In my 4 years with SEP I have talked to many of businesses looking to improve search engine  rankings; since Google's crackdown on artificial inbound links many of those conversations have shifted to discussing recovery from Google penalties. To help people coming to us with a penalty from years of SEO work I have starting using a sports analogy to help explain the situation: Here are the 4 ways artificial links affect the organic visibility of websites like steroids affect the performance of athletes.  

4 Similarities Between Steroids & Link Building

1. They work.... until you get caught

Steroids have helped many athletes achieve incredible success including Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. Johnson became the world's fastest man and top sprinter in the world from 1985 - 1988. His success culminated with a gold medal at 1988 Olympics in the 100m beating his own world record time. He was so fast that it took 10 years for another sprinter just to match his time. Johnson was on top of the world but just days later it all came crashing down. He tested positive for a performance enhancing substance. He was stripped of his medal, world record and banned for 2 years.

links are
reward, high risk
Inbound links, like steroids, are very powerful performance enhancers. They are a strong signal of authority in the eyes of Google but if you build them artificially you will eventually get caught and penalized. From 2002 to 2012 websites were able to use backlinks to dominate Google search engine results. Starting in April 2012 everything changed. Google rolled out the Penguin update and manual unnatural links warning. Now, much like steroids, links are high reward, high risk. They work until you get caught. In fact in 2014 because the links that Google trusts are so rare, links might be more powerful than ever; but if you use unnatural methods to acquire them you will get caught, penalized and lose everything you gained from them. 

2. If you didn't have it before them don't expect to get it back without them

This is probably the most accurate analogy of the 4 mentioned here. Ben Johnson came back steroid free after the 2 year band but was never able to return to peak form. Without drugs he performed at his pre-steroid level when he wasn't even the fastest man in Canada much less the world.

Most website owners that have been penalized don't realize that just like an athlete who used steroids to succeed if you didn't have it before the steroids you're not going to get there without them. In other words lifting a Google link related penalty like Penguin doesn't mean you will get the rankings you once enjoyed back.

One of the most important things you do if your site is hit with Penguin is remove or disavow the links that previously helped you succeed. What are you left with? That depends how what you had pre-linkbuilding which in many cases is not enough to rank again.

3. Too much can kill you

Short term using steroids can bring phenomenal rewards, long term they can kill you. NFL player Lyle Alzado was only 43 when he died of brain cancer which he believed to be linked to his years of steroid abuse


Artificial links work the same way, especially anchor text links where you include the keyword you are trying to rank for within the text of the link pointing to your site. In the short term you can see meteoric increases in ranking but in the long term abuse of backlinks can lead to a penalty so difficult to lift that your only option will be to leave it for dead.

4. Everybody else is doing it

In somewhat of a defence of my fellow Canadian Ben Johnson wasn't the only one doping on that track. In fact, it has been said that 80% of all track & field athletes at the 1988 Olympics were doping and in that infamous 100m final "six of the eight finalists either tested positive or had strong links to performance-enhancing drugs at some point throughout their careers, including American Carl Lewis and eventual silver medallist Linford Christie"

[2]. At that time it was commonly said in the track & field world "if you don't take it, you won't make it"

The same thing went for unnatural link building; everybody was doing it and to achieve success for competitive keywords more times than not you had to do it. Unfortunately when in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or, in the case of SEO, when Matt Cutts and Google's Spam Team come for you the excuse that everybody else is doing it won't cut it.


So what do you think of this Link Building - Steroid analogy? Does it help you understand risk and reward of link building. Do you have a better understanding of the effects of Google's link related penalties?

Next Steps


  1. Lyle Alzado, 43, Fierce Lineman Who Turned Steroid Foe, Is Dead, New York Times, 1992, May 15
  2. Ben Johnson: An Attempt At Redemption, Sportsnet
  3. 9.79, ESPN Films: 30 for 30 documentary