Don't you sometimes just hate Google? I know I sure do…especially after this weekend.
You see last week I started getting emails from people saying they were getting “thin content” penalties in their webmaster tools account. I hadn't seen any penalties on my sites, so I wasn't sure what was going on.
Then on September 18th, the Google hammer slammed down on some of my sites. Several of my niche sites have now dropped by as much as 80 to 90% in traffic over the weekend.
After doing some digging around, and hearing from lots of other people this weekend, the reason is quite clear: Google has started penalizing sites that had links from private blog networks (PBNs).
I'll go into all the details below, but let me be very clear: Google has beaten me into submission, I'm done with PBNs…forever!
I have always tried to be as transparent as possible with what's working and what's not, and today is no different. As much as I hate to write this painful post, I do it for your benefit. I happen to know that there are many other people that were hit with this new penalty, but I suspect many of them will never publicly address the issue.
I don't know if this is a new algorithmic update, but that seems to be the most logical change. Google appears to have updated their algorithm to detect PBNs and then is penalizing those sites receiving links from those PBNs.
Like others, I received a “thin content” message which can seen if you click on “manual actions” in webmaster tools:
Is it really a “thin content” penalty? In my opinion, no. The one true link between all sites that got hit with this new update is that they all had PBN links…not that they had thin content.
For example, Perrin's aPennyShaved.com site also got hit, which has great content developed through keyword research using Long Tail Pro and SEMRush. This is also the example site from Niche Site Project 2. Perrin's site had been earning between $3,000 to $4,000 a month for the past several months, so it was a pretty severe hit for him.
I got hit pretty hard as well. Here's what this penalty like:
Thin Content or PBN Penalty?
I truly believe that for most people hit over the weekend, it was not a “thin” content penalty, but actually a linking penalty.
So, how bad was the damage?
Well, on my end I had about 10 or so sites that were penalized. This will equate to about $5,000 a month in lost income each month due to this penalty from my niche sites. Ouch!
However, the true damage was MUCH more widespread than Perrin or I. I've already heard from dozens of others via email or blog comments that were also penalized. In fact, Hayden from No Hat Digital was hit extremely hard as well.
I have heard from many others that are quite well known for building out PBNs, and they were all hit as well. Google has cracked down big time.
What About Rank Hero?
In addition, Rank Hero was not able to escape the Google hit as well. Just like everyone else across the web, Rank Hero felt the damage. As a result, Rank Hero is obviously not accepting new customers or posts. If you were a current customer of Rank Hero, they will be contacting you this week via email to discuss going forward. This may be a refund of credits, other types of links, or some custom resolution.
How Did Google Find All the Sites?
So how did Google find all the sites that had PBN links? No one knows except for Google, but I suspect it was an update to their algorithm that detected link patterns that are clearly used in PBNs. Once a PBN was a detected, a manual reviewer likely looked at related sites and started handing out those manual actions.
I'm not here to conjecture how the sites were found, I'll leave that to others. The message is pretty clear though to me, the day of using private blog networks is over. I'm done.
Sites That Were NOT Hit
So, what makes me so sure this is a PBN penalty? I have a pretty decent pool of sites in my portfolio; some that used PBN links and others that did not. For example, in my webmaster tools account, I have 9 sites. Five of those sites received the “thin content” manual action. All five of those sites used private blog networks.
The remaining 4 sites in my webmaster tools account did NOT receive any penalty and continue to perform well in the search engines. None of these 4 sites used PBN links.
And of course I have other sites outside of webmaster tools as well. All of my sites outside of webmaster tools that used PBNs got hit, and none of my sites outside webmaster tools that did not use PBNs got hit.
So, at least from my perspective the reason is pretty conclusive…PBNs.
My Warnings About the Risks of Gaming Google
Now obviously this penalty hurt me, Perrin, and many others in our pocketbooks. But as much as it hurts to say it, I've warned against the use of PBNs and shady link building in the past. In fact, I've always known and always said that using these types of link scheme was a short lived venture.
However, the money that could be earned in the short term was always worth the risk. Sure, I knew that sites might only last a year or 2, but they would be highly profitable. And that has been the case.
However, I've also talked MANY times about how I build other portions of my portfolio without using PBNs. I've always said that there is a good, better, and best way to be out building sites. So, just because some of my sites used PBNs, its most certainly not what I've recommended for everyone and have always tried to be up front with the risks.
Here's a few of the articles and podcasts that I've published in the past that discuss the risks of using PBNs and the better way to build websites that will stand the test of time:
- Good, Better, and Best Niche Website Strategies for Long Term Success (Oct. 2011)
- The Real Risks Associated with Building Niche Websites (July 2011)
- Podcast 5: Building a Real Business with Fraser Cain (May 2012)
- Worried Your Business is Based on an SEO Loophole? You Should Be. (June 2012)
- Finding Expired Domains: A Controversial Case Study (Aug. 2012)
- How to Effectively Use Content Marketing to Grow Your Business with Marcus Sheridan (Nov. 2012)
- How to Build Real Links that Google Loves with Point Blank SEO (Nov. 2012)
- The Most Important Factors for Ranking in Google (May 2013)
- Should I Build Large or Small? Taking a Portfolio Approach with Niche Sites (Aug. 2013)
- Podcast 20: Why Sam of FinancialSamurai.com is Bulling on Blogging – How to Build a Successful Blog in a Competitive Niche (Sept. 2013)
- Podcast 23: How to Build Links the Right Way with Jon Cooper (Nov. 2013)
- Surprise! Time to Change Your Link Building Strategy (Jan. 2014)
- Podcast 38: How Matt Paulson Built a Financial Network of Sites (July 2014)
- Podcast 41: How to Network for Real Links with Rand Fishkin (Aug. 2014)
- Podcast 44: Content Marketing and Traffic Tips with Neil Patel (Sept. 2014)
As you can see, I've done my best in the blog posts above to raise awareness over the years of the risks associated with PBNs and shady link building. I've also interviewed several people and discussed ways to build natural links and build a better business.
