October 27, 2014
Recently, Google started a crackdown on what is commonly known as private blog networks (PBNs). Why are PBNs receiving penalties, and what exactly are they? It’s the million-dollar question that we all want an answer to; after all, not one of us would care to find our content—or worse, our entire website — smitten by the almighty Google.
A blog network, as defined by Wikipedia, is a set of blogs that are connected to each other in a network. Usually these collections of blogs are owned by the same company or person. In contrast, a private blog network (as opposed to a public blog network) is generally a set of websites made from expired domains.
Now that we are familiar with the concept of blog networks, let’s dive in to the first part of the million-dollar question: What exactly are private blog networks? In answering this portion, we’ll begin to see just why Google has decided to start penalizing PBNs.
What Is A Private Blog Network?
As we already established, there are both private and public blog networks. It is essential to grasp the difference before we delve into the depths of PBNs.
Public blog networks are open (i.e. public) and they allow anyone to buy links or contribute guest posts. These networks were primarily used prior to the release of Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithms. In 2012, Google began to deindex the very easily identified public blog networks. As a direct result, any value provided by backlinks to these websites was almost instantly eliminated.
In fact, it was primarily the decision to deindex these networks that helped facilitate a migration to private blog networks.
So what exactly are private blog networks? Well, they are made up of many moving parts and failure points, and they are usually a set of domains all owned by you or someone else. They can be a set of free blogs (like Tumblr, WordPress, Live Journal, etc.) or they can be paid for blogs. In most cases, the free blogs do not hold as much power or credibility as those that are paid for.
But how does a PBN function? What is it made of and what defines it?
The Inner Workings of Private Blog Networks
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of overly technical talk. My husband is a coding and Web guy, and while I can code a website in HTML and dabble in design, I don’t care to know the ins and outs of PHP, and I avoid the non-layman talk. If you’re in the same boat as me with your tech language preferences, then you’ll appreciate this simple explanation of the inner workings of PBNs:
A private blog network uses expired domains. It leverages them to drive traffic to their websites under slightly false pretenses.
An expired domain is a site that once held content and attracted visitors. A webmaster took care of it, and chances are it was a bustling corner of cyberspace, not unlike your favorite coffee shop. Then, for one reason or another, the webmaster decided to let the domain name expire. You can liken this to the owner of your favorite local coffee stop letting the shop slowly degrade.
Unlike the expense of purchasing a brick and mortar storefront, expired domains can be bought for the fairly cheap price of $10 to $15 U.S.
But why would you want to buy an expired domain? Well, why would anyone buy your wilting coffee shop? Would it not be for opportunity?
Chances are that coffee shop of yours was “on the map.” A lot of people knew about and liked it. Buying the shop would be like investing in someone else’s footwork. All that’s left to be done is fix it up, refresh the products, and start brewing. The smell alone will bring passersby inside and regular customers will be elated to see the shop cared for once again. In other words, free exposure and business.
In a similar way, expired domains can pass on opportunity. On the cyber highway, they pass on ranking power, or “link juice,” to the new owners. Expired domains can have more “link juice” than a new domain due to Google’s tendency to place some value on the domain’s age. As a result, the new owner receives a better backlink profile, which is a composite of the backlinks that create the general makeup of the domain. A backlink profile takes into account the following information:
• The total number of backlinks
• The total number of linking domains
• The total number of linking IP addresses
• The location of a link on a post or page
• The anchor text of the given link
• The title tag of a link
• Whether or not the link is an image link
• Whether or not the link is found in the comments or the actual article
• Whether or not the link is a “do-follow” or “no-follow” link
Expired domains have traditionally been seen as a cheap way to quickly get a leg up in Google searches. This is their primary use. Why spend all of that time and energy building up your authority in a natural manner when you can artificially inflate it for a small fee, putting your site in prime position on the SERPs in no time flat?
Feeling a little iffy about PBNs? Me too. But expired domains aren’t the only way private blog networks attempt to manipulate SERPs. As if they don’t sound scary enough for those of us doing SEO the right way, they also employ IP address manipulation.
IP address manipulation is the altering of anchor text to fit a niche. It has been most commonly used in a concentrated effort to trick Google into thinking the domain is owned by more than one person.
For example, an IP address standardly has four “blocks.” It usually looks something like this:
PBNs focus on manipulation of the “C” block. While it’s OK to get links from the same C block, getting all of your links from there is a bit suspicious. If Google happens to notice that you are getting all 42 of your “C” block links from one “C” block, it will assume that they are all owned by the same person. This is why it’s important for private blog networks to manipulate the “C” block, as their whole purpose is to confuse Google into thinking that more than one person owns the various domains within the network.
Private blog networks are all about manipulation and tricking Google into handing out higher SERP rankings, more traffic, and higher authority. Ultimately, PBNs are seen as a quick means of getting prime position within the SERPs. It’s not technically illegal, but it’s about the same as selling a high interest loan to someone who you know will default because it’s a quick way to make money.
