The Private Blog Network Purge – Are You at Risk?

Google recently started to take action against private blog networks (PBNs). Basically, a private blog network is a gray hat/black hat tactic of using a set of sites under your control to implement links to other sites (your “money sites”). In today’s column, I will help you understand more about what PBNs are, and whether or not you need to worry about being hit by this type of penalty.

What Are PBNs?

Basically, this is the reason the sites exist, to funnel link juice to sites you make money on.

Note that the sites in the PBN don’t really have any value unless they themselves have links from other sources. Typically, gray hat/black hat SEOs that implement PBNs go through a process of acquiring recently expired domains that have third-party external links, and putting fresh, relevant content on them, in the hopes that this will give the links out from the site value. You can read more about how PBNs are put together here.

private-blog-network

What Action Did Google Take?

The main actions that Google appears to have taken are as follows:

  1. Assessing thin content penalties on sites that receive links (the “money sites”) from private blog networks
  2. De-indexing of the sites in the PBNs.

The bottom line is that Google attempted to eliminate all benefit to the sites that were benefiting from PBNs. The chatter in the gray/black hat blogs suggests that Google made a dent, but many such blog networks are still alive and well. The move was big enough though that it caused a Matt Cutts sighting on Twitter:

matt-cutts-on-pbns

There are even those who are suggesting that one of the reasons for Google to push for HTTPS is that this eliminates anonymity of the owner, making it easier for Google to take action on PBNs. Interesting speculation, however, I don’t buy that as Google has been messaging about HTTPS for a long time now, so it is not a simple one-off initiative on their part.

We Own Many Sites. Should We Be Worried?

Let’s give it to you straight up:

  1. If you have lots of microsites lying around collecting dust, then maybe. By collecting dust, I mean, are they so inactive, or so low in value, that they don’t attract any new links? Do they all link back to other sites of yours? If the answer to both these questions is yes, then it certainly looks like they simply exist to funnel link juice back to your main site(s).
  2. If you have been buying expired domains, putting up new content, and then selectively linking back to your main site(s), then definitely. Especially if you are not actively marketing and promoting those purchased domains in a way that drives new links to them.
  3. If you have been buying links from sites that fit the description of 1 and 2 above, then definitely as well.

PBNs are grouped sets of sites designed to manipulate SEO rankings for your main site(s) (or to sell links to other site owners). The sites are not meant as a destination, no effort is going into them, and they exist to funnel link juice to sites of the owner’s choosing.

The basic concept is that it’s cheaper to leverage the link equity in a set of sites within the PBN than it is to earn that link juice through great content on your main site. As you might guess, Google objects to that concept.

If you have a number of sites, and they are all actively being promoted and marketed, then you have little to worry about. If you are in scenarios two and three above, you have a high risk of receiving a Google penalty, and I’d address this immediately.

That leaves us with a gray area, that of scenario one. You may have done something like this:

  1. You created a bunch of microsites to try and get two bites at the apple in ranking for related search terms, but they were not based on buying expired domains.
  2. You threw some content up on them, and they are mostly just sitting there.
  3. The content is not that much different from content you have on another site that you do actively work on and market.
  4. No one is marketing them.

My bet is that Google would lean toward ignoring them and devaluing them rather than applying a penalty, but I can’t promise you that this is the case. We also know that you are pursuing a strategy that Google really does not like. If it were me, I’d move on from this strategy as soon as possible.

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