffic from Google.

The last thing you want to do is buy a website that tanks immediately after you buy it.

Are PBNs Dead? (Hint: No)

Here’s a site all the way back in 2001 talking about PBNs (or rather how the owner built thousands of PBNs in his time as an SEO consultant). The strategy was not well known, though, until a few years back when a few select SEOs came out publicly saying they were using PBNs to rank their money websites. Spencer Haws did this over at Niche Pursuits, when he co-hosted a webinar on how to build your own PBN back in 2013. (Spencer later talked about why he would never build a PBN again once his money sites were penalized by Google because of the network he had built.)

Still, PBNs as an SEO strategy is alive and well. It’s going strong into 2017 and the foreseeable future.

There are entire businesses built around the concept of PBNs as a viable SEO strategy for the long term. Take one look at Bulk Buy Hosting , and you’ll see what I mean. This business, amongst many others, have only sprung up in the last year or so, showing there are still plenty of SEO professionals using PBNs to the point where entire businesses can be created based off market demand for PBN services.

You might be wondering, why do some SEOs choose to use PBNs over other strategies?

For most SEOs, PBNs are a way for them to create backlinks for their money sites. Instead of doing email outreach, guest posts, and all the other ways to gain editorial links that can take time and money, they just create the backlinks themselves from their PBNs.

While PBNs make it easier to manage what links get created towards your money site, it is no guarantee for long-term rankings. As mentioned above, Spencer’s entire PBN network was hit by Google updates, and that ended up penalizing his money sites, causing them to lose significant revenue.

The key with a PBN is making sure the PBN is hidden from Google as much as possible. People who are buying links rather than building out their own PBN are often inviting trouble because the PBN they’re buying links from is really a public network versus a private network.

Buyer Beware: Look Before You Buy

If you are set on purchasing a website that was built using a PBN, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the risk. Not all of these are going to be applicable, since many sellers will not be comfortable revealing their PBNs to you. After all, the PBN is an investment they’ve made, and it is a tool they are likely using to direct traffic to more than just one money site. The last thing a seller wants to do is to reveal all the other niches they are in!

While there isn’t a whole lot you can do to mitigate the risk of PBNs before purchasing the site, it is important to take the two points below into account. If Google finds out your site is powered by a PBN, either through a manual review or through their algorithm, then your site could be penalized by losing its position within organic search, and losing traffic because you no longer appear on the first page. Some sites that get penalized can become permanently lost or even sandboxed out of the Google search completely with not a whole lot you can do to fix it.

Here are two solutions to this that may help:

Ask for the PBN to Come with the Sale

Best case scenario is that the seller will actually transfer the entire PBN over to you during the sale. In this case, you know that at least you control the links. Otherwise, you are relying on some kind of honor system and trusting that the seller will keep the links to your money site live after you purchase the website. This is a concern and it should be discussed with the seller.

If you can’t get the seller to hand over the PBN with the sale of the site, then you should negotiate a monthly recurring fee that you pay to keep the links live. This will at least give the seller incentive to keep the links live for you. If the seller received no money at all, there is a higher chance they might switch over the links pointing to your site towards a new money site of theirs instead.

How Many Outbound Links Are There?

If the seller allows you to see the PBN, that is great. You can make sure the PBN doesn’t look spammy and that the websites look like real websites that people are still using and updating. Whether you can see the PBN or not, you should be asking the seller how many outbound links are on their PBN.

Try to avoid purchasing websites that have PBNs linking out to a ton of sites –– less is more in this case. The reasoning is that you don’t want to dilute the power of the PBN, and every outbound link the PBN gives can cause a bit more dilution of the amount of power the domain can give to a money site.

A good rule of thumb is to link out to five to ten money sites per PBN. So, if the seller comes back saying they have 1,000 outbound links going to other sites from their PBNs, or even 50 to 100 links, that is certainly a cause for concern.

The real question comes down to whether a PBN actually adds anything at all for a buyer in terms of rewards. It certainly does add risk, regardless of how safely the PBN was built, there will always be an extra risk when purchasing a site powered by a PBN.

The Three SEO Schools of Thought

It is always interesting to hear feedback from SEOs who are in the trenches right now building out sites. There are dozens of ways to go about ranking in Google, and because of this, there are several different schools of thought when it comes to doing SEO.

The three schools of thought that almost every SEO falls into are:

  • Black Hat
  • Grey Hat
  • White Hat

Black Hat SEO

Black hat SEO is best characterized by the phrase “churn and burn.” This means that the money sites are built with full knowledge that they will likely not stay around for long. They rank quick, but they burn out fast, too. Usually a black hat SEO is busy maximizing whatever loophole they have discovered in Google’s algorithm –– they build their sites based off quantity over quality, knowing that many of their sites will get penalized right away and that only a few will stay around (and even those have a short shelf life).

The tools of a black hat are automated software –– things like GSASer and other mass link producing tools –– that can build things in mass.

The reason why a black hat chooses to do this is that their methods are often quick. Whereas the grey hat and the white hat might take months to rank in Google, a black hat might only take weeks before they start seeing traffic (and income) pouring through their website.

Because of the extreme volatile nature of these type of sites and lack of focus on quality, I wouldn’t recommend anyone buying these kind of websites.

Grey Hat SEO

Grey hat SEO is harder to define. It straddles the two worlds of black hat and white hat, but it  most commonly involves SEO strategy that uses a PBN of some kind. The grey hat’s advantage is that they do not need to create super linkable content that other sites will link to, and they don’t have to spend any of the time required in doing outreach, guest posts, or anything along those lines.

Instead, they control a network of sites (PBNs) that they can create backlinks to their money site at will. This strategy allows for a lot of analytical testing that finds the best route to start ranking a money site.

Depending on how well built the PBN is, a money site powered by a PBN can be ranked and continue earning money for years and years (there are even a few black hat examples where this is true, but very few).

Most good grey hats are going to make their PBNs look like real websites, and they will be updating the content on a regular basis to keep the websites looking active.

These kind of sites can be great earners for both the sellers that built them and the buyers who buy them as long as the PBN was built safely and remains undetected.

White Hat SEO

White hat SEO is considered “above board” and “Google approved.” It’s worth noting though, that any attempt at SEO is actually manipulating Google’s search engines in hopes of your website getting ranked –– something their Terms of Service prohibits although, paradoxically,  Google promotes white hat efforts.

Since everything on the internet — aside from the disinterested dissemination of art, entertainment, and information — is a link scheme (including guest posting campaigns, which is one of the strongest white hat strategies), it kind of makes all these strategies fall into the grey hat zone a little bit.

That being said, white hat SEO is the safer route when compared to black and grey hat strategies. White hats use editorial links that are gained without exchanging money for the link. In order to do this, there are a ton of creative ways that white hat professionals have created to build out their websites.

Brian Dean over at Backlinko has a great post describing just a few of these pretty creative ways to earn white hat backlinks here.

If you are looking for the safest bet, white hat methods are the ticket. The tools of a good white hat SEO might be an outreach software that allows them to email other bloggers in a systemized manner asking for guest posts or offering up pieces of high quality content that those bloggers might be interested in sharing and linking back to. Outreach is the bread and butter of every good white hat SEO campaign.

What Do the SEO Experts Have to Say on PBNs?

Now that you have a good overview of PBNs, some of the risks that are involved, and the three SEO schools of thought, it is time to bring out our expert panel.

