by Juan Robin II
Private blog networks (PBNs) are the go-to link building tactic for grey hat SEOs.
But the question is:
Are they worth building from an ROI (Return on Investment) and a ROT (Return on Time) perspective?
I’ll answer these questions and more, but first, a quick story:
I used to love using PBNs.
But let’s be honest:
I didn’t just love using PBNs… I was obsessed with them.
I would nerd out all day about how I can grow my network, how to find the perfect expired domains, how to build my PBN, how to make my PBN links stronger and most importantly, how to reduce footprints.
And if I wasn’t doing that, I was defending the use of PBNs on forums.
I was all in…
…Until I got nailed by Google.
Not only did Gotch SEO get nailed for using PBNs, but so did several of my clients.
Before that happened, I thought I had complete “control” of my SEO because I was in control of my backlinks.
It’s crazy how wrong I was.
But sometimes you need a rough moment to change your ways.
What I realized about PBNs…
1. PBNs are expensive to build
One of the biggest cons is the cost of developing and maintaining a network. If you’re using auctions, it’s going to cost you anywhere between $40-$400 for a good domain. If you are using domain vendors, the cost will be similar.
As you can image, this can add up.
After you secured your new domain, you have to pay for private WHOIS, get hosting, and add content.
So, let’s say you secured a domain for $100.
- Domain = $100
- Private Whois = $5
- Hosting = $12
- Article = $5 (a good PBN will have more than one article)
= $112 for ONE site.
You think the cost is high?
Let me tell you about the time investment.
2. The whole process of building PBNs is a waste of time
This was true back in 2014, but it’s even more true now. I can’t believe some of the discussions I see in Facebook groups and forums. The lengths that some people are going to make PBNs effective is astounding…
With all of that effort, you could acquire REAL backlinks from REAL websites and never need to worry about getting penalized again.
Just think about the process:
First, you have to find domains that are worthy of purchasing. About 95% of the domains are unqualified. And that’s being generous.
For my agency in particular, we used expired domains if they met our Topical Trust Flow requirement. That made our research even more challenging, but it was often much more rewarding.
Let’s say you’re trying to build a network of 10 websites. It’s going to take you anywhere between 6-12 hours to find ten qualified domains. A “qualified” domain should have a Trust Flow of at least 15 and a Domain Authority of 15.
A lower metric domain is acceptable if it has relevant Topical Trust Flow Topics.
Now that you’ve secured 10 domains, you now have to set them up. It will take you 2-4 hours to find web hosts and get the sites ready for development.
You then have to develop the site by creating all the necessary pages, finding themes, writing/outsourcing content, installing plugins, and making the site’s look normal. If you want to be extra safe, you may also want to create social accounts for each site.
This process could take 1-2 hours per site.
This equates to about 36 hours invested for a network of 10 websites.
This also doesn’t take into account any type of hosting or hacking issues you may encounter. Cheap web hosts often go out of business without any warning and have horrible uptime.
Dealing with these issues can be a serious time killer.
Now, of course, you can outsource the majority of these steps. But when you outsource, you increase your expenses. Higher expenses will extend how long it takes you to get an ROI.
This brings me to my next point:
Does using PBNs have a good ROI (Return on Investment) and ROT (Return on Time)?
The ROI of Using PBNs
Since both you and I understand the value of money, let’s start there.
For this example, I’m going to use the keyword phrase: “Los Angeles personal injury lawyer”.
Here are some quick numbers about this keyword:
- It gets around 1,000 searches per month
- The average linking root domains for competitors on the first page is 135
What this data shows is that you will need approximately 135 expired domains to rank for this keyword. This isn’t an exact science. It may take more and it may take less. You also have to keep in mind the quality of the domains. If they competitors on the first page are getting the majority of their links from high authority sites, then low metric expired domains won’t be effective.
With that said, knowing the average linking root domains will allow you to predict the ROI of targeting a keyword.
