You might be looking for opportunities to get backlinks for your site or your client’s site, you might have come across a good deal. In Fact, a deal that might have been too good to be true.
Is your freelance contact offering you a chance to increase your domain authority and rankings, easily and with little money?
Is your SEO agency presenting you with a report – with an enormous number of backlinks, created in a very short time, that too with exemplary results. You are now in doubt that the agency might have used some shortcuts…
If you are looking for ways to find out if you have been linked to a PBN, then this post is for you.
I am going to show you some tricks that PBN’s use and tricks that you can easily identify. I am going to do it with pbn sites examples.
Please note that each of these methods are not to be taken in isolation. You should look at all the factors for identifying PBNs.
What’s in this article:
PBNs: Short Description, Motive and Modus Operandi
PBN or a Private Blog Network is a network of websites designed to manipulate PageRank. Since backlinks pass PageRank, the network is designed in a way to pass on the link equity between controlled domains and then finally to the desired website (yours).
This method sometimes helps SEO agencies/webmasters inflate metrics such as DA/DR quickly and show fake progress in the name of results to their clients. Using PBN to manipulate search engine rankings is a black hat SEO method.
Since the network requires creators to create a lot of websites, they often lack quality, and the websites are similar in many aspects. There are some defining characteristics that you can look out for. This is what we are going to show you here. With an example.
Search engines such as Google have explicitly stated that they are now able to detect such methods and link schemes may lead to manual penalty – meaning ranking for queries along with organic traffic gone, for a few good months.
Even if PBN works, and sometimes it does, the effect is only short lived. It takes a lot of resources and energy to recover from such penalty or lost rankings.
If you have received a request to place a link on your site, you should read my post that has a checklist for auditing guest posts/link insertion email requests.
Picking referring domains for analysis
The goal here is to pick some websites and run them through a checklist.
If you have a list of domains, you can easily cherry pick. For this, check out the bonus content at around the end of this page.
If you do not have any list and want to check if you have been linked to a PBN, then do this:
See the backlink profile of the domain for which you want to check for PBN. Pick out some domains where you see that DA/DR is high, traffic is comparatively less, a smaller number of keywords are ranking in top 100 and page traffic is close to 0. These are usually the most common characteristics of a domain linked to a PBN or bad backlinks.
Consider an example domain:
In ahrefs, this is how I usually do it:
Sorted using the domain traffic column (low to high). I generally keep the backlink history to max level since it is a common practice for PBNs to de-link when the purpose of manipulating authority has been achieved. By keeping the backlinking history on, it becomes easier to identify and connect the dots.
Consider the backlinks of our suspect domain (shasanahmed):
In the interest of time and space, I have taken these 4 domains. As an exercise, you can analyze more and compare them with the below checklist.
Analyzing Domains to Check if They are a Part of a PBN
Now that you have got some domains, you can run some simple tests for determining if they are a part of a bigger private blog network.
One thing to note here is that you may not want to decide anything based on a single check or a single factor. You need to look at multiple checks as discussed below. Also, a normal domain may pass these checks individually, but it should not pass all the checks if they are a part of PBN.
1. Anchor Text Density
For spotting a PBN you need to check for anchor text density. While analyzing the backlink profile of these domains, look at the anchor text on which backlinks for the subject domain (shasanahmed) have been made.
In this particular case, you can see a lot of “home design” there. While SEO agencies try to get backlinks for a particular keyword they want to rank on, the same anchor text is not repeated this number of times. It is a common practice to get backlinks with a healthy mix of primary keywords and related queries.
What’s unnatural here is the anchor text density. It is quite probable that the majority of times, ‘home design’ is used because they wanted this domain to rank for this keyword/niche/category.
The motive here seems clear. They want to pass on authority from this domain to another domain which may well want to rank for queries related to home design niche.