So, the fact that I'm finally just pulling the plug on PBNs should not come as a huge surprise to anyone. And if anyone out there was unaware of the risks associated with PBNs, that likely means they have only been “hearing” what they choose to hear.
As I looked back on some of the posts I've written in the past that try to explain the true risks associated with SEO and link building, I came across one particularly accurate passage that I wrote in January of this year (9 months ago):
So, I wrote that pretty accurate predication 9 months ago. Its been a fun ride, but I'm ready to get off the roller coaster.
Steps Going Forward
Going forward, I'm not just going to give up on my sites that were penalized. I had some pretty decent sites that were hit including 2 of the sites that I purchased this year. The “Adsense” site and “Site 3” were both penalized; while the Pinterest site and “Site 4” are still doing just fine.
One of the sites I bought (Site 3) was on track to do close to $4k in revenue this month…so its stings. This will be the first site I try to recover. In addition, aPennyShaved.com was closing in on $4,000 in revenue this month as well, so Perrin is going to recover that one by rebranding the site and maybe picking up a new theme along with several other steps.
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Perrin's Recovery Plan is this:
- Disavowing all PBN links, including Rank Hero
- Adding 10k-20k words of good, non-affiliate content
- Removing 10-20 weaker articles
- Redoing the layout of the homepage
- Adding an About page
- Adding Contributors page
- Submit site for reconsideration with explanation of everything done
I will be following a similar method to recover my sites as well.
The Kind of Sites to Build
So, what kind of niche sites will I build going forward?
Well, to be honest, I probably won't be building many niche sites. Perrin and I stopped building new small niche sites almost 6 months ago. About 2 months ago, we started a new site and that will probably be the last one we start new in a long time.
The site we started about 2 months ago is our “authority” site that we've talked about many times in blog posts and on the podcast. The site is moving right along and still doing well.
Fortunately, I made the very conscious decision 2 months ago that I would NOT allow any PBN or other shady links to be pointed at this new authority site. I wanted this to be a true authority site that focused on quality and garnered natural links.
That plan has worked very well so far, and I'm especially happy to say that even though it shared a Webmaster Tools account with some of my other niche sites that were penalized, this site did not.
So, Perrin will continue to focus the majority of his time on building out and marketing this large authority site.
In addition, I have at least 3 other sites that I've NEVER done any type of “manual” or shady link building to and those sites continue to perform well. Here's the analytics of a couple of those sites:
Never Tried to Build Links to this Site – content only
Recently Purchased (“Site 4”) – No Links Built
So, the evidence is abundantly clear. The sites that I have not built any links to over the years are performing quite well. The sites that I've tried to build PBN links to, have tanked.
I don't know about you, but that's enough for me to kiss PBNs goodbye forever.
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Don't Fool Yourself, Give Up on PBNs
I also feel like I need to circumvent a few of the comments that I know will follow this blog post. Some people (like the many commentors at NoHatDigital) will simply say, “Oh, but if I tweak how I do PBNs slightly, I'll be in the clear again!”
There are always going to be people that claim they've cracked the code on Google, and can do something Google doesn't know about. I don't care if you do make your whois information different or super secret, or follow the “textbook” for building PBNs.
My response will continue to be the same as it always has been for me over the years, “Sure, it might work for a short time; but Google will eventually catch you”. Its only a matter of time.
So, while I've played the game in the past…now I'm out! Luckily, I've taken my own advice in the past as well about taking a portfolio approach, and followed many different strategies and many different sites.
As a result, some of my portfolio took a hit, and some of it didn't. Unfortunately, I'm not sure everyone took that advice…and had most of their portfolios pummeled.
So, while I know people will still try to be super tricky with Google…I'll no longer be writing about those tactics on my blog. I've always tried to share a tactic and say, “This seems to work right now, but be aware of the risks”. I'm now simply going to stop any confusion that people had; if I think the tactic has tremendous risks, I won't be doing it or blogging about it.
And PBNs now fit in that category.
SEO is Long Term
The bright side of the equation is that for those that are willing to put in the time and effort to rank in Google by following the “rules” most likely will. And because so many people will still try to game the system, eventually they will get penalized and your “clean” site will be left standing.
This is what is happening with the few “white hat” sites that I own.
I should also just finally point out that over the years, SEO has moved from a quicker way to get free traffic and income to one of the slowest methods of traffic and income.
SEO is a long term solution, not a quick fix. You have to focus on site design, site speed, and quality content. (Read my Design Pickle review for design ideas).
So, if you are looking to use SEO as a way to make quick money, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Getting natural traffic from Google is now probably one of the slowest possible ways to build a business. The potential is still huge for SEO, but you need a much longer timeline to make it happen.
I'm in it for the long haul, what about you?
As always, I'd love to hear your comments. I've done my best to lay out not only happened with the PBN update, but what I will be focusing on in the future.
Were you hit with this PBN update? Are you going to use PBNs in the future? We can move past this together. Let's talk it out below.