I know what you’re thinking… show me on a Venn diagram where these two overlap. Sara Winchester, widow to the ever-in-progress Winchester estate, and private blog networks the black hat SEO backlink tactic.
Let’s start with private blog networks or PBNs.
What is a PBN? A Backend Click-Bait Backlink
Private Blog Networks are just that, high authority sites with their own dedicated servers you can buy a link from. Backlinks are crucial to your site’s success, so the more links from reputable sites, the better.
However, it’s a black hat SEO tool/method. It’s black hat because it’s against Google’s guidelines, giving them liberty to penalize you. (Also, “black hat” is a term based on B-movie westerns where the villain wore a black hat for anyone feeling wary.)
Google repeatedly tells SEOs and webmasters alike that no one should be “buying links,” rather you should be “building relationships” to get backlinks. But obviously, people are still buying links. Why? Because it still works.
You: Whoa, whoa, whoa, Google is telling people not to do something… but they’re not actually penalizing people for doing it?
You: And the people who are doing it… it’s working?
You: Then why wouldn’t I do it?
And this too is an excellent question. The reality is, it’s a time bomb. Google just has difficulty catching them.
Google recognizes there are a lot of sites and backlinks that are outside of your control. Heck, when a Russian doorknob e-commerce site links to your Miami Puppy Life blog, Google recognizes that’s probably not your doing. They don’t discredit you for that link as all sites are going to have a certain amount of spammy backlinks.
What’s more, tons of natural backlinks look like spam from afar. When Victoria Justice shares a link on her Facebook (previously full of beauty tips) about how to install wooden siding, Google recognizes it’s different, but doesn’t necessarily value the link any less. People have different interests.
Usually, what Google notices more than “where” the links are coming from is the volume and timeframe. John Mueller has said that if they see someone gain 2,000 backlinks steadily over several months… that doesn’t raise any red flags; but if they see someone gain 2,000 backlinks over a few days, then they get suspicious.
You: So if I were to buy backlinks gradually, I’d be fine?
Me: For now, yes.
You: But why? Wouldn’t they see a blog with a bunch of random articles that all link out to different clientele and industries?
Me: Ah… no, not necessarily.
I mean, for starters, look at any news outlet. Their categories of articles range from politics to sports to movies to economy, etc. etc. Having a randomized posts isn’t necessarily a deal breaker.
And this is where a PBN salesperson will tell you it’s not a “black hat” method but a “grey hat” method. Essentially, they’ve put so much effort into cheating, it’s practically not cheating. PBNs can be random news sites, but most modern PBNs focus on a niche. Most have a separate server and host to create the illusion it’s independent. Instead of “looking” unique to users, PBNs “look” unique to bots as well.
It’s kinda like… if you wanted to capitalize on a 30-day free subscription to something, so you make a new email every month to continue getting the subscription for free. Is that ethical? No. Is it often more work than a $6.99/month subscription, I think most people would say so. Will subscription-based services catch on? Sure, HBO Max no longer offers a free trial.
You: But still, my friend started a blog on puppies and after a year, his domain authority is still 11 or 12 and his traffic is nominal despite posting every week. How are PBNs getting hundreds of thousands of visitors and have a domain authority (DA) of 60?
So here’s the thing, most people buy domains as functions, not investments. Marketers are different — after all emoji domains are a thing. So for normal people, when a function has served its purpose and becomes obsolete, and they get rid of it; for a domain, it’s another subscription in need of cancelling. Most commonly, this happens with charity sites.
If there’s an oil spill in one of the Great Lakes, then a charity will likely start fundraising. To get capture donations 24/7, they register a site: save-the-great-lakes.net. Suddenly, every news network jumps on this opportunity to link to them and give them a shoutout on air so that people can donate and help save the Great Lakes.
With a fundraising goal hit and the news cycle winding down, the webmaster lets the domain expire.
…and the SEO buys that domain.
That domain has built in authority from myriad backlinks from reputable sources. Now the SEO can rebrand that site or simply 301 it to a blog they’re working on and now, suddenly, there’s a colossal amount of domain authority passed on to this SEO’s blog.
So PBNs essentially “look” like blogs that have been around for awhile, when really, they’re riding off a former domain’s coattails.
And while Google may not have stopped this practice yet… it’s a known problem, which means it’s only a matter of time before they fix it. Of course, they’ve claimed to be working on this since 2014 and it still works, so it’s unclear what the game plan is.
You: Okay… interesting… so what’s this got to do with Sarah Winchester?
How the Winchester Mystery Mansion is a PBN for Sarah Winchester
I warned you I’d get there!
For those unfamiliar, the Winchester Mystery Mansion is a tourist attraction posturing as an historical landmark. Famously, it belonged to Sarah and William Winchester who either developed or inherited the Winchester Repeating Rifle — I forget, but this is all necessary context.
The Widely Believed Myth About Sarah Winchester
(I know this is the written word, but try and imagine I’m an old codger doing voice over narration.)
Sarah Winchester, widow of William Winchester, was a recluse who dressed in all black and kept to herself in a mansion. In fact, the only way anyone knew that she was up and about was from the incessant construction.
Seeing stairways that lead to nowhere, boarded up doors in hidden away in closets, even a bathroom on a balcony outside of a guest house. Why all the building? Why?!
Rumor has it Lady Winchester was haunted by ghosts due to the Winchester Rifle’s body count. The only way to appease the ghosts was to continue building. If she stopped… she would die.
The Hidden Reality About Sarah Winchester
For starters, the constant building had a lot more to do with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake than anything else. Many rooms needed to be torn down while others were rendered unstable. Rather than go through the rigamarole of having workers go in and tear them down, she would have them board it up so no one’s life was at stake.
As for the bathroom on the outside of the house, when workers were working on the balcony from the floor below, she’d had a bathroom built so they could wash up from the outside before re-entering the house for lunch or dinner.
And the seance room? It was not uncommon for people to have a seance room in those days. In the same way that people today visit cemeteries and leave flowers at tombstones, people would hold seances in their homes. Most didn’t believe they’d be able to communicate with the dead, but it was time to honor their lost loved ones.
She hid her hands because of arthritis and wore a veil because she was self-conscious of her teeth.
As for deaths from the repeating rifle, its reputation as a gun that won the west has far more to do with marketing than actual warfare.
The only thing haunting Sarah Winchester is this myth.
For starters, since Winchester’s death, there’s only been 2 owners. They created the narrative of Winchester and ghosts to make money. Mary Jo Ignoffo (author of Captive of the Labyrinth) goes into meticulous detail about how they’ve turned her legacy into their merchandising empire.
Show me the Venn!
Sarah Winchester and PBNs. Winchester as a name has authority and a longstanding history — much like a domain with high authority and valuable backlinks. Marketers have commandeered the Winchester legacy, making a profit off their own narrative. The Winchester House is a PBN with Lady Winchester being the expired domain — may she Rest In Peace. The Venn diagram isn’t two circles. It’s a circle on top of itself.
So imagine if Trip Advisor or Trulio or Airbnb paid a marketing agency to get them a series of backlinks from reputable sources with anchor text that relates to travel. Perhaps they have a PBN, a former domain titled, the-true-story-of-the-winchester-mansion.com, but this now redirects to their blog haunted-sights.com where they blog about spooky places to visit.
PBNs work and the Winchester House is a profitable enterprise. Their authority comes from the coattails of reputable, albeit expired, domains.
If an SEO recommends PBNs, they’re focusing on a tangible deliverable rather than long-term success. You best shot at generating backlinks is making content people want to share. Focus on E-A-T: Expertise-Authoritativeness-Trustworthiness.