Here are some other numbers you need to know to predict ROI:
- Average SERP CTR ~ 3% – 30% (higher CTR for higher rankings)
- Average Prospect to Lead (PTL) Conversion ~ 5%
- Average Inbound Lead to New Customer (ILC) Conversion ~ 21%
- Approximate cost for developing one network site = ~ $112
- Approximate time spent developing one network site = ~ 1 hour
To make this easier, I’ve created a Google Sheet:
These are generous calculations, but it gives you an idea of the ROI potential of using PBNs. The Lifetime Value (LTV) of a personal injury client is high. There aren’t many niches that will have an LTV this extreme, which means it will take longer to get a positive ROI.
The month #1 – #3 calculations are based on ranking on the first page for “Los Angeles personal injury lawyer”. Keep in mind that this is a competitive niche, so you likely wouldn’t reach the first page for about 6-12 months (if you’re good). That means you will be in the hole until you get there.
Different Ways to Invest $28k Into SEO
You can do a lot in SEO with $28,000 +. I remember when I was starting out and all I had was a credit card with $500 limit. Back then, I thought this was a lot of capital to invest into SEO. I was able to achieve a lot with $500, but I also invested a lot of sweat equity. So if you don’t have the capital, you have to make up for it with sweat equity, as Mark Cuban would say. With that said, there are two ways to invest in SEO outside of PBNs:
Content-driven SEO strategies will stand the test of time. Not only are content-driven strategies the safest, but they are actually the most scalable link acquisition model. If you had $28k to spend, you should invest 80% of it into creating link worthy content assets. In short, that means creating valuable SEO content that’s better than industry standards.
It’s rare for an SEO campaign to succeed without backlinks. But since you aren’t using PBNs, you must focus on acquiring real backlinks. “Real” backlinks come from websites that have traffic and that you don’t have editorial discretion on. There are three ways to get real backlinks:
- Through promoting your content via outreach
- Through publishing guest posts
- Through buying placement (risky)
Not that you know the ROI of using PBNs and also some alternatives for investing your capital, let me explain why building PBNs is also a waste of time for developing your skillset as an entrepreneur.
3. Knowing how to manipulate a search engine is not an evergreen skill
Google can make all of your PBN building skills obsolete overnight. It doesn’t matter if you spent years learning how to build the perfect PBN. All Google has to do is change their algorithm and reduce the dominance of backlinks as a ranking factor.
You go from SEO expert to working at McDonalds overnight because you focused on improving a skill that isn’t evergreen.
So, what can you do instead?
Focus on building evergreen SEO skills such as learning:
- How to create content that people actually want to link to
- How to improve user experience (so you drive more sales for your business)
- How to build relationships (that will accelerate your business’s growth)
- How to outreach for quality backlinks (from real websites)
4. Using PBNs puts your business on a shaky foundation
I remember getting a pit in my stomach every time I read about a new Google update. I would run to my computer to check my rank tracker just to make sure I didn’t get nailed.
Let’s face it.
No matter how well you develop your network, you’re always going to be at risk of two things: A) your sites get deindexed and B) your site lands a manual penalty for “Unnatural Inbound Links”.
In seconds, both your cash and time investment can be worth nothing.
Then you realize, you could have invested all that time and money into something more evergreen.
I’ve been hatin’ hard on PBNs in this article, but they aren’t all that bad.
3 Reasons Why You SHOULD Use a PBN
Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, let me explain the pros of using a private blog network.
Having control in SEO is powerful. With a network, you can dictate the anchor text, the links, and test like crazy to see what works. No other link building strategy allows you such freedom.
Let’s say worst case scenario, you DO get a manual penalty. Since you have control, you can simply remove the links and the penalty will be revoked.
Getting a manual action removed is nearly impossible if you built GSA links or bought links on sites you didn’t own.
