Episode 142 | Posted on

A Peek into the World of PBNs and Grey Hat SEO with Matt Diggity

Given my client list, I operate strictly in the realm of white hat SEO. And it works incredibly well, with fantastic ROI. That said, black hat and grey hat SEOs have incredibly interesting and often valuable insights to share. In this episode, we’ll visit the darker side of SEO. While we won’t focus on the darkest of black hat tactics, we’ll definitely explore some of the greyer shades.

Matt Diggity points out that whether you’re white hat, grey hat, or black hat is all in the eye of the beholder. With that said, he freely admits that he uses grey hat tactics and has even had some black hat tendencies (although not with his clients). Matt is prolifically successful online; he’s the founder of Diggity Marketing, LeadSpring, etc.

In this Episode

  • [01:01] – The conversation starts off in an unusual way: with a discussion of Matt’s last name. “Diggity” is a pen name, he explains, and talks about where he came up with it.
  • [02:45] – Matt talks about how he got to know Alex Becker.
  • [04:05] – We learn that Matt considers white hat, black hat, and grey hat to be all in the eye of the beholder. He also describes his history in black hat, grey hat, and white hat SEO.
  • [07:41] – Is Matt considered a super-affiliate?
  • [11:21] – Matt talks about whether he still does spun content. He then walks listeners through what spun content is and how it works.
  • [13:31] – We learn about what works (and doesn’t work) with PBNs, as well as what PBNs are.
  • [18:38] – Matt explains what dropcatch is.
  • [21:41] – We hear Matt’s thoughts on not changing all the Whois information at once.
  • [23:31] – How big of a team does Matt have on the grey hat side?
  • [24:58] – Matt talks about what he does if a network or important site gets taken down, and explores the disavow process.
  • [29:58] – We hear more about Matt’s use of Pitchbox.
  • [33:48] – Matt has only had one manual action in his life, but tells the story of someone else who has always been able to recover from manual penalties.
  • [35:25] – What does Matt do when he’s trying to get a high-trust link?
  • [39:59] – Matt and Stephan share their thoughts on the debate between white hats and black hats in the SEO industry.
  • [43:04] – Matt defines negative SEO and talks about how it functions.
  • [47:54] – There’s a lot of bad stuff that goes on, Matt points out, and is hesitant to go into details in case some unscrupulous listeners might get bad ideas.
  • [49:03] – What are the techniques Matt uses for obscuring his footprint to Google?
  • [52:14] – Matt asserts that PBNs make a lot of sense in the beginning of a website.
  • [53:57] – Where can people learn more about Matt, or learn from him?


White hat, black hat, gray hat, tin foil hat, in this episode number 142, we’re going to visit the dark side of SEO. Well, at least the grayer shades of SEO, not 50 shades, but it’s going to be a fun episode. Our guest today is Matt Diggity. He’s the founder of diggitymarketing.com, LeadSpring LLC, Authority Builders, and the Chiang Mai SEO Conference. He’s also a trainer at The Lab. Matt, it’s great to have you on the show.

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks a lot, Stephan.

Let’s talk about, first of all, your last name. Is it Diggity or is it Elmore?

Surprise, yeah it’s pseudonym. My real last name is just something I keep aside and I got this pen name that I use for SEO.

Right. So you picked Diggity because of what? What inspired that? I want to hear it.

It’s a funny story.

I want to hear it.

Remember the days when SEO forums were the place to hang out? Now it’s all Facebook. I was on the forum, Source Infinitum, Alex Becker‘s forum and that was a place you hangout around 2012, something like that, and it was a paid forum. I believe at one point, I canceled my membership, or something like that, and I just wanted to fire it up again but the screen name that I used, which was just my first name and my last name, was taken, or not taken but it was already an account and I couldn’t fire it up again. So I was just like, “All right I got to make a new screen name and at the time I was listening to No Diggity, so it just became Matt Diggity.” I’m on the forums for a while and then people were just saying, “You know there has a ring to it. Why don’t you just stick with that? Why don’t you just make that your brand,” and I was like, “Okay, why not?” and that’s how the cookie crumbles.

That’s awesome and what year was that?

I want to say 2012, 2013, something like that.

Okay. Not too long ago. How do you know Alex Becker? I spoke at Mastermind X, where he and I were on a panel together, and that’s how I first met Alex. He’s in Com Mirza’s Mastermind and I’ve attended some of Com’s events so that’s how I know Alex. How did you first get to know him?

Back in the day, I only knew him through being a customer. I’ve never actually met the guy or anything but he tended to have good information at the time for SEO and he head the hangout, he head Source Infinitum. I guess we all knew him through proxy but most of them were customers, so to speak.

Got it. Do you know him now personally or you still have never met him?

No, never met him. Never met Alex.

Okay, cool. All right, let’s geek out about SEO. I want to hear about the dark side because I’m a pearly white hat. I got to be because I got clients like Volvo and stuff I can’t get away with any black hat stuff. I’d love to hear about that world and I’m sure listeners want to hear about it too. What is it about black hat and gray hat, and maybe you’re not really black hat. You’re just gray. You’re just pragmatic about it. I’m very curious to hear how you started down that path or how you continue down that path. Is this something that you see as much more lucrative than being white hat or is there a space in the market that you see as underserved or underutilized? Tell us more.

