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Daniel Lux
Daniel Lux
Published: May 30, 2024 • Updated: June 5, 202414 min read

How to find your competitors' PBN backlinks in 2024

I'm back with amazing news! Linxact's PBN index now includes PBN backlink data hidden by link cloaking. This marks a huge milestone for us, as we've managed to uncover SEO manipulation, which had been completely stealthy in the past.

The exclusive pilot phase with 200 active paid subscriptions has now started as we consider Linxact mature now. To read more about it, check out our first introductionary blog post.

Data coverage optimizations are expected to be released in June. This will improve our data even more. We're always in contact with our subscribers, and we listen to their feedback to keep improving.

A small disclaimer: Of course, I'll use this post to promote our service, as we're 100% convinced of the solution we've built during the last few years. I've invested a big part of my life into it, and that's just me. The whole team at Linxact worked very hard to create the PBN index and Linxact Lens.

Status quo of SEO in 2024

A backlink analysis is key to any competitive SEO analysis, as Google's algorithm heavily depends on backlinks as a ranking factor, even though Big G tries to obfuscate that through their communications. Google doesn't like SEOs doing SEO, as it pulls money away from their Google Ads revenue.

Big G's latest obfuscation attempt has been that "links are not important". Most SEOs smell the BS coming from the don't be evil company (e.g. in this r/SEO thread). Meanwhile, Google has stepped back from that statement due to the backlash.

Small update (June 5, 2024): Something interesting happened shortly before I published this post: On May 28, 2024 Google's Content Warehouse API documentation just leaked on GitHub (Source: SearchEngineJournal). Damn. I will probably write a separate post about the leak after the dust settled a bit. The leak contradicts prior statements by the Google Search Team and confirms the importance of high-quality backlinks. However, I don't fully rule out a false flag, but I don't have a good clue about the incentive for this case, yet.

Just in general, AI is likely not to be able to replace backlinks as a trust signal in the near future, as deep human connections can't be simulated yet and in the near to distant future.

To assess your competitors' websites in terms of SEO, you definitely need to include backlinks. However, today's backlink analysis has a key flaw: Backlinks from Private Blog Networks (PBNs).

Introduction into the issue

By building a PBN, the owner of a money site not only controls his site, but also the PBN sites that link to his money site. A money site is the target website that generates revenue from search engine traffic. The control of the backlinking sites allows the owner of the money site to hide those backlinks.

The money site and PBN owner are able to use .htaccess block rules, WordPress plugins or custom code to cloak the backlinking PBN sites in such a way that Googlebot finds all relevant backlinks, but SEO crawlers don't. This effectively hides very effective backlinks from most competitors and undermines today's backlink analysis.

It has to be noted that not all niches are affected equally. Especially gray or highly non-corporate niches are affected by this. Sometimes you also spot local niches that are dominated by PBN backlinks. It always depends on the specific niche.

I will keep this one short as it is quite simple:

  • Adjust your SEO strategy to match your competitors' real SEO strength
  • Replicate your competitors' PBNs if your risk profile allows it
  • Attack your competitors' PBNs
  • Check auction and expired domains for toxic PBN backlinks

As PBN backlinks have become very popular, the significance of needing to find competitors' PBN backlinks has drastically increased.

Many SEO professionals and agencies are building PBN backlinks as they still provide an excellent ROI. However, 2 things significantly changed during the last decade:

  • Google's algorithm only rewards high-quality backlinks
  • The demand for good expired and auction domains exploded

Due to this, building PBNs became more expensive as the backlink profile requirement of a PBN domain increased and the demand for such domains exploded. However, even with those two detrimental developments, PBNs are still a very effective SEO method in 2024.

Bitterliebe is a fairly popular brand for bitter compound supplements in Germany and is backed by the German equivalent of Shark Tank called Höhle der Löwen (German Wikipedia Source).

Bitterliebe heavily relies on PBN backlinks to rank, as you can see in Linxact Lens (check out our free subscription plan - Discovery). We'll use Bitterliebe as an example for today's blog post.

But why are PBN backlinks responsible for a key flaw in today's backlink analysis? Let me answer that question briefly in the following part of this post.

Let's go straight into today's topic which is based on Linxact Lens' use case: How to find your competitors' PBN backlinks to complete your backlink analysis.

Black Hat SEOs caused the problem, ironically noticed it and tried to find ways to solve it through the following approaches:

1. Brand anchor search in Google SERPs (free)

2. Bing Webmaster Tools (free)

3. PublicWWW (paid)

4. Linxact Lens (free & paid)

We'll present you those methods in the following sections and finally compare them to Linxact Lens.

1. Brand anchor search in Google SERPs (free)

Let's say our competitor's website which we want to check is called "bitterliebe.com". What we can do now is to search Google for the branded anchor "bitterliebe.com -site:bitterliebe.com". Using this query "bitterliebe -site:bitterliebe.com" might work for cases where the brand name is unique. We're excluding the target website with "-site:bitterliebe.com" from the search, as it's not of interest.

This method is very limited as it relies on branded anchor texts, which aren't present on all PBN URLs and not necessarily present at all. Even if there are PBN URLs pointing to the target of interest, the probably is low of finding those PBN URLs through this method. Therefore, this method can be categorized as hit or miss.

Pros

  • free
  • it could theoretically find all types of PBN backlinks

Cons

  • hit or miss - most often miss as it's limited to brand anchors' and SERPs

Not viable because of its low success rate and high manual effort.

2. Bing Webmaster Tools (free)

With Bing Webmaster Tools, you're able to check other websites' referring domains, too! The Google Webmaster Console (GSC) doesn't allow you to do this. As search engine bots are commonly not fooled by PBN websites, this is a pretty decent solution. However, most sophisticated PBN owners know of this method already. Therefore, more and more PBNs are showing outbound links to money sites only to Googlebot and not to BingBot anymore. As an additional issue, BingBot doesn't find many PBN domains, as it seems to be limited in scope.

In the screenshot of Bing Webmaster Tools below, you can see that bitterliebe.com has 390 referring domains in total that BingBot picked up. To identify referring PBN domains, you need to manually check each of them. Learn how to spot PBN sites manually by checking out our PBN samples here.

Bing Webmaster Tools bitterliebe.com

Pros

  • free
  • easy to use
  • finds regular backlinks, visible PBN backlinks and hidden PBN backlinks hidden via crawler blocking
  • even finds some referring PBN domains hiding outbound links via link cloaking

Cons

  • doesn't show backlinks but referring domains only
  • limited data scope compared to Majestic and Linxact

All in all, Bing Webmaster Tools is a decent solution considering it's free.

3. PublicWWW (paid)

PublicWWW is a search code search engine with 468 million indexed pages for the paid version. It allows you to search for frontend code snippets, in contrast to Google's text search. E.g., it allows you to find all websites that include a certain affiliate publisher ID to sneak on your affiliate competitor.

It's very versatile and covers many use cases. Even IT security researchers use PublicWWW to find websites affected by certain exploits. With PublicWWW you can, of course, also search for a URL to find all its backlinks.

Most PBNs hiding their outbound links via crawler blocking don't block PublicWWW's crawler, as it's not a popular tool for backlink checking. Therefore, PublicWWW finds visible PBN backlinks and hidden PBN backlinks that hide via crawler blocking. It doesn't detect them as such but includes them with all other found backlinks. As with Bing Webmaster Tools, you also need to manually identify PBN sites with PublicWWW.

However, sophisticated PBNs only insert outbound links to money sites if a search engine bot visits their PBN site. As PublicWWW doesn't target the use case of being a PBN backlink checker, it doesn't find those backlinks.

Pros

  • regular and hidden backlink data

Cons

  • paid
  • doesn't find hidden PBN backlinks hidden via link cloaking
  • limited data scope of 468 million URLs

Using PublicWWW to search for PBN backlinks is a reasonable approach of completing one's backlink analysis as it also includes regular backlinks. It's not suited to find sophisticated PBN backlinks, though.

4. Linxact Lens (free & paid)

With Linxact Lens, you're able to query our PBN index which consist out of

  • visible PBN backlink data,
  • hidden PBN backlink data hidden via crawler blocking and
  • hidden PBN backlink data hidden via link cloaking.

Our PBN index boasts more than 1 billion URLs of only PBN root domains. This is more than PublicWWW's whole index URL count with just PBN URLs. In addition, Linxact Lens classifies PBN backlinks for you, but it doesn't include regular backlinks. Most important, Linxact Lens also shows you backlinks from PBNs hiding via link cloaking. This allows you to uncover the most sophisticated backlink manipulations.

Bitterliebe.com has 598 PBN backlinks of which 545 are hidden as you can see in the screenshot of Linxact Lens below.

Linxact Lens bitterliebe.com

Pros

  • easy to use
  • unbeaten PBN backlink data coverage with all types of PBNs supported
  • classifies PBN backlinks as such
  • feedback will be considered and missing data will be added

Cons

  • paid
  • no regular backlink data

Linxact Lens is easy to use, finds nearly all PBN backlinks and classifies them as such, which makes it the perfect solution despite it being paid and not offering regular backlink data. As the internet is heterogenous, finding all PBN backlinks is complex. Linxact continously evolves to include most edge cases. This is vastly different from regular backlink checkers, which just ignore what they don't find.

Conclusion

So, how to find your competitors' PBN backlinks to complete your backlink analysis? Which solution is best? Here you go.

Free

If you don't want to spend any money, you can use our free Discovery subscription plan to find out first if PBN backlinks point to a website at all and if yes how many of them. You'll also get 2 sample rows of PBN backlinks or domains, with the rest being redacted. In case a significant number of PBN backlinks is found, you can use Bing Webmaster tools to search for referring PBN domains. For a free method, this works great.

Linxact offers the only PBN index worldwide, which includes more than a whopping 1 billion PBN URLs. As Linxact's use case is just PBN backlink data, it significantly outperforms other solutions like PublicWWW that aren't aimed at completing one's backlink analysis. E.g. PBN backlinks from hiding PBN domains hiding their outbound links via link cloaking can only be found within Linxact Lens.

However, Linxact Lens is developed as a complement to a regular backlink checker such as Majestic, which makes it overall a more expensive solution. Our customers and we think that it's worth it as it solves one of the biggest issues in competitive SEO analysis.

Linxact Lens will show you all PBN backlinks in a matter of seconds. Sometimes you get a WTF moment as our insights can make the most aggressive PBN backlinking strategies transparent. Sometimes you get an aha moment like we had with Bitterliebe.

Author
Daniel Lux
SEO Consultant, Founder
and CEO at Linxact
Hi, I'm Daniel. I love SEO. I love the game. The Google Search Essentials (formerly Webmaster Guidelines) are relevant as they define the environment of every SEO's actions but that's about it. Ultimately, every professional SEO should only care about ranking #1 and maintaining it.
2 million websites
are part of a hiding PBN. Hidden PBN backlinks can’t be found by Ahrefs, Majestic, Moz, Semrush and co.