2. Instant Authority
Private blog networks are powerful because you’re leveraging the authority of an aged, trusted website. And as you have probably experienced, it’s challenging to get these types of links through outreach or naturally.
3. No Outreach/Relationship Building
If you rely on private blog networks, you won’t have to spend any time reaching out or building relationships. While this isn’t a good thing, it can definitely save you time.
So, since there are both pros and cons of using a PBN, is there any solution?
The Ultimate PBN Strategy
I see too many SEO’s relying way too heavily on private blog networks and they’re making a big mistake. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but you should never put all your eggs in one basket.
This is true for ANY type of link building.
Year-after-year Google has destroyed SEO’s who haven’t diversified and relied on a single link building method.
So, I’m going to let you in on a little secret of mine…
I think of link building the same way I would my retirement account.
First, I evaluate the risk of a link building strategy. Then, I decide how much capital and time to allocate to that strategy.
For example, I may invest in “riskier” stocks because the potential return is higher. But overall, the riskier stocks would only compose a small percentage of my overall portfolio.
This is exactly how you should approach link building and private blog networks!
If 100% of your inbound links are coming from PBNs, then you’re playing with fire.
PBN’s should supplement your other link building efforts. They shouldn’t supersede other important authority building activities such as building and cultivating relationships within your industry, content promotion (via outreach) and creating content assets.
If you keep your PBN links between 5-20% of your overall link profile, then you should be pretty safe.
PBNs are always risky, but it’s reduced when they’re only a small percentage of your link profile. The other 80-90% of your links should come from internal pages like editorial links, business listings, branded properties, or niche blog/forum comments.
You can also use this White Hat alternative to PBNs if you want to avoid them altogether.
The White Hat Alternative to PBNs
Is it possible to leverage the power of private blog networks without actually building one?
The answer: “YES!”
The strategy that I’m about to show you is white hat, safe, and if you want, will allow you to never have to use a PBN again.
You’re going to leverage the links that make expired domains powerful. The only reason anyone even considers using expired domains is because of the tier one links going to the domain.
Here’s how it works:
Topically relevant links -> Expired Domain -> Your Site
With this model, you have to buy the expired domain, get hosting, get content and take all kinds of measures to eliminate footprints. More importantly, this model doesn’t allow you to get 100% link equity because the expired domain acts as a buffer.
Here’s what we want:
Topically relevant links -> Your Site
Tier one links are the most powerful because you get almost all the link equity.
I’m going to warn you:
This strategy is not cool or glamorous…
It will take hard work and time.
You may want to consider outsourcing some of these tasks because of the time investment necessary.
Now that I’ve scared you, let’s talk about what tools you’ll need.
Tools for the Job
My personal favorite tool for finding expired domains is DomCop. Here’s how you can find expired domains using DomCop:
Expireddomains.net is also a great option as well. Mainly because it’s a free tool. Here’s how you can use it to find expired domains:
My third favorite and final tool I recommend you use is FreshDrop. Here’s how you can use it:
You will also need Majestic and Ahrefs to analyze the links. You can use Open Site Explorer as well since it’s free.
Why This Strategy is Evergreen
There is a good chance that Google could devalue expired domains altogether or use some type of sandbox in the future. With this strategy, you’ll never have to worry about the effectiveness of your private blog network. That’s because you’re not actually using one! You’re just snatching up the links that make the expired domains powerful in the first place.
The first expired domain resource that I’m going to show you is DomCop. This is one of the best because it emphasizes Topical Trust Flow. As you know, the safest and most effective link building strategy is to acquire links from sites that have a relevant Topical Trust Flow to your website.
1. Open up DomCop and click “Simple Filter”
2. My settings: DA = 20 +, Trust Flow = 15 +, only common TLDs (.com, .net., and .org)
3. Search and sort by Majestic Trust flow
4. Now go down the list and look at the Topical Trust Flow for each domain
5. When you find a relevant one, click the colored number and it will take you directly to Majestic
From there, you can start looking for link acquisition opportunities. After you’ve sifted through Majestic, you should also run the same expired domain through Ahrefs. We just use a simple Google doc to handle all the link data. Don’t over-complicate this!
