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Updated on 7th of June, 2020

This guide gets fairly complex around the midway point, but I will do my best to explain critical concepts along the way. SERPninja’s team has built upwards of 10,000 PBNs and continues to build quite a handful daily. This helps us to understand private blog networks in a way others cannot.

This guide focuses on building PBNs the right way, not the cheapest way. We will look at saving time over money, and minimize diminishing returns to a great extent. The recommendations in this guide are not speculative and we do not intend to throw the spending decision back at you. We want to make conclusive decisions about what works and what doesn’t based on our experience of building 1000s of PBNs every single month.

What is a private blog network?

A private blog network (PBN) is a network of aged authority sites that link to your money site(s) for the purpose of ranking higher in search engines—primarily Google. A money site is basically a website you want to rank higher in Google—it generates “money” for you, hence the term “money site”.

what is a PBN?

 

We try to keep all the websites in the PBN as autonomous as possible by reducing “footprints”. We want these blog network sites to look real—like any other website you can find on the web.

Average wallet damage when building PBNs the right way

There is no clear number to say how much a PBN network will cost to build. I will not be listing a bunch of absurdly expensive figures in order to convince you to buy stuff from us, but I will base the following numbers on what it costs us on average:

  • Webhosting – $3/month/domain
  • Domains – anywhere between $25-$800—this completely depends on what you are looking for. We almost always see domains that have great value and ROI in the $90-$250 range.
  • Setup costs – WordPress Developer at $15/hour
  • Content – 1000 words of non-native content will cost you about $10/domain
  • Maintenance at 500 words of fresh content on a monthly basis – $5/month
  • Software subscription – $50/month (we will get to this in a bit)
  • GoDaddy Auction membership – $10/year

You can host websites for free on free hosts or CDNs/code repositories like Cloudflare and Github which you can automate by having a virtual assistant build and configure—this guide takes the assumption that you are a solo operation and have to do things yourself. You can save money on building WordPress sites if you have a basic idea of uploading themes and creating posts. I highly advise against writing content for your PBNs as you can get cheap content off any marketplace for $5 per 500 words.

It is, therefore, safe to say that you will spend about $5000-$6000 on a 50-site network and about $100-$150 a month on hosting. There is also the price of yearly domain renewal at $400-$450 in total. This number can change depending on how expensive your domains are.

Is Google ‘OK’ with PBNs?

No. Google isn’t generally ‘OK’ with SEO. Psst, SEO that works. They make billions of dollars by selling ads. They want you to pay for ads as well. PBNs also get the white-hat SEO community riled up with posts like(though they get slapped as often as the rest of us by Google updates):

There is a definite risk which comes into the picture while using PBNs, but a lot of them can be completely eliminated or significantly reduced if you understand the nitty-gritty of building them properly.

Do you need PBNs to rank?

Yes and no. This comes down to how competitive your niche is and oftentimes you are well off by just optimizing your money site and pages by following good on-page optimization techniques. If your niche(“keyword”) is dominated by huge players having 100s of referring domains and you can’t seem to get off page 3 regardless of what you do, you should look at manipulating the search algorithm in your favour by buying or building links. Link building is a pay to play world—you either pay with currency or you pay with time.

 

Using tools like SurferSEO can be invaluable to your onpage research

If your niche only has a handful of sites with little to no link inflation, there is a lot that can be done by content pruning and quality content alone.

That being said, it’s still hard to tell if your competitors are using PBNs. It’s easy to hide these links from third-party link crawlers to keep them away from prying eyes – It takes 30 seconds to do this.

One of the biggest advantages you can get from using PBNs is the ability to control anchor texts. You can experiment with different anchor text ratios and fine-tune them to have higher control in rankings. You choose when you get a link and when you can have it removed.

How to obtain high-value domains for Private Blog networks

There are different ways to do this, but we will focus on what works for us and our clients. At the end of the day, all the tools below work with the same lists of dropping/dropped domains available from public repositories/drop files. It’s what they do with it that matters. Using a paid tool doesn’t mean that you will magically see more available domains for purchase.

Expireddomains.net(not recommended but FREE)

Expireddomains.net is great if you are lacking in budget and just need something to figure out what to buy. It has a decent set of suites to filter domains based on market places, TLDs,etc.

