In early 2007 I fell asleep on a bus home from college. I had a weird dream that I saw Jane Copland, Rebecca Kelley and Rand Fiskhin (all of SEOmoz at the time) sitting at the front of the bus. The conversation we had wasn’t very interesting, and it probably shows a very geeky time of my youth, but it does highlight one thing: Even at 16 I was crazy about SEO and the communities discussing it.
In the last 72 hours the SEO world has gone crazy about the news that PBN’s (Private Blog Networks) are being hit by Google. The one person I’ve looked up to all of this time, Rand Fishkin, was quick to label anyone involved in the practice as a Blackhat SEO. It was an interesting comment from someone who recently emailed me to thank me for the transparency I share in this space, but not one that I agree with. If I’m a Blackhat SEO now, I’ll continue to be one: Because I’m not slowing down the growth of my own private link network.
I started writing this blog post before hearing anything from Rand. Or Barry at Search Engine Roundtable. Or Spencer at Niche Pursuits. In fact the first person I saw talking about PBN’s being hit by Google was Greg over at No Hat Digital.
Since then, things have escalated quickly. I even saw my Twitter stream start to fill up with questions from people who asked me what was going on. Even Justin from Empire Flippers, who I hung out with in Bangkok, started letting people know the websites he has for sale were safe from Google’s latest update.
For almost 48 hours things seemed nicely confined to our little private communities. I was quick to announce on Facebook that only around 5% of our websites were ‘hit’ and deindexed by Google. That may seem small, but I admit it’s fairly substantial since we have almost 2,000 domains in our network.
Then came the tweet from Rand, which totally surprised me:
Is running a Private Blog Network suddenly a sign that you’re a Blackhat SEO now?
I thought the SEO world had cleared up a long, long time ago that the Blackhat SEO label was reserved for those who hack websites, inject links and all sorts of other illegal tactics. Whether you agree with Google Guidelines or not, Blackhat surely leads you to think that what people are doing would break the law.
Of course, building your own sites and linking to your own websites (or those of your clients) is not illegal by any stretch of the imagination. It may break Google guidelines, but Google are not the law.
Fortunately I’m certainly not the only one who things this way:
This wasn’t just a one-off, badly worded tweet from Rand either. He quickly followed up the original tweet with another hint at Blackhat tactics.
It’s the kind of comment I would really only expect a Googler to come out with. Oh wait, here’s Matt:
I don’t really like the terms Blackhat, Whitehat or Greyhat but surely there’s something better to label it with than the worst term we have in the SEO world?
Before publishing this post I had another 500 words on this discussion. Why Rand and his own Moz experiments are Blackhat (which he accepted), how many look up to him in the SEO world and he could be more careful with his wording and so on and so on.
In the end it seemed a little immature for me to cover the topic in so much detail and life is short so it’s probably irrelevant. I still have a lot of respect for him, but he’s really, really playing into the Google propaganda as are many others. The main reason I wanted to highlight our discussion was to show how great a job Google does in making any tactic that works look frowned upon. Their business relies on it, and they’re experts at it.
Blackhat or not, I know what I’ll keep doing…
In short: It still works in an algorithm that will never be perfect nor favour the “smaller guys”.
I’m not alone in saying it works either. I talk to a lot of people on Skype who run their own networks and they’re just amazed as I am about all of the drama surrounding Google’s actions.
I’ve been asked by a lot of people whether I was hit by the latest changes. Yes, I was. Out of the almost 2,000 websites we have we’ve identified around 100 to be deindexed. While I don’t know if all of my sites were indexed for certain before this update, the 100 or so out of the index were likely to have been targeted manually.
What hasn’t happened is a loss in rankings for any key sites (we target more than 400 high-level keywords across dozens of industries) and there have been no warnings of thin-content in webmaster tools for any sites we link to.
That isn’t to say it won’t happen. I’m not naive enough to think I’m smarter than Google, but certainly nothing that has happened this week has made me more worried than at any other time building up my network.
