Building links is hard. And when your link building efforts don’t immediately pay off, it’s tempting to dream of having a network of websites to place links on. This would definitely make life much easier, right?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a new idea. These website networks are known as PBNs (private blog networks), and using them is against Google guidelines.
TLDR: Should You Use PBN Backlinks?
In the vast majority of cases, it is a bad idea to generate PBN backlinks. Doing so can lead to big penalties and ranking drops. If you’re happy to take on a high-risk, high-reward strategy, you may benefit from these links in the short term.
But here's the most important point to note - Unless you build your own private blog network, you're 100% at the mercy of somebody else's network. If they pull the plug on you then all of your hard work could be undone overnight, and that's not a clever business decision.
What Are PBN Backlinks?
Private Blog Network (PBN) backlinks are links built from a network of privately owned websites to another site. The PBN sites only exist to link to the main site, and hopefully push the pages up the search engine rankings.
PBNs can work because Google’s algorithm uses a website’s link profile when deciding where to rank it. The idea is that pages attract links when the content is worth linking to, so a high number of links can be a sign that a page is high quality.
Of course, if you’re adding your links from a PBN to your main site it doesn't mean that at all. It just means you’re trying to game the system.
Because of this, search engines don’t like PBNs. And while they used to be an effective way to rank websites, Google is now adept at discovering these networks and penalizing people who use them.
How Do People Build PBNs?
Backlinks are most effective when they come from authoritative domains. But building this type of site is expensive and time consuming.
Because of this, people who run PBNs take several shortcuts.
First, they build the sites on expired domains that have existing authority due to links generated by the previous owner. The new owner just adds content to the expired domain and adds the links within these articles.
And while adding high-quality website content is expensive, PBN owners use cheap, low-quality content—or increasingly, content generated by AI copywriting tools.
PBN owners will also often try to hide the fact that the sites are related. They do this by using different hosting providers, adding content that doesn’t link to their site, and using different themes.
How to Generate PBN Backlinks
There are two main ways to generate PBN backlinks.
The first is to build a network yourself and use it to prop up your own site or sites.
If you go down this route, you’ll keep the PBN hidden and selectively link out to your own websites from the network. These networks can be effective for a period of time if they are run well enough.
The other way to get PBN backlinks is to buy them from an existing network. If you take this path, you can get a high number of links in a short space of time.
But the people who run these networks are often less careful with hiding the sites in their network. They may even tell buyers which sites they own.
Ultimately, this means these networks are very unlikely to offer any benefits to people who buy links. They’re essentially link building scams designed to trick people into handing over money for ineffective links.
Not All Website Networks Are PBNs
Many people own multiple websites and link between them. We even do it ourselves, when we link to the site for our PPC advertising service PPC Genius from the LinkBuilder website.
This type of interlinking is not the same as a PBN. There is nothing wrong with linking between sites you own as long as you don’t overdo it and the links make sense.
A network of websites only becomes a PBN when it is designed with the sole purpose of linking to other websites.
In fact, plenty of top website operators link between the sites they own. Check out the top bar on Gizmodo. It links to 11 websites that collectively generate many millions in search traffic.
Should You Build PBN Links?
In the vast majority of cases, you shouldn’t build PBN links. But in the interest of fairness, here is a look at some of the pros and cons of doing so.
✔️ PBNs are an easy way to generate backlinks to your website
✔️ You can choose the exact pages to point links to
✔️ You can choose the optimal anchor text to use
✔️ You can create links at scale
✔️ If you own the PBN, the links are free
✔️ PBNs can work in some situations, such as generating short-term traffic increases
❌ PBN links can cause severe Google penalties
❌ PBNs are expensive to set up, as you need to buy expired domains and add content
❌ The PBN links you can buy are almost always worthless
❌ Even if you see a rankings increase, this could be taken away when Google discovers the PBN
❌ It can be hard to sell sites if they are built with PBN links
Google’s stance is clear: it doesn't like PBN links. While the search engine’s Webmaster Guidelines don’t specifically mention PBNs, they do discuss many associated practices.
In addition, Google released a link spam update in December 2022 which aims to target links from these types of sites.
It specifically says that any link “intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.”
Ultimately, if you want to stay on the right side of Google’s regulations don’t use PBN links.
What We Think
There are many places where Google’s guidelines and the realities of the SEO industry don’t quite match up. For example, paid links go against Google guidelines but are becoming increasingly common (as webmasters look to monetize) and effective.
