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Does the Google Sandbox Exist, and what is it?

  • Whether you are an experienced optimizer or someone who occasionally dabbles in getting their web site search engine rankings up, you will have no doubt heard of the term 'Google Sandbox'. In this article, I hope shed some light as to what this is, whether it exists, and what one can do during this timeout period.

    What is the Google Sandbox?
    Basically the sandbox effects appear to be a Google ranking filter that was added in early 2004. The sandbox filter affects almost all new web sites that were launched after this period. The net result is that the new web site is not able to rank for its competitive keywords and key phrases. Even sites containing well written and original content, solid inbound links and a high Google Page Rank are not exempt from the filter. Bear in mind, there has been much debate as to whether the sandbox actually exists or not, but most industry experts would agree that there is some dampening filter applied to newly launched sites.

    What the reason for the Sandbox?
    In an effort to combat spam and buying your site to the top, Google's filter essentially places all new sites in a probationary period, and is kept lower than expected in the search rankings. When the SEO industry started to understand the basic elements of Google's ranking algorithm, spammers soon begun to realize they could develop a site and have it rise to the top quickly. These spam sites often stay at the top for a few months before eventually getting banned, but by then, the spam webmasters have made enough money off their sites to justify starting all over again.

    Sites that undergo an excessive optimization campaign also seem to fall prey to the filter. The rate of incoming links or keyword stuffing for example, may trip an over-optimization flag and send the web site into the sandbox.

    Reported effects of the Sandbox
    There seems to be certain trends with regards to webmasters experiences of the sandbox, of which the most common are listed,

    1. A newly launched site may sometimes rank very well initially, but is eventually buried deep in the SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages).

    2. The sandbox duration appears to be correlated to the competitiveness of the keyword. The more competitive your keyword/s, the longer the stay. Typically, the sandbox effect is in place anywhere from 3 months up to a year!

    3. Your site is ranking very well with other search engines (e.g. Yahoo or MSN), but is nowhere to be found on Google.

    4. Official TLD sites like .gov, .mil and .edu do not seem to be affected by the sandbox. These sites are by definition, trusted sites.

    5. You find your site ranking well on less or non-competitive keywords only.

    6. A Google search using alllinanchor: keyword, allintext: keyword, allintitle: keyword, or allinurl: keyword will return the site in its 'actual' position.

    7. Upon release from the sandbox, the site is then given full ranking value for its content and inbound links. This 'release' appears to send traffic from Google almost instantly.

    What can I do during the sandbox period
    So, armed with the knowledge of what the filter is, what can one do during the probationary timeout? Here are some methods to using the sandbox filter to your advantage.

    1. Continue to write and publish solid original content. Good content usually implies a certain level of helpfulness and/or site stickiness for visitors to your site. After all, the whole purpose of search engines is to return results that are highly relevant and useful.

    2. Continue to build links to your site. Remember to use your desired keywords in the anchor text, but be sure to vary them to avoid the over optimization penalty.

    3. Build traffic by other means, such as posting articles on other sites, developing a community of visitors (e.g. forums) and partnering up with similarly themed web sites that sends traffic both ways.

    By doing the above, you have just given your web site every possible opportunity for ranking well in Google once the site is released.

    Is it possible to avoid the sandbox?
    There have been reported cases of web sites that seemingly avoided the sandbox. For example a web site getting a huge amount of links and coverage in trusted sites (e.g. BBC News, CNN or .gov sites). However, there has yet to be a defined situation or case study that can be reasonably applied. To this end, we present a method that does seem to be the most practical.

    With proper time management and planning, the sandbox can be avoided to some degree by launching a basic version of your web site with some content and inbound links. While the site endures low rankings, it will at least start the clock ticking on its sandbox duration time, while you continue working on the actual site design and functionality development. Continue to periodically add new content and links to keep things fresh on the 'dummy' site. By the time you are ready to upload the intended version, you will have hopefully run down most of the probationary sandbox period.

    Unconfirmed theories of the sandbox
    In this section, I will present several sandbox theories,

    1. Sandbox filter measures the age of inbound links as opposed to the age of the domain. This is debatable, but I have seen many examples of web sites that have been around for a long time, but never been properly developed or optimized. Upon receiving the optimization treatment, the sites are 'thrown' into the sandbox, irregardless of the domains age.

    2. Several webmasters and SEO experts have noticed that .org domains do not stay as long in the sandbox as opposed to its more commercial brethren (.com, .net, .info). This is probably a weaker theory however.

    3. Web sites that get links and online coverage from trusted sites such as Reuters, CNN, and .gov and .edu sites seems to 'release' a site from the sandbox. This can be perceived to be true on a certain level, as it usually indicates that the recipient site in question is a high quality site. However, this method remains unconfirmed.

    While the sandbox