Chances are, if you’re reading this, your website's visibility on Google is crucial to your business’s success. You need to be on the first search engine results page (SERP).
More than that, you need to be ranked #1.
The best way to get your website up there is with search engine optimization (SEO). With the right focus keywords, high-quality content, solid technical SEO, and valuable backlinks, your site will have a good chance of outranking the competition.
But generating authentic, high-quality backlinks is often easier said than done. It’s not always as simple as asking for a link from a reputable site. (And asking at all could technically be in violation of Google’s terms of service!)
For this reason, many website owners and SEOs attempt to take the easy way out. In many cases, this means buying links or establishing a private blog network (PBN).
Is building a PBN (or buying PBN links) actually an effective form of link building? In this guide, we break down what PBNs are and why you should avoid them like they’re annoying sales calls.
What is a PBN?
A PBN (or a “Private Blog Network”) is a network of websites created for the sole purpose of building links to a single website to enhance the site's SEO. By building up the authority of multiple sites and then linking to the primary website, PBN users hope to manipulate the search engine rankings of the primary website (aka the “money website”).
How Do PBNs Work?
As the name implies, a Private Blog Network consists of the owners’ own private websites. Someone building a PBN will create multiple domains with pretty basic website designs and often “filler” or spun content (think low-quality, mass-produced content mill junk). Then, once these sites gain domain authority, the owner will link from the PBN site to the main business website.
The result is a structure that looks something like this:
One thing to note is that the PBN sites do not link to each other. This is because the creator of the PBN wants the sites to look like they're unrelated to each other, in order for the links to seem “natural.”
Otherwise, it makes it easier for users and search engines to catch on that someone is linking their own websites to each other in order to manipulate their site rankings.
In case it wasn’t clear already, this is not a natural way of building links. Typically, the websites within the PBN offer no stand-alone value to users. Their authority is based solely on manipulation. PBN marketing, then, is considered a “black hat” (or at best, “grey hat”) SEO tactic.
Why Would Someone Buy PBN Backlinks?
Not every person who decides to use a PBN creates their own network. Sometimes, they may decide to buy links from PBNs.
They may seek out SEO experts in order to buy links to manipulate their website rankings. Or, they may be working with an SEO "expert" or agency that is buying links on their behalf – with or without them knowing.
Buying cheap PBN links may seem like a simple, affordable way to build links. After all, we all know that backlinks are important for SEO – and that building natural links isn’t always easy.
But does using a PBN or buying PBN links come at a cost? In a word: yes. And that cost can be huge.
“Black Hat” vs “White Hat” – The Hot Debate Over PBN Links
The topic of PBN link building has caused a heated debate in the SEO industry. Some people swear by them as a solid link building method. Others are passionate about making business owners aware of the dangers of PBNs.
You’ll find loads of articles online from both sides of the debate. Some articles include studies that show an uptick in rankings and traffic as a result of PBN link building.
On the flip side, there are tons of articles that show what can happen if Google catches on to black hat link building tactics.
Are PBNs Bad?
Well, it’s complicated.
We recognize that there are people out there that are successfully using PBNs to drive traffic. There’s no doubt that if you’re slick, they can absolutely work. Yet, we don’t use them and we don’t advise our clients to use them.
Why? Simple: because they explicitly go against Google’s SEO guidelines.
Of course, there are many other things go against Google’s SEO guidelines. The reality is that while Google often says one thing, it frequently does another.
But PBNs are different. If you’re caught using a PBN, you risk being hit with a penalty from Google. That means in an instant, all of your organic traffic will be gone.
Yes — all of it.
For us (and our clients) that’s just too big of a risk. Our opinion isn’t an uncommon one, either.
Typically, you’ll only see experienced SEOs using PBNs in fields where “churn and burn” is the name of the game. Basically, think of the shadiest industries you can (gambling, porn and drugs, for instance) — that’s exactly where you’ll find PBNs running rampant.
Likewise, we think it’s scummy that many SEOs offer up PBNs as a quick fix to their clients without letting them know of the risks. We’ve had desperate clients come to us in the past after being duped by less-than-legit SEO agencies.
Often, they’re deep in the hole and need a quick fix, but there isn’t much we can do for them. Google penalties are difficult to climb out of — it often takes years to fully reverse the damage.
The True Cost of Cheap PBN Links
The potential risks of building PBNs or buying sketchy backlinks are well documented. Those unfortunate enough to have gotten penalized by search engines for PBN link building can tell you that possible short-term payoffs are not worth the risks.
