Did the combination of the Search Spam Update and Link Spam Update doom PBNs for good? Some SEOs think so. They claim these updates gave Google the power to detect and ignore PBNs. My team and I dove deep into the numbers to determine the facts.
In this study, you’ll learn what’s happened to PBN links since the arrival of the spam updates. Our team followed a sample set of PBNs across months to discover whether they could still pass on link power. You’ll get the real numbers from our internal data and graphs revealing essential trends.
Before that, we have some helpful information for readers that are new or recently returning to PBNs. You’ll get caught up on the recent history, learn why the updates provoked a reaction, and find our stance on PBNs right now.
This study was necessary because the sky has just now cleared after a tumultuous series of changes that started late last year. Here’s a quick refresher:
October 2022 Spam Update: This update was announced and started rolling out on October 19th. The rollout followed a general spam update that addressed many pain points for the search engine.
Cloaking (presenting different content to users and search engines), doorways (pages that rank for a specific phrase and only act as portals to other pages), and other violations were listed as targets. It also brought Google’s fight against hacked content, hidden text, keyword stuffing, and link spam into the next era.
December Link Spam Update: This update was announced and already rolling out by December 14. Google announced that it extended the capabilities of SpamBrain to target unnatural links. A number of links were neutralized and stripped of the ability to pass on credit by the time the update was over.
What does this have to do with PBNs? In the aftermath of the updates, some SEOs theorized any update designed to target spam would also target PBNs. The updates neutralized many links.
I heard concerns about PBN networks being hit in this update, but without data, I was not convinced PBNs were suddenly more vulnerable than before. PBNs with high standards are capable of not just hiding but thriving out in the open.
It would take testing to be sure. Next, you’ll learn about the process our team used.
You can directly test the link credit any PBN provides by pointing it toward a test site and measuring the results. This process is explained in detail below so that you can follow along more easily when we go through the results of our study in the next section.
1. Choose the right test cases
2. Create a page and send the link
3. Measure the results
Test case sites are chosen based on the following criteria:
• The site is in the right niche (the same as the PBN)
• The exact anchor being tested has never been sent to the test page
• The site is ranking outside page 1 (preferably on page 3-6 for our testing purposes)
Either SEMrush or Ahrefs can be used for this step. Either tool can tell you what anchors appear in a test site’s links.
To give you some context, I’ll reveal some of the details. For this step, I picked a site called www.metal-rules.com. This is an older site with metal music news. I was able to find a page from the early 2000s (a Meatloaf concert post) that met the criteria.
I picked a term related to that page but distant enough that the topic had never ranked for it before: “meatloaf 2017 tour dates”. This worked great (you can see this test in the first graph in the data section) and we followed the same process for all of them.
Sites on pages 3-6 can still be considered healthy by Google. They are less likely to be affected by penalties or other factors that might interfere with testing. Still, thanks to their lower levels of competition, they can produce a more noticeable jump from a healthy PBN link.
Once a few good test sites are chosen, a link is sent.
In this step, a new page is created on the PBN to host the testing anchor. To this page, we add an article (somewhere between 500-1000 words), some appropriate images, and the keyword anchor to our testing site.
That’s all. After about 2-4 weeks, we can stop by to find out what’s happened. More dramatic results may appear if the link is given more time to grow.
When we’re ready to test the results, we just look at the difference in rank for the new keyword we’ve introduced to the test site’s link profile.
Now that you fully understand how the testing was done, you can look at the results. Next, you’ll get to see exactly what we learned.
Below, you can see what we learned from our testing through 8 different examples of the tests. In the top left of each example, you’ll see the keyword we chose for testing. To the right of that, along the header, you’ll see the type of page we chose for testing.
The page’s rank is tracked along the Y axis of the graphs, and the dates the pages were tested are tracked along the X axis. Generally, when the line goes up, we see good news.
Let’s see how our PBNs did.
Commentary: This first test produced solid results. We can see the page went from rank 35+ to about rank 6. That’s enough to put it on the 1st page. As you can see in this example, the results can be very consistent. After a rapid rise in rank, the page comfortably settled in the 6th spot.
Commentary: Another set of unmistakable results. Following the introduction of the new link, there was a steep climb from rank 34 to around rank 12 in only a few days time. After a few weeks the results were still consistent.
Commentary: This one experienced more volatile ups-and-downs compared to the first two, but still trended upward from the point the link was introduced.
Commentary: Another one goes from a rank near the 50s to a rank near the 10s. This one took an unusually long time to react to the testing but acted powerfully when it was eventually recognized.
Commentary: This was one of the messier tests. This page experienced significant volatility from the point the link was introduced, though the trajectory was stubbornly upward-pointing the entire time.
Commentary: This one produced inconclusive results due to lost data. However, between the start and the endpoint, we are looking at a path that traveled from a rank in the 30s to one in the 10s.
Commentary: This one experienced some sudden growth moderated by some minor dips that followed. By the end of testing, it had seen roughly 10 ranks worth of improvement.
Commentary: This one didn’t even look like it was done growing when we brought the testing to a close. It improved in rank by about 20 points.
Our tests show that PBNs are as powerful as ever. Every test suggested that the PBNs sent real value and link juice through the connections created.
Based on these results, I’m doubling down on my assertion that neither of the spam updates damaged the viability of PBNs (or at least ones built the right way). As with anything in SEO, using PBNs is about using them right.