These SEOs are professionals in the trenches right now, grinding out new niche sites, building authority sites, and even educating others on best practices. You will notice the polarized views that I mentioned above, displayed below. As I have mentioned, there are many ways to rank in Google, PBNs just being one tool in the belt of a competent SEO (one that many choose not to use at all for reasons you will see).

I reached out to each one, and individually asked them the same questions. These are their responses minus some editing for any grammar or spelling mistakes.

Here are 12 professional SEOs opinions on PBNs, all of whom are making over $10,000 per month in their businesses (or close to it).

Ben Starr – Expert Niche Site Builder

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

PBNs are still an incredibly effective way of ranking in Google. You will find that most sites ranking in competitive niches will have a PBN behind them (though perhaps hidden). It’s cost effective, allows you to scale, and you get full control over your links, including important items such as anchor text.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

As a seller of sites who uses PBNs, you may expect me to be a little biased, but the truth is, any site that relies on Google traffic could potentially be at the mercy of Google updates and penalties, sometimes even totally “white hat” ones. However, link networks, in particular the larger and more public ones, have been targeted by Google in the past; it would be naive to think they won’t be again in the future.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

I would advise a buyer to do their research on the source and quality of the PBN links before making a purchase. Is it truly private? Have the sites been well designed? Are they linking to any other sites?

Sia Mohajer – Owner of Market Monkey

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Control. Plain and simple. With a PBN you have an asset that can be used very effectively. You control the anchor text, where the link is, how relevant the surrounding content/page is for that keyword, and most importantly, link velocity. They also afford you the ability to scale both client and affiliate businesses.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

Losing the asset, this is especially problematic for people who have become reliant on PBNs as their sole form of link building.  PBNs, if not done right, also leave a trace and multiple money or client sites can be found, which raises privacy and security issues from potentially aggressive competitors.

Cost. Quality PBNs require auction domains, which are steadily increasing in price. A good quality auction domain can go for anywhere from $100 to $600 dollars. Add to that premium hosting and good content and maintaining a large 100+ network can be pricy.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

Low-Quality PBNs
If the PBN has been previously used and abused (commercial anchor text), then it probably won’t pack the kind of power you want.

Lack of Diversity
With outreach tools and quality web 2s all over the place, it’s easier than ever to build a site mostly out of legit white hat links. Having a site ranking solely with PBNs can be a liability that buyers should keep in mind.

Greg here again –– what Sia mentions on cost is something that does not come up a whole lot with PBNs. Many people view it as a cost-effective way of building links rather than a pricy investment. When you are just starting out, a few PBNs can be very easy to manage.

If you plan on growing a plethora of niche sites, though, be aware of the extra management that is going to come into play, as your PBNs grow from just a handful to possibly hundreds of websites. That is A LOT of maintenance. For buyers, you might buy a site built off a PBN, but in order to scale it, you might want to instead go after white hat links as these can be more cost effective at scale.

Mark Webster – Co-Owner of Authority Hacker

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Short-term rankings.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

There are so many. The main one is that Google figures out you are gaming the system by using a PBN and penalizes your site. Think about how much data Google can collect from Chrome, Android, Gmail, Google Drive, and any of the other companies and services it owns. With artificial intelligence getting smarter and smarter, it’s really not a case of “if”, but rather “when” your PBN will get busted.

If you are using someone else’s PBN, it’s even worse. If someone else disavows some of your PBN sites because they get penalized, Google can use this data to penalize you, too. The fact is that good white hat link building is cheap and effective these days and this represents a much more stable and long-term method to drive traffic to your site.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

I would never buy a website that had PBN links. Websites are valued based on their estimated future earning potential. If a site is built using a PBN, you have absolutely no way of knowing what this would be. So, essentially you are just guessing. This is no way to go about spending your money.

Tung Tran – Owner of Cloud Living

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Obviously it’s higher ranking in the SERPS. PBNs –– when used correctly –– can be an effective and scalable way to achieve high ranking for even the most competitive keywords.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

When you use PBNs, you are basically in an uphill battle against Google. Your website, your traffic and your ranking are at their mercy as they can penalize you anytime. Your hundreds or thousands of visits or five-figure monthly income can go to zero overnight.

It’s a decision only you as a business owner can make. If you think the reward is high and far outweighs the risk, then it’s completely fine if you want to use PBNs.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

I personally have not used PBNs for over 2 years, and I would honestly recommend buyers stay away from sites ranked using PBNs to avoid any potential risk. But, if you like to buy sites built using a PBN, at least buy the PBN as well or make a deal with the seller to maintain the links.

James Ruhle – Owner of Emerge Gear

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

PBNs allow you to rank relatively quickly without having to interact with anybody or build relationships with other sites. They allow you to consistently get links to any website, and you 100% control the links. If done correctly, they can be a great way to rank a website…. If done correctly.

However, with proper systems in place white hat outreach will net you stronger, and safer links 10 times faster than building out a PBN.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

Using PBNs correctly is extremely complicated and, in this day and age, the learning curve is very steep; very few people know how to set them up in a 100% safe, sustainable way, and Google is getting better every single day at identifying them.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

I personally would never touch a site built with PBNs. It would be like buying drugs from a stranger on the street. Sure, you could end up with something awesome, but you also could very likely end up with something terrible that is going to get hit with a penalty a week after you purchase it.

When making a big purchase like a website, you’re looking at around 2.5 years to get your money back. That’s a lifetime in the SEO world, and whatever PBN strategy your site is built on will likely be ancient history in less than a year.

Jesse Hanley – Owner of Ranking Press

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Faster rankings, strict control and flexibility to experiment on new ideas/strategies.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

Increased risk, management and cost. With each new PBN comes more overhead that needs to be taken into consideration. Our team has managed to get the economics behind outreach working, so that’s our bread and butter.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

People are lazy, and through laziness comes inefficiencies that lead to footprints. These footprints are what will tank a site over the long term. Do your due diligence and make sure you’re not about to get into business with a lazy webmaster.

Will Blears – Owner of One Man’s Brand

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

The ultimate reward, the one that every website owner seeks, first page rankings for their primary keywords. A sudden rush of highly-targeted visitors desperate to multiply your conversion rates and make you millions in return.

Well, that’s what we all dream of. In reality, PBNs might not get you to the first position, or even the first page, but they will definitely be easier than doing white hat SEO.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

The biggest risk of all: being stamped on by Google.

There are many stories of website owners waking up to see that their websites have been completely removed from Google, their first page rankings lost, and their highly-targeted visitors replaced by the tumbleweed and ghostly analytics.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

To be honest, this list is endless and many of the so-called risks are speculative, since no one really knows for sure. However, common sense and a bit of knowledge recommend the following checklist when doing due diligence:

– Are the PBNs private or public? Public being, any man and his dog can roll up and purchase links. Private being, they are hidden, secret, never seen by the public eye.

– How many PBNs are powering the site? A handful, ten to twenty or two to three hundred. It’s important to know just how reliant this site is on PBNs.

– What’s the ratio of PBN/white hat links? In this day and age, if you are looking to invest in a website powered by PBNs, be sure to check if the site has a mix of PBNs and white hat links. A 100% PBN-powered website is risky business for anyone, more so for those who are looking to invest in one.

– What do the PBNs look like? If they’re just your blog standard TwentyTwenty theme that comes from out of the box on a WordPress site, then you might be a little more concerned. No logo, no legitimacy = more risk.

– Why are they selling? This is an obvious question and goes for any site, not just one which is built using PBNs, but it’s a question that should be taken far more seriously when purchasing a PBN-powered site.