Keep in mind:
The only way you’re going to have success with this strategy is if your site has valuable content. The site owner isn’t going to replace the old link with some trashy one page affiliate site you made. They will want to replace the dead link with something of value.
One way to increase your reach out success rate is to replace the content that was originally linked to. For example, let’s say I found an expired domain that used to be a blog about SEO.
I would look at its link profile and discover that it has links going to a blog post about “On-Page SEO“. I could either leverage an article I already have or just create a new resource knowing that there are links just waiting to be acquired.
The beauty of this strategy is that you know that the original content/topic was well-received and “linkable”. All you have to do on your side is create a better resource than the original and reach out. You should consider looking at Archive.org to see if you can find the original article that acquired the links.
Worst case scenario, you created a resource that you know is popular based on the link history of the expired domain.
There is no secret to reaching out. Just be genuine, compliment their work, kindly notify them that they are linking to a dead resource/website out of business, and give them an amazing alternative (your website/content) to replace the broken link. Personalize the email as much as possible, but the reach out process needs to scale. So you should test templates until you come up with one that has a high response rate.
Hint: if you have a female who works for you, have her participate in the outreach. Females tend to get higher response rates.
This strategy isn’t easy and it will certainly take more effort than just buying the expired domain. On average, you will probably be able to secure around 20% of the links you reach out to. The key to having a higher success rate is to only focus on opportunities that are highly relevant.
So, for Gotch SEO, I would need to find an old Internet Marketing and SEO blog that I could leverage. It wouldn’t make sense for me to reach out to real estate websites or something outside of my niche.
There are thousands of domains that expire every single day, which means there are thousands of opportunities for you to secure links for your business.
Other Benefits of This Strategy
What I really love about this strategy is that you can uncover all types of different opportunities. When you begin your research, you’ll find the dead links going to the expired domains, but you’ll also uncover content ideas, other dead resources/sites, and all kinds of different link opportunities.
Just the intel you gather from researching old domains should be more than enough for any link builder to put this strategy in your arsenal.
Now I want to do something fun and show you how I ranked #1 in Google for “PBNs” without using a single PBN link.
How to Rank for “PBNs” without Using PBNs
Now you probably just opened a new tab and launched the Google Keyword Planner to see how much search volume “PBNs” gets…
That’s okay because that’s where I want to start:
Why Search Volume is Flawed
The keyword phrase “PBNs” only get 260 searches a month according to the Google Keyword Planner.
And that’s SEARCHES. Not estimated visitors.
So, let’s say I get 30% CTR for that keyword. That means, I should be getting approximately 78 organic search visitors a month from that keyword.
Now here’s why my equation is dumb:
When you rank for a target keyword, you don’t just rank for that single phrase. You rank for many other closely-related terms as well.
So, how much organic search traffic do you think my “PBNs” article gets per month?
500? Maybe a 1,000?
Try 2,983 in May alone.
So, what’s the disconnect?
How can I get 2,983 organic search visitors when my target keyword phrase only get 260 searches a month?
The first reason is because most keyword phrases are “unknown”. So, when you rank for your target keyword, you end up ranking for many long-tail variations as well. Many of these long-tail variations will show zero search volume in the Google Keyword Planner.
The second reason is because I’m using a title modifier, “2017”. Adding the current year to time-sensitive content has always been effective for driving more long-tail search traffic in my experience.
The last reason is my SERP click through rate (CTR). The average SERP CTR for this PBNs article over the last 30 days is 5.81%. The highest CTR for a keyword phrase is 60%. If you can improve your SERP CTR, you can get more organic search traffic.
What I’m about to show you will help you improve your CTR in the SERPs, but most importantly, will help you rank better in Google as well.
