I try to keep an open mind with This Online World when it comes to finding new ways to make money online.
After all, this whole blog started by writing about phone farming, which is definitely a bit of a questionable passive income source, but I digress.
Now, I never condone doing anything illegal or something that breaks terms of services, but I occasionally stumble upon some pretty interesting stuff when I’m researching ways to make money online…and sometimes, I jump down the rabbit hole of research and find some pretty ridiculous stuff.
This time, I started learning about a blackhat SEO tactic: using PBNs (private blog networks).
You might not know a lot about PBNs or what they are before reading this post, but hopefully you will after reading and you will also understand why this blackhat SEO practice is not worth the risk.
This post will contain:
- What PBNs are.
- How people build PBNs.
- How people profit from private blog networks.
- An actual example of a website currently buying links from a PBN service.
- My thoughts.
Let’s get to it!
What is a Private Blog Network?
A private blog network (PBN) is a network of websites that are used to establish backlinks to main money making websites in order to help these website rank high in Google search results.
Please note: I do not condone building a PBN as it against Google terms and services and PBNs are a blackhat method that are high risk, high reward.
Disclaimer aside, like I said, I like to learn about different money making ideas so let’s break this down.
In a nutshell, a small PBN could look something like this:
Backlinks can help websites rank higher in search results because Google considers backlinks in their ranking algorithm, so you can imagine how a few hundred links from a PBN might benefit a collection of websites.
Now, PBNs vary in quality and in their design.
High quality PBNs will typically have premium domains that are high in authority, have their own unique content, and appear like standalone websites. Additionally, the collection of websites in the PBN will not link to one another, so each website seems more natural and the backlinks leading to money making websites seem genuine.
Usually, high quality PBNs even match the niche of the money making sites they are trying to rank, so the links really make sense.
Low quality PBNs typically have domains that are lower in authority, and the websites in the PBNs might even link to one another to accelerate the entire process.
Whatever the case, the concept behind using a PBN is the same: build backlinks on money making websites, and rank higher.
How People Build PBNs:
The process of building a PBN starts in a similar fashion as finding good domain names to flip in some regard: it’s all about research.
The 4 main metrics people look for when purchasing an expired domain include:
- Domain authority – a measure of how authoritative the entire domain based on its backlink profile.
- Page authority – a measure of how authoritative the specific page is.
- Trust flow – how trustworthy the website links are.
- Citation flow – how powerful the website links are.
These metrics are just measures that have been created by Moz.com and Majestic.com, but they are still useful to understand for whitehat and blackhat SEO alike because they influence how well a website can rank.
According to this excellent PBN guide by Lion Zeal, some cutoffs to look for are:
- DA of 18+
- TF of 13+
- CF of 15+
These numbers seem pretty in line with what I have seen PBN owners advertising on forums like blackhatworld, but premium domains can have higher scores of course.
If an expired domain meets the requirements for these metrics, it is also worth looking at the backlink composition of the domain and how many referring websites are pointing at.
If an expired domain has thousands of backlinks but only from a few referring domains, that’s probably not a good buy. Additionally, if the website has backlinks with spammy or obviously incorrect anchor text, that might also be a pass.
Anyway, people who want to build their own PBN will then use a mix of tactics to acquire domains. Domain brokers, domain auctions, or backordering domains are all viable options.
Additionally, as Lion Zeal points out again in their guide, registering domains with different registrars, on different dates, and using various hosting services that are legit is an important step in making a PBN harder to detect. If dozens of websites were registered by the same person on the same date and with the same company, it’d be much easier to spot.
Domains are generally setup with WordPress since this is easiest and the best way to make a website that appears genuine, and then a few more processes usually occur such as:
- Websites are re-themed to match the niche of the money making website.
- A variety of WordPress themes are used to make the PBN harder to detect.
- Websites in the PBN are padded with some articles, an about page, a contact page, a logo, and other content that make the websites look legitimate.
Once a website in a PBN appears rather robust, it is ready to be put to work!
How People Make Money With PBNs:
As you can imagine, building a decent PBN that is less likely to be caught by Google is a very expensive process.