Herb Kornblau – Owner of ROI Results Marketing

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Many people say that it helps them rank their websites quickly.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

The risk is that someday most PBNs will be penalized and marketing based on them will tank, wiping out clients’ businesses. Google is well aware of what goes on and they are smarter than everyone. I see it as a when, not an if.

I lost a $150,000 PBN when the rules changed about four years ago and the 150 highly-ranked websites I had got hit. I don’t use them anymore and I learned how to rank websites without them.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

They should watch out for losing everything when G makes the big move to knock them out.

Perrin Carrell –  Contributor at Authority Hacker

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Short-term profit.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

– Losing your entire business.
– Not having a sustainable system to build links.
– Actively working against Google.
– Massively more expensive costs per link.
– Bigger time requirement (managing all the sites).

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

I humbly submit that PBNs are themselves a red flag.

Google does penalize sites for using them. They do actively look for them. It’s happened to me. It’s happened to dozens of people I know on more than one PBN “sweep,” with both private and public PBNs.

The business of websites, to me, is similar to real estate. Buying a site built with PBNs is like buying a house with cracks in the foundation. It’s more of a gamble than an investment.

Additionally, I would never buy a business that didn’t include legitimate, above-board systems. Would you buy a brick-and-mortar store that was sourcing products from the weird places, not following bylaws, or operating without a license?

Sites built with PBNs are trying to take shortcuts. But it’s even worse than that: they’re taking shortcuts that are more expensive and require more time than simply just doing the marketing the right way, essentially making them longcuts.

I would encourage anyone buying any site, particularly as an investment, to categorically dismiss sites using PBNs.

Jon Haver –  Owner of Authority Website Income

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Using a PBN is a great systematic way to build links. PBNs alone are not the best strategy but, especially for people with multiple sites and sites in niches where it is difficult to build links, they can be the answer to systematically getting links and ranking.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

PBNs are not all created equal, so the risks are not all equal. There are 2 main risks with a PBN:

1. They Are Not Worth the Effort – A PBN has a very very high probability of improving rankings, but if the improvement doesn’t go far enough to impact traffic and earnings, then there is a chance you wasted money. Additionally, the time required to build a PBN is substantial and could be a distraction from other more valuable efforts.

2. They Hurt Your Site – The second and well-known risk when it comes to PBNs is how they impact your site in a negative way. PBNs can hurt sites. For established sites, this makes the decision of adding a PBN (if the site doesn’t have one yet) less attractive then adding a PBN as part of a link building strategy to a new site.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

Not all PBNs are created equal. A well-built PBN that was used as part of a broader link building strategy is much lower risk than a poorly-built/very public PBN that is the only source of links for the site.

What it comes down to is the probability and consequence of the PBN sites getting detected/deindexed and how consequential the loss of those links could be for the money site.

Probability – To assess the probability, you should consider whether the PBN sites could pass a manual review, whether they are built like “real” sites, and whether they are exclusively used by the seller or posted on by different people. As a point of reference we have built about 3,400 PBN sites exclusively for clients’ use. Of those PBNs, we have had an under 8% deindexation rate (of a PBN site) from the time of purchase of the domain. However a PBN network that multiple money sites are linked to can have a deindexation rate of 20% or more.

Consequence – If the money sites’ links are only from one PBN network, then the consequence of those PBNs getting deindexed is the collapse of organic traffic. If the PBN links only make up say, 10% of all the links to the site, the consequence of those PBNs getting detected/deindexed is lower and likely only a small ranking drop.

In the end, a site that has a well-built PBN (lower probability of being deindexed) and has a diverse backlink profile (less consequential if the PBN sites do get detected/deindexed) deserves to be considered much more favorably than the opposite type of sites (low-quality PBN/only source of links).

Josh Kelly –  Owner of Hammerhead Domains

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

You can get relatively cheap on-demand backlinks on high authority pages. Even guest posts on established sites usually give you backlinks on completely new pages, whereas with PBNs you can get backlinks from pages that have a lot of links going to them. More importantly, you can control the links and the anchor text.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

Well, obviously it’s against Google TOS, so there’s always a risk that Google will somehow figure out you’re using a PBN and give you a penalty. But I don’t think that’s a particularly big risk unless the PBNs you’re using are really low quality and/or they’re actually public blog networks, not private (e.g., paid PBN links). Google has bigger fish to fry, like SAPE, hacked backlinks, or public blog networks.

The bigger risk is really just that the domains you’re using for your PBN are low quality or the content on your domains is low quality and Google deindexes or devalues your links, which would make your money site rankings drop. This wouldn’t be a penalty per se, as the Google algorithm is slowly shifting to better identify what “high-quality backlinks” actually means.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

– Low-Quality or Spun Content.
– Spammy backlinks to PBN domains (see my guide here on how to detect those).
– All PBNs are still indexed.
– Decent quality hosting (see my guide here on PBN hosting).
– Blog Network is actually public (paid links), not private. This is not necessarily a deal breaker, but there are only a few PBN link vendors that sell high enough quality links that I would trust them.
– Anchor text is ridiculously over-optimized (this is true for white hat sites, too, but I’ve seen it more with gray hat / black hat PBN users.)
– Links that could roll off the homepage of a PBN, i.e., another article is published, pushing that link off the homepage, losing the main link juice on the PBN site (most link juice power is on the homepage, as that is where the majority of backlinks will be pointing to.)
– Seller could add tons more links to the PBN, diluting the link juice going to current links.

Brandon King – Owner of Content Blossom

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Faster rankings. Content Marketing is great, and I use it in both my client and affiliate businesses, but it’s a slower burn. This is partially because you don’t have full control over where your inbound links land. For example, when guest posting it can be challenging to insert a link directly to a page that earns you money. It’s more often the case that you are able to insert a link using branded anchor to your homepage, or perhaps a piece of content on your blog. From there you are going to loose link juice as you use internal links to funnel it to a page that actually earns you money.

This is a contrast to PBNs, which give you full control over the pages you link to and also the anchor text you use.

With a good PBN, you can have multiple sites earning 5 figures a month within a year of launch, and can sell those at a 28x multiple. In theory you can do the same with whitehat, but in my opinion it’s much harder to do..

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

Sloppiness and human error that create footprints and potentially lead to algorithmic or manual penalties from Google. If you look at the more public “Google Hammers” that have come down on PBN users in recent years, it’s because of silly mistakes like using the same public Whois information across multiple networks, doing highly public case studies on PBN-driven money sites, or hosting PBNs on low quality SEO hosts.

This is why it’s essential to have the right systems in place from the beginning, to ensure that you can scale a PBN without getting sloppy. No shortcuts.

I still believe that PBNs are a relatively low risk ranking strategy if done correctly, but that’s the problem- most people take shortcuts and don’t build them the right way.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

First, you want to have all anchor text documented in a central document. This is essential for troubleshooting problematic pages that aren’t ranking, among other things. You’ll want this as a reference for future linkbuilding efforts.

I also recommend running a reverse IP lookup of the PBN sites to see what sort of “neighborhood” they are in. Make sure Whois information isn’t the same across all sites in the PBN. They should feature a combination of public and private Whois info and registrations across multiple registrars.

Dom Wells –  Owner of Human Proof Designs

What Are the Rewards of Using a PBN?

Short answer: the rewards of using a PBN are that you get to fully control your own links, and these are some of the most powerful links you can get (if your PBN is decent). There is a very large upside to using PBNs, and in many niches it’s almost impossible to rank without one.