2. Visual Cues
Take a look at the header and footer of these domains:
Domain 1: Iconicbritain.co.uk
Header & Menu:
Domain 2: Poedinok.net
Header & Menu:
Domain 3: Rciaa.net
Header & Menu of Domain 3:
Domain 4: Designarea.info
Header & Menu of Domain 4:
See a pattern?
Visual Cues can help you identify most PBNs. This is generally because the owner of the PBN has many domains, and to balance the effort vs return equation, they do not invest money, time into developing each domain.
You should definitely note that this is not the case with every PBN domain. PBNers have become smarter, and they generally develop each domain for a purpose other than just to manipulate search engine rankings. In such cases, it becomes harder to identify a pattern. But with a cursory investigation, you should be able to conclude that all of these domains are made by the same team for the same purpose.
Here in the above screenshots of our example websites, you can see the same theme, colour scheme, the same type of articles, and the same quality of banner image.
The last domain seems different, but if you analyze some pages, you will see that it is highly probable that the website is made by the same person who made the other three.
3. Content Quality
The content uploaded on most PBNs is either thin, written by an AI, or spun from original articles. They may also have a high amount of plagiarism. Additionally, the topics/articles are completely random, low in number and do not follow any logic in terms of a content strategy.
You can use online tools to randomly check for copy-pasted content (plagiarism checkers).
If you are not convinced, you can look at 3-4 pages and analyze their content. You’ll find that the content has weird words (text spun using spin/rewriting tools) or is of very high quality compared to other articles on the website (guest posts or copy-paste articles). It can also be short bits of general text on broad topics (AI written content).
If you find any of these in a domain, you should not link to it.
4. Keywords Quality & Traffic
On analysis of the 4 domains that we found, you will find that these domains do not have any organic traffic, and there are no keywords that its pages are ranking for.
These domains in a PBN are used to manipulate authority of other domains.
There may be cases where you find some traffic and a number of keywords in organic rankings. But you need to look closer. You will find that most of these keywords would not make sense to you. The traffic that you may be seeing may also be artificially generated.
While a domain may have a good amount of traffic and keywords ranking in the top 100, you should analyze the backlinks of that domain. The 4 domains mentioned above are linked to a legit domain (name hidden, let’s call it poogle). Poogle has a good DA, DR, traffic and number of ranking keywords in top 100. Now this legit looking domain – Poogle is being used to manipulate and provide fake authority to other websites who are willing to pay a certain amount to the webmaster.
If you analyze Poogle, you may not find a lot of red flags, but if you analyze the backlinks of Poogle (Iconicbritain.co.uk, Poedinok.net, Rciaa.net, designarea.info & more), this is where you will find the things we discussed above.
5. Same IP Address/Subnets
Many PBN makers do not go to the hassle of hosting every PBN domain on a different server, using a different technology and buying from different registrars. You can do a batch analysis of linked domains and see any pattern in shared IPs. Though it is completely reasonable that many domains may share an IP, why would similar looking domains with similar type of content share same IP Addresses. For bolstering your validation, you can look at more things like inflated metrics or shared links.
For these 4 domains that we analyzed, you can observe a pattern:
In this particular case, you can always bring up the shared hosting, shared IPs argument but consider all other checks. It would be highly improbable that non PBN domains share the same ip, same design and have inflated metrics.
6. Inflated Metrics
One typical characteristic of a PBN is that they have inflated metrics such as DA, DR but low traffic (historically low). The number of backlinks per referring domain is also unusually high.
This would be usually true for domains that are actually linked to domains outside of the PBN (to manipulate their authority in search results).
In our example case DR is not high, since these domains serve a different purpose. They do not pass on authority to the client site, but to another domain in a PBN. Similar to cog in the wheel.
7. Toxic Mutual Friends
Since many domains are interlinked to each other according to the designed scheme, it is not surprising that you find more spammy domains when you analyze these domain’s incoming external links. You may also find many common referring domains that these domains are linking to or have been linked to. The number will be unusually high.
I used SEMrush to bulk analyze these 4 example domains:
Apart from common domains (not shown here), you will also find an unusually high ratio of dofollow/nofollow links. 99% is usually .. unusual.