Domcop.com(not recommended)

As of 2020, DomCop isn’t the only tool that is built with PBN domaining in mind. I would skip this tool altogether as there are better, cheaper alternatives to using DomCop. That being said, if you are interested in having a personalized expired domain crawler, this might be a good bet.

SpamZilla(highly recommended)(SZ)

 

The SERPninja team has been using this tool since the alpha release days and continues to use it to this day. There is simply no other tool that can do things SZ does. It’s highly robust and is stupid fast. Putting some effort into learning the ins and outs of this software might eradicate your need for domain brokers altogether. Your time is better spent on obtaining domains than writing content for your PBNs.

Expired domains vs Auction domains

Before we come to a conclusion about what is better, here is a quick run-down about what is what without needing to attend a masterclass on domaining.

Basic overview of these confusing terms:

  • Expired domains – domains that you find by scraping huge sites like Wikipedia,BBC.co.uk and checking for “domain name not resolved errors”.All expired domains are dropped.
  • Non-dropped domains – domains that haven’t been available for registration at registrar prices since the first registration. Thus, “aged”. They were always “owned” by an entity.
  • Dropped domains – non-dropped domains that haven’t been owned by anyone at some point in time. Thus, not “aged”.

By non-dropped auction domains, we mean domains that haven’t been dropped and are available for purchase at auctions or domain marketplaces. You will also find a lot of dropped domains at these marketplaces. Therefore, the term “auction domain” should not be confused with the domain being dropped or not.

Non-dropped domain > dropped domain > expired domain

Given an unlimited budget, you should always aim to obtain domains which can be link building assets over a long period of time. A good qualifying factor in obtaining an asset quality domain is the domain’s age.
By common consensus, expired domains have a higher probability of working in non-English SERPs like Google.de than in English SERPs. Therefore, if you are in a non-English market, using expired domains can supposedly give you a higher ROI than by using non-dropped domains, which are usually more expensive.

The ideal metrics for narrowing down options

There are multiple metrics that can help you filter out domains. You should focus on using metrics that can complement your size of operation.Oftentimes, using a combination of filtration techniques based on multiple third-party metrics can narrow down your options fast.

Cost of API data

Ahrefs > Moz > Majestic

Use this idea to your advantage. If you have 1000s of domains to be processed, you can filter that list through Majestic’s API to remove options that don’t make the cut. Then move over to processing whatever is leftover on Ahrefs. This can help you save costs when processing huge lists. This can be irrelevant if you use SZ as you will be able to pick filters for Majestic filtering in their dashboard.

We primarily use Ahrefs for all our link metrics, which is Domain Rating(DR), RD(Recurring domains) and organic traffic numbers.

One of the biggest mindset problems we have seen among customers is the fact that they are fixated on abstract metric numbers when acquiring domains. Look at what the market has on offer before coming to a conclusion on what is worth obtaining.

Setting DR(Domain Rating) of 30 effectively removes all DR29 domains which are probably available for half the price than your DR30 options. Always cast a wide net and objectively compare domains based on cost per acquisition and backlink profile over third-party metrics that are not an absolute indicator of how much Google trusts those domains.

Automating domain acquisition using SpamZilla

Spamzilla has a good tutorial here to help you understand the basics of the tool.

These are our recommended filters:

SZ Drops – 0-2, this refers to the drop history of the domain.0 is great but that may not alwaysthrow out a lot of options. A couple of drops earlier on in the domain’s life shouldn’t hurt its value.

Age – 2+

SZ score of 0-23. This is where you get your money’s worth with SZ. The SPAM classification algorithm is fairly advanced and can weed out most domains that you shouldn’t be looking at—a huge time saver. 0 = squeaky clean and 23 = suspicious.

Majestic TF of 1+ / RD 5+ – Majestic’s crawler data is generally poor when compared to Ahrefs(big claim but most SEOs can come to a consensus that Ahrefs is better. Ahrefs isn’t perfect but their crawler data IMHO is vastly superior). A lot of the times you will be able to find 2x the claimed Majestic RD in Ahrefs.

Ideally, we want to do a quick spam check of all the domains we find in SZ and do a final thorough check using Ahrefs. If you do not have an Ahrefs account, you should replace the recommended Majestic RD filter to whatever RD you are going after.