That said, with a lot of Empire Flippers sites, I expect the PBN isn’t included in the sale, but the links will stay live. In this instance, the site has already reaped the benefits of the PBN and you can see for yourself that it is already ranking and earning well. You won’t have to worry about this PBN messing up your site’s anchor text ratio or backlink profile, and you presumably won’t have any maintenance costs for it either, so it’s a pretty good deal.

What Are the Risks of Using a PBN?

The risks of using a PBN are only a little bit higher than other link building techniques, if the PBN is done right. If you don’t overdo the keyword anchor texts, your link building velocity, or use poor quality PBNs, your only real “risk” is being hit by a manual penalty.

Within the niche site building world we suffer from a warped perspective because we all know a few people who have been penalized. What we failed to realize is that sites built with PBNs probably only account for a very small percentage of the internet, and an even smaller amount of those that get spotted. I’ve never had a site penalized by a PBN, and I’ve had dozens of sites benefit from it. If I take a hit on my next site, I’m still ahead.

For an EF site buyer, the risk is even lower, because the less connection there is between the money site you buy, and the PBN network that you probably don’t own, the lower the risk.

What Should a Buyer Watch Out For if a Site is Built Using a PBN? (Red Flags, etc.)

The same thing you should watch out for if a site ISN’T built using a PBN.

  1. Spammy or over-optimized anchor text.
  2. Most links pointing to one URL.
  3. Only 1 or 2 URLs ranking well and accounting for most of the traffic/income to the site.

I would also say that you should be wary if the PBN is one that offers public links, because this has a higher chance of being taken down.

At the end of the day, the more diverse the backlink profile is, the better, and the more URLs that are ranking well, the better.

If you buy a site that has been built on a PBN, the best thing you could do is just start adding more brand links and non-PBN links to the site, and the risk goes down dramatically.

Greg here again –– I want to point out that what Dom says above about adding non-PBN and branded links upon purchasing a PBN site is a great idea. It spreads the risk quite considerably.

Also, it is worth noting how long a website has been ranked using the PBN. A site that has been ranking well and bringing in a steady stream of traffic for years with its PBN is likely a high-quality PBN that has minimal risks of being detected. On the flip side, a website that has only just started earning money in the last few months and built on a PBN will have more risk associated with it. This is because the older PBNs have already passed multiple Google updates, while still showing that they are passing along positive link juice to the money site.

Analysis of Grey Hat Sites vs. White Hat Sites

Let’s take a hard look at a few of of the grey hat and white hat sites we have sold on our marketplace. It is one thing to hear people’s opinions and experiences, but quite another to do a little dive into the actual websites.

Obviously, we will not be revealing the site URLs (if you’re curious why, read this). Also, for the sake of consistency, I will be using Ahrefs for the entire lifespan of the site, as I do not have access to the actual analytics account attached to the sites below.

All of the sites below were sold at least six months ago (many even before that). Unfortunately, I do not have any knowledge of their current earnings, so I will not be able to report on that. I’ll only mention traffic and keyword gain.

The first five sites will be grey hat sites built upon PBNs and successfully sold on our marketplace. The second set of five will be pure white hat sites that had no PBNs. These sites range anywhere between $17,000 to above $200,000.

We will be looking at three core metrics for each site. First, we will look at the referring domains, which is just another way of saying the amount of backlinks the site has gotten from unique website domains.

After that, we will look at overall traffic, followed by the amount of organic keywords that have been indexed by Google over time.

Note: Take everything below with a grain of salt. I do not have access to these sites’ Google Analytics / Clicky, which could tell a very different story than what Ahrefs is telling us.

Grey Hat Site #1

This Amazon affiliate site was a big site when we first sold it on our marketplace. Since it has been acquired by the buyer, it has had several hardships according to Ahrefs graphs (using the live index).

Referring Domains

For people who are familiar with Ahrefs, the philosophy is that the more referring domains you have, the more likely you are going to be ranked. In fact, their studies have shown over and over again that the most important part of the entire equation is getting more links.

Of course, every link isn’t created equally. Sometimes PBN links can be significantly weaker than white hat links (though it can go the other way, too).

In June 2016, this website had 128 referring domains. On February 13, 2017, Ahrefs shows they now have 289 referring domains –– more than double what the website had when it was sold.

Traffic

Unfortunately, traffic did not follow this upward trend of the referring domains growth –– which is really intriguing. That leads us to question whether or not the PBN got hit. Perhaps though, the next links that the owner acquired led to the downfall of the site’s organic traffic. Of course, seasonality also plays a role here, since most sites will show a drop after the holiday rush in the U.S.

Even so, this traffic dip is pretty significant.

As you see below, the traffic was steadily rising over the course of several months until suddenly dropping significantly in January. (I didn’t include February, as the month has yet to conclude as of this writing..)

January ended with just 9,327 organic visitors according to Ahrefs –– a big drop from its peak in November at 43,191 organic visitors for the month. While it could be the PBNs that caused this to happen by getting slapped by Google, it is important to remember that the site had traffic rising significantly after acquisition, according to Ahrefs data.

Interestingly enough, the actual organic keywords showed a similar steady rise from April onward. This suggests the website was getting more traffic from more keywords rather than just a handful of high performers. Yet, after the holiday rush, the dip began. Unlike the organic traffic dip, where it looks like some kind of penalty may have taken effect, the organic keywords returned to more or less the same level as it was pre-April trends.

Unfortunately, there seems to be some kind of penalty on the site right now –– at least using Ahrefs looking on the outside it seems that way. It is possible the website was affected by Penguin 4.0, as described here. It is even possible that the website saw its competitors increase dramatically once Google devalued their backlinks, and that nothing bad happened internally with the site (i.e., their own links / PBNs being penalized).

It is important to realize though, penalties like these are much more likely when you have a site built off the back of PBNs. No matter how good the PBN is, they will always add risk to your acquisition –– a risk that could lead to a penalty such as above.

Grey Hat Site #2

Another large site sold on our marketplace, this one has a little bit of a better story to offer according to Ahrefs. The site dipped in and out throughout the year, but it has remained in many ways the same since it was acquired by the buyer.

Referring Domains

While there are dips and gains throughout the year since being acquired, it would appear the site has performed similarly to when it was initially sold on our marketplace.

This site had 44 referring domains showing with Ahrefs during the time it was sold. It currently boasts 46 referring domains. There’s almost no change here, and as you can see below, it swung back and forth between having more than 44 referring domains and fewer before finally settling in at 46 referring domains at the end of January.

Traffic

The traffic for this site tells a similar story as the referring domains graph above. At the time of purchase, the site was getting around 16,292 visitors a month, traffic driven primarily by the PBN links already built towards the site. At the end of January, it was getting just under that number at 16,176 (such a slight fluctuation we can say it was basically the same amount of traffic).

However, the holiday rush looks like it was very profitable for the site as traffic spiked up during the holiday season.

It looks like there is more good news for the future of this site when it comes to organic keyword growth as well. When the site was first purchased, it had 6,863 organic keywords indexed in Google. At the end of January, it is showing 7,749 organic keywords indexed, almost an extra 1,000 keywords that can potentially bring in more traffic as they move up in organic positions.

This site was built off the back of a PBN just like the first site we discussed, and everything looks pretty rosy for the most part here. The site seems stable, had a healthy holiday season, and, while there is no dramatic growth trend, there is no downward spiral either. The extra organic keywords being indexed will also likely help its traffic in the long run as they gain better positions in Google.

Grey Hat Site #3

This is a smaller website we sold on our marketplace well over six months ago. It is also showing some good signs of healthy growth as the new owner continues to scale it and grow the content on the site.

