The Sandbox Effect: Not a Nice Place to Play

Wayne Hurlbert eloquently offers calming advice to webmasters who are stuck in the Sandbox. To help allay the confusion some may feel when their SERPs drop after their site was ranking well, Hurlbert lists ways to take advantage of the hiatus to improve your site and turn something that seems like a detriment into an asset.


Despite its pleasant sounding name, the so-called Sandbox Effect is more like quicksand than a playground to many webmasters.

Named for the phenomenon of new websites being held back, in the search engine results pages (SERPs) by leading search engine Google, the Sandbox Effect has many website owners upset. When a new website is indexed in Google, it often receives what many observers consider to be a new site bonus. The brand new site will rocket to the top of the SERPs charts for a brief, shining moment. From there, it’s all downhill.

After the initial glorious days at the top of the search rankings for the most important keywords, the site finds itself so deeply buried in the Google SERPs as to be almost non-existent. Even though the website may have strong Google PageRank, many powerful and themed incoming links, and good content, the site will still feel the dampening effect of the Sandbox.

While the website is buried deeply in the sand at Google, the same site may enjoy strong search rankings, for the same keyword phrases in Yahoo and MSN Search. The Sandbox Effect appears to be a Google only event.

You need to examine what you can do to get out of the Sandbox. How you can use the time spent in the sandy desert, can help your site explode back into the SERPs when the damper is removed.

The Sandbox Effect appears to be a search ranking damping filter, applied by Google, to sites for their first two to four months after the initial launch “fresh site bonus”. The bonus for brand new sites is to appear very highly in the SERPs for a short time, based on Google’s preference for fresh content.

As formerly new content ages slightly, the Sandbox filter kicks in. That is the Sandbox Effect. The average length of time for a site to remain trapped in the sand is about ninety days, although stays in the holding pattern lasting four months, are not uncommon.

Most sites appear to share the damping down effect, regardless of keyword category. The Sandbox filter appears to apply to all sites, whether or not they have many incoming links or not. Having well themed links appears to make little difference either. Content rich sites also get mired in the quicksand. Because of the near universality of the Sandbox, it must be part of Google’s algorithm.

What is the Purpose of the Sandbox?

Many observers believe the purpose of the Sandbox filter is to discourage unscrupulous webmasters from using practices that are against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Some of the techniques that Google is attempting to disrupt are the use of throw away spam sites to build early traffic, and to slow down the purchase of expired domain names to get a jump start from any pre-existing Google PageRank.

Short-term link renting and placement, until more permanent links are added, will not provide much benefit for a new site. The possibility also exists that Google doesn’t give full PageRank benefit during the first few months that a site is indexed. The non-crediting of PageRank form of dampening effect would lower the value of incoming links to expired domain names.

Such a scenario would logically follow, if Google is attempting to prevent widespread purchase of expired domains. The Google toolbar might read PR7, for example, but the algorithm could credit zero PageRank value to the site’s search placement. That, of course, would be a rather extreme position for Google to take on the matter.

Another practice Google may be discouraging is spam sites. If a pure spammer can’t rank well within the first few months of operation, they may close their spam site down. Discouraging spammers has long been a Google goal.

Any allegedly good intentions on Google’s part, however, sideswipe sites that are employing nothing against the guidelines as well. Many webmasters, especially those entirely oblivious to search engine optimization entirely, often are very confused by what has happened. They see good rankings in Yahoo and MSN Search, for example, and think they are not included in Google’s index for some reason. Many others mistakenly believe that they have unknowingly triggered a Google penalty.

Another practice Google may be attempting to dampen is the purchase of links to gain initial PageRank. The people at Google may feel that a site should develop natural linking over time. They may not consider purchased links to be part of that natural website evolution. On the other hand, sites with only a few natural links, experience the same Sandbox dampening effect.

It is entirely possible as well, that a website is not placed in the Sandbox, but rather it’s the links that are being monitored. The algorithm could consider the age of the links, their source website, the range of Internet providers hosting the links, and the overall link diversity in general. Either way, the result is the same. The website fails to rank as highly as expected.

If your website has just entered the Sandbox, it’s best to not panic. Google has not imposed a penalty on your site. You already know that your site has been indexed by Google. Instead, it’s simply a natural, if a somewhat bewildering and upsetting part, of Google’s algorithm. It can be an especially bitter pill to swallow, if the site had entered the SERPs, highly ranked from the new site bonus effect.

Treat the Sandbox stay as an opportunity to improve your site. Add as much fresh content to your site as possible. In the long run, Google always rewards content. Larger sites that feature more content pages will always rank highly as well. A fatal error for your website would be to stop adding content while under the Sandbox damper. That can happen to you if you think that your site was penalized, or will never rank well for your most important keywords.

Use the time in the quicksand to add incoming links to your website. If you intend to employ a link exchange strategy, now is a good time to do it. Seek out sites that are related to the main theme and topics of your website for cooperative efforts. Link out to interesting and helpful sites for your own visitors and potential customers. Linking to good sites can help, in the longer term, toward turning your site into a hub or an authority site. Since you have little to lose in the SERPs, the filtered time is a great time to start.

Submit to the various Internet directories, including The Open Directory Project, better known as DMOZ. Seek out useful directories as good sources of one-way links, additional PageRank, and potential visitor traffic. Because of the time lag between directory submission and inclusion, the Sandbox time period is an ideal time for directory submissions. Since not having the directory links isn’t hurting your site while it’s in the Sandbox, adding them will help your site make tremendous leaps in the SERPs, once the filter has been removed.

Develop other promotional and marketing ideas for your website to raise and maintain traffic levels during your time in the sand. Both online and offline promotional techniques will provide much needed visitors while Google is providing very limited numbers. An added bonus from this concept is your marketing and promotional activities will continue to boost your website visitor traffic in the long run, even when your site leaves the sand trap.

Since being placed in the Sandbox is inevitable, the best thing to do is prepare for the inevitability. Your goal is to lessen the damage, along with using the time to your best advantage. To keep the Sandbox filter from causing severe harm to your online, and even your offline business, be certain to plan ahead.

One technique, to avoid spending too long in the sand, is to purchase and register a domain name and park it. By placing the domain on a parked basis, some of the sand time will be run through the Google hourglass, by the time your site is ready for launch. During the time period of your parked domain, you can be preparing content when your site goes public.

Plan the time of your website launch to have the Sandbox time period passed when your site is needing high search engines rankings the most. If your site is a retail site, the last thing you need is to be filtered during the Christmas holiday shopping season. Plan for entering the Sandbox by putting your site live at least three months earlier than expected. By doing so, the dampening effect will already have been removed, in time for the busy retail season.

Carefully timing your website launch date is important for all seasonal websites. If it’s important that your site be topping the SERPs, during a special time frame, take the Sandbox dampening period into consideration.

Conclusion

Google has placed a dampening filter in its search algorithm, which holds back new sites for three or four months, following the initial fresh site bonus.

The so-called Sandbox Effect places new websites into a brief moratorium, where they will not rank well, if they appear at all, in the SERPs.

Because the Sandbox appears to affect every new website, the onus is on the webmaster to plan for it happening to them. To counter the Sandbox, website owners are encouraged to carefully select their launch date to limit the damage.

During the sojourn in the sand, a tremendous opportunity exists to add content and incoming links to your website. That time period affords you the chance to find additional links, optimize your site, and submit to the many Internet directories.

With a little planning, and using your time in Sandbox hiatus wisely, your site can burst forth from the filter to the top of the rankings for your keywords.

The Sandbox appears to be a reality. You must be prepared to dig in that sand to help your website.

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