Google Sandbox: Frequently Asked Questions

Webmasters and SEOs trying to achieve a strong rank in Google want to understand the Google Sandbox. What is it? Does it really exist? Is there a way to avoid it entirely? Wayne Hurlbert takes you through most of what you ever wanted to know about the Sandbox, but didn’t know who to ask.

What is the Google Sandbox?

The Google Sandbox is an alleged filter placed on new websites. The result is that a site does not receive good rankings for its most important keywords and keyword phrases. Even with good content, abundant incoming links and strong Google PageRank, a site is still adversely affected by the Sandbox effect. The Sandbox acts as a de facto probation for sites, possibly to discourage spam sites from rising quickly, getting banned, and repeating the process.

How would you describe the Google Sandbox in one sentence?

The Google Sandbox is very similar to a new website being placed on probation, and kept lower than expected in searches, prior to being given full value for its incoming links and content.

Why did Google institute a Sandbox?

It is thought that the reason Google created the Sandbox new site filter was to stop spam related sites from adding numerous purchased links–and ranking highly for their keywords from the date of launch. Since Google apparently considers a high number of links pointing to a site from the beginning to be rather suspicious, the links are not considered to be natural. Another possibility is spam sites would use various tactics to rise to the top of the search results, and gain heavy sales prior to being banned for being in violation of Google’s Terms of Service; and then repeating the process continually. As a result, new sites are put into a form of probation, usually referred to as the Google Sandbox.

Not everyone agrees that the Google Sandbox exists as a separate filter from other alleged Google filters. Not everyone involved with search engine optimization even agrees that Google uses a system of filters at all. Skeptics believe that the phenomenon merely echoes already existing Google algorithm calculations, and the Sandbox effect is an illusion.

When did the Google Sandbox first appear?

Website owners and search engine optimization professionals began to notice the Google Sandbox effect, real or imagined, starting in March, 2004. Websites launched after that date were noticed to not be ranking well for their first few months live on the Internet. The rankings were seen as poor despite good Google PageRanks, strong incoming link totals, and overall good optimization practices being employed.

What types of sites are placed in the Sandbox?

While all types of sites can be placed in the Sandbox, the problem appears much more frequently for new websites seeking rankings for highly competitive keyword phrases. All sites may spend some time in the Sandbox, but those websites seeking rankings in highly competitive searches are probably in for a much longer duration.

You can avoid having your site in the Sandbox for several reasons. If your site was launched before the March 2004 Sandbox filter, your site probably avoided the problem. Sites targeting non-competitive keywords and phrases are often left out of the Sandbox as there is little point in applying the filter. Keep in mind, however, that even less competitive search terms can be Sandboxed, but their much shorter stay can often go entirely unnoticed. If you had ownership of a domain prior to the installation of the Sandbox filter, your site might also be spared its probationary period.

How long is a site in the Sandbox?

Stays in the Sandbox can vary from one to six months, with three to four months being the normal time frame. Less competitive searches will be given the much shorter stay, while hyper-competitive keywords will often spend six months in the Box. The most frequent length of stay is about three months for most search terms.

Are there variable lengths of stay in the Sandbox?

The stay in the Sandbox is highly variable. The more competitive the keyword, the longer the site spends in the Sandbox. The filter will be gradually decreased over time, and will lose most of its dampening effect in about three months. Of course, for the most competitive search phrases, the Sandbox filter might remain in full force for six months.

How do I know if I am in the Sandbox?

You can look for evidence of Sandbox activity. Does your site have a  strong Google PageRank, along with good incoming links? Does it get excellent search results in some secondary search phrases? Then, if your site is still nowhere to be found for the most important searches,  it is likely the site has been placed in the Sandbox.

If a site were suffering from a Google penalty, the site would not appear in the Google search engine results pages (SERPs) for even the less important searches. The site would also show no PageRank — not  even a grey bar on the Google Toolbar.

I still rank well for some less important keywords. Why?

One of the most important characteristics, and indeed one of the marks of being in the Sandbox, is the continuation of strong placements for less important keywords. The alleged Sandbox filter is apparently designed to concern itself with the more competitive keywords since they are more likely to have spam sites, purchased and other links Google deems unnatural, and probably more manipulation attempts being made. That is far less likely in unimportant and non-competitive keywords, so they are generally left alone and out of the Sandbox filter.