Referring Domains

At the time this site was sold, it had just 13 referring domains and likely a handful of hidden PBNs that are driving the Google rankings (and thus, traffic). By the end of January 2017, it had 18 referring domains. While not a huge growth in number, it is a large percentage of its total backlinks from unique referrers.

Traffic

The organic traffic for this site is starting to see a sharp rise, which is a great thing for the buyer. At time of purchase, this site had 3,498 visitors per month, and by end of January 2017, it had 4,188 visitors. It looks like February is going to crush out those numbers with over 5,000 visitors as well.

The site could be entering a very interesting period, where articles that were applied to the site are just now starting to come to fruition, bringing in new traffic and thus, more revenue for the website (while not always the case, more traffic tends to lead to more earnings).

It’s not hard to see that this could be the story of the website, as more and more organic keywords are being indexed by Google. The site had 1,832 keywords indexed at the time of purchase, but is now sitting at 1,979 keywords indexed. While this isn’t an extreme amount of new keywords being discovered by Google, they obviously have some good search volumes attached to them as they lifting the site to above 5,000 searches per month.

The future looks solid for this site as it continues to grow. It is possible that with just a few more good referring domains that the owner could get these new keywords to even better positions and really scale their traffic in comparison to where the site was just a few months back.

Grey Hat Site #4

This is a medium-sized site we sold on our marketplace almost a year ago. This means it has existed through several Google updates, including the Penguin 4.0 update using PBNs primarily to drive its traffic, after it was sold. Let’s take a look to see how this asset has matured in the last year or so since it was purchased.

Referring Domains

The growth of referring domains has been huge since this website has been acquired. It initially had 39 referring domains at the time of it being sold. By the end of January 2017, it had 170 referring domains, growing by over four times of what it had before the buyer started working on the asset.

Based off the graph below, it looks like this website is going be picking up even more referring domains before the end of February.

Traffic

The traffic for this site has seen some meteoric growth in the last twelve months. The ending of January saw 45,943 visitors to the site –– which likely means that this buyer has increased the earnings of this site by quite a considerable amount.

That is more almost double the amount of traffic it had when the asset was first acquired –– where it had 23,949 visitors per month.

It looks like the traffic might start plateauing a little here, with February seeing potential numbers at 42,000 (though it is too early to tell, the site could very well break through its previous record month in January).

The trend looks healthy without any uncharacteristic dips that are hallmarks of Google penalties, and looks like it will continue to grow.

Organic keywords show a similar trend of upward growth, too. When the site was first purchased, it had 3,962 keywords indexed with Google. At the end of January it held 5,142 keywords indexed by Google. One thing this can tell us is that the keywords that were indexed before, are likely getting higher positions that are more visible to Google search traffic –– thus, older indexed keywords are becoming much more profitable for the website.

While it looks like midway through February the site has 5,136 keywords –– a little lower than end of January –– this is likely not a cause for concern, as the trend has been pretty healthy.

This is another PBN-built asset that looks like it was a real winner for the buyer. The buyer most likely is scaling this site and working on it actively to produce more backlinks (and likely more content).

Grey Hat Site #5

Another medium-sized site that was purchased off our marketplace close to a year ago. This site has seen some growth as well –– though not to the same level as the above website.

Referring Domains

At the time of purchase, this website had 25 referring domains pointing at it. By the end of January, it had 48 referring domains. It looks like there is a drop that is happening in February, but it remains to be seen where that drop might be heading. It was in October where the buyer had aggressive growth with referring domains, either through more PBNs or perhaps through outreach link building methods.

Traffic

When this site was first acquired, it was only getting 5,055 visitors per month. Now almost a year after being purchased, the site is showing over double the amount of traffic at 10,714 visitors per month –– and likely more earnings than before. This graph shows dips and highs, but nothing too out of character with an overall positive trend growth.

It looks like February could be a dip with only 8,890 visitors per month. At the time of this writing though, we are only halfway through the month and it could very well pick up and maybe even crush the previous month’s traffic.

The organic keywords being indexed shows a healthy growth as well, with over 500+ new keywords being indexed since the purchase of the site. This could be the reason why the traffic has grown significantly if a lot of content was added to the website right when the buyer purchased it, as content can take six months to even a year before it starts ranking high enough where it is starting to bring in real traffic.

This site started off with 2,528 indexed organic keywords, and by the end of January they were reporting 3,065 organic keywords, with 3,013 currently showing in midway through February.

As you can see, grey hats do pose more of a risk (just look at web site #1). However, PBNs are alive and well as a stable ranking method. If the PBN is built safely and kept secured, then it is likely your website is going to be ranking for years to come.

At the end of the day, it is a risk, and you must decide if it is worth it or not. Many times a PBN site can give a money site the push they need to really get over the edge, start ranking, start making money, and start collecting white hat editorial style of links because now people are actually finding the site. When you acquire a site built off PBN, you should hedge your bets by building out white hat links to minimize the impact a penalized PBN will have on your website –– should it ever happen.

Now we have seen grey hat sites, but what about white hat sites? How are they doing?

Let’s take a look.

White Hat Site #1

When you think of a white hat site, you think that there is nothing to stop it from going up. After all, you are doing everything “by the book,” right? Well… that is not always the case. Even a site that is 100% white hat links can still be vulnerable to Google organic traffic, as this site will demonstrate with its traffic.

Referring Domains

When this website was purchased, it had 61 referring domains. At the end of January 2017 (over half a year later), the site currently has 107 referring domains. While this is a good growth, and is on par with many of the grey hat sites we talked about above, you’ll see below it didn’t exactly help its traffic.

Traffic

When this website was first purchased, it was getting 15,545 visitors per month. By the end of January this year, it had only received 11,987 visitors. What is interesting here is that there seemed to be some kind of penalty that may have hit this website just a couple months after purchase.

This big valley that the website found itself in looks like it will be short-lived. Early signs point to a large increase of organic traffic in mid-February that might start a new trend of growth, reversing the dip. One advantage that white hat sites have over grey hat sites, is that if you do get penalized, it can often be easier to recover from the penalty. This is because you have less dubious things pointing to your website, it is easier to clean up, and it fits more in line with Google’s guidelines.

Sadly, this dip didn’t lead to very much growth with the indexed organic keywords the site had. In fact, if the site was penalized there is a good chance that many of the organic keywords they were originally indexed and ranked high for lost those rankings or lost being indexed altogether (even if only for a brief time).

The good news is that the current trend is now positive, keeping in line with the organic traffic bounce back. When this site was first purchased, it had 4,415 organic keywords indexed and a year later has just over a 100 new organic keywords, sitting at 4,516, with February showing continued growth sitting at 4,569 so far.

White Hat Site #2

Here’s another white hat site that might surprise many people. This one is a midsized site that was sold on our marketplace almost one year back. Unfortunately, while there were some increases, it looks like the website is also currently in a valley when it comes to traffic and indexed keywords.

Referring Domains

When this site was bought, it had 30 referring domains pointing to it. Now, it has 61 referring domains pointing towards it. It looks like a large portion of these referring domains were acquired toward the end of last year and the start of this year.

This means these links could turn around the traffic quite dramatically, reversing the dip (which we hope it does).

Traffic

The traffic was 4,671 per month when it was first acquired. It grew slowly, then peaked during the holiday seasons with a downward trend towards the end of last year and a further downward trend in the new year. Currently, at the end of January, the website has had 4,813 visitors, which is still more than where the site used to be when it first started but not by much.

What is interesting is that something might be happening behind the scenes here. The downward trend for this website starts to really spiral out of control around December 6, which is a strange period to lose traffic.