You don’t need the flashiest of domains in your PBN for it to be effective. Go after domains that have good backlink portfolios. 500RD doesn’t mean anything if most of them are spammed blog comments. Vanity metrics are great for filtering out domain lists but shouldn’t be the only reason you buy a domain. Find the perfect balance of value/domain quality which works for you instead of going after an arbitrary number like we mentioned earlier.

That’s one of the many reasons why SERPninja generally acquires domains on a value proportion across domains of different metrics from RD40 to 1000/DR20-60 based on rigorously analyzing what the domain offers at the price point.

Checking PBN domains on Ahrefs (Quick Pointers)

1.Checking Anchors

Check historically – do a quick glance in every page just in case. SZ will do this for you as well.

A quick tip: Check for popular SPAM tools’ default anchors as well. Example: GSA SER’s “visit poster’s website”

2.Checking previous ranking history

 

 

Check “movements” in ahrefs so that you can see if the PBN site had ranked for any shady terms. Type out “casino”, “porn” etc in the search bar to have a quick check to see if the domain was hacked and made to rank for something else.

3. Checking backlinks and referring domains the right way

One link per domain helps you narrow down quality of sites linking to your PBN domain

4. Checking linking history

No crazy spikes in graphs – check. Good dofollow-nofollow ratio- Check

Should you check if the domains are indexed in Google?

If your auction domain is already indexed on Google, that’s a good sign. And most good auction domains will be.

But there will be a few times in which the domain is not indexed, but that shouldn’t usually be a deal-breaker for low-cost domains. Domains can be de-indexed if they have been parked for too long.

GoDaddy closeouts over scraped expired domains

Closeout domains get cheaper every 24 hours

 

GoDaddy closeouts are basically auction domains that do not receive any bidding action. They automatically go to a secondary marketplace from where you can buy them for a fixed fee, starting at $13. A lot of the sites these domains aren’t technically dropped since they roll over from previous domain owners and get picked up by SEOs or other domainers. You can often find some great domains here for a bargain.

This can be a great alternative to scraping for domains using automated software.

Domain brokers vs Doing it yourself

How much is your time worth to you? Do you plan to acquire domains often or just every now and then?

The industry demands a minimum of 50% margin over the acquisition costs on average. A lot of times, that can go to 100%.It’s not an unjustified markup—obtaining domains needs a certain eye. Like many skills in SEO, it’s acquired and needs quite a bit of time to perfect and do as second nature.

How to host private blog networks the right way

There are a few solutions we use to get PBNs up and running. The broad classification in PBN hosting just comes down to what niche you are in. You may not be able to host Casino/Adult niches in a lot of PBN hosting services.

We are looking for hosting companies which give you different Class A/B IPs for every domain in your network so that they can be as unrelated to each other as possible. We are also looking for solutions that host your PBN sites along with real websites. Something like a shared-webhosting aggregator.

BulkBuyHosting (Recommended)

SImple to use UI – API access. The whole shebang.

BulkBuyHosting gives you CPanel accounts from a network of reseller accounts they obtain from companies offering shared hosting. BBH does not allow you to host casino or adult PBNs.This is what the team at SERPninja uses.

LaunchCDN (for casino/adult PBNs)

This is another company operated by the folks at BulkBuyHosting. This is a solid choice if you need PBN hosting for “shady” niches.

PriorityProspect(for massive networks – 200+ sites)

PriorityProspect uses popular infrastructure providers like Amazon AWS and RankSpace to host your website on unique IPs. A lot of our clients with massive networks use this service and seem to be very happy with it.

Building private blog network sites

The critical idea when building out PBN sites is to make them good enough to pass manual reviews. Does your PBN look like a real site when someone stumbles onto it? Does it look convincing enough when the Google SPAM team look at it?

WordPress

Time and again, our internal testing has pointed to significant advantages when doing a hybrid setup—setting up WordPress on your PBNs while carrying forward the niche and URL structure of what you find in Archive.org. The sites index faster and stay indexed for a longer period than doing WayBack exports. About half a billion websites (455 million out of 1.3 billion total active websites) run on WordPress. Theoretically, this means that at least half of your PBN can run on WordPress while mimicking the natural web—this number only gets higher if you compare the total number of blogs that run on WordPress.