You may be wondering why I (well, me and Diggy) would put so much money into domains for building a network of our own websites. There are three obvious reasons, first of all:
The biggest reason I started building a PBN in the first place is because my sites which focus highly on quality content that had thousands of links simply weren’t ranking as well anymore. I was struggling across the board to compete with other people running PBN’s, people injecting links into other sites, and pretty much any other tactic that Google isn’t “supposed” to favor when it comes to rankings.
To be clear, I’ve never actually thought of my network as Private Blog Network. Private is a bit of strange word to use. I’ve always simply thought of it as my own link network (especially since I don’t always use blogs). I wrote a long and detailed post about “Why Google Pushed Me to Build a (Bigger) Link Network” in January and it explains more of my reasons for doing so.
Every single notice of PBN websites being “hit” points at this being a purely
The fact that some network owners have been hit doesn’t mean too much to me. It was going to happen eventually and anyone would be crazy to think otherwise. It just like when Guest Posting was all the rage as an SEO tactic, Google couldn’t let people keep thinking they could use it to rank higher (because Google couldn’t figure it out algorithmically) so the scare train began.
This resulted in manual actions for sites like My Blog Guest, ran by Ann Smarty.
In my post back in January, all three of my main points for running a blog network still stand today as much as they did back then.
1. They can be a great way to get natural links. If you use them as a base to push up rankings, people will naturally find you in search results and if you have great content, increased eyeballs will always result in an increased chance to get natural links from other webmasters.
If it didn’t, Google’s entire algorithm would be (even more) flawed.
2. A network can keep you ahead of the curve. In a January blog post I showed that myself and other members of my forum were among the first to notice Google’s first big algorithm change of 2014. The only people who noticed them (good and bad) were owners of private link networks.
I even posted on Inbound.org about any possible updates and not one single person replied saying they noticed anything. 72 hours later; the SEO world started talking about a potential Google update. 72 hours is a long time in SEO to notice an update before anyone else.
Running SEO tests with a network is the only way these changes were noticed.
3. A network is easy to backtrack from. Negative SEO is still alive and well and Google’s best solution to it is to let webmasters do all the hard work and look at disavowing links to their websites.
As you probably know, Negative SEO usually involves firing thousands of links to a website so finding and disavowing these links is a long, laborious and slow process. Google have made a great business opportunity for companies like Link Research Tools with their “Link Detox” to profit from their own lack of support in this area.
When you run a network, you can take down the links in minutes.
Rank Hero were one of the networks to be penalised and they’ve already took down all of their network from what I can see. Try doing that if you’ve been building links any other way.
I am yet to even mention how well network links work in new industries when “natural” ways to build links – like writing great content and attracting links – simply don’t work. These new industries and niche opportunities are where I make a lot of money as an affiliate marketer.
Whether networks are good or bad, blackhat or whitehat is totally up to you, but surely there was something better for the Google webspam team to be working on right now?
Here’s something that is kind of funny but kind of sad at the same time.
What about all those poor webmasters who were hit with the last Penguin update and aren’t able to recover until Google refresh their algorithm.
After all, Google’s very own John Meuller stated at such:
“Yes, assuming the issues are resolved in the meantime, with an update of our algorithm or its data, it will no longer be affecting your site.”
This was in response to someone on the Google Webmaster Help forums wondering why their rankings weren’t back after being hit by Penguin 2.1 and trying to rectify what they had done wrong.
Even Barry Schwartz himself, who I respect more than anyone in this industry, is saddened by how long this update has taken:
“I am absolutely shocked and honestly horrored it is taking so long, but that is for a different post.”
As long as those bad guys with their private link networks are getting hit, let’s leave that other stuff for another year eh, Google?
The real matter of course is that Google don’t owe any of us anything in terms of rankings. As long as we give them our search queries and click on their ads, the ball is always going to be in their court.
I don’t see why I owe it to them to stop performing a tactic that works, just because they don’t like it.
Their odd focus isn’t doing a very good job at quieting down the “they just want us all to move to Adwords” crowd.