It looks like February might rebound with higher traffic than 4,813, but it remains to be seen if it will fully turn around the trend.

Unfortunately, the website lost close to 100 organic indexed keywords. When this site was bought, it had 5,395 indexed keywords. Now, almost a year later, it has 4,413 keywords at end of January with 4,442 midway through February.

This downward trend looks bad for this site, and currently there is no trend showing that the hemorrhaging will stop. However, there is a silver lining of hope here. The upshot in referring domains could turn this around. The link juice from these extra domains could be enough to steer this ship back into a growth spurt ,but we will need more time to see the effect these links will have on the website.

White Hat Site #3

Now, this is a very intriguing website. It was already a very large website when it was sold on our marketplace, and it has seen some amazing growth in the months since its purchase.

Referring Domains

This website had 850 referring domains when it was purchased. In the year since the acquisition, it has more than tripled its amount of referring domains. At the end of January, it now boasts 3,768 referring domains.

Now, this is some really aggressive growth here. If it wasn’t white hat links (editorial mentions and shares), it could really hurt the website. As you want to go about building links somewhat slowly with grey hat sites to keep under the radar. This kind of velocity, if it is white hat, is awesome, totally acceptable, and can really grow the website as it did in this case.

Traffic

When this site was purchased, it was getting 64,679 visitors. That is a pretty healthy amount of visitors already but the site was able to grow even more by having 81,246 visitors by the end of January.

All those extra referring domains added over the last year seem to be really kicking in to help the traffic. The product for this website could also help too, as it is a product that becomes very hot around Christmas time and requires maintenance –– so they could be seeing a spike in January from people learning how to maintain their new product. Still, the growth of traffic here is significant enough that it is likely the increase in referring domains helped to seriously contribute to positive traffic growth.

There was 82,527 indexed keywords at the time of purchase. In the year since its acquisition, the website had 89,233 indexed keywords at the end of January with 90,603 organic keywords indexed midway through February.

I believe this site is right on the crest of getting even more organic keywords indexed thanks to the referring domains. It is also likely that a large portion of the keywords that were indexed at time of purchase are now ranking high in Google because of the new backlinks, bringing in more organic traffic.

White Hat Site #4

A smaller website, this business shows some steady growth as well, albeit on a much smaller scale than the site above. When you are dealing with smaller sites like this, it is worthwhile to point out that even little fluctuations can make a big impact on any kind of data graph.

Referring Domains

When this website was first purchased, it had nine referring domains, and a little over a year later it has 14 referring domains. This is not a huge amount of growth here, and as you can see, the website used to have far more than nine and 14 referring domains at one point before it was purchased by the new buyer. Typically, losing over half of your referring domains will also result in a traffic loss of some sort; luckily, that didn’t turn out to be quite the case with this website.

Traffic

At time of purchase, this site had 859 visitors coming towards it. Now, it has 1,737 visitors –– more or less double the traffic it was getting. This is great, especially considering the loss of the majority of its referring domains and the five new referring domains it gained. It probably stands to reason that the referring domains that were pointed at this website initially were weak enough to be of no concern, versus the new referring domains that were added had more link juice to give to the website.

February is already a record breaker month for this site at 2,010 visitors this month.

The organic keywords that were indexed at time of purchase was 851. Over the year, it is now at 1,060 indexed keywords at end of January with 1,066 midway through February.

Both the organic traffic and indexed keywords growth look healthy. The trend, while a slow grow, looks like it will continue to be steady and likely profitable for the buyer.

White Hat Site #5

This site is a relatively large site that sold on our marketplace little over a year ago. The stats for this white hat site were impressive to begin with, and the trend for it has continued to go upwards.

Referring Domains

When this site was first acquired, it had 1,002 referring domains. That is quite a lot, but the site content itself is extremely shareable, so this makes sense. These referring domains are a big reason why it is getting so much organic traffic.

However, a year after purchasing the site, the site now sits 1,531 referring domains. Over 500 referring domains added, and the trend looks like it will continue upwards. It has had small dips here and there, but the overall trend looks positive and healthy.

Traffic

When this site was first acquired, it had 165,377 visitors for that month. At the end of January this year, it had 187,511 visitors.

Before the site was sold, it was in a downward trend with its traffic. The traffic reached its lowest in October 2016, a few months after the purchase. However, the site was able to rally itself and now looks like it is off to even higher traffic-breaking records with 213,720 visitors halfway through February. This is impressive growth, and shows some good active management by the buyer.

Organic keywords, however, tell a different kind of story. When this site was acquired, it had 74,207 organic keywords. At the end of January 2017, it had 72,404. Midway through February it is showing 73,253, which is good, as it is almost back to the level of where it was when it was purchased.

This just goes to show you that you can have tens of thousands of keywords indexed in Google, but it does not translate into an increase in traffic. The site right now is getting the most traffic it has ever gotten, while having less keywords actually ranked in Google. Though, if the traffic and referring domains increase is anything to go by, it will likely reach its previous levels of indexed keywords and gather even more keywords.

As you can see, both grey hat sites and white hat sites had one of out the five examples I chose where the site crashed. The reasonings why they crashed could be a multiple of things. For the grey hat site, it could have been that the PBN was penalized. Or, it could be any number of other factors that Google is taking into account — maybe even the exact same factor the algorithm took into account to penalize the white hat site on this list.  Though, the white hat site is likely in better shape than the grey hat site, as least it has retained a large portion of its traffic still.

This all leads to a question…

Should You Buy a Site Built with a PBN?

You have read the history of PBNs, learned about the three schools of SEO, listened to professionals in the industry, and now finished a quick analysis of 10 sites (five grey hat sites that use PBNs and five white hat sites without PBNs) that were sold on our marketplace.

It is a lot of information to take in, and you might be wondering why there isn’t a definite answer coming from me on whether you should or shouldn’t buy a site built with a PBN. This is because it depends on who you are and what your resources are.

If you are someone with zero knowledge of SEO, I would shy away from a PBN. You should have a fair grasp of the risk before plunging in. A PBN built site is always going to be riskier than a pure white hat site.

Of course, that doesn’t mean white hat sites can’t get penalized, too. No SEO strategy is 100% safe, and even black hat strategies can last long term in the right situations.

That is why you should understand each school of thought when it comes to SEO, whether it is white hat, grey hat, or black hat. All three can lead to long-term profits, but you should be well aware of the risks involved with each of them before purchasing any kind of online asset.

The main factors for buying a PBN is whether you can accept the risk, and for you to have a plan to spread out the risk by adding in a good amount of white hat links. A site that has been around for a while, propped up by a PBN, will likely collect its own retinue of natural links just because there are people seeing the site and over time this can make the PBN unnecessary.

In addition to these natural links, you should also do white hat link building campaigns such as a series of guest posts on other powerful websites to again minimize the potential risk.

While PBNs do add this layer of risk and complexity to your due diligence, that doesn’t mean they can’t be great investments. As you see from above, we have many buyers that have bought a website built off a PBN that are likely still profiting today, if not more based off their traffic numbers.

If you see a website that is perfect for you, that you can understand and feel like you can grow (and have the resources to grow), don’t let the fact that it was built initially using a PBN stop you. It is likely that if you see opportunities to grow the site, you will be able to minimize the risk of the PBN with more sustainable links –– especially as you add more content to the site.

Even if you don’t plan on growing the site and just allow it to rest on its laurels, these styles of websites can still deliver a consistent income that takes minimal amount of time to manage –– sometimes just a handful of hours per month.