If I join Google AdWords or Google Adsense, will that prevent being placed in the Sandbox?

Joining programs like Google Adwords and Google Adsense will have no effect on your site’s duration in the Sandbox. Those paid programs could provide much needed traffic while your site remains in the depths of the Sandbox, however. Participation in the various Google advertising programs will not keep your site out of Sandbox, or shorten your stay, despite what some myths would have you believe.

Are there any other Google filters that act similarly to the Sandbox?

The alleged dampening filter on new incoming links is often mistaken for the Sandbox. It’s thought by many search engine optimization experts that new incoming links are not given immediate full credit. The purpose of that gradual passing along of Google PageRank and link popularity is to discourage purchasing of links, as well as various linking schemes designed only to increase a site’s standing in the Google search rankings.

The only real escape from the Sandbox is time. Depending on the competitiveness of your most important keywords, that time can vary from one to six months, with three to four months being the normal duration. In the meantime, continue to improve your site, and be prepared to make a rapid rise once the Sandbox probation ends.

What should I do while my site is still buried in the Sandbox?

While your site is in the Sandbox, it’s an ideal time to continue to add fresh keyword rich content and new incoming links to your site. Adding incoming links will ensure that they also avoid any possible new link dampening filter that might be in effect. They would be well aged and ready to pass along their full value of PageRank and link popularity as the site rises from the depths of the Sandbox.

Should I continue to add content to my site while it’s in the Sandbox?

Your website’s stay in the Sandbox is an ideal time to add more theme relevant content. Concentrate on adding more keyword rich pages, and don’t forget both on-page and off-page factors. On the page, make sure your title tags match the most important keywords for that page. Add a site map and make sure that all of your pages link properly to one another with appropriate link anchor text containing the keywords for that page. Off-page link anchor text should be set up to include keywords for the receiving page as well. Don’t waste any of your available site improvement time while in the Sandbox. When the filter is lifted, your improved site will rise rapidly to its proper place at the top of the search rankings.

Should I keep getting new links to my website?

The Sandbox is an ideal time to start adding incoming links to your site. Because of the alleged new links dampening filter, adding links while in the Sandbox addresses two filters at once. If the newly added links are indeed dampened by a filter, then their full value should take effect just as your site emerges from the Sandbox. Be sure to add strong keyword rich anchor text to your incoming links, and vary it to include several keyword combinations.

Only time can get your site out of the Sandbox. The duration in the sandbox tends to vary with the perceived competitiveness of the keyword phrase. That said, there are ways to hasten your rise to the top of the SERPs upon release of the Sandbox filter. By adding some powerful incoming links, with strong link anchor text, and by adding keyword rich relevant content, your site will rise quickly from the Sandbox. Note that the rise will take effect upon the removal of your site’s Sandbox probationary period.

When my site started out of the Sandbox, its search rankings were still low. Is that normal?

Your rankings could remain weak for more than one reason. As a Sandbox survivor, your site was not in the rankings at all for your most important keywords. There is still a long climb ahead of you, and much work to do to achieve strong search placements. While your site is freed from the Sandbox, it may lack strong incoming links and good link anchor text. It may require more keyword rich theme relevant content. Fortunately, all of these problems can be resolved, and your site can continue its rise to the top of the SERPs.

How long is the climb to the proper search ranking after leaving the Sandbox?

The length of time required to achieve your site’s proper ranking is difficult to quantify, since so many variables get taken into consideration. If you have been adding incoming links from theme relevant websites that are covered with strong anchor text, your rise will be much faster than someone who has not continued to add inbound links. Constantly adding keyword rich content will also assist your site’s rise to search prominence. Of course, the more competitive the keywords you are contesting, the longer and harder the climb.

How can I avoid being placed in the Sandbox in the first place?

The Sandbox can be avoided to a degree by purchasing a website and making it live before it is fully ready for prime time. While the site will endure low rankings, it will start the clock ticking on its Sandbox duration time. Be sure to add as many incoming links as possible to get past the alleged new links filter. Keep adding content to your site. Anything that can be done to speed up your site’s appearance on the Internet, including the purchase of an already existing domain, should be considered. If you have time working in your site’s favor, it can be applied against your possible stay in the Sandbox. With proper time management, a site can avoid the Sandbox entirely.

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