I can at least thank them for making powerful domains a hell of a lot cheaper now!
Now of course, this isn’t the first time Google have tried to make a tactic irrelevant and scare people from doing it. There have been many examples of this kind of thing in recent years.
This wouldn’t be ViperChill if I didn’t cover all angles, so let’s look at a few examples, shall we?
If you’re a regular reader of ViperChill (thank you) then you won’t be surprised to hear me say this. I’ve already showed that Godaddy are doing very well in Google search results by telling users of their SSL certificates to put a widget link with perfect anchor-text links on their websites.
I also showed Houzz and Symantec are doing the exact same thing and getting millions of extra search visitors because of it.
Yet if you believe the news, these tactics should have died out a very long time ago.
Coupons sites are also using the tactic on a huge scale and ranking well because of it. I would love to show more examples but in my huge section on “outing” on a previous post I vowed not to show more examples than necessary.
I like to think I’ve made a pretty clear point here though: Tactics that shouldn’t work do and will continue to do so for a long time (especially if you’re a big brand).
Let’s look at another example to keep the ball rolling. This time we’ll start off with the news results so you can get a feel for how Google react to people clearly buying or selling links in order to increase search rankings.
That last example is almost eight years old so surely nobody is riding to the top of Google on the back of paid links anymore, are they?
Well, again, if you’re a regular reader of this site you’ll see that I’ve already covered Wix – who IPO’d with an $800m valuation – buy links on a grand scale.
You’ll see in that original post I did verify that those links were indeed paid for. I also revealed I’ve been known to buy links myself from time to time.
In fact, I bought some very recently for a new site I’m working on. Again, for no other reason than paid links still work and are very difficult for Google to detect, no matter what they want you to think.
I’m not trying to advocate that the first thing you do after reading this post is go and buy some links, but showing that you don’t have to believe what every “whitehat” SEO and Google wants you to think.
I don’t think it would be right to call myself an SEO if I wasn’t testing all legal aspects of link building, at the very least for my own websites.
If you run a blog of any size then you’re probably like me in that you receive dozens of emails each week asking you to include infographics in your posts, accept guest bloggers or share with your audience some “content they’ll definitely love.”
There’s one brand that just keep cropping up with guest post requests all of the time and have done so for the last two years. I wont reveal their sites – they have dozens – but they like URL’s with the word ‘degrees’ in them and they always seem to end in a .org. The TLD angle probably making them look more legitimate to people they contact through blogger outreach.
Their approach always varies. Here’s one where, for once, they’re not actually asking to write for my blog but because they have “great” content to share.
I actually like what they do because they violate the guest blogging “guidelines” in such an open manner yet dominate absolutely every single industry they’re involved in. Their strategy is pretty smart:
The end result is that literally all of their websites are ranking. They then sell all of the leads they generate for medical, law and other schools or degrees on to brokers who are happy to pay a lot of money for them.
All of their rankings rely heavily on guest posting. Without it, they wouldn’t be doing even 10% of the traffic I bet they’re doing today.
And you guessed it, Guest Posting for SEO gets just as bad a rap as the previous two tactics I’ve just mentioned
Hopefully you’re starting to see a pattern here.
If you aren’t, let me make it a little clearer.
They want you to be scared to do any kind of SEO besides “writing great content”.
They want more people to use Adwords which is far more reliable source of traffic.
They don’t want you to think you can get away with anything that abuses their guidelines.
The latest headlines are really nothing new if you’ve been in SEO for a while.
And that’s totally fine, because it’s their search engine.
At the end of this post I’m going to tell you that if writing great content worked better than anything else right now I would do it. Please keep in mind though that I’m not trying to convince you to build your own network or even trust anything I have to say in this post.
Keep your mind open when it comes to anyone talking about what works well in Google today.
If you haven’t been totally put off the prospect of building your own network and want to start or have a network already you want to protect as much as possible, here are some lessons to keep in mind.