It comes down to your level of comfort with risk, and what your strategy is overall.
Only you can make those due diligence choices, but hopefully this post helped to lighten the burden when it comes to making them.

Photo credit: Olivier26


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Discussion
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  1. Sia Mohajer says:

    Great writeup guys!

  2. David says:

    I’ve slowly but surely been replacing my PBN links with whitehat guest posts. I’ve probably replaced 50-60 links or so over the past 8 months. It helps me sleep better at night.

    Great post BTW. I read it once kinda quick. Definitely going to go through more slowly and see what nuggets I can find. :)

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey David!

      Thanks for the kind words man, hope you like it on the second-read through too :-)

      Replacing your PBN links with white hat links isn’t a terrible strategy. Obviously, PBNs carry risk, though the majority of sites we showed here are doing quite, for the most part, if you know how to scale white hat links then why not go that route? It all comes down what is easiest to deploy and scale in that sense of which strategy you use

  3. Steve says:

    Greg,
    Thanks for the post. I think the last section is bit inconclusive.
    Is it fine to buy a site built with PBN?
    A quantified answer will really help.

    However, thanks for taking time to educate the community.

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey Steve

      Education is our biggest goal. As far as conclusive goes, that is kind of the point of the article. Some people are diehard against ever buying a PBN site – which is fine but as you can see from our sample the majority of the PBN sites increased in value. So is it worth investing in a site built using a PBN? Yes, if you understand how PBNs work and you can make sure the PBN is well built and maintained – buying a site with built off a PBN can be an awesome investment.

      Even white hat sites are not safe from Google penalties and algorithm changes that can seriously hurt your organic traffic. PBNs will add an extra layer of risk, there’s no real way of getting around it, but you can make significant returns with acquiring a profitable website built off a PBN

  4. Nemanja says:

    First of all, fantastic post Greg, among of the best ones this year.

    You are totally right when you say that even white hat is not 100% safe from Google penalties. The biggest advantage of outreach is that you will establish a great relationship with bloggers who already have social following and traffic, something that ordinary PBNs don’t have.

    I personally use PBNs most of the time but during my last tests the gap is closing fast and outreach is as effective as a pbn link in some cases. In my opinion, every PBN should be treated like a proper site with focus on quality, traffic and social activity. That way you get the best of both worlds.

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey Nemanja!

      Thanks a lot, man! I really appreciate that compliment.

      It is true that white hat is not completely safe, nothing is. Technically, white hat SEO still goes against Google’s TOS (with guest posting being one they specifically highlight). The big benefit of white hat links versus PBN links outside of the risk involved with PBNs, is that if your site DOES get hit, there are still real people flowing through those links as you said, unlike PBNs.

      PBNs can be an awesome strategy, though. If you’re a buyer, you can buy a site built using a PBN and profit for the long haul making great ROI – as long as the PBN is built correctly and well-maintained. If all things being equal, a white hat site is most likely going be a more valuable asset though.

      I agree on white hat catching up to grey hat in terms of ease of use. Nowadays, there are tons of outreach methods that are very scalable and pretty easy to deploy – such as Brian Dean’s Skyscraper Method / Broken Link Building. And just like there are PBN link rentals today, there are entire agencies that are becoming very easy hire even for affiliate marketers. There are entire agencies that focus on JUST the broken link building / skyscraper techniques for example.

      All that being said, I think PBNs are going be a valid strategy still for a very long time to come

  5. Holy cow!! What a monster post… This thing could be an eBook! I know PBN’s are kind of yesterday’s news and many niche site builders have shied away from them. People who still use them don’t tend to talk publicly about it very much anymore.

    Personally – I’m going with a diversified approach. I won’t buy ‘public’ PBN links… but I’ll definitely still use ‘private’ PBN links as a smaller percentage of my overall backlink profile.

    Thanks for the great read! Probably the best post I’ve ever seen on PBN’s.

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey Mathew!

      Really appreciate the compliment, thanks, man! I was really aiming to make it all comprehensive and help our buyers really understand what PBNs are. Many niche site builders are still using PBNs quite effectively, though you’re right that many thought leaders in SEO aren’t talking about them as much as they use to. There is still such a huge usage of this strategy that there are thriving businesses being built around just helping people manage their PBNs. So they definitely DO work if you build them right and maintain them right, but they will always have that extra layer of risk.

      Diversifying can be a good strategy depending on what you’re wanting to do. Personally, I’m more in favor of finding one strategy that is easiest for you to scale the fastest – then use that income to purchase other businesses that might be using different strategies. Here is what I would do:

      1. If I built using total 100% black hat strategies to get to $20k permonth, why would I not invest heavily in scaling this even further?
      2. Once scaled further say I am making $30-50k per month, I would take a large chunk of that money to purchase authority sites built off white hat or PBN sites (depending on the PBN)
      3. I would use my black hat income to then purchase huge amounts of content to add to the authority sites.

      So when my black hat strategy ceases to work, I already have income producing white hat sites since white hat sites will usually take a lot longer to rank, purchasing them just makes the most sense to me. The research is already done, the site is already proven profitable, and if it’s a good brand that means I can probably grow it significantly by expanding the content into other tangentially related niches (i.e a white hat site about boats could easily branch into both the topics of jet skis and fishing, or expand dramatically on the amount/type of boats the site is talking about).

      It all comes down to what is the easiest for you specifically, for myself and many others white hat is the one that comes most naturally to us so should probably be the one we focus on the most. All things being equal, the white hat site will be more valuable to a buyer than a grey hat site – and the black hat site will likely be unsellable as those are too much churn and burn.

      Thanks a lot again for the compliment and hope the post helps you a ton :-)

  6. AARON KORAL says:

    Hi, Greg. Well-written post on PBN’s for a newbie norm like myself to understand. I noticed that there seemed to be a strong correlation between the increase/decrease in organic keywords with the rise/decline of organic traffic with white hat sites. I was wondering whether you agree and are there ways for new buyers to find the necessary keywords to build organic traffic? Thanks!

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey Aaron!

      Thanks so much for the kind words, really appreciate it!

      As far as the increase in organic keywords with an increase in traffic, that is mostly to be expected. As your site gets more traffic, you can deduct your site is also likely more powerful within Google’s algorithm and therefore new keywords should be appearing that you start ranking for. Of course, you might be ranking for tons of extra keywords that are still past page 1 so are not really sending you any meaningful traffic, but seeing more organic keywords being indexed is a good sign.

      One thing you can do when you acquire a new site is run the site through Ahrefs or SEMRush. Look for keywords on Page 2 and beyond and see which article is ranking for that keyword. If it makes sense, turn that keyword into its own subsection within the article and add 300-500 words to the article just about that.

      For example if I had a website about the home and part of that site is talking about taking care of your backyard, I notice I’m ranking on Page 2 for “How to build a shed”. In the original article, I might only mention this phrase very briefly and not give it much attention. Now that I know I’m on Page 2 for this keyword, I will add 300-500 words (maybe even up to a 1,000) to the article underneath its own subheader “How to Build a Shed”. Within that section, I could even link out to some affiliate offers that teach people how to do this.

      So I’ve added content that should help rank that keyword more, plus added a new opportunity for my readers to buy something from me.

      The next strategy to find more keywords is to look at your competitors for the site. When you purchase the site, google each keyword you are ranking on the 1st page for, you will likely find competitor websites that are often your equal in terms of domain strength. Take these URLs, run them through a tool like Ahrefs, and find all the keywords THEY rank for – this is a super easy way to find good keywords your site can rank for. After all, if your site is outranking them right now, why couldn’t you outrank them for other keywords they are ranking for that you have yet to written about?