A lot of great question right there. Just to address the first question if I consider myself black hat, gray hat, or white hat. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder. If you ask any white hat person about techniques like PBNO, that’s black hat for sure. But then, the people that are using PBNs or the “gray hat people” would say that the black hat stuff is when you’re hacking websites and inserting links, and stuff like that. If we’re using that kind of framework, I would say I’m probably a gray hat SEO. Gray hat/white hat. I utilize both techniques, basically whatever gets the job done best, I’ll utilize. Sometimes, it’s a little bit of gray and sometimes it’s a bit of white but I don’t dip into the black hat stuff.

So hacking, malware, link injections, that sort of stuff is not something that you do but you’ll set up PBNs, Private Blog Networks, for example.

Yeah, absolutely. Right and you have to draw the line somewhere with what you’re comfortable with and stuff like that. Just like you, I do have clients as well and have an agency called The Search Initiative. We’re 100% white hat with these guys. For a particular time, and a particular place, and a particular project, meaning probably they’re all my personal projects like affiliate projects, then that’s when I start to mix in the gray hat. But still, on the whole, I’m a blend gray hat and white hat, even for my personal stuff. How I got started in with it, I definitely had streaks of black in me, that’s for sure. When I first started SEO, it’s probably around 2009 and the way I learned it was through a course called the 30 Day Challenge with Ed Dale. Are you familiar with him?

Nope, I’m not.

Okay. I believe he’s an Aussie, so he had these courses. It was super cool back in the day. They would send you a video every day via email and video number one is like how to buy a domain video. Number two is how to install WordPress, and then boom, boom, boom. By the end of 30 days, you’ve built a site, you monetize it, you built backlinks and the idea is you make one dollar by the end of it. Back then, it works. So all it boiled down to is putting up content, putting keywords all over the place and then going to EzineArticles and writing a bunch of articles with the exact match anchor then play them to your site, then boom, you’re on page one. That’s how I learned it. Sooner or later, I just saw like, “Wait, there’s software that will do this?” There’s SEnuke and GSA and all these guys that will just go out and create all these EzineArticles in an instant using spun content. Then, that’s when I put everything on autopilot. I would consider that to be black hat SEO. Anything involving software and auto generating content, that’s pretty black, I would say. I was doing that for a while and then guess what? I got burnt. Of course, all my sites tanked to a certain time, Google’s going to figure stuff like that eventually. Then I found myself reborn, so to speak, using PBN. I still came from a background of being spoiled by black hat, quick result type things. Being penalized for using the software and spun content, all that, was enough to shake me out of it. I gravitated to PBNs when that started coming out and being popular. They even still work today and it’s still definitely a part of how I get my rankings these days from my own personal affiliate projects.

Anything involving software and auto generating content, that’s pretty black, I would say.

Are you considered as a super affiliate with the amount of revenue you take in from affiliate marketing?

I haven’t heard of this term before. What’s the definition?

It’s a lot of money. It’s like the 80/20 rule of affiliate marketing. If out of the entire universe of affiliates, you’re in that 20% or maybe even 10%, usually I think it’s quite small, maybe it’s probably a single-digit percentage that generates vast majority, like 90 plus percent of these different merchant’s revenue from affiliates. If you are in that very top percentage that delivers that vast majority of the revenue from affiliates, then you’re a super affiliate. For example, Zac Johnson. I had him on the show and he’s a super affiliate. John Chow, I had him on the show and he’s a super affiliate. They make seven figures off of affiliate marketing. There are even eight-figure earners from just affiliate marketing. They’re definitely super affiliates.

Got it. I probably say I’m in the super affiliate range definitely. I have my affiliate managers come out and they’re released score boards and stuff like that. I’ve been number one plenty of times. The only reason I balked at that question is because recently I went to Affiliate World Asia and I learned all about these PPC affiliates. One of the talks they had actually at Affiliate World Asia was how do you get to your first $50,000 a day and I was like, “Oh, what am I doing with full SEO thing.” Now that you put it like that, yeah I guess I would be a super affiliate and definitely make a primary amount of my income from affiliate SEO.

Have you ever had a $50K day?

No. Definitely not. I think I had some pretty awesome months, I can discuss the term. Last year or two years ago, the hit toy of the Christmas season was something called the Hatchimal and we were ranked number one for that. We blew before Black Friday even started, we had $60K in like, maybe a week or something like that. Amazon account got lost anyways but that’s another story for another day.

Okay. In the gray hat and black hat world, you got to be okay with torching domains and affiliate accounts and all sorts of things. Different, different world. When you said $50K a day that reminded me of Greg Davis who I’ve also had on the show. Do you know Greg?

I have not the pleasure.

Okay, he’s a $100K a day guy and makes most of his revenue from affiliate marketing, information products, and so forth but driving traffic to his sites through Facebook. He’s doing Facebook advertising and spending an insane amount of money just churning through Facebook accounts. He’ll torch a dozen or two in a week and he buys all these Facebook accounts. Apparently, there are providers that will sell you lots and lots of Facebook accounts and he just buys them in bulk. Pretty crazy. Different world again than the world I occupied but fascinating episode. That was really, really good. So Greg Davis. He’s good friends with Com Mirza and that’s again part of that network of mastermind of coms that Alex Becker is in – different world.

Interesting stuff.

Anyway, you talked about starting with spun content and I’m guessing you don’t do spun content anymore, is that right?

No, I’m still ethically not really against it. If it gets the job done, that’s fine. I just don’t think it gets the job done anymore, at least anywhere near the site you’re trying to rank. Maybe on a tier three, four, five, or something like that but right now I don’t see any ROI in a lot of the tricks that we used to do back in the day.