I really try not to be negative about anyone launching software in the SEO space. It’s always nice to see people taking new angles to help us make our working lives easier. I pay for way more SEO tools monthly than the average person.
One software I was very curious about (but inherently sceptical) was the recent launch of software called CloudPBN. CloudPBN promised to help you manage your PBN all in one place. This instantly set off a few alarms for me: While the concept is nice, what would happen if your login was compromised or they left a footprint?
Well, leave a footprint they did and possibly still do. If you’re going to launch software to manage a PBN surely you have to be 100% risk-free when it comes to leaving footprints. You don’t add “footprint protection” on as a feature a few days after launch.
Even worse was that Charles Floate was able to reset my CloudPBN password multiple times (even after I received my refund). Fortunately I only analysed their code and didn’t even use the software but imagine I had actually put some of my real sites in there; that would have not only been frustrating but also potentially risky to my business.
There will probably be fewer launches targeting PBN owners in the future now but please keep any potential footprints or security flaws in mind for the next software that promises to make your PBN building easier or just easier to manage.
Doing this manually is either slow or costly, sure, but not as costly as the price you paid for your domains. And your time.
In the last few weeks it came to my attention that actual Blackhat SEO’s were sending extortion emails to people who use Godaddy Auctions to purchase domains for their private link networks.
A few readers of ViperChill contacted me, worried about the emails they received.
Here’s an excerpt from one such example:
The theory about how they find these PBN sites and their owners is pretty simple.
They watch auctions on Godaddy and make a note of all domains sold. They constantly check those domains to see what content is placed on them. If there’s anything there that looks like it would be used for a private blog network then they email the owner and threaten him to pay up.
While I don’t think their threats have much merit and Google would do anything manually, I bet they’ve received a lot of money from doing this.
Either way, the last thing you probably want is people who are willing to go to these lengths to extort money following your network. You’re welcome to email me if you need sources to find good domains in private.
Google aren’t the only enemy you have to worry about when it comes to running your own private link network. There are also competitors constantly looking at the backlinks of people who find themselves in similar rankings positions.
One way people can find links to your sites – even if you’ve blocked backlink checking tools (which we’ll cover below) – is to use blog search engines. These include sites like Google Blogsearch (though now defunct), Technorati, and anything else that finds content via RSS feeds.
If you’re using WordPress, the simplest way to hide most of your RSS information is to go to Settings >> Reading and limit the number of posts that show in your feed to one.
I also recommend going to Settings >> Discussion and unticking the option to notify blogs that you link to. If you use something other than WordPress then you’ll have to figure this out for whichever CMS you’re using, where applicable.
The second biggest expense we have when it comes to our own link network, behind domains, is content. Never have we placed a single spun article on any site we run. It could save us thousands of dollars per month, but when you’re spending so much money on domains why risk them with content that has been written by a computer.
Instead, we use full-time freelancers – many found via OnlineJobs.ph who speak perfect English – and many found via oDesk.
Our oDesk bills are rather large, especially since we’re producing over 100 unique articles every single day, but I see it as a totally necessary expense.
After about two months of running my own link network I was finding many people were using software that left very obvious footprints. These were often plugins that people could use to manage many WordPress sites at once or automatically generate content in some form or another.
It occurred to me that instead of just worrying about any potential WordPress footprints, we should be looking to utilise other CMS’s that Google wouldn’t be as likely to look at. For me these include Drupal and Ghost, which are both very easy to install.
We actually took this a step further a few months ago and started building our own custom CMS. It leaves no footprints, randomizes theme creation, and doesn’t even use a database so it can literally be set-up in seconds.
I think it looks far nicer than any standard WordPress backend as well.
I am not going to cover this in too much detail since Whois information has to be accurate, legally. While there are no records of anyone going to jail over inaccurate Whois information, I’m not going to go and tell you to fake it.
There are a few obvious options:
As long as the email address works, your Whois registrar email can be anything. There are many inboxes online that you can pay around $50/year for that allow you to use unlimited email aliases. Alternatively you could register a bunch of domains and use those just for Whois email addresses.
