INTRO There's an abundance of PBN building threads, in fact, one seems to pop up every week these days but in this post I want to deal with one specific aspect and that is minimising the time and money wasted on building out pre-penalised PBNs. Over the past almost 2 years now, my network has grown to over 300+ websites, so naturally I've bought my fair share of duds too but I've developed an effective way of weeding out some of the rotten apples. For me, one of the most annoying facets of building a reasonable sized PBN has been buying a domain, hosting, writing content, making the site look genuine, only to find that it's been penalised and will never be indexed, or worse it has the potential to cause the site that you linked to harm (speculation). In order to avoid this, I use a series of steps and finger printing techniques in order to identify penalised domains prior to purchase, much of this information has been gleaned from BHW as well as my own experience. The trouble with penalised domains is that you only find them to be so after you've purchased them, configured hosting and have submitted the site to the Google Webmasters tool in order to check for manual action penalties, that is if you even believe in using Webmasters, if you don't, it's a pure waiting game to see if you're site does indeed index thereby proving that no penalty is present by which time you may have wasted good content. This thread is intended for beginners and experienced buyers alike, so I've started with the basics but there may be one or two things in here for the more experienced too. WHY SHOULD I CARE IF A DOMAIN IS PENALISED? Penalised domains are basically junk for the purposes of being a formative part of a PBN. A penalised domain will not be indexed by Google and will therefore not be able to pass any ranking power to another website. There's the possibility of getting a domain reconsidered by Google thereby removing the penalty via Webmasters tool but that is beyond my experience. The reason I've never gone down this road is because I see little upside, my rational being: The domain has received a black mark against it, it's conceivable that it will continue to be monitored. Why would you voluntarily submit a part of your PBN directly to the web-spam team? WHAT MAKES A PENALISED DOMAIN? In a nutshell, when Google detects black-hat activity on (or potentially around) a website their spam team investigates manually and decides whether or not the domain should be penalised. If such activity is deemed to indeed be against Google's terms, they place a 'manual penalty' on the domain and it is no longer indexed. CONFESSIONS OF A PENALISED DOMAIN Remember here that correlation does not equal causation. There are a few things below that I use as a strong indicators of foulplay but these indicators by no means guarantee that a domain has been penalised. Rather, based on my own experience, usually when these indicators are used in conjunction with each other, they prove to be correct. TEST 1: The indexation test. Method: Type into the Google search bar 'site:[YOUR ROOT DOMAIN]', if the site is indexed, it's not penalised, stop here. Caveat: Many deleted domains will not be indexed, it is only a positive result that means anything for this test, i.e if it's not indexed, then further tests are needed. TEST 2: The Anchor text. Method: Use Majestic/Ahrefs tools to examine anchor text. Look for anything suspicious such as product names, medications, porn or anything else that doesn't quite sit right with the domain name. Caveat: Obviously use your discretion here, you may be buying the domain of a shop that will legitimately have product based anchor text. TEST 3: Number of referring domains. Method: Look at the number using the Majestic tool. rarely have I seen deleted domains with 200+ referring domains that haven't been subject to a good ol' spamming. Caveat: Some legitimate sites of course have more than 200 referring domains but if you're a plumber in [tiny town] UK, is it likely without something suspicious going on? TEST 4: The link building rate. Method: Use the Ahrefs link graph to look for steep spikes in link numbers being gained, this can indicate that the domain has been spammed or that an SEO effort has taken place which may have also incurred a penalty. Caveat: Simply an indicator that should make you suspicious, legitimate non penalised websites sometimes exhibit this behaviour. TEST 5: Link sources. Method: I am extremely careful to not participate in someone else's link network. Very often a site is not penalised and I still won't buy it because it links from say 50 websites with identical link pages. These websites still rank, don't get me wrong but it's a ticking clock in my opinion and their days are numbered. Caveat: None for me. If it's a promising domain though, use at your own discretion and tolerance for risk. TEST 6: Link Locality. Method: Use Ahrefs to see which countries the domains inbound links are originating from. If I'm buying a UK based website for a rambling club in Plymouth, I wouldn't expect links from websites based in Russia and China. Caveat: Only an indicator, use your discretion, some small websites warrant international links such as band websites etc. TEST 7: Wayback Machine. Method A: Use Wayback machine to determine whether a domain has previously been a PBN website, if it has, I ditch it, others may still risk it. Scan from inception, at 1 point each year of operation and pay particular attention to the last few months before expiry (or whenever you're purchasing the domain). Look for obvious signs of PBN usage, sudden changes of appearance, logo changes, content changes and differing writing style are strong indicators of prior PBN usage. My rational: if a previous PBN domain has expired, there's possibly a negative reason for it but sometimes they just slip through the net. Caveat A: Prior PBN usage does not mean the domain has been penalised. I've seen other BHW members comment on how some of their best domains have been used for other peoples' PBNs in the past. For me, unless the site is still indexed thereby negating the chance of a penalty, I stop here. Method B: Look at the indexing fingerprint. The below image shows a very subtle PBN, in fact it's one of my own that I let expire. Notice the gap and then the sudden spike at the end? That shows that I blocked the Wayback Machine bot and when the website finally expired, the bot was allowed back in again. This is an indicator of prior PBN activity. Long indexing gaps followed by sudden activity are a fairly strong indicator of PBN activity but you need to dig further. Caveat B: Prior PBN usage may not be and issue and may be a risk that you're willing to take. Occasionally original website owners buy back their own domain and get it up and running again, thus they exhibit this pattern too. TEST 8: Google Webmasters - After buying the domain & hosting Method: I rarely take this step unless I have suspicions from prior tests. If the domain appeared to be clean and was too valuable to not take a gamble on, then I do this as a final check before introducing content. Usually, this is the only remaining event these days that will still cause me to buy a dud but I've gained too many valuable domains not to take the gamble. You have to have hosting configured to do this test as you need to verify the domain with Google. Not everyone has the stomach for this and many people avoid any form of Google product like the plague, I myself take a more relaxed attitude but not approach. Before accessing webmasters I use a fresh IP, and ALWAYS limit one website to one Webmasters account. My thoughts are, Webmasters is simply showing you the data it already holds on your domain, you're not introducing a tracking script like with Google Analytics, you're merely accessing the data already held. Look for the manual action tab and see first hand if there's a penalty, if there is, bad luck. THE END So there it is, hopefully I've saved someone money, time and effort. Live long and rank.