And those tricks would include what? This is all based on markup change? Uninformed listener who doesn’t know this world through spun content and how that works.

Yes, spun content would be like, let’s say there’s an article about the best ergonomic chair and you wanted to use that article to create content which will go on different website, different article directories, and what not, and then that content it will link to your site. Obviously, you probably don’t want to go out to all these article directories and write individual articles of yourselves. You can take this base article and spinners will actually go into your nouns, verbs, et cetera, and swap them out for similar words. The word ‘small’ becomes tiny, or insignificant, or something like that. It kind of creates a new article, so to speak. But these days, Google is Google. They have the most PhDs on the planet, so that kind of stuff doesn’t fly anymore, at least not coming from a website that’s directly linked into yours. You’re not going to last too long in your rankings if you’re going to do that.

Yeah, that will get you penalized. It’s not just that you would create one article of spun content. You might create a thousand variations of the same article for a thousand different websites, right?

Exactly, yeah. And then, software will manage this whole campaign for you and post them up there one by one. It’s cool when it worked but it’s been long past those days when you can really do that directly to your website.

Right. Okay and what about PBNs? Let’s talk about that. What works and what doesn’t work with Private Blog Networks?

Okay. Should be back up a sec and talk about what PBNs are?

No, let’s for sure talk about what the definition is and then we can go into how to create one, what works and what doesn’t.

Sure. PBN stands for Private Blog Network. Essentially, what it is, is the whole idea of what a good backlink is – a good backlink to your site is one that has power. What determines if it has power, how many backlinks does it have? The idea is, there’s websites that are expiring, the people didn’t pay their bill, businesses go out of business, and these websites don’t need to be owned anymore by the original owner. Now, over time these websites probably accumulated a bunch of links. A bunch of real links like maybe it’s a bakery down the street and people are linking to it for whatever reason the popular bakery. Now, that bakery goes out of business so it’s possible you can buy this domain and then repurpose it. Maybe that bakery website you can change it completely. Now it becomes a blog about foodies, and then you can link that to your website selling reviews of cooking supplies or something like that. That’s the idea behind it. It’s a super big loophole. It’s been available for quite some time as an SEO tactic. I guess some people would say this falls under the gray hat SEO, but again, like I was mentioning before, pure white hat people might say this is black hat stuff, but that’s the idea. To get it to work these days is definitely not as easy as it used to be a few years ago. That’s probably the most common thing outside on your show. Things used to be easier before but it really boils down to one, where are you getting these domains and what kind of domains are you getting. They have to have clean backlinks. They can never have any penalty on them because they’ll pass the penalty onto you when you link from them. In addition to that, there’s so many nuances especially in 2017. I thought I saw a lot of things change with regards to how effective PBNs were, and a lot more filters come in place that Google put in. In 2017, something changed. I noticed because I test every single PBN. We can’t just simply assume like we used to do a few years ago that just because I bought a domain and I create a link from it, it’s going to pass a positive value to my website. We can’t guarantee that anymore. In 2017, when I’m testing all of these PBNs, I started to notice that my pass rate started to decrease. I didn’t have as many domains passing as usual. So, one can only imagine that Google probably put some filters in place to suss this kind of thing out and try to eliminate it as a practice. You probably want to get domains that have less of a drop history. If a domain has changed owners 70,000 times, you know that’s going to have a less chance of it being a valuable asset as a link resource but if something had a single owner—that happens all the time, ownership changes all the time—Google has no really reason to penalize that as a link source, so to speak. There’s a lot of things that we discovered at least with the buying process. But on top of that, how you set them up, they have to have eliminate all footprints. If you’re creating a Private Blog Network of 100 websites, you have to put them on different hosts with different IP addresses because Google can see that kind of stuff, they can identify that. They can identify if you have footprints on your Whois, for example. The ownerships of the websites, you have to either put private Whois on a portion of fake names on others so it’s a lot different and, I’ve said this before, I wouldn’t wish PBN management on my worst enemy. I just simply have the system set up for it. In R&D, I’m constantly testing all the time just to make sure it’s still working and again, I’m diversifying at the same time too. I’m doing a lot of white hat SEO, so I’m mixing and matching in the right places and I’m not depending 100% on this loophole but right now, I truly feel that PBN is the fastest way to get quick and powerful rankings still.

Okay so the core of a PBN is going after expired domains. Is that right? Or is it you could also create a PBN just by buying a network of existing websites?

Yeah, you could and probably at some point, that will be the new landscape for Private Blog Network. They don’t have any expiration. They did never went to auction. They never went to back order a DropCatch. Maybe that’s what it’s going to be someday. That’s completely true.

You’re mentioning a few different terms here that are probably pretty new to many of our listeners like DropCatch. Is that a service that allows you to bid on an expiring domain like SnapNames, I guess would be an example that I’m familiar with. Is that what DropCatch is?

Yes. There’s different phases when a domain loses ownership. Right now, my domain, my blog, diggitymarketing.com, I can just login to GoDaddy and just put it up for auction or I can just decide I don’t want to pay for this thing anymore and then when my renewal comes up, then it goes through a DropCatch auction. It’s like an auction too, but DropCatch—at least the way I understand it—this is the last chance to get this thing before it goes expired. That’s the DropCatch phase. Then, after the thing just goes expired like no one bought it, no one cares about it anymore, then it’s just straight-up expired. You could go register a domain right now. Maybe it hasn’t had ownership for three years. That’s would be what we call expired domain, if we’re getting into the true nitty gritty labeling of all these different types of expired domains, so to speak.