—–End of Analysis for how to identify PBN sites—-
Then here is how you can quickly pick the domains for analysis:
- Do a batch analysis (at domain level not page or path level) in Ahrefs/Semrush/SpyFu or any other tool.
- You should be able to get a number of total backlinks and referring domains.
- Pick the domains that have unusually high number of backlinks as compared to referring domains.
- You can now analyze each of this domain against the checklist shared in this post or run a thorough analysis by looking at the backlinks, content quality and SEO metrics of these domains.
- This trick works most of the time since PBN domains have high number of total backlinks and a low number of referring domains than usual.
Here you see the second domain has unusually high number of backlinks vs the referring domains. Even though all of these domains are a part of PBN (detailed analysis above), it becomes easy for you to pick these with a single click.
Please note: Having high number of backlinks from a single domain does not always mean that a particular domain is a part of a PBN. There are many cases where the total backlinks might be much higher than referring domains.
One another example where total backlinks might be much higher than referring domains is where a sister domain used CDN. If a CDN is operated as a subdomain or a part of a parent domain, all the assets of its sister domain is served from it. This can be shown as multiple backlinks by a third-party tool, and you should ignore such cases.
Example: having total number of backlinks vs referring domains unusually high is legit:
Here you might wonder if Thryve is actually linked to/or a part of a PBN:
So, you dig deeper and try to see the number of backlinks for each domain. For this, you will need to see an overview of referring domains linked to your suspected domain. This can be done using backlink analytics -> referring domains tab in SEMrush. See image below for illustration:
Wondering, why a few domains are linking unusually high to our suspect? Here you go:
—–End of Bonus Content—–
Want more Checks for Spotting PBNs?
Here are some more factors. I have mentioned them here separately as these checks were not apparent in our example PBN domains. But are still relevant.
8. High Number of External Links
While analyzing a particular domain, check if they have an unusual number of external links origination from this domain. Also keep in mind that domains with huge number of pages, or if they are in that kind of niche might have high number of external links. This does not mean that they are a part of a PBN.
Reason for considering it as a check: Many domains offer free sign ups and guest posting accounts. They do this so that novices get to have a free backlink and the webmaster will get content published without incurring any cost. If this is the case, you can also analyze the domain for a sign up/register page.
Another helpful check is by looking at content topics. They will all be different/unrelated with a promotional external do-follow link.
Sometimes these PBN domain do not offer sign ups but have a ‘write for us’ or contact us page. They offer guest posting/link exchange with very loose publishing guidelines. Because of this practice, many good domains fall into the trap of becoming a part of a PBN.
9. External domains linked on the Homepage
Agreed that many websites such as magazines or directories offer advertisement for brands to feature on the homepage. But this is different.
If you see a low-quality website with just a separate section and with links to external domains, you should keep it on your PBN suspect list. You can see in the below example image a domain has been linked to and listed as a partner in the sidebar of a WordPress blog. Many times, these domains will not be remotely related to the niche of the PBN domain.
Here is another example of the same practice:
10. Huge Number of Blogspot/WordPress/Google Sites links
While analyzing the backlink profile of any domain, if you see a lot of linked pages hosted on subdomains of sites such a blogger, WordPress, Wix, Google sites, LiveJournal or other microblogging or community sites, you should dig a little deeper.
Please note that high quality content and a high authority website automatically attracts a lot of these kinds of links naturally, so make sure you do your due diligence before putting a domain in your PBN domains bucket.
You can easily tell the difference between an automatic link vs artificially generated links by looking at some of these web 2.0 properties. If you find that the pages contain relevant keywords as anchor text and the content is highly relatable to your domain, then the link might be artificially generated. On the contrary, automatically generated links would not care for anchor texts, or relatable text. They are generally created by web scrapers who mindlessly create and link content just for a different goal.
