Google Sandbox Effect

Is your site relatively new? Have you applied all of the best SEO advice you can find, but you’re still not ranking? Do you think you may have done something wrong? It might not be anything you’ve done; it might be the Google sandbox. Keep reading to find out what it is, and how to get out of it.

The Google sandbox or “sandbox effect” is a filter that Google applies to new websites that want to rank in the search results for specific phrases. The filter exists to prevent SEOs and spammers from easily manipulating search results by satisfying all of Google’s major offsite and onsite factors.

Signs of the sandbox include:

  • The website is outranked for clearly navigational queries (the name of the website with exclusion of www. and .com, for example “seochat”).

  • Pages do not rank for exact title matches.

  • The website ranks well for competitive queries and then drops into no man’s land to page 100+ of the SERPs, or does not show for targeted keywords at all.

  • Site ranks well in Yahoo/Live, but not Google.

There is an important difference between the sandbox and deletion from Google’s search results. While the sandbox and a Google ban can seem to be very similar, they are not. The sandbox is a filter (or so SEOs say) used by Google to prevent new websites from taking top spots on search results, while a Google ban is a complete exclusion of the website from the search results. To find out whether your website was banned or was placed in the sandbox, simply search using the following command:

site:www.yourwebsite.com

If Google shows pages from your website, it means you were sandboxed.

If you get the following message: “Your search – site:www.yourwebsite.com – did not match any documents.” – then you’re banned. If you’ve been banned, contact Google with an inclusion request, but make sure to clear out all the elements that might have caused you to get banned first.

You are not going to like the answer. Nothing. The only way out of the sandbox is to wait, however long it takes Google to release your website. How long? The answer varies, depending on who you listen to. On average you will spend six months in the sandbox. The only thing you can and should do in the meantime is develop your website.

Use this time to create content, add pages, tweak your site’s design and add in all the elements that constitute a high value destination. Look at the sandbox as the opportunity to take a website to the next level before it takes competitive spots on search results. Research your customers, find out what they value in the website and what they want to see, then take the time to develop it – be it content, tools or resources.

Why Does the Google Sandbox Exist?

Engineers from Google have officially confirmed the sandbox effect. Matt Cutts in particular has stated that what is perceived as a the sandbox is an algorithmic effect, while Aaron D’Souza have confirmed the sandbox itself, at least in the way search engine optimizers perceive it. So what’s the purpose?

Many spammers and SEOs create perfectly optimized websites, place links on those websites, and match the titles, content and other elements. In many cases those websites do not contain anything that searchers would consider helpful and useful; in fact, in most cases such websites contain nothing useful and are created for the sole purpose of taking top search spots.

If Google allowed those websites reach the top of the SERPs, the quality of its search results would go down, and user experience with it. Thus it came up with an artificial filter, which we now know as the sandbox.

New Domains vs Old Domains

It is a lot easier to rank old domains than new ones; however, when it comes to the sandbox, both new and old domains can get flagged. Here’s what I’ve noticed from my experience. These are my theories rather than facts, so take everything with a grain of salt and do your own testing.

Case One – Ranking an Old, Unoptimized Domain with Old Content

There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of websites sitting on old domains, with aged content. Their problem is lack of basic onsite and offsite search engine optimization. For example, let’s take an imaginary auto dealership website owned by Joel. Mr Joel, being a bright entrepreneur, bought a website as soon as he opened his dealership, and placed his URL on all business cards, contracts, pens etc. He basically dropped the URL wherever he could. Years have passed and his business has been doing well. Recently, Joel discovered search engine optimization and decided to take top spots on the search engines.

In the case of Joel we have an old domain to work with, along with old content and old pages. The content sitting on the domain is closely related to Joel’s keywords (which would be “car dealership” “cars” etc), and Google knows about it. Joel is not ranking simply due to lack of links and onsite SEO.

With both onsite and offsite SEO implemented Joel goes to the first page without any barriers and without getting sandboxed. Why? Because his old domain had old content that was on the same topic as his targeted keywords, and Google was aware of it. Joel did not rank before because he lacked offsite and onsite SEO. In other words, not many changes were made to the site, and Google was perfectly aware of the core topic.

Case Two – Ranking Old Domains for a New Phrase

Sometimes you purchase an old domain with a good link profile and start ranking it. You add a couple of pages, align titles with targeted keywords, throw in some copy and wait for results. The site shows up well on Google for a targeted term, but then goes into the sandbox after a few weeks. Why? Here’s what I think happened.

Let’s look at some factors. We have an old domain, with several good links from authoritative domains. In most cases those links have nothing to do with the topic you’re after (no keyword relevancy) and only pass PR power. When you add new pages and target some keywords, you’re showing out of the blue to Google in a topic category you’ve never gone for before. Google takes notice, realizes you’re a new website in that category and throws you into the sandbox. In a sense, an old domain is being treated like a new one, because the domain is new to the category and Google is aware of it.

Once the domain is out of the sandbox, however, it does have an advantage over completely new domains.

Case Three – Ranking New Domain

When ranking a newly-registered domain, do not expect any quick results. This is a fact, and we must live with it. New domains are placed into the sandbox for a probationary period. If Google allowed new domains to rank quickly, spammers would have a much easier time ranking.

Many SEOs on forums have stated that they got out of the sandbox right after they got links from highly authoritative domains in their industry. Sometimes it was just one link; in other cases, it was several links.

From that we can conclude that the only way to speed up your site’s exit from the sandbox is to get links from trusted domains.

Taking Advantage of Other Domains to Avoid the Sandbox

I have not tried this strategy, but it works according to some SEOs. If you want to launch a new website, but do not want to wait for the sandbox, then register a sub domain located on a trusted domain. New subdomains may avoid the sandbox altogether or have a considerably shorter stay. Just make sure the domain itself is good and trusted.

Another way to avoid the sandbox is to target less competitive keywords.

More Information on the Sandbox Effect

Rand Fishkin of SEO Moz has a very insightful post about the sandbox.

According to Rand of SEOMoz.org, you never "pop out" alone. It seems that Google has certain internally triggered events where a bundle of sites suffering from this issue all "emerge" to their expected rankings on the same day. You’ll sometimes see forum threads and chatter about these "sandbox releases."

Another interesting statement: it seems you can lengthen your stay in the box by exclusively attracting the more typical "low quality" links that signal manual link building campaigns, such as built-for-SEO directories, article submission sites, reciprocal links, dofollow blog comments, forum signature links, etc. (this is speculation on my part, and more correlation than causation, IMO).

Also, once in the sandbox, avoid endless title, content and link tweaking. Just make sure you’re not overoptimizing (titles too aligned with internal links, etc) and let Google do its thing.

The sandbox can drive you nuts if you don’t have patience. Again, focus on site development during this period, or purchase AdWords and start conversion optimization, so when the site finally ranks, you will have a streamlined conversion path.

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