Please keep in mind that ICANN are getting quite strict about this process, especially regarding .co.uk domains (you need a verified address to use domain privacy).
There are other ways to mix up Whois information very easily but it’s not something I would be willing to write about in public.
This should be obvious so I’m going to keep this short. If you have a spreadsheet in Google Drive or a single document anywhere online that lists all of your private network sites then you’re crazy.
The reason it took me a while to be able to respond to how many sites we still had indexed was because it takes us a while to put them all together. They’re spread across many different project management systems and are often just identified by codes we use rather than actual domain names. I’m also not going to check each one manually on a single IP address to see if they’re all indexed either.
With that in mind, there’s also no reason to hook up your PBN sites to Webmaster Tools or Google Analytics. I don’t use Google Analytics for anything (I use Clicky (aff)) and certainly don’t use Gmail when discussing my domains either. This may seem a little paranoid but that’s what it takes to protect the hundred+ thousand dollars we’ve invested into our websites.
When running our network on a large scale we’ve had to think about any and all possible weak points in our system. We don’t keep all of our domains in any one place (nor the majority in any one place) and have to stick to that across all systems.
It would be stupid to have all of our sites carefullly spread out everywhere and then go and put all of our money sites into one rank tracker. Especially since you don’t know who owns them and how much you can trust their security systems.
My friend Dan regularly updates the “Ultimate List of Rank Checkers” so that would be a good place to start if you’re in need of some options.
This is another tactic that I do for my competition, rather than Google themselves. Around 60-70% of my own network is blocked via Backlink checking tools in various ways. The most obvious ones to block are Open Site Explorer, Ahrefs and Majestic SEO. Always keep an eye out for new tools being promoted though as your competition could use those too.
There are two routes I take for blocking backlink checkers. The first is a plugin made by a member of our private forums which has been slightly modified (they key to no footprints is not letting other people buy / use the same tool) and also blocking bots via .htaccess.
Please do your own research as to how that is done as I would not be revealing the tool here. I have given it out to various people but probably hit what I would think of as a safe limit.
There’s also the robots.txt route but that’s slightly risky because you can run a Google query to find sites who are blocking certain bots in their robots.txt file. I would not recommend blocking your entire network since it looks unnatural but “legitimate” website owners do block these tools as well.
I’ve said a few times in this post now the worst thing anyone with their own link network can do is think they’re invincible. Ever since we started our network – which I dub as “greyhat SEO”, in case you were interested – we’ve been aware of the inherent risks of being “caught”.
We’ve actually had a plan of attack in-case things were to go wrong available to all of our clients since February:
We outlined a plan of attack and opened ourselves up to any suggestions from the community which we felt was the best way to go about things.
If you are running a link network and you don’t have an exit strategy – in-case the worst case scenario were to appear – then please put one in to place today. Especially if you have clients.
It should be well known to anyone that you don’t want to be hosting all of sites in one place. That’s the most obvious and likely footprint you could leave when building a network of sites.
I pulled in Diggy to create a nice tutorial video to show you how can use a free tool to crease your own custom nameservers and IP’s for all of the sites you run, even if you’re using shared hosting.
I’ve put it behind a social locker so Google employees can tweet this blog post for me 😉
If you have any questions about this, please do let me know in the comments. If you can’t see the social locker you probably need to come directly to this blog post if you’re reading it elsewhere.
One of the people most vocal about the deindexing of PBN’s and hitting the sites that used them was Spencer Haws of Niche Pursuits. His headline was very clear, “Alright Google, You Win..I’ll Never Use Private Blog Networks Again“. You can read the article here.
Spencer is someone who has mentioned using expired domains as part of a link network for a very long time so it was quite a shock to me to see him do a total 180 on his previous comments. Even though he says he “saw it coming”, you can still predict it and not have to react.
In fact, he’s so over the top about his new dislike for PBN’s – telling everyone to stay clear of them – that I almost think he was hacked or is joking. A few people messaged me in private, and via Twitter, to say he’s simply doing all he can to “get Google off his back.”
Just look at some of the comments he’s making on his site:
This is not just a once off. There are dozens of these where he has totally gone against his previous beliefs. Of course, that’s totally up to him and I don’t lose respect for him doing so; it just seems strange to see.
I was fortunate enough to interview Spencer for a book I’ve been working on about building profitable websites with SEO. It is coming together, albeit very slowly, but it was interesting to me to read his previous comments.
Here’s one of them:
Going from “If you’re not utilising these SEO tactics, you may never be able to rank above them” to “I’ll never use PBN’s again and you shouldn’t either” is such a strange turnaround.
You got hit by a Google update. It happens.
But to change your entire philosophy about ranking websites and how Google works seems very odd to me.
I pray the SEO web isn’t just going to be filled with “write great content” because we all know that isn’t what works.
Even after the “PBN’s” got hit.
Whatever you think about Spencer’s comments and anyone else preaching to stay away from private blog networks, you have to keep something in mind: People at a two hundred billion dollar company were tasked to look into private blog networks specifically.
And they must be patting each other on the back when they read a title like his.
Google have done a great job here. It was really about time for them to say something about this tactic. Their PR team aren’t stupid and couldn’t be letting people preach one tactic for too long.
After all of this drama, a few things are going to happen.
FIrst of all, domain prices will likely decrease. I sure hope that is the case. There’s an absolutely huge market for domains with high-PR, high trust flow and all the other metrics we look for. Their sales are surely going to take a hit now, so as someone who will continue to purchase domains, I hope that results in a price decrease.
The people who have never wrote about private link networks are going to continue with a smug “I told you so” attitude, despite the fact that their followers have been waiting almost a year for a Penguin refresh while everyone else has been dominating search results. Their audiences are only going to grow now, which, again, is totally fine with me.
What I expect to happen is that Google will ease off looking into private networks. The damage is mostly done. If you can scare the average person away from a tactic – and you’ve got people like Rand calling users of that tactic Blackhat’s in multiple tweets – then you cut out a huge portion of people who would ever consider using them.
I think we’ll see Google care less about targeting people with link networks now. After all, do you still hear about people getting hit for guest blogging, or widget links or anything else (outside of this blog?).
One of the strangest things about this whole fiasco to me was the penalty that Google gave sites that we’re being linked to. Pretty much everyone who was clearly penalised received a “Thin content with little or no added value”.
Here’s a screenshot from Spencer’s blog:
One of the example sites that got hit was http://apennyshaved.com.
Is it the world’s best resource on shaving? No, but it’s far from a thin content website. After all, Google have indexed 125 pages of it as well. I rank websites with far less content than that with no issues.
Surely the manual actual should have been around “unnatural links”? The way they’ve worded the penalty makes it seem like they’re going after niche affiliate websites rather than people using private blog / link networks.
And finally, if private link networks are so bad then surely I could just point those links to any competitor I wanted and get them penalised? Well, no, I couldn’t because this was a manual action. So if you’re smart enough to stay under the radar, chances are Google aren’t smart enough to stop your rankings increasing across the board.
If the Google search results ever truly reflect that quality content and “natural” links are what they want to reward with high rankings then I’ll be the first to say that’s exactly what I’m doing. I would actually love for that to be the case. Yet, for the industries I try to rank in I simply don’t see that, so I’ll continue to use whatever legal methods I have at my disposal.
Please keep in mind that this entire post is just my opinion and it’s totally up to you whatever route you wish to go down when it comes to SEO. Either way, I would love to hear your feedback in the comments below. Just know that I’m definitely sticking with building a lot of link networks.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. If you have anything negative to say, please do leave a comment including your URL. I’ll point some of those nasty private links your way. I apologise in advance if your rankings increase 😉
P.P.S. Here’s a report I generated today. All sites rely on link network links: http://i.imgur.com/F2WEsSL.jpg. It’s still business as usual here