Imagine a spiderweb of interconnected sites.
The threads that connect them strengthen the entire structure and improve each individual site’s authority and search engine rankings.
That’s what a backlink network is all about.
In my career as a professional SEO, I’ve seen a variety of backlink networks — some nefarious, some benign.
While this practice of connecting sites for mutual benefit sounds positive, it does have serious disadvantages.
Private blog networks (PBNs) are like hidden traps within the web of backlinks, created solely to manipulate search rankings. They might seem effective initially, but search engines like Google are quick to spot and penalize these schemes.
That’s why using PBNs can be risky in the SEO world.
In this guide, we’ll explore backlink networks and PBNs, including how they work, why people use them, and the risks they pose. I’ll also give you some best practices for dealing with PBNs if you discover these types of incoming links.
Because your job as a professional SEO isn’t just to focus on search intent and climb the SERPs ladder — it’s to do it the right (and ethical) way.
Let’s start with defining what a backlink network is.
What Is a Backlink Network?
A backlink network is a group of websites that link to each other to increase their visibility and ranking on search engines.
There are natural or artificial backlink networks. They typically involve multiple websites, sometimes owned by a single entity, linking to one another or to a central site. Through connections, backlink networks create a web of associations and ideally increase the perceived relevance and authority of the sites involved.
PBNs are a specific type of backlink network in which the websites are controlled by one person or group.
The use of backlink networks, especially PBNs, is a topic of contention in the SEO community. While they can be effective in the short term, they carry risks. (I’ll tell you more about that below.)
Search engines, particularly Google, have become increasingly sophisticated in identifying and penalizing websites engaging in such practices.
What Is a PBN?
A private blog network (PBN) is a group of websites specifically created to provide backlinks to another website and improve that site’s search rankings.
Seen as a black-hat SEO tactic, I don’t recommend using PBNs.
How Do PBNs Work?
Individuals or groups create PBNs by building new websites, or buying existing domains with authority. Then they link from those domains to the website they’re trying to boost in the SERPs.
SEOs who use this tactic believe they’re in full control of their link-building efforts. With a PBN, you can use the exact anchor text you want, link to your site multiple times, and boost specific pages.
While this sounds great, PBNs violate Google’s Webmaster Quality Guidelines, which can result in harsh penalties.
The guidelines about link spam state:
“Any links that are intended to manipulate rankings in Google Search results may be considered link spam. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
Links from PBNs don’t offer any real value. They’re simply designed to beat the SEO system and give you unearned backlinks, so that you can inflate your rankings.
Why Do People Use PBNs?
The primary reason for using PBNs is to artificially increase the number of backlinks pointing to a website, thereby improving its search engine rankings.
I understand how difficult it can be to get valuable backlinks. That’s why some SEOs see PBNs as a shortcut to achieving higher visibility and driving more website traffic.
The Risks of Using PBNs
If you use a PBM, search engines see it as an attempt to manipulate the algorithms. That means PBMs come with a significant risk of penalties.
One of the biggest risks is a potential drop in search engine rankings. If Google detects the use of a PBN, it can drastically lower your site’s ranking or even remove it from search results entirely.
There’s also the possibility of wasted time and effort. Building a PBN can be costly and time-consuming. If Google detects and ignores your PBN links, the time and effort spent creating them is wasted.
I’ve seen what this looks like in real life, and it’s not pretty.
A digital marketing firm I once collaborated with had invested heavily in a PBN to boost their clients’ search rankings rapidly. Initially, the strategy seemed successful, with noticeable improvements in search engine visibility.
But within a few months, Google caught on to the unnatural link patterns. The result was a severe penalty: a dramatic drop in rankings for both the marketing firm and their clients’ websites.
It took over a year of dedicated effort to rebuild their SEO strategy with legitimate practices to recover from the damage. This example serves as a cautionary tale about the high risks and long-term consequences of using PBNs.
Best Practices for PBNs
My recommendation is to avoid using PBNs altogether.
Google and other search engines have become increasingly adept at identifying and penalizing sites that use tactics like this. The risks associated with PBNs often outweigh the temporary benefits.