Sounds a little unscrupulous, doesn’t it? I’d say it sounds incredibly unscrupulous. Honestly, I felt like that black top hat that represents black hat SEO was looming over me when I read up on how PBNs function. Sure, it’s a quick way to increase your rankings, but at what ultimate cost? It’s not a long-term means of improving your SEO.
The Penalization of Private Blog Networks Begins
Google is, understandably, not a fan of webmasters who try to game their algorithms. They prefer natural site build up. PBNs go against Google’s practices, artificially inflating their rankings and surpassing sites that play by the rules. It’s not surprising that Google has decided to take action.
On Sept. 18, Google began its crackdown by sending out manual action notices to PBNs. The SEO pace setter has officially deemed personal blog networks to be “thin content spam” and has begun to penalize them accordingly.
Expectedly, Google does not look too kindly on what it perceives to be spam. In much the same manner as it has in the past, Google has begun to penalize the search engine rankings of private blog networks, and they are rapidly becoming associated with black hat SEO techniques. While it’s still a bit too early to determine exactly how PBNs are going to be ultimately affected by this new ruling, it is possible to create a fairly legitimate PBN — one that is truly a network of legitimate, Google rule abiding blogs. It has yet to be seen whether Google will just penalize PBNs outright, or if they will adjust to allow blogs that don’t constitute “thin content spam” to be free of any penalties.
Avoiding The PBN Trap
Now that we know exactly what private blog networks are and why Google has chosen to penalize them, we need to know just how to avoid being caught in a PBN. Should we all be checking the IP address of every link and backlink cited on our webpages? While you could, it’s a time consuming strategy that could potentially turn a lot of people off of “going legit.”
There is an easier way to avoid PBNs that doesn’t take more work than building the site in the first place. While IP addresses are difficult to determine at times, finding an expired domain is pretty difficult in and of itself. In fact, I would even venture to say it’s actually harder to find an expired domain than to examine IP addresses. So, here’s the laundry list of essentials for avoiding the PBN trap:
• Avoid Expired Domains: Don’t buy them. Just don’t. It can really be that simple. But sometimes we want such a domain because it’s the perfect domain name for our business or brand, and that’s fine. Once you secure that domain, clear it out and make it your own. Don’t surf off its previous life.
• Link Away From Home: Avoid linking strictly to your own domain in backlinks. It’ll put you on Google’s radar, but not in a good way.
• Build, Don’t Buy: We can’t stress this enough. Build the quality content that naturally raises your search ranking. Don’t buy it. It’ll be a waste of money if you do.
Nurturing a higher search ranking can take a long time, but if your content is of good quality, it will come. Trust the quality of your work to be what people are looking for.
A recent survey conducted by Moz states that marketers agree quality content is the number one way to earn links, beating out blog networks, guest posts, and paid links. Quality content is the Mack Daddy of SEO; it’s the new face of the industry!
While most private blog network owners have conceded that they will no longer be using PBNs, not everyone believes they are being pushed out by Google. Search Engine Roundtable reported on Google’s severe hit to PBN, and they quoted Alex from a private blog network, as stating:
“Yes, I [am] aware of the current wave of PBN de-indexation. I have a [number of] friends in this industry who got totally destroyed… I also know folks with the [worst] possible PBN content ever…whose networks are totally intact. Even though there is no doubt that Google is taking serious action against webmasters…hitting it big with PBNs… I don’t believe [that] the end of PBNs is…near. NOT EVEN CLOSE.”
The Future of PBNs
It seems, at least for now, that Google has ended the PBN business. Could it come back, revived in another form? Certainly. Like a hydra, you can’t keep the Internet down, and greedy people will always be looking for loopholes to exploit in order to gain the most in the least amount of time. But just as sure as you can be that a new form of artificial ranking manipulation will spawn at some point, so too can you be sure that Google will target it.
Google is in the business of bringing the most relevant information to people. They hold a large stake in making sure that information is of high quality, easily accessible, and trusted. Be careful of what SEO practices you adopt. If they don’t build your ranking naturally, chances are they’re a waste of resources.
Julia McCoy is a top 30 content marketer and has been named an industry thought leader by several publications. She enjoys making the gray areas of content marketing clear with practical training, teaching, and systems. Her career in content marketing was completely self-taught. In 2011, she dropped out of college to follow her passion in writing, and since then grew her content agency, Express Writers, to thousands of worldwide clients from scratch. Julia is the author of two bestselling books on content marketing and copywriting, and is the host of The Write Podcast. Julia writes as a columnist on leading publications and certifies content strategists in her training course, The Content Strategy & Marketing Course. Julia lives in Austin, Texas with her daughter, husband, and one fur baby.