PBN Backlinks: What Are They and Why You Should Avoid Them

How to recognize toxic PBN links and why you need to avoid them...
Published on 
January 21, 2024
Updated on 
January 21, 2024
Posted in 

Talk to any SEO and they will confirm that building backlinks is, indeed, a hard slog. Creating a solid backlink profile takes time and effort, and when results aren’t immediate, of course people fantasize about a ready-made link network that provides easy link juice. 

This is by no means a novel concept, and such websites exist and have existed since the beginning of SEO. They’re called Private Blog Networks (PBNs) and they exist solely to provide and sell links.

Google doesn’t like PBN backlinks. 

In almost every case, it’s never wise to use a PBN for quick and easy links. You could end up facing major penalties from Google for engaging in black hat SEO and a drop in search engine rankings. You might see some short-term gains, but Google (and other search engines) will eventually pull the rug on you. 

The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that if you are not using your own PBN, you are using someone else’s, and if they decide to call it quits, that’s it. All of your effort are down the drain. 

So What Exactly Are PBN Backlinks?

PBN backlinks are links gained via link building on privately owned blog and website networks that exist to incestuously link back and forth between one another.

Someone (or group of people) own sites A, B, C, D etc., with A linking to C, which links to B, which links back to A and so on. A PBN is designed to trick a search engine into thinking pages are higher value than they are. 

A site owner who wants to use PBN backlinks to generate easy revenue may find themselves with a short-lived money site. 

What does a private blog network attempt to do?

As we mentioned, a PBN can sometimes work temporarily because Google factors a website’s backlink profile into its page rank. More links, in a vacuum, imply that a greater number of sites have found a page worth linking to, which is taken to be a proxy for quality. 

A private blog network, in essence, is an attempt to fool search engines into thinking a site is getting more organic attention than it really is.

In the early days of SEO, when Google was far less sophisticated, PBN backlinks were a viable, though still unethical, shortcut. Google has gotten much, much better at spotting these tactics and penalizing them. 

Still, people still try their luck, and there are plenty of articles out there telling you how to build PBN websites. 

example of article that tries to teach you how to build private blog networks

The Anatomy of a PBN

A backlink is most helpful when it comes from an authoritative, relevant domain. Of course, getting these kinds of links takes time and capital, which is why a lot of businesses prefer to outsource the work to a reputable link building service

PBNs are usually a network of sites on expired domains that have leftover authority from backlinks generated by previous owners. The new owner adds some low quality content to the site and then inserts links within these articles. 

The sloppy content is generated quickly and increasingly with the aid of AI tools–content that Google has strongly hinted is against their guidelines. What Google wants is thoughtful, original, labor-intensive content that, of course, takes time and money to do well. 

Some of the other recurring features of PBNs are: 

  • The various sites that make up the network very often use different hosting providers 
  • There is some content that doesn't link back to one of the PBN sites
  • Each of the sites uses a different theme to try and disguise the fact they are part of a Private Blog Network

Again, buying backlinks from Private Blog Networks (or link builders who source from them) is a bad idea because these networks are usually set up to make easy money off of inexperienced SEOs.

The owners very often don’t make any effort to hide the fact they are running PBN sites and selling PBN links, which means Google doesn’t let these sites pass on any link juice.

Naive SEOs end up paying money for low-value, worthless and/or harmful links. 

Important Caveat: Not All Networks of Websites are Private Blog Networks

The fact that someone owns multiple websites and links back and forth between them is not illegitimate or a scam in and of itself.

There are good reasons that the owner of two or more different sites might link between their various properties–they might be offering complementary products and services, for instance. Search engines can usually make this distinction. 

This kind of linking tactic is not dishonest so long as the links actually make sense and you are judicious about it. 

The Major Distinction

The defining feature of a PBN is a network of connected websites that exists solely to provide backlinks to other websites. Very often, PBNs work as short term (not long term) plays.  

A lot of the biggest and most popular website operators on the web own several different web properties and link between them on a regular basis. 