Right. So it doesn’t necessarily have to have gone expired completely. You can acquire it from a Sedo auction and its transfer of ownership without it having gone expired because when the domain actually expires and then somebody registers it, Google’s able to pick up on the fact that it went expired and then reset the website’s PageRank to zero.

Possibly but test show they don’t. Test show that you can take expired domains that have been expired for a long, long time and they still will pass value. How much value? Is it really 100% of all the links go into it? Maybe not but definitely still passes value. It’s interesting some of the stuff we’re experimenting around with and getting to the bottom of this. What’s the signal to Google when something has expired? Is it the name server change? Is it change of Whois? Is it this or that? Again, maybe that’s the next generation of what this whole technique boils down to. How to figure out, how to make it look like it’s just never changed ownership.

One bit of advice that you hear about when you acquire another website or acquire an existing business that includes a website is to not necessarily just go and change all the Whois information, the name servers, et cetera, all simultaneously because you could run the risk of getting the PageRank reset to zero by Google. So you change the Whois information slowly, maybe just the admin contact and then wait a while and then change the registrant name and keep using the same name servers for a while and so forth. Eventually, after maybe a year, everything is switched over and you haven’t run the risk of getting your PageRank reset. Is that something that you would advice or do you think that doesn’t really matter?

Oh yes, some parts for sure. You definitely don’t want to set up a network that all just changes its register information on the same day. It could be a signal to Google, for example, if my website has 40 backlinks and if you look into the history of these backlinks, all of them seem to be re-registered under its new ownership on the same day. That’s definitely maybe something they look at right now but as more artificial intelligence comes into play, that’s definitely something that the AI would laugh at.

And Google is a domain registrar so they have access to certain information that the general public don’t have access to, right?

Yeah. We can only assume that we have no idea what they know.

And even a tool like DomainTools has access to all the change history. Let’s say that you did not immediately start your brand new domain with privacy protection. You set it up a day later. DomainTools will be able to see that. A lot of times a domainer who wants to reach out to the domain owner will use DomainTools as a resource to find who that original owner is behind the privacy information because they did not turn it on immediately. They waited a day, a week, or whatever. Is DomainTools one of the tools that you use to suss that thing out?

Yeah. It’s not me doing this stuff anymore. We got the systems in place but definitely my dudes use DomainTools. I don’t think they could survive without it.

How big of a team do you have? Who are doing the gray hat, the PBN type stuff, not your white hat agency client stuff but the other stuff?

We were up to about a 35-person head count. There’s a big team that’s sussing out these domains, auditing them, and vetting them. There’s a big team used for building them. There’s a QA team, there’s an R&D team and then there’s content team that’s posting new content on them. It’s a really big operation but definitely gets the job done, thousands of customers.

Wow. Fascinating. I presume that you had separate instances of Google Search Console? You didn’t end up connecting any of those websites that are part of the PBNs together by having multiple websites in a single GSC account. Is that right?

Yeah. That’s definitely one of the worst things that you can probably do, even for non-fake websites, even for real websites. General and affiliate SEOs just don’t put all your websites in a single Google Search Console because if one goes down, boom, boom, boom, there goes the rest of them.

Has that happen to you?

No, thank goodness. Tons of people that I can think of though, the more horror stories than I’d like to imagine.

Let’s say your network gets taken down or one of your sites gets taken down. That’s a very important one, you lose a lot of revenue, do you focus on penalty recovery or do you just move on?

If it’s a money site, a site that’s making money for example, I would definitely try to recover it. If it’s a manual penalty, Google’s pretty forgiving about releasing manual penalties especially with regards to links. They have this disavow tool. Let’s say you had a 90% black hat SEO website and they got you red-handed. You can get rid of all those links and disavow those black hat links. They going to have to say, “Yeah, your website’s clean now. It really is clean.” They have to respond to that. The question that comes to mind, like, “Okay you just got rid of 90% of your links. This 10% isn’t going to carry you anymore but there’s just the fact called ghost links. Once you remove the link, the effect lasts for a decent amount of time especially if that link was there for a long time before it got removed or deleted or disavowed. So, there’s a chance to build more links and keep your rankings up there. But every time I haven’t had many personal penalties—surprisingly enough—in a black and gray SEO, but every time I had a penalty in recent days, it’s been only one under natural links penalty with PBNs. They reconsidered the request, I shot back up to number one and I had a couple of months to rebuild the links and all is good. That site still ranks number one right now.

Cool. Let’s talk about the disavow process and the general link clean-up. You got penalized, whether it’s manual or algorithmic and as a link penalty, you’re going to do the disavow. Do you also outreach to the website owners who you have gotten links from that they’re not your websites? It’s not part of your PBN that you can just remove those links. Do you outreach? I know, for example, Pitchbox integrates quite well with Link Detox and LinkResearchTools, and do all this great outreach and ask for link removals. A small percentage will say yes to that. Some will try and extort money out of you, never pay. But I think it’s a more effective way to do a link cleanup, to get some of those links removed. When you then crawl back to Google and saying, “Mea culpa, I’m really sorry, and please let me back in,” having done some link removals as well as the disavow can make it more effective. Is this something that you do? Is this something you found to be true?