Let’s jump in:
It Starts with Content
The key to getting more organic search traffic is understanding that your content is the lead domino.
So, the question is:
How do you create SEO content that performs well in Google?
Here are a few proven ways to make Google salivate over your content:
Be unique at all costs
Creating content that is unlike all others is the #1 way to win over Google’s heart. The first step to creating unique content is to analyze your SEO competitors. Go to Google and enter a keyword you want to rank for.
Now all you need to do is ask one question:
How can I create something that is DIFFERENT than what is ranking?”
That’s the question I asked when creating my private blog network article. In fact, it’s the question I ask every time I want to create a new piece of content.
When I was doing my research, I noticed that every ranking page was a guide on how to setup PBNs.
Knowing this I had only two options:
- Try to create a better guide or,
- Create something different and unique
I chose option #2.
Now you’re probably wondering:
How do you create something different and unique?
Here is a tested framework you can use to create unique content (that people love sharing and linking to):
1. Use unique data
Creating your own unique data is the best way to differentiate your content. Anyone can write “how to” guides.
But, you will never win in Google if your strategy is to out-“how-to” your competitors.
It’s a losing battle.
If you want to dominate long-term, then you should create unique data.
You might see the word “data” and envision a bunch of geeky guys in lab coats.
I barely passed math in school and I don’t have formal training in data analysis.
If I can create unique data, then you can too.
The crazy part is that your data doesn’t even need to be real. It can be hypothetical data and still have an impact.
For example, my PBNs article has a section about the ROI of using PBNs. The figures I used are rough estimates based on my experience. I didn’t need to hire a team of data analysts to do it.
I just typed numbers into a Google Sheet. That’s seriously it.
The point is:
Use data if you want to differentiate your content from your competitors.
2. Challenge industry norms
It’s funny because sometimes your content is answering a question you have about your industry. I got the idea to write about whether PBNs are worth it or not because I was pondering that exact question.
The only way you can “challenge” industry norms is by living and breathing your industry. At the time, I knew the risk and cost of using PBNs. I also knew that a large subset of SEOs love using them.
So, instead of going with the flow, I decided to challenge this decade-old strategy.
The best part about challenging norms in your industry is that you don’t have to take a hardline approach. You can be objective and argue for both sides. But in the end, you need to give your reader a clear opinion of your own.
Analyze your industry.
What “best practices” or “norms” can you challenge?
3. Give unique solutions
Good content solves problems and offers solutions. If you use unique data and challenge industry norms, then you need to offer a solution.
To give you an example, I came up with a 90/10 formula for my PBNs article.
Only 10% of your backlinks should come from “high-risk” opportunities like PBNs. 90% of your backlinks should come from lower risk opportunities such as those acquired through outreach.
All I did was take the Pareto principle and applied it to this situation.
Here’s are the big takeaways from all of this:
- Your content needs to be different and unique
- You need to avoid the rabbit hole of trying to create better guides and better “how tos”
- Unique data, unique positions, and unique strategies will always dominate regurgitated guides.
Remember earlier when I said content is the “lead domino”?
That’s 100% a fact, but it’s not the only domino.
I would be lying to you if I didn’t show you other factors that have allowed my article to perform well.
Let me start with the biggest one:
The “Unfair” Advantage
Do you ever wonder how popular bloggers get hundreds of social shares and blog comments within only a couple days of publishing?
It’s because of their email lists.
I can tell you firsthand that having an email list is one the best (and easiest) ways to amplify your SEO results.
Because content promotion is hard without a list.
You can go buck wild on social media, spend loads of money on ads, and you can even build links until you’re blue in the face.
But NO content promotion tactic is easier and faster than leveraging your email list.
It takes 5-10 minutes to write and send out an email. If you have a decent-sized list, you get thousands of visitors to your new content within 24 hours.
So, why does this help your SEO?
Because you need eyeballs on your content if you want to get backlinks and social shares.