These microblogging, or free website builder sites are increasingly being used to make Web 2.0 PBNs. They are inexpensive to make since the hosting is already zero cost. The content is generally spun and placed with the help of automation. These kinds of links are created at scale so that the authority can pass from subdomains/paths to the money site easily.
Example of a kinds of a PBN made on Blogspot and Google Sites network:
11. Suspicious link network using a visualizer
You can use any tool to see a link graph or a network diagram of backlinks. Try to spot a separate bunch and run the websites under these bunch with other PBN checks. Now there will be a lot of bunches that can look as PBNs to you, but you can spot the real one using other PBN checks mentioned in this most. One easiest thing to spot is the visual look of the websites under a bunch.
as an example: see the network graph of a domain below. You can see there is a bunch of domains that literally fall under the definition of a private blog network.
So, if you analyze the domains in the bunches that you see, you can easily find visual cues and other factors that a PBN domain has. And yes, 1st bunch is a PBN.
Wrapping up With a Simple Checklist
I showed you some tricks through which you can spot a PBN. To sum up, you need to check for the following:
Make sure that you mark a particular domain as part of the PBN only when the majority of these items in the list fail your checks. In isolation, a particular check may not conform to characteristics of a typical PBN.
Identifying Sneaky/Advanced PBNs
If you have some performing sites and you link them with each other, you have also created a PBN, albeit unintentionally. But you do need to worry since your aim is not to manipulate search rankings and use sneaky tactics. But it is worth noting that motivated individuals and organizations work hard to create quality content, using tactics to hide hosting, IPs, domains and other variables that are mentioned above.
In this case, it becomes a lot harder to identify hidden PBNs without a significant footprint and track them for your site. The identifying factors now become subjective, and you have to dig a lot deeper. If you really think that you have been linked to a PBN, you should then explore every referring domain to your site. When you explore, you may connect the dots, and this may help you identify PBNs that have been built sneakily.
Connecting the dots of course means finding patterns that a particular referring domain is a part of a network.
Since there are a lot of domains in a PBN, you may see some websites which have not been given much attention to. If you find a lot of stale content and websites not updated from sometime, a lot of broken links, old wp themes and old tech that have not been updated, you may be on to something there.
Since PBNs may also be well regularly maintained, you may find other unusual things. Such as a particular time at which a certain number of articles being posted on some of the websites linked to each other. This may be a sign that the website has automated scheduling of content. And the content topics are very broad, probably written by an AI.
And so on…
- WHOIS information look up should not be a deciding factor while taking backlinks. There are a lot of domains where people hide their identity for purposes other than just making PBNs.
While this being true that owners of PBN would not ideally put up their information online, it should not be equated with every person who is trying to protect their privacy by using a disguised WHOIS info.
Even if you take other checks mentioned here into consideration, there are a lot of people using proxy to prevent spam and keep their personal details personal.
- It is a common practice of domains in PBNs to allow free guest posting. This helps them fill their website with mostly original content and helps their website look natural. So, if you are getting a free author account to post as many guest posts as you can or got a PBN sites list from LinkedIn or email, beware of the link.
- Many times, Black Hat SEOs do not buy separate domains to create a PBN. They easily do it on BlogSpot, Wix, Google sites or other blogging sites. The number of sites required to create a PBN with these types of sites are generally high.
Also, they may not focus on any PBN SEO. So, if you see a surprising number of BlogSpot pages linked to a domain, you may have been linked to a PBN.
- Many webmasters convert their old non traffic generating websites into a PBN. On the look of it, these blogs will have good stats, but would have nonperforming & stale content.
You need to do good research before acquiring any backlink. One way to identify them is by looking at the site design. They will generally be very outdated with lots of stale content and fewer new entries.
Liked this post? Here is Some More:
- Difficulty in ideating your next content? Read my post on working methods of finding blog topics.
- If you already have a post and looking for ways to optimize it to the next level, read my post on auditing & optimizing existing content with SEO.
- Ever came across “No information is available for this page. Learn Why?“. Read the reasons for this description and possible solutions.