Buying domains, hosting fees, various tools, and outsourcing content writing work can be rack up project costs. I would not be surprised if some of the most extensive PBNs out there cost tens of thousands of dollars to maintain.
Additionally, a website in a PBN can only link out to a money making website so many times before it becomes obviously suspicious, so PBNs require a certain amount of scale to actually push a money making site higher in the SERPs…again, more domains = more money.
So, how do people make money with a PBN?
There are 3 main ways:
- They use their private blog network to improve their own money making website.
- They sell link packages to other webmasters who are looking to improve their rankings with blackhat tactics.
- They sell their entire PBN to a buyer (not sure how common this is, however).
There are plenty of marketplaces where these kinds of exchanges occur, and link sellers invariably develop a reputation if they are capable of avoiding detection and a ban from Google.
Link sellers typically sell their links in packages that vary in both number of backlinks provided and domain quality. If you want premium domains that are highly relevant to the niche of your money making website, you are going to have to pay!
This is a package from a popular link seller on BlackHatWorld. This is a pretty common price range for the various kinds of link packages you can purchase.
Judging on how many reviews some of these link sellers have, I imagine the top PBN operators make some pretty substantial money from their work.
Anyway, I’m convinced private blog networks are not worth the risk and I dislike the concept as a whole, but it is certainly interesting to say the least.
Now, let’s look at an example of a webmaster who I believe is making money by purchasing links from a PBN.
Using a PBN to Rank:
As I mentioned in my latest blogging income report, my website was negatively impacted by a recent Google algorithm update.
I decided to do some competitive SEO research on other blogs in my niche, and after talking with a friend and comparing some findings, we found a bunch of websites in this niche that had either been helped or hindered by recent Google updates.
One of the most important metrics that seemed to push websites to the winning side were backlinks.
This isn’t too surprising, but in our research, my friend stumbled across a website that seemingly had a terrible backlink profile, nothing that noted their authority or expertise in our niche, and some pretty mediocre content.
Despite this lackluster SEO profile, this is how fast their traffic has been growing from almost 100% organic searches:
Anyway, the website is www.WorkFromHomeJourney.com, so let’s do a little digging with the WayBack Machine to find out more about how this website is growing traffic so quickly.
Back in 2015, the website was hosted by Wealthy Affiliate and was a pure Wealthy Affiliate Program shill that tried to make money by promoting the platform:
It seems like someone named Stephanie was running the website according to the About Page.
Anyway, by 2017, the website was rebranded, this time under the ownership of someone named Ian:
The entire site still existed to promote Wealthy Affiliate, but other than a random spike in traffic in August of 2017, the website was basically dead in the water.
Then, in early 2018, the website rebranded once more:
In total the website now has about 35 articles of mixed quality, although they have some pretty solid rank 1 spots on certain keywords and very fast growth:
Now, I’m not saying it is impossible to rank #1 for keywords, but there are a few interesting notes about WFHJ’s Paribus and Dosh reviews which are ranked so highly.
Firstly, their Paribus review is about 900 words, and there are so many great Paribus reviews out there from high quality websites that are still ranked below it.
Secondly, their dosh review was only published in late November, yet somehow the post is already ranking #2 on Google for some of the terms.
I’m no blackhat SEO expert, but something definitely seems too good to be true.
Time to analyze the backlinks!
Spotting Questionable Backlinks – More Digging:
The fishiest indicator that something is going one with WFHJ is the fact that is has absolutely no referral traffic that I can find:
Normal websites with true authority will invariably have some sort of referral footprint as other genuine webmasters out there link to the website.
A quick backlink check using The Hoth returns this information regarding WFHJ’s backlinks:
There are more backlinks in the report, and pretty much all of the websites passing do-follow links are pretty sketchy, have weak content, and also started pumping backlinks to WFHJ within the past few months. If you want, you can use The Hoth backlink checker to see for yourself.
Anyway, you’ll notice there are 3 very similar websites highlighted in red that are passing a lot of do-follow links to WFHJ.
Additionally, while the links have a Domain Rating of 0, the backlinks actually have a URL score.