No eyeballs = no natural backlinks
The only reason I got a natural backlink to my PBNs article from Search Engine Watch is because my content had VISIBILITY.
Increased content visibility = better chance of getting natural backlinks
You need to grow your email list if you want to amplify your SEO results.
The third part of this strategy is to create a positive user experience on your website.
Please Your Users (or Pay the Price)
The first step to pleasing your users is giving them incredible value through your content.
I already know you will achieve this goal by following the framework above. But there are several other micro-elements that will impact your content’s performance.
Kill the Distractions
The key to pleasing Google is fulfilling searcher intent and offering a pleasant experience for searchers. Anything that doesn’t help the searcher is a distraction.
Here are a few common user experience killers:
1. Slow Page Loading Speed
Slow loading pages hurt user experience and kill sales opportunities. If you fix anything, fix your site speed.
2. Content is Below the Fold
Fulfilling searcher intent is the priority and that’s why your content needs to be front and center. The searcher’s experience should be effortless. Don’t make them scroll!
3. Annoying Ads
There is nothing wrong with having ads on your site. The problem is the way some websites use them.
Naturally, many websites prioritize clicks over a positive searcher experience by placing ads above the fold. While this may help in the short-term, it will kill your search performance in the long-run.
- A) ads send searchers off your site and,
- B) ads above the fold are annoying and distracting.
Anything that negatively disrupts the searcher will hurt your organic search performance over time.
4. Disruptive Popups
If you follow the SEO industry closely, you probably heard about Google’s threat regarding interstitial pop-ups.
In you’re new to SEO, I’ll put it in layman’s terms:
Google believes that pop-ups hurt searcher experience and they may start demoting websites that use them.
Fortunately, there’s a way to satisfy searchers AND use popups at the same time.
All you have to do is modify your popups so that they only show on the second page load. That way you don’t scare off organic search visitors.
Here’s the big takeaway:
Focus on pleasing the searcher.
Just to review, here’s how I ranked for “PBNs” without using PBNs:
- Create content that is unique and different (so that it attracts social shares and backlinks)
- Start growing your email list so you can have a reliable promotional channel
- Please searchers by doing what’s best for them
Are these three steps all it takes to ranking well in Google?
Here is one more important reason:
Strong Website = Easy Rankings
If you follow the three steps I listed AND you have decent website authority, then ranking is a breeze.
How do you know if you have decent website authority?
These tools are a necessity, but there is another way to measure the authority of your website.
All you have to do is ask a simple question:
How long does it take a new piece of content to rank in the top 100 for your target keyword?
If your pages never rank within the top 100 after publishing (or without backlinks), then there is a good chance that:
- A) your site isn’t authoritative,
- B) your site doesn’t have enough credibility and trust, or
- C) your site is new
On the flip side, when your site has authority, you can rank faster and easier.
This reduces your SEO expenses because you don’t need to invest as much into acquiring new backlinks.
Here’s what you need to take away from this:
You need to focus on growing the authority of your website as a whole.
So, just to review, here is a process you can use to rank in Google:
- Create content that is unique and different (so that it attracts social shares and backlinks)
- Start growing your email list so you can have a reliable promotional channel
- Please searchers by doing what’s best for them
- Focus on growing your site’s authority so you need fewer backlinks (and money) to rank
Doing these four things alone will get you some awesome SEO results.
Is this all there is ranking well in Google? No, but this is a great start if you’re new to white hat SEO.
So, now you have to ask yourself:
Are PBNs worth it to you?
That’s for you to decide.
If you follow the 90/10 rule of link diversification, you will be forced to spend time on acquiring real backlinks.
At the same time, you’ll get the benefits of PBN links with decreased risk.
Keep in mind:
Marketing is all about ROI. If you believe you can get a return on investment using only PBN links, then DO IT.
For most people, it’s best to take the safe route and use more evergreen tactics.
This is a controversial topic in the SEO space, so I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.