Yes. I personally haven’t done that but in my circle, it does seem to be the train of thought. You should try to remove all the ones you have access to remove and then disavow the rest. I don’t have the kind of experience because either I control the links from the Private Blog Network, PBN, and combining that with outreach. If I’m doing outreach, it because I have decided already and I want to have that link. Even if a disavow came along, I’m still want to have that one to prove my skin, so to speak. I haven’t had a need to ever remove anything like that but it sounds like a nice way to do it if Pitchbox is just going to do that automatically for you. That would be great.

Yeah. You have to load up the templates and stuff into Pitchbox and manage that process but it makes it a lot more scalable to do outreach for link removals, not just outreach for getting links added to your website. So, I’m curious. Is Pitchbox something that you’re using for link outreach to acquire quality links? Is that something or another tool that you’re semi-automating for outreach?

Yeah. We love Pitchbox. Pitchbox is awesome. There’s many reasons Pitchbox is great but it’s got that scraping tool that can help find you opportunities and what we really enjoy Pitchbox for is the management system of controlling where you are in the stage of the outreach. We find it quite invaluable. I tried NinjaOutreach. NinjaOutreach is one we also use in tandem because they have a really nice database in there as link opportunities, stuff like that, also just doing even GMass. On a beginner’s level, GMass is super cheap. If you’re just starting an SEO, trying to do outreach without paying for really expensive tools, even GMass will get the job done, so to speak, but it’s missing some of the management and professional type tool qualities of Pitchbox and outreach, etc.

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What kind of volume are you getting to in terms of outreach emails per day or per week or whatever?

That’s a good question. I need to check up with the team and see what our numbers are to kind of shows that I need a set of KPI, don’t I? I would say in the grand scheme, are we a spray and pray type company or are we a sniper type company? We mostly are a little bit more targeted and we don’t send out, like in blast out the entire internet with spam emails. We try to be a little bit more personal in it and try to manage maybe dozens of conversations at a time rather than hundreds. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t send more than 1000 – 2000 emails in a month, which might sound like a lot, but for an agency that’s not that much, we’re landing a lot of links because they’re a little bit more personalized, they’re a little bit more value-add, and we’re not just spamming, so to speak.

And these are the kinds of links that you probably wouldn’t need to disavow if Google sends you a manual action notice through Google Search Console. Those are the sorts of links that you made sure that the quality is there, they’re not going to be part of the problem. Is that right?

Yeah, exactly. If I’m going to be paying for it and spend the time to outreach for it it should be something that’s going to benefit me in a way that I don’t currently have with PBNs. That’s exactly that. A trusted link from a website that ranks itself to less traffic. That’s the whole idea of mixing gray hat SEO and white hat SEO. You have your PBNs which is the power. You’re getting links from home pages. There are tons of links going to them. You’re sending exact match anchors that gets the engine started and then on the other side, one term that we use is called pillowing, so you’re making the story more believable with links from inner pages, from links in sites with traffic, and using anchor text that looks more realistic. This is the kind of structure that I’ve been using at least since beginning 2017. It’s been working really well for us in the client SEO because we’re 100% white hat.

So for the stuff that you’re doing personally, your affiliate stuff and things, let’s say you get a manual action, you’ll just remove the links that you can from your own PBNs that you think are part of the problem and then disavow the remainder that are considered toxic and then keep the ones you’ve been outreaching to via Pitchbox.

Yeah. That’s pretty much how it works.

Normally, you get back in with a manual action. The majority of the time, they let you back in.

Yeah, well, I don’t have that much in personal experience with manual actions. I only had one manual action in my life, which sounds weird, but I work with a guy named Rick Lomas. Rick Lomas is a power user of LinkResearchTools. We do a lot of penalty recovery together. It’s like a service to other SEOs. It started as a favor, and then we just saw like, “Okay, the work’s scaling up so we should probably charge with this kind of thing.” Rick has way more experience than I do and I would say he’s probably recovered over 150, maybe 200 websites with zero failures. He’s never not able to recover a penalty.

Manual one or just any kind?

Manual one. Algorithmic, all bets are off.

Yeah, those are tough. Okay. Got it. So he’s using Link Detox from LinkResearchTools and he’s very successful with getting manual actions removed.

Yeah, he’s an ace. He’s real good.

Cool. All right. So back to outreach for high-quality links with Pitchbox. Let’s say that you’re trying to get a high-trust link. Are you doing something more innovative than just simply asking for guest posting opportunities, guest blogging, are you doing what Brian Dean suggests in one of his guest blog post that’s an infographic instead of a regular post or something else that’s unique?

Basically, the tactics that I fall I do a little bit of roundup type stuff. Let’s say we have—I always use this example— website reviewing ergonomic chairs. So, I might go out and interview ergonomic experts to ask them a question, “What’s your number one tip for people who are working eight hour days in the office?” and then you get a round-up, then you reach out to them again and ask them for a link, that kind of thing. I’d say that’s maybe 5%–10% of the outreach links we do. A big, big portion of it would be just straight-up guest post but as some of us know, Google literally came out and said that guest post are against terms of service and stuff like that. So we avoid getting guest post that are on websites that are just screaming that likelihood of this link is probably a guest post. We avoid getting links from places that use author boxes and you’re getting a link in author box. That’s a dead giveaway. So, guest post is a big part of it and we do some link and search and type stuff, so maybe you reach out to someone and just say, “We have this new piece of content that’s probably a little bit more fresh that you might want to link to and here it is,” and stuff like that. I don’t do too much Skyscraper type outreach and I don’t do any Guestographic cut type stuff either. It’s mostly vanilla-type outreach and just do a decent amount of it, craft templates, and outreach emails that tend to convert better. That’s the game that I try to play.