According to Ahrefs and The Hoth: “URL Rating measures the strength of a target URL’s backlink profile and the likelihood that the URL will rank high in Google.”
So, these aren’t immensely powerful backlinks, but they pass some link juice and there are also lots of them. However, it is certainly interesting that they all have the same name structure and are also hosted on blogspot, which a free blog hosting service by Google.
Anyway, on Triem63.blogspot.com for example, WFHJ is linked to all over the homepage:
Triem76 and Triem9 also point to WFHJ, albeit in more subtle ways than a massive homepage post.
However, this is where things get interesting.
I ran a backlink check on Triem63, and this is what came up:
There are way more domains than just these but they are literally all the same webmaster.
And look at the metrics: 99% do-follow links and 2071 backlinks coming from 96 total referring domains (all variations of Triem.blogspot).
So, this Triem network of blogspots isn’t the most powerful PBN network or comprised of premium domains, but it used a slightly different version of a private blog network to pass on link juice:
Okay, so WFHJ is clearly benefiting from some abnormal linking behavior from this weird Blogspot link farm and some other sketchy websites, but is this actually a PBN at work?
I spent a few hours and did a lot more digging around on the various Triem network of sites, and it is clear that they link out to more than just WFHJ.
Interestingly, the Triem network is linking out to a few websites that are clearly all owned by the same webmaster who must have purchased links from a link seller.
Here are 2 of the websites put side by side for a comparison, but there are a few more websites designed exactly like this as well:
These are unmistakably designed and owned by the same person, and guess what, they have the same sort of Triem backlink profile:
For one final bit of proof, I looked up the registration information for both of these websites using ICANN WHOIS, which provides information on who has registered a particular domain.
As you can see, both these websites have been registered anonymously. A quick Google of that Panama P.O. box brings up a list of warnings and spam reports and nothing but sketchy news.
Another search of one of the sites My Boat Plans also brings up a slew of complaints and reports that the website has stolen content from other bloggers or boating experts:
This is one of the fundamental problems of PBNs and why I dislike them so intensely.
The boating website and landscaping website both receive between 10,000-30,000 views per month, and they are probably profiting from stolen content or just scamming people outright.
Should you Report PBNs/Your Competition?
This is inevitably where people have different opinions on how to deal with PBN usage or blackhat SEO.
Here’s my opinion on the whole thing.
SEO is kind of a zero-sum game.
With search engines, there will always be winners and losers when it comes to ranking updates or how positions on various keywords change.
Sure, there might be multiple winners (i.e. the people on first page positions versus everyone else), and yes, SEO is often a value-add game that results in the overall improvement of search engines as a whole. However, even with multiple winners and gradual improvements to the search engine landscape, people can still lose out to their competitors.
Don’t get me wrong, this competition is my favorite aspect about SEO.
But when I think a group of webmasters are cheating the system or paying for backlinks, I’m going to report the PBN and corresponding websites to Google.
Google might not do anything, or it might take a few months for them to even glance at the report, but the worst case scenario is that my hunch is wrong and nothing happens.
In the scenario where I am right, hopefully a manual reviewer will spot the sketchy activity and shut down the private blog network, which will in-turn destroy the rankings of the websites that purchased links.
I’m going to report the Triem network and monitor the traffic of the aforementioned websites to see if anything changes. Hopefully I have made a mistake and these websites are all genuine, but I have my doubts. Ultimately, I just wanted to write about PBNs while also showing one in action so people can have a better understanding of how they work.
At the end of the day people will try to take shortcuts or use blackhat methods to make money online. For webmasters who aren’t interested in that sort of thing, we just have to play the long-game and trust that in the end, quality will always come out on top!
Anyway, I hope you guys have enjoyed a bit of a different look into the ways people make money online with SEO or blackhat tactics. I don’t condone trying these methods out, but I do find them quite fascinating!
Catch you guys in the next post!
Tom is a 22 year old recent college graduate from Canada with a passion for side hustling, passive income, and marketing. This Online World is all about providing people with honest ways to make and save more money by using technology. To learn more about Tom, read his About Page!