Yahoo and GoBankingRates, for instance, are owned by the same company. When Yahoo Finance syndicates a story originally published on GoBankingRates, the former will usually link back to the latter: 

example of article header from go banking rates in yahoo finance

Why You Should Steer Clear of PBN Backlinks

There are a few reasons you don’t want to use PBNs and want to avoid buying PBN backlinks or working with a link building agency that sources links from them. 

The first is that they often result in major penalties from search engines that can seriously harm your rankings and traffic. 

Second, a PBN backlink is almost always worthless, so you very often don’t even get to enjoy a temporary boost in rank or visitors. You’ve basically paid to be penalized. 

What’s more, if you build your site with a ton of spammy PBN private blog network backlinks, when it comes time to sell the site, you might find no one wants to buy it. 

How Does Google Feel About PBN Links? 

While Google’s Webmaster Guidelines don’t come right out and say PBN backlinks are illegitimate, they do touch on related practices. 

In particular, Google stipulates that 

Any links whose intention is “to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

While the lack of a fine line might be tempting, you’re better off not taking chances on PBN backlinks. 

The End Results of Using Private Blog Network PBN Links

Generally speaking, one of three things tends to happen when you buy or build links on a private blog network. 

You will have wasted money

The first potential result is that you will have spent money on links that have no positive impact on your traffic or rankings. You won’t lose a ton of page visits or PageRank either; you’ll just have wasted money. 

This is the likely outcome if you have a proportionately small number of PBN links on your site. In this case, Google will probably just ignore the links, but likely won’t feel the need to penalize you. 

Why doesn’t a search engine simply penalize anyone running PBN sites, you might ask?

Google generally prefers to ignore than penalize. One very plausible reason for this is that they want to avoid incentivizing negative SEO attacks designed to hurt a site’s ranking. 

Otherwise, if someone wanted to trash a competitor’s ranking, all they would have to do is bombard them with spammy PBN backlinks. 

screenshot from an article about negative seo

Unless it’s glaringly obvious that a site is building a large number of inauthentic links to game the system, it’s fairer to just ignore them. 

You Will Get a Manual Penalty

Manual penalties occur when a human reviewer has analyzed your backlink profile and determined that many of your links are unnatural. 

When you receive a manual penalty, you will first get a warning in Search Console. Depending on what Google wants to do and the egregiousness of the manipulation, it could result in anything from a ranking decrease to your website being delisted. 

These actions aren’t permanent, however, and you can usually get back in good stead by creating and uploading a disavowal file using the disavowal tool

Following this, you can submit a reconsideration request, and they can decide to restore your rankings. 

How to Spot PBN Backlinks?

example freelancer email that offers fake high domain authority backlinks

Here a link building freelancer is clearly trying to sell “high domain authority” links built from a network of link farms or PBNs (albeit fairly convincing ones). 

Knowing how to spot PBN backlinks is a good SEO skill to have. It can help you:

  • Avoid scammy link building agencies
  • Know when you are being targeted by a negative SEO attack
  • Make better judgements when building links and buying websites (i.e., don’t just focus on authority)

Tools to help you spot a PBN link

It’s actually pretty easy to spot PBN backlinks if you know how to use an SEO tool to filter and interpret link metrics. 

We use Ahrefs “Backlinks” report to identify suspicious links. Simply filter a domain’s results by “dofollow” links and choose “one link per domain.” 

screenshot from ahrefst

Ignoring that the above link is from a reputable site with a lot of brand recognition, both the DR (Domain Authority in MOZ) and the domain traffic are high, which straightaway makes it unlikely (though not impossible) that the site is a PBN. 

Things to look out for in the report that indicate a PBN backlink include: 

  • Suspicious anchor text (especially over-optimized)
  • Very low organic traffic (especially for the domain authority) 
  • Sudden significant spikes in organic traffic
  • One or more redirects (301 redirects) from other domains 

To reiterate, PBN links are very often built on expired domains (because building a new domain’s DR is hard work and expensive), and often domains with existing authority. 

Another way to find PBNs and PBN links is to use Moz to look for sites with a high spam score. This is a metric that shows you the number of sites with features similar to the ones you have specified that have been penalized. 

The MOZ Chrome extension gives you insight in a bunch of different important SEO metrics, including spam score. 

screenshot of mozbar tool homepage

This isn’t a guaranteed method since good PBNs are engineered not to set off typical PBN alarms, but any site with a high spam score should be looked into. 