So you’re not using the default templates in Pitchbox. You’re handcrafting your own templates in-house.

Yeah. I wish I could share them but then they won’t link them anymore.

Cool. When you’re doing guest post outreach, you’re avoiding those kinds of sites where it just screams guest posting or they take guest blog submissions. So things like where the link is in the author box, maybe the website, the blog post actually says guest post or guest author, that sort of thing?

Yeah and I don’t really think that Google has anything built into their algorithm to suss these things out right now. I feel it’s probably something that a manual reviewer would probably will take a look at but in this SEO game, as you definitely know, is how is that to think about what sophistication the algorithm will have in the future. So, yeah I don’t think they’re checking for that stuff right now but someday they probably will.

Yeah. My advice always—has been since the beginning—is to think about future-proofing your SEO and your website so that if sometime in the future, an algorithm, let’s say, an AI is evaluating what you’ve been doing in the past—because the best indicator for future behavior is past behavior and that’s across the board, if you’re looking to hire somebody and they’ve embezzled before, you definitely don’t want to hire that person because they might embezzle again—your potential future here is battling against AIs. I think it’s an inevitable future and those AIs will be looking at your past behavior—even if you stop doing those things—to see if you are inclined to doing those things that are against Google’s guidelines. I’ve always preached to be squeaky clean with everything that you’re doing SEO-wise, even if you can get away with it for a time. Again, this is a different world I’m occupying because I’m working with big brands and I don’t have my own affiliate sites and things like that, that I’m trying to build up. Even if I did, I want to be able to say that on stage at conferences, pearly white hat and never been any other way. That’s just my approach and I’m not saying that your approach is wrong or whatever. I think Google is a company that’s trying to make money and just like our companies are, it’s not the law, it’s not immoral to do PBNs or whatever. I just think it’s a matter of risk tolerance and if you’re a big company, a big brand, then your risk tolerance is pretty darn low for tactics and strategies that can get your website penalized.

Exactly and I could not said it better. There’s a lot of side choosing in this SEO industry where the pure white hats loves to make a battle against the black hats and the black hats will retaliate back and to say like, “You waste time. You waste resources. You could have had this done so quickly.” I think what it really boils down to is, like you said, it’s a risk decision and one that you want to make for your business. There’s pluses and minuses to both sides. For example, I imagine it would be nice for a complete white hat SEO not to have to worry about whether their website’s going to be ranking tomorrow or not. I have websites that are like that, that are 100% white hat. It a great feeling just to know I don’t have to worry about anything tomorrow. I definitely see pluses to that. I think the main thing just to remember is that, again like you said, it’s not illegal to do the black hat type stuff and it’s not illegal by all means to be conservative in business approach. While the whole black hat-white hat SEO feud is really fun, let’s just look at it as a business.

And just to be clear, there are aspects to black hat SEO that are actually illegal and we’re not advising, either one of us, that you ever go down that path. If you hack other people’s websites, that’s illegal. Don’t do it.

Thanks for the save. Thanks for the save.

Also, I think it’s important that people get their egos out of this situation of battling the other side, saying, “Well, I’m a white hat and I think black hats are immoral or unethical or whatever.” It’s such self-righteousness to disregard everything that that person has done because of a label. They might be creating a lot of value for people, for example, in the case of ergonomic chairs, could have saved somebody’s back because of your content, your website that is at the top of the search results, which got there through PBNs or whatever gray hat means, but it saved somebody from back surgery 10 years on. I think we need to all be more humble and open to seeing other people’s perspectives.

Well said.

Let’s talk about negative SEO because that’s something that white hats are particularly concerned about that their website is going to get penalized for something they didn’t even do, some competitor or other bad actors would have done to them. Let’s first define negative SEO and then we’ll talk about if that actually works. Let’s riff about negative SEO for a bit.

Yeah, let’s. We know that Google has different algorithmic filters in place to detect behavior and link practices, and different SEO techniques that are against their guidelines. What negative SEO would be is to emulate these kinds of behaviors on other people’s websites so they lose ranking. It’s a disgusting practice, is black hat or gray hat if you want to say that I am, I’ve never engaged in it, never would, I feel like this is just straight bad karma. The most common form of it is, we talked about earlier using software to generate a massive amount of links. The links you get from these sites that you can post these links on are typically pretty spammy. So getting links from them in the first place is not a good thing. Then the person can also send anchor text, which could over-optimize you and send spammy anchor text like the word Viagra a bunch. The idea is that, that will mess up your backlink profile and send you down in the rankings. Does it work now? Well, Google, I would have to say, has done a really, really good job of being able to ignore spammy links these days. For the most part, I think you could ignore most of it. If you’re getting negative SEO, I would say to a certain point, you could ignore it. But at a certain level, I do think it is a good idea to disavow it because I have seen that a certain accumulation of enough spammy links could bring on the review of a manual reviewer. It could land on a manual reviewer’s desk if there’s enough unaddressed spam going to the site. So I do think it is valuable to disavow and even in Google’s own words, they said, “Google’s able to ignore most spam.” Now the keyword here is ‘most.’ That means there’s some that doesn’t get ignored. Then again, that’s another case in point being valuable to do some disavow.