But we think that PBNs are an area where it is best to stay on the right side of Google. The search engine is adept at spotting these networks and many sites that use these links have been destroyed. At LinkBuilder, we never build links on PBNs
What Will Happen If You Use PBN Backlinks?
If you do choose to buy PBN links, you’ll typically see one of three outcomes.
1) You’ll waste your money
The first outcome is that you will see absolutely zero impact on your rankings. Your site won’t go up and it won’t go down, although your wallet will be a little lighter.
This typically occurs when you have a small number of links on a website that Google knows is part of a PBN. The search engine’s algorithm simply ignores the link.
Why doesn't Google penalize these websites?
Google has started ignoring links rather than penalizing sites in many situations. We believe this is to reduce the impact of negative SEO attacks that use spammy backlinks to reduce a site’s rankings.
Think about it: if you could destroy a site’s rankings by pointing a couple of PBN links towards it, anyone who wants to rank above their competitors would have a ready-made strategy to do so.
Unless Google is sure the site is intentionally building artificial links, it’s much fairer for the algorithm to just ignore the links.
2) You'll receive a manual penalty
A manual penalty is when a human reviewer decides that your backlink profile is unnatural.
If you receive a manual penalty, you’ll get a warning in your Google Search Console account. This can result in rankings decreases and even your website being delisted.
The good news is that this isn’t terminal. You can remove the links by submitting a disavow file—a spreadsheet with a list of all your bad links—to Google.
You can then submit a reconsideration request and the search engine can choose to restore your rankings.
3) You'll see rankings increase
It’s easy to assume that PBNs never work. But if you build one carefully and use it sparingly, you can see positive results (at least in the short term, before Google discovers the network).
For proof, all you have to do is head to the Empire Flipper website marketplace and then filter the search results by sites that use PBNs.
There aren’t many, but there are enough sites built with the help of PBNs that generate tens of thousands of monthly visits and thousands of dollars in profit to suggest that using PBNs can work in some situations.
The issue with this is that if you build a site using PBNs, you are always at risk of a Google penalty. This could see your rankings and earnings disappear at any time, even if you see a short-term boost.
It’s also worth noting that positive results occur when people build their own PBN. If you are buying links from third parties that sell PBN links, there is almost zero chance that these links will work.
How to Spot PBN Backlinks
We’ve established that in most cases, PBN backlinks are bad for your website. The next question is: how do you know if your site has links from a PBN?
“But I Never Built a PBN Backlink!”
There are several reasons why you may have PBN links, even if you never intentionally built them.
1. a low-quality link building service may have generated them
2. You may have been on the wrong end of a negative SEO attack
3. a site you built links on was repurposed as part of a PBN
The good news is it’s typically easy to spot PBN links. You just need to use an SEO tool to see information about the websites that link for you. You can then look for unnatural links.
When performing backlink audits for clients, we use Ahrefs to spot bad links.
Just head to the “Backlinks” report and then filter the results for “Dofollow” links and then set it to show “One link per domain.”
This will highlight all the domains that link to your website. Signs in this report that suggest a link is from a PBN include:
Suspicious anchor text
Low organic traffic
Sudden large spikes in organic traffic
Re-directs from other domains
Remember that PBNs are often built on expired domains, so they may actually have a high domain authority.
Another option is to use Moz to find websites with a high spam score. This is a metric that represents the percentage of sites with similar features to the one you are looking at that Moz found has been penalized by Google.
It’s not foolproof, as good PBNs are built to intentionally not look like other PBNs. But you should definitely investigate sites with a high spam score.
Once you’ve found suspicious links, click through to the website to get a better look. We’ve written an article about how to spot low-quality websites, but some of the biggest signs include:
Suspicious outbound links
No “about” information or contact details
Removing toxic links
If you find a suspicious link or links during the audit above, you have several options.
The first is to not do anything.
If you don’t have many suspicious links and your search rankings are steady, there’s a good chance that Google is ignoring the link. You can focus your efforts on other aspects of SEO, like creating content or building high authority links using other methods.
If you have many suspicious links or you are worried that the links are affecting your rankings, you can remove them by creating and uploading a disavow file to Google.
Just create a .txt file with all the domains you want to remove backlinks from and then upload it to the disavow tool in Google Search Console.
Google will then add the links to its index. The company says the process can take a few weeks to fully work. You can find out more in this Google blog post.