So, what does it mean when your site is hit with a Google penalty?
Getting a penalty could result in:
- Getting your entire domain blacklisted
- Your website getting removed from the search results
- A complete wipeout of all of your traffic
- Taking years for your website to recover
- Loss of business due to a dramatic decrease in organic traffic
Once you’ve been hit by a penalty, your shady SEO agency likely isn’t giving you a refund, either. That means all of your marketing cash just got lit on fire. Yikes.
We’re not even touching the costs associated with starting up and running your own PBN. Buying the necessary domains, stuffing them with content, paying for hosting (and you’re going to want to use different IPs as to not make it obvious), and constantly adding new sites into your rotation is expensive.
And if you get caught, it’s all for nothing.
How Google Catches On To PBNs
Using a PBN is sneaky, and many people think they aren’t going to get caught. But PBNs are nothing new, and Google is pretty good at spotting the red flags associated with unnatural link building.
Google gets suspicious when sites have backlinks from websites that have poor content, show little activity, and have no internal linking structure. PBN websites also tend to have a few tell-tale signs that they aren’t legit:
- Keyword stuffing
- “Fluff” or spun content
- No internal links
- Few external links
- Little to no activity
- Sneaky URL redirects
- Link farms/link networks
- Hidden text
Basically, if you are getting away with PBNs for now, it’s only a matter of time before Google or someone else catches on. If your website does get penalized, can you afford that drop in traffic and sales? For most businesses, the answer is a resounding no.
How to Avoid PBN Links
Whether you do your own website SEO or have hired an SEO agency to do it for you, you should avoid PBNs like the plague. But if you are working with an outside agency, catching black hat link building isn’t always easy.
Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt – your business is at stake. If you're suspicious, always ask to know how your agency is going about building links to your website.
A reputable SEO agency will always be willing to tell you where they are getting their links from, or rather, how they plan on building links for your website. If they start talking about “properties they control,” ask them if they mean a PBN.
If they say yes, it’s up to you to decide if that’s a risk you want to take.
What is the Importance of Backlinks in SEO?
Fundamentally, most SEO revolves around two things: optimizing your website, and optimizing how many people are linking to it. The first category covers everything that’s actually on your website itself: is your content good, and does it provide value to the reader? Is it indexed properly? Is your formatting solid? Are your images relevant? Are your meta tags in order? We could go on forever, but you get the idea.
The other part of it is much simpler: are respected websites linking to yours?
Yet, while optimizing a website is something that often feels very much in your control, getting others to link to it can be frustrating. That’s why PBNs are popular: why go through that hassle when you can just sink money into it and make links appear?
Here’s the good news, though: you don’t have to jump to using a PBN to reliably pick up high-quality backlinks. Likewise, most SEOs aren’t using PBNs for this, either.
That’s not because we’re all ethical purists who follow Google’s law to the letter, either — it’s just because all that risk simply isn’t necessary.
How to Create Good Backlinks for SEO
The best backlinks in SEO are those that are earned naturally due to the fact that your website content is just super awesome. If your website is a source of great information, other websites will want to link to it.
If you structure your content the properly and target the right search terms, it'll rank well in the search engine results pages (SERPs). When your content starts to rank well, more people find it, and more people link to it.
So in a way, getting your pages to rank well is one of the best ways to organically generate more backlinks to specific pages. I get backlink alerts from BuzzSumo all the time, just because people find TCF's content and link to it as a resource.
Some of these people write for Forbes, Entrepreneur, or other industry sites. That means our content gets linked to in Forbes, Entrepreneur and other industry sites. This is my favorite way to get backlinks, because it requires no outreach effort and yields major results over time.
That being said, there are things you can do to grab the attention of other website owners. These methods are ethical and do not involve manipulating users or search engines.
If you're wondering how to get good backlinks for SEO, avoid PBNs and use these four TCF-tested methods instead:
1. HARO (Help a Reporter Out)
If you want to build backlinks to your website, and haven’t tried HARO before, you need to subscribe to HARO immediately. It is by far one of the best ways to create high-quality backlinks for SEO.
“HARO” stands for Help a Reporter Out, and is a free subscription service where website owners can respond to reporters who are seeking out expert sources for their articles. When reporters conduct research for a story, they often use quotes and references from expert sources. This is where you come in.