Yeah. So, don’t just leave all that spammy links and assume that Google’s going to take care of that and figure out that wasn’t you. Do proactively run a Link Detox and practically disavow those links even if you had nothing to do with creating those.

Yeah. Even if you didn’t create them yourself, Google doesn’t know that. We have to make sure that you’ve washed your hands clean of it with your website.

And it’s not just links that can cause you to get penalized. It also penalized sites that are getting redirected to you, or canonicalized to you. This is something a lot of people don’t get. A well canonical can pass a penalty. So somebody is canonicalling a penalized site to your site in order to negative SEO you—they can actually do that—and if you’re not using a tool like Link Detox to scan for the canonicals that are passing a penalty to you, if you’re only using link analysis, you’re missing a potential penalty trigger.

Yeah, that’s exactly true. Just to add upon that, there’s a lot of these nasty SEOs who like to hurt other people’s websites. Canonicals and 301s can be cloaked, so to speak, so most of your typical backlink crawlers, Ahrefs, Majestic, and stuff like that, you can tell that bot to skip over this website. The typical things that you use to look at your backlinks wouldn’t pick this up. And you’re absolutely right. You need something like Link Detox or look in Google Search Console.

If you’re using Majestic—Majestic is a very polite bot—and come in with that user agent that says, “Hey, I’m Majestic,” the evil negative SEO person will have cloaked their sites so that Majestic either sees nothing but nice squeaky clean links and none of the negative stuff or the whole site is just invisible to them.

Right. Nasty stuff.

And there’s even another type of negative SEO that is very hard to detect. You just have to watch for quality links disappearing from your site and that’s to do a link removal requests using a tool like Pitchbox, whatever, and pretending to be you, saying “Hey, I don’t like that link that you have on my website. I think you’re low-quality site and I need you to remove the link or I’m going to report you to Google,” and actually get some compliance. Some of those high-quality links would disappear from your link ref and that’s awful.

Yup. There’s a lot of bad stuff that goes on. I almost am afraid to give examples of more stuff just because there’s got to be at least some listeners that might get the wrong idea.

Oh yeah, some folks like, “Oh yeah. That’s a good idea. I might just try that.”

Just completely over the head the whole message.

Yeah. So if you are employing gray hat techniques or black hat for that matter, you’re probably a target to Google or you definitely are, which is why that they caught you yet or not. It’s important for a gray hat to obscure their footprint and their network, and we talked about a bunch of different ways like having every site in a separate Google Search Console, or not connecting those up, and not changing a bunch of the Whois records across a lot of your domains at once, et cetera. Is there anything in particular that you want to share that you haven’t already that is crucial technique to obscure your footprint to Google?

Yeah. Like I said, the whole PBN business and management of a network, it gets more and more complex every year. I would say that, if you’re new to SEO and you’re interested in this gray hat stuff, it might be on the verge where the learning curve is a little bit too late to be able to catch up. It might take you some time to study the basics now, and then by the time you have that, then we’re onto a whole different amount of footprint hiding, and stuff like that. But let’s say you’re an experienced gray hat SEO. One thing that I could say that’s the biggest gray hat SEO’s pitfall is relying too much on PBNs. PBNs are awesome because you get that homepage link with plenty of juice but how much of the internet is home pages? What percentage of the internet is actually a home page? Probably less than one percent or maybe 2%–3%, or something like that. Why does it makes sense that your website would have all of its backlinks coming from home pages like pretty much nothing? That’s a really big case for blending in outreach, for example, or different kinds of link types that aren’t coming from home pages. So that’s pitfall number one, making sure that you have a realistic number of links coming from home pages. I get why you want them for sure. That’s where the power is coming from, but you got to make your story seem believable.

If you’re new to SEO and you’re interested in this gray hat stuff, it might be on the verge where the learning curve is a little bit too late to be able to catch up.

Yeah. So, essentially, you have enough diversity in your link profile, not just among which one are home pages versus internal pages that are linking to you but also what’s the percentage of .com, .biz, .info, dot whatever so it looks naturally occurring and not engineered. Same thing with the authority and trust levels of these links and pages in the linking sites. They’re all the same level that looks engineered. All these different indicators that you have been link building is going to potentially make you a target.

And just to add upon that, you want diversity. What kind of diversity do you need? Google writes it right up there on page one. You can look at the backlink profiles of everyone on page one and see like, “Okay they typically have 5% of links come from high authority sites,” okay I can do that, “and then they have little amount of blog comments,” I’ll get some blog comments, and you can just mimic what’s going on there. It even works the other way. These kinds of niches are rare these days but in niches, where they’re typically pretty spammy. I’ve been in some Garcinia Cambogia weight loss pills type stuff and everyone who’s competing in that one is using PBNs, so the norm for that niche is just to use all PBNs and all home page links. It’s kind of just about reverse-engineering what Google’s telling you is working and then just following suit and doing a little bit better than the competition.

And you’re going to say something else about obscuring your footprint besides not being overly reliant on home pages linking to you in your link profile.