Once you’ve identified suspicious links, visit the site for closer inspection. Some of the tell-tale signs are: 

  • A lack of “About” information
  • Poorly written, low-value content 
  • Suspicious outbound links 

How to Remove Harmful PBN Links

If you find spammy links while auditing your site, you basically have two courses of action. 

The first is you can choose to do nothing. If your total number of suspicious links is quite low and your rankings are stable, chances are the links are simply being ignored.

In this case, you can focus your attention on doing the real hard work of SEO, like creating compelling content and building high authority backlinks that actually move you up the search rankings. 

The nuclear option

If, on the other hand, you find a large number of these backlinks and there is a noticeable drop in your search rankings and traffic, you can choose to ask Google to remove them using the aforementioned disavowal tool. 

disavow tool on search console

To do this, create a .txt file containing all of the low quality domains that you want removed from your site and then upload the file to the disavowal tool in Search Console. 

Google will then add these to its index and, over the course of (probably) a few weeks, apply the disavowal. 

How to Spot Sites Selling PBN Backlinks

We touched on the idea of link builders (freelance and agency) selling PBN backlinks to their clients. This is something we are expressly against.

The sad fact of the matter is there are a lot of SEOs out there still doing this, and if you want to protect your search engine rankings, you should know how to protect yourself.

Always Ask for Past Wins

Good link builders using search engine-approved tactics should be able to provide you with some of their stellar high authority backlinks built. This is especially true if they are using tactics like HARO. 

example of link building approach explanation at

We are always happy to show our new and prospective clients (obviously protecting the identity of current and previous clients) examples of amazing sites where we’ve secured links because we are confident in our white hat link building efforts.

If you are provided with a list of sites by an agency, you should investigate the spam score of the links.

Ask to See Case Studies 

The proof is in the pudding, good agencies that actually build their clients a link profile that results in real increases to search engine rankings and organic traffic will almost always have case studies to back it up. 

example of link building case study at

In this instance, the increase in organic visits our link building campaign generated for our client resulted in a 5000% increase in the number of software demos booked per month. That was the KPI this particular client was interested in. 

Ask Probing Questions About Methods

Don’t just settle for X number of links, and that’s it. This lack of due diligence is how unscrupulous link builders sell PBN backlinks to their clients. 

Ask about what kind of methods they employ. Do they use a mix of guest posting, HARO and skyscraper? If so, what kind of metrics do they use to evaluate guest posting opportunities?

What is their editorial policy when it comes to content, anchor text and overall link profile? How do they evaluate HARO opportunities? What makes a good HARO pitch? 

When you ask questions like these, you glean important insight into a person’s philosophy on link building and what their tactics are likely to be. 

What’s more, always be on the lookout for any offer that seems too good to be true. Links that are too cheap and delivered too quickly are likely going to be low quality.

PBN Backlinks Just Aren’t Worth It

Any SEO or linkbuilder who still believes that building links on Private Blog Networks is a viable tactic in 2022 is either living in the past or trying to get one over on you. Google is on a relentless mission to improve user experience, and all of its latest core updates speak to that. 

PBNs are directly at odds with that mission most of the time because they are about tricking an algorithm, not providing real value. eschews PBN backlinks because we recognize that they are, at best, fleetingly beneficial and very often hazardous. If you want to learn more about how a modern, SEO-friendly agency does things, get in touch, and we will be happy to discuss our pricing and methods. 

Why Trust Us On SEO

Eric Carrell & Sebastian Schaffer have been working in SEO for over a decade, building their own projects - understanding and testing SEO strategy, along with building hundreds of white hat links per month for our projects. They take their learnings and experience and apply them to the strategy that drives our link building strategy for our clients.

Eric & Seb have always believed in quality over quantity, doing things the right way so we future proof our client’s websites against future Google updates and the evolving industry of search.

While Seb handles the company strategy around culture, processes and structure, Eric is constantly working to improve our service offering, customer experience, and following the industry in parallel with Google’s Quality Guidelines so that we are always one step ahead of our competition and aligned with what Google wants to see for your site to rank higher.

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