 

We almost entirely build our networks—both personal and business—on WordPress as we understand that there can be other glaring footprints other than the CMS itself.

Selecting a theme for your WordPress PBN

Always go for popular themes that are used by the majority of real sites. Almost all of the popular themes and frameworks will have a GPL licensed free version that you can use. Also, picking a random theme from the WordPress repository can pave the way for a lot of problems, including poor maintenance of code and vulnerabilities which will get your sites hacked eventually.

You do NOT have to be particular about making every single site on a new theme either—rather try to mimic whatever people use the most.

The same goes for your choice of plugins—make sure you randomly select and install a few plugins that are commonly used. It’s safe to assume that you can use the same set of themes and plugins a couple of times for every set of 50 sites you are building.
Some themes and frameworks you can use are:

1.Astra
2.NewsPaper
3.Elementor
4.Divi
5.Beaver Builder
6.GeneratePress

Some popular plugins:

1.Contact form plugin
2.Yoast SEO
3.All in One SEO
4.Really Simple SSL

You get the idea.

Evading Manual Reviews

Have a solid top fold design

 

This is NOT how a PBN should be. Be better in 2020

This is by far the most critical aspect while designing PBNs. Implementing a slider, video or a lead magnet can instantly gain trust points when someone is looking at it. You can also use the popular “as seen on” method to get your PBN more trust points.

Adding new content

Do not buy or build PBNs if you do not plan to constantly update your website with new posts.PBN domains—if obtained the proper way—will already have keywords they can easily occupy top pages for. You will have to check historic ranking information for the domain so that you know what to base your new posts on. Make sure you buffer posts you link out from with new articles, focusing on obtaining trickle traffic.

Stop linking out too quick/Stop using a considerable size of your network for a project

A good practice—with or without data to back this claim—comes down to linking to your money site a good 30-45 days after you build your PBN. It gets too obvious that the site has been repurposed for building links if you link out too quickly.

Another important aspect of using your PBNs is to not link out a considerable portion to a single project(money site). A good conservative number is to use less than 40% of your network for a project, which is 4 out of every 10 sites. If you don’t like these numbers, build out your network over a period of few months and link out at different points in time. These methods can make it almost impossible for Google to sniff you out with an algorithm.

Stop hosting in cheap hosts

 

Easy to do reverse IP checks and figure out all the crappy sites you host with

 

Having bad neighbours in your IP is a good way to get your PBN deindexed. Make it a point to host your website along with real websites in shared hosting accounts or in IPs of infrastructure companies. Cheap $1/year hosting accounts from webhostingforums.com is guaranteed to have your websites on subnets which are primarily used for SPAM, emailing or other shady activities.

HTML Archive.org Exports

As mentioned earlier, we are not big fans of using archive.org exports for a multitude of reasons, including:

DMCA takedowns from previous owners for the usage of copyrighted content, including images or text. This is particularly common in.uk domains such as.co.uk /.uk and other cTLDs from countries that have tighter laws around copyright claims.

General ineffectiveness while indexing and ranking properties

But there can be situations that absolutely need an Archive.org export—like having to setup 1000s of pages in URL structures that are not supported by WordPress’s character set.

https://github.com/hartator/wayback-machine-downloader

If you know what GitHub is or have some level of technical expertise in working with a script, this should be a good bet.

SpamZilla Wayback Exporter

Good UI/No frills and gets the job done.

PBN testing

This testing machine is straightforward and deals around these 3 basic ideas:

  • Picking a closely related niche
  • Scouting for targets in page 3-6
  • A rank tracker and patience

If you are in the cannabis dispensary niche, specifically Cannabis dispensary in San Diego, figure out a few targets that are ranked in pages 3-6 in the “Cannabis dispensary in <small town>” niche. If you are in a more competitive niche, use Ahrefs.com to pick out keywords which have little to no competition using their KD metric. Again, we are trying to figure out if the particular PBN site works—a YES or NO over how effective it is.

Make sure you pick a target page which has little to no backlinking activity. Again, the ranking page and not the domain. Once you pick a few target pages to test your PBN link on, send it a few partial matched exacts.In this case, “check out the best cannabis dispensary in<small town>”

 

Root domains – Non-authority domains in the lower pages are perfect

Track the page using a rank tracker (a good free tool is serprobot.com) and see where the target webpage settles after a probable dance in the SERPs.