Sign up to receive daily emails from HARO, and then browse the queries from reporters looking for quotes. You can then respond to the reporters directly and potentially get featured in their article. The best part? They will typically include a backlink to your website when they use you as a source.
We’ve used HARO to build hundreds of links for our clients. You can use our exact method by signing up and writing HARO pitches that entice reporters to link to your site.
2. Create Content That Invites Backlinks – So You Don't Need a PBN in the First Place
Want to know a secret? I don’t actually use all 37 of these extensions. Yet, I knew that if I made a list of the best extensions, marketers would come knocking at my door desperate to get me to link to them.
Understandable! Who wouldn’t want to be included, right?
And that’s exactly the point — if you create content that people WANT to be part of, you can often open up networking opportunities for yourself. Maybe you write a guest post for them later, or maybe they quote you in a future blog post. Maybe they give you a shout out on social media.
Do this enough, and you’ll end up with a lot of marketers as friends who will want to help you out.
In fact, I recently wrote an article on LinkedIn about how being an evangelist for brands (and their CEOs) can have a HUGE impact on your career – and bottom line. Guess who tweeted, shared, and championed that article? All the people I mentioned in it.
See how this works?
Not to mention, when you’re putting together content that has input from so many people who genuinely want to be part of what you’re building, you’re going to be creating content that’s high value. That, by itself, invites people to naturally link to you.
Not sure how to create killer content? Here’s how to brush up on your web content writing skills.
3. Reach Out to Industry/Business Listings
While this one is especially important for businesses that care about local SEO, the general idea can apply even if you don’t care about local search traffic that much.
Business directories often exist for various industries or locations. This might mean directories of all the hair salons in your town, or every mechanic in a certain city.
Likewise, there are lists out there of reputable marketing agencies or independent real estate brokers. Provided these lists are relevant to your website, they are often easy to get on.
Not sure where to find them? Try searching Google for your city + your industry + directory.
Alternatively, look around for professional groups that represent your industry, or even your local Chamber of Commerce. These groups often are more than willing to link to your website. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, this can be extra beneficial, as it’ll help Google recognize your local cache.
Additionally, consider seeking out niche blog communities. No matter your industry, there are people blogging about it. While, at first glance, these sites might not be appealing (low traffic, etc.), they likely have a certain topic authority in the eyes of Google.
That can mean that their link might not look super impressive, but it might just be the difference between ranking #5 and #4 — which could be a huge difference in traffic.
4. Publish Guest Posts
Websites are constantly looking for ways to create more content and provide more value to their readers. It’s a big job, and they often seek out guest writers for help. This presents an opportunity for you to share your expertise and acquire a backlink.
Some sites will advertise guest posting opportunities, others may not. If you want to write for a site, it’s worth sending them a message asking if they accept guest posts. They may have certain guidelines you need to adhere to, but that’s OK. What you want to look for is whether they allow dofollow backlinks or not.
Websites that allow dofollow backlinks in guest posts are the ideal. They can be a great source of link juice and traffic. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should pass over websites that don’t allow a link (or only allow nofollow links).
These sites can still bump up your brand’s reputation, earn you exposure on social media, and help you create profitable business connections.
Land some guest post spots to build links to your website with our Guest Posting 101 guide.
5. Ask for Backlinks Using the Skyscraper Technique
The Skyscraper Technique is a method of reaching out to the publishers of blog content that already ranks, and asking them to update their content to link back to yours. It's pretty simple, actually: search for terms related to your content, find the blog posts that are relevant and could be updated to include a link to your content, and reach out to the admin of the site and ask them to update their page to link back to yours.
This can be time consuming, but worth it: Brian Dean had an 11% success rate on his outreach, and it doubled his organic traffic in just two weeks.
You'll have a lot more success with this if your site is well established and has a high domain authority, and you offer some kind of quid pro quo. Often, this can just be the promise to share the updated page across your social networks.
In order for this to be effective you'll need to send out a lot of inquiry pitches, but even just a couple of backlinks from the right sites can make a huge difference over time.
Skip the PBN Links – Create SEO Backlinks the Right Way
PBNs may seem quick, cheap and easy, but experience shows that they can have disastrous consequences when it comes to your website’s SEO. Receiving a Google penalty and losing all of your traffic is just not worth it.
The good news is that there are plenty of ethical, non-manipulative ways to create good backlinks. From HARO to guest posting to creating killer content, you’ll have no problem driving links to your website that are made to last.
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