      Hope these two strategies helped Aaron!

  7. Greg, really great post. You managed to avoid the common hyperbole on both sides of the debate and really put together one of the most balanced articles I’ve seen on the subject.

    It might surprise you to hear this, given that we are a SaaS business aimed at helping large scale PBN owners, that PBN’s are often not the answer. I think most sane people would always try white hat link building strategies first. Then if that doesn’t work, explore paid and social traffic. Then if all else fails, and you’re sure you’re actually providing something people want, then turn to PBN’s.

    As Jon alluded to in your post, we operate in one or two industries where natural link and guest posting opportunities would be with rival affiliates. They’re not about to start passing authority to the competition (as we wouldn’t to them). In other industries, we use PBNs to top off our organic traffic to our ‘money pages’ (review content etc) that wouldn’t receive any natural links.

    PBN’s should be your last resort or at least part of a well-balanced and varied traffic acquisition strategy.

    For your clients, it’s more relevant to help them assess the risk of being lumbered with a site that relies on PBNs. You covered this in awesome details, so I’ll just add one final tip.

    We’ve monitored 10,000’s of expired domains since 2011 and pieced together 10’s of big networks. Google is pretty bad at finding private PBN’s algorithmically. We see what appear to be sub-standard private networks survive update after update, public PBN scare, after public PBN scare.

    So what is going on?

    We’re pretty certain Google’s web spam team relies heavily on reports from other site owners. If you can see PBN links in a potential purchase’s SEO profile at Majestic, Moz & Ahefs, the site’s going to pay the price sooner or later.

    Rivals will quite innocently check your backlink profile for linking opportunities for their own sites. When they see a PBN they are either going to report you, or start building their own PBN’s (perhaps even both!). That spells trouble for you.

    For us this is the biggest risk in PBN management today behind basic footprint management. Owners need to block all the SEO robots (other than Google & Bing, of course) and ensure that their links can’t be uncovered (easily) and reported.

    So, I’d conclude with that buyers shouldn’t discount a potential purchase just because it uses a PBN, but just appreciate that there is a great spectrum of risk involved. However, that can be accessed quickly if you know what to look for.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey Ben!

      Thank you for your comment, really appreciate it! I am glad you felt we avoided the hyperbole. I feel both sides of the debate (white hat vs grey hat) often have too narrow a view on the subject, not really taking the other side into account. We wanted this post to really help our buyers understand PBNs if they’ve never been exposed to them before, while also understanding the risks that can be involved.

      It’s interesting you mentioned that most PBNs are likely being discovered by other webmasters reporting those PBNs to Google. It’s not something I had thought about, but that makes a lot of sense. The more hidden the PBN is from any sort of service that tracks links (like you mentioned, Majestics/Ahrefs etc.) then the better off they are going to be in protecting their PBNs.

      Purchasing sites with PBNs can definitely be a great move for a buyer. Just as there are risks that comes with owning a PBN site, there are rewards with owning one too – the biggest reward being the ability to directly control the links pointing to your site. As long as the seller would be willing to work with you on taking those links down, or adding more from their network, or in the rare case they sold the entire PBN network to you along with the site.

  8. […] example, I wrote the post The Risk and Rewards of PBNs and analyzed a bunch of sites from our […]

  9. Greg,

    Monster post. I just drop it in a word count and got > 14,000. As someone that’s worked with SEO thought leaders over the past 4 years, I never even bothered to learn about PBNs (I knew much about them 10 years ago). But now, my clients demand I give the full 411 on link building.

    Here’s the only thing I don’t get: buy an old domain for, say, $300 and spend time to “hand-hold” a VA to build it (and 10 others, say). That’s going to cost $500 per site including shared host cost on different acct for each– at least. This assumes it a strong site already, as I really don’t see how something under $150 at auction can do much.

    How many of their own money site or client sites are guys linking to? Just one per PBN from what I know.

    How is the economical vs. simple editorial link buying (if someone insists on GH/BH)?Or WH outreach?

    Most agencies can’t charge more than $350 per good link (DR 40- 48 ahrefs). PBNs seem pretty expensive IMHO.

    Eric

    • Greg Elfrink says:

      Hey Eric!

      Thanks for the compliment on the monster post :-)

      People have been able to rank things using cheaper PBNs than that, but you are right, really good PBNs you’ll probably be dropping at least a couple hundred dollars on them to purchase them. Typically a PBN will link out to about 3 to 5 money sites max, as more than that weakens the effect of the PBN since it is linking out to too many sites.

      The thing with PBNs is that you are always 100% in control of the style of links you get, and you can take those links down or put up new ones on a whim based off your own research or methodology. This level of control is something that you can’t really obtain through white hat methods.

      For SEOs just starting out, PBNs can often be a better solution as it takes less skill to set up than say a really killer white hat outtreach campaign. Starting out, the PBN method is quite economical, especially from an agency standpoint since there is very minimal content requirements that you’ll need. Since you don’t need any killer content to earn links, you can just focus on ranking your money pages. At scale though, PBNs in my opinion are far more expensive. For businesses that aren’t local businesses, I really recommend white hat outreach since it’s way less to manage as you gain more links and traction than PBNs, less risk, it’ll make your website worth more (white hat content sites for example typically are listed on our marketplace for 10% more than PBN fueled sites when it comes to the valuation), and makes it a lot easier to sell since people trust white hat more than grey hat.

      • Eric says:

        Greg-

        Good for you in showing many sides to this story. I doubt there is anything at all on Moz or SEL with a balanced view on PBNs, in spite of the fact that they are the best SEO editorial websites IMO. People are so afraid to talk about this, unless they are doing for their own small business, that companies with over 20 people are highly mis-educated about PBNs.

        It does concern me that most of the people focused on PBNs were’t even around when GOOG introduced the Penguin filter. I remember it well, and the whole SEO industry got a super bad rap because so many SEO’s client sites got whacked. I also think machine learning, which is so amazing at finding patterns and teaching itself on that basis, will be highly effective in finding/downing many PBNS in1-3 years– but you know that.

        • Greg Elfrink says:

          Hey Eric!

          Appreciate the kind words man. People really are afraid to talk about the concepts of PBNs. The fact is, PBNs just plain work if done well and they can be maintained safely. Does it still create an extra layer of risk for the site? Absolutely.

          One buyer strategy we have seen with PBN sites is taking that site and slowly turning it into a white hat site where they earn real links from real websites and turn off the PBN links. In fact, we actually had a seller recently do this where he turned a six figure website that had PBNs attached to it, into a completely white hat SEO site.

          As far as the Penguin update goes, I know plenty of PBN people that were using PBNs before that update, and still making money without any penalties after that update. This goes to show you, Google can’t catch all PBNs and well-made ones can last even harder hitting Google updates.

          I do agree with you on machine learning, over time Google is going to get better at learning what is a PBN. I believe it is likely when this happens that even white hate sites might tank a bit, with Google at first penalizing sites that it believes has a PBN attached to it but doesn’t. Overtime that’ll sort itself out, likely to the chagrin of website owners.

          One thing that is very interesting in today’s environment is that white hat SEO has never been easier. There are plenty of tools (like Buzzstream for example) that take out a lot of the heavy lifting belonging to link building, and systems can be put into place to make earning white hat links a real repeatable process.

          Maybe not for all sites (local business sites for example might have a harder go at it), but in the space we operate in up to the enterprise level for sure.

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