If it gains any positive movement and maintains the positive swing for a couple of weeks, your PBN has passed the test.

Sometimes your PBN link can be “toxic” and can cause a negative movement. These can be few and far between and can be greatly avoided by buying domains from good vendors or doing it yourself properly.

Recommended vendors and tools for building PBNs

Archive.org

You will need to be familiar with using archive.org. It’s a good idea to check every single timestamp if you are getting expensive domains.

GoDaddy Auctions

Without a GoDaddy auction account, you will not be able to bid on domains. It costs $10/year and should typically be the first thing you get if you are into getting PBN domains.

Other popular marketplaces include:

Dynadot.com
Sedo.com
Flippa.com
namepros.com

Spamzilla.io

SZ can significantly reduce the time needed to scout and obtain domains. It also comes with a plethora of other tools like:

Ahrefs.com/Majestic.com

You will need a Majestic.com or Ahrefs.com account if you are into SEO—not just building PBNs. Ideally, this should not be a separate expense. You will need one of these accounts to accurately rebuild PBN domain URLs which have linking activity and to find historical ranking data to create PBN blog posts on.

Select “Best Pages By links” and sort by RD to find pages worth rebuilding. thehoth.com is for representational purposes only – don’t email me telling me it’s not a PBN

A subscription at SZ comes with Majestic SEO data anyway.

To Build or to Rent—Shooting for the highest possible ROI

As of 2020, building your own PBN will not make much sense in terms of ROI if you do not handle clients or if you are not in a niche that does not have significant upsides of ranking on top and can make the money you spend on building PBNs look miniscule. Oftentimes, PBNs become the only source of scaling link building efforts in certain industries like pharma, casino and adult, since mainstream link building services do not usually accommodate these niches due to the simple fact that most real websites often consider these niches spammy and are not okay with linking out to sites in this niche.

Building your own PBNs will not be worthwhile if you are a small-time affiliate marketer or someone new in the industry, in which case you should probably be looking at obtaining a brandable domain to build your money site on—using the same methods mentioned above—so that you get a headstart in ranking as you already have a “trusted” domain by Google’s terms and can walk in comfortably to a niche without worrying too much about your competitor’s age and backlinks. Brandable domains also have a better selling multiple when you are after an exit.

How and where to buy PBN links

Here is a simple checklist of the thought process you should consider before getting PBN links from an SEO vendor:

  • Do they have a client intake process?
  • Do they reject customers who are not a good fit for their networks?
  • Do they reject customers who come in with money sites which are spammed?
  • Do they reject pharma,adult and casino niches?
  • Do they sell links based on metrics and nothing else?

A lot of metrics can be manipulated to a certain degree—the most popular of them being DA(Moz) by consistently spamming them by using automated tools. If the entire sales angle revolves around having certain XYZ metrics, that is a red flag.

Good vendors will qualify you

One-time fees vs recurring fees

As a business that focuses on “economy of scale” ourselves, we can understand the math behind having one-time fees for permanent PBN posts—PBN links that occupy the homepage and then eventually roll over to inner pages. But from an SEO perspective, this creates a posting gap between promotional (PBN) posts and general informative posts (to drive traffic). If you work with reputed vendors who are probably not the cheapest since they also have the overhead of posting content between promotional posts.

One-time fee vendors are like “unlimited hosting” web hosting companies, which will have a fair use policy at the end of the day. The typical lifetime of a one-time fee post should probably be a year or two, or until the domain deindexes or the vendor goes out of business.

On the other hand, rental links—links you pay once a month/6 months—seem to make more sense as they encompass the non-fixed expense of maintaining a PBN. A lot of PBN costs aren’t one-time—good hosting, good content. These should also be cheaper and help you track your ROI better.

At the end of the day, it comes down to who you are working with.

A ServiceNow wizard by trade, Gaby quit her 9-5 to pursue the world of search marketing. As a Customer Success Manager at SERPninja, she makes sure your projects get the attention they deserve. She is a certified Google Campaign Manager, HubSpot Inbound Marketing Expert and a SEMrush Expert – it is safe to say she knows exactly what she is talking about. She swears by  “The 5 Hour Work Week” but ends up working 80 hours a week to make sure your SEO is handled right.