That said, if you’re already involved with PBNs or encounter them in your SEO efforts, handling them with extreme caution is crucial.
Here are a few best practices.
1. Do Your Research
Before engaging with a link-building agency, it’s vital to conduct thorough research. Make sure they’re not selling PBN links and trying to pass them off as legitimate.
Ask the agency for samples they’ve built for clients, and research them yourself. You can start with a tool like Semrush’s Site Audit feature to check a site’s organic traffic and look for these types of links.
2. Disavow Links (Cautiously)
If you discover that a PBN links to your site, consider using Google’s Disavow Tool. This tool allows you to ask Google not to consider certain links when assessing your site. If you want to learn more about disavowing backlinks, I wrote a tutorial that shows you how to do that safely.
3. Plan Link Outreach the Right Way
Instead of relying on PBNs, focus on legitimate backlink-building strategies. This includes reaching out to reputable websites and influencers in your niche for backlinking opportunities.
The goal is to create genuine, organic links that provide value to both your website and the linking site. Remember, the key to sustainable SEO is ethical link-building. Quality trumps quantity.
How to Handle PBN-Generated Backlinks
If you conduct a backlink audit and suspect that some of your links come from PBNs, you can ask Google to ignore them.
However, be cautious. Disavowing backlinks should be a last resort, because improper use of this tool can negatively affect your site’s performance.
If you need to identify potential problematic links, you can use Semrush’s Backlink Audit Tool. Enter your domain and create a project to get started. Then click the Audit tab.
A “Potential link networks” section will be active if one is detected. As you can see in the screenshot below, Semrush didn’t detect any for TTT.
You can click on “For review” to see potentially harmful links from malicious pages, spam comments, PBNs, link directories, etc. The results show each backlink’s source URL, target URL, authority score, anchor text, and toxicity score.
To maintain a healthy backlink profile, regularly monitor your backlink profile and take preventive measures.
Frequently Asked Questions About Backlink Networks
Let’s quickly cover some of the most common questions about backlink networks.
- What is a backlink network?
A backlink network is a group of websites that are interconnected through links pointing to each other. Backlink networks increase the visibility and ranking of these websites on search engines. These networks can be either naturally formed through genuine content linking or artificially created, often for the purpose of manipulating search engine rankings. The latter, however, is not recommended due to the risks of penalties from search engines.
- What is an example of a backlink?
A backlink, also known as an inbound link or external link, is a hyperlink from one website to another. For example, if website A writes an article and includes a link to a related post on website B, this link is considered a backlink for website B. Backlinks are significant in SEO because they signal to search engines that others find the content of a website valuable. These votes of confidence can potentially improve a website’s ranking.
- How do backlink networks impact SEO?
Backlink networks can significantly impact SEO, both positively and negatively. A well-structured network with high-quality, relevant links can improve a site’s authority, relevance, and search engine ranking. However, artificial or spammy backlinks can lead to penalties from search engines that harm a website’s ranking.
- How can I identify if I’m part of a PBN?
Identifying participation in a PBN involves analyzing your backlinks for patterns that indicate manipulation. These include having a majority of backlinks from websites with low-quality content, similar hosting or domain registration information, and repetitive anchor text usage. Tools like Semrush can assist in analyzing your backlink profile for PBM patterns.
An Alternative to Navigating the Murky Waters of Backlink Networks and PBNs
While backlink networks can be a legitimate way to increase site visibility and ranking, they also have a darker side. PBNs, although tempting as quick SEO boosts, are fraught with risks, including potential penalties from search engines.
The takeaway is clear: Ethical and sustainable SEO practices should always be the priority. The risks associated with PBNs far outweigh their temporary benefits, making them a strategy to avoid.
Use caution in situations where PBNs might be involved. I recommend conducting thorough research, disavowing links when necessary, and focusing on legitimate link-building strategies.
If you want to learn how to build links using virtual assistants, check out TTT Academy’s Scalable Link Building with Virtual Assistants course. The course teaches a practical, sustainable link-building approach that respects SEO ethics and yields long-term benefits.
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