Yeah. That would be the big one and I would say that’s the Achilles heel of a pure gray hat SEO is not being aware of that kind of footprint. Another thing that I like to do is PBNs make a lot of sense in the beginning of a website because the statistical variance and the statistical probability of getting three home page links at the beginning of a website is a lot more possible because it’s only three links that we’re talking about. When you start to get up to 30, 40, 50 links, then the probability of that happening is lower. So what I like to do is start off a little bit gray hat. Come out of the gates hot. You get some nice powerful links and then you start to phase in the outreach and make the story a little bit more believable. Then eventually, you start to peel off the gray hat SEO and start to make the sites completely white hat. Now you have a sellable asset. Now you have an affiliate website that can be turned over to someone else as a risk-free investment, so to speak. That’s been pretty much my approach in blending gray hat and white hat, avoiding typical gray hat footprints and eliminating risk down the road. Just like you Stephan, in my gut I still do look at risk too. I don’t look at it as anything as a turn and burn and if I lost a website forever, I would be devastated. I’m risky but I eventually try to eliminate that risk.

All right, makes sense. So if somebody wants to learn more from you, I know you have some online courses and you have a conference in Thailand, let’s share a little of those details with our listeners?

Yeah, thanks for the opportunity. You can read more about the kind of SEO that I do at diggitymarketing.com. I do a lot of testing so everything that comes out of my mouth is not just based on theory and speculations because of experience that either with real websites or tests. You can learn about what I’m up to there at diggitymarketing.com. Like what Stephan said, we did the Chiang Mai SEO conference. It’s a really fun conference, we sold out the first year. We’re about to sell out again this year in 2018. A bunch of action takers there are really good speakers. And then if you want to learn SEO from me, I’m launching the Affiliate Lab. It’s my own standalone part of the bigger picture SEO course. It’s affiliatelab.im that should be coming up pretty darn soon.

Awesome and when is the Chiang Mai conference?

November first and second is the main conference date but it’s a week-long experience. We have free events around town, networking events, co-working sessions, there’s a lot going on. So, best to get there around October 29th and then stay through at least the second or third. Chiang Mai is not a big city in Thailand but it’s a huge digital nomad hub and when the conference goes on, I promise you, you’ll be sick of SEO by the end of it. That’s how crazy it gets around town.

Yeah that’s awesome. Why did you choose Thailand?

This is just where I live. I’m an expat. I’ve been in love with Thailand for quite a while. I travel a lot just like you do but Thailand seems to be the home that I’m choosing for now.

Okay, cool. And why is that?

You know when you just go somewhere and it feels like home for some reason? It just clicks for you? I can’t put it into words but that’s the emotional feeling I get when I’m here.

That’s awesome. It’s pretty amazing to have the time and location freedom and that’s something that I really appreciate about being an SEO. I was able to move all the way to New Zealand for seven and a half years and I’ve never even been there. Just got this crazy idea like I could do this. I’m in the internet industry. Why not? I applied for residency, I got in, and then I went and did a [01:03:38] and make sure that we’re going to do this, find a place to stay and everything. The rest was history and that was an amazing experience and I’m doing it to a smaller extent right now, spending five months in Tel Aviv. My wife is Israeli, so why not? Why not live somewhere exotic, amazing, different, and have a whole other life experience that the traditional 9-5 cubicle workers can’t have? So, pretty cool.

Exactly. It’s a gift. Everyone needs to take advantage of it. Not many people in other industries can do that, so get off your butts, go check it out, and do a little traveling.

Yeah, for sure. All right. Well, thank you so much, Matt. This was a lot of fun and fascinating too. If listeners you wanted to check out the Chiang Mai conference or any other websites that Matt had referred to, just go to marketingspeak.com, check out the show notes, with all the links to the various resources, the tools we discussed like Pitchbox and all that, it’s all there at marketingspeak.com. This is Stephan Spencer, your host of Marketing Speak. We’ll catch you on the next episode. In the meantime, have a fantastic week.

Important Links:

Your Checklist of Actions to Take

☑ Remember to stick to white hat SEO strategies when working with clients and with sites of which you would hate to damage the reputation. A thoughtful risk versus reward assessment is always required before venturing into the black hat or grey hat territory.

☑ Familiarize myself with the SEO tactics that are considered grey hat or black hat by Google’s standards. Understand the differences between white hat and black/grey.

☑ Steer clear of black hat SEO such as hacking, malware, and link injections. Aside from the risk of having all my rankings removed, many are considered criminal activities.

☑ Check for manual penalties (under “Manual Actions” in Google Search Console). Address them whenever I get a notification on my Google Search Console.

☑ Become an affiliate and earn extra money on the side and use those sites to experiment with, rather than client sites.

☑ Don’t rely on PBNs as the strategy to build authoritative backlinks to improve my site rankings on Google SERPs. Build links sustainably.

☑ Make sure that sites with previous owners have clean backlinks and no penalties before I purchase and repurpose a used domain.

☑ Publish unique, high-quality content. Don’t “spin” articles to use as SEO fodder.

☑ Become a contributor on high-authority blogs to achieve valuable links. Reach out to credible sites and online influencers with the help of outreach tools like Pitchbox.

☑ Stay on top of the latest Google updates to avoid algorithmic penalties and outdated SEO strategies.

About Matt Diggity

Founder of DiggityMarketing.com, LeadSpring LLC, Authority Builders, and the Chiang Mai SEO Conference. Trainer at The Lab.


One thought on “A Peek into the World of PBNs and Grey Hat SEO with Matt Diggity

  1. I only just saw this. It was so kind of Matt to mention me. Oddly enough in 2018, we hadn’t actually met face to face. We met for real in January 2019 at LRTCon in Vienna and then again at Chiang Mai SEO 2019, Thailand in November 2019. I feel very privileged to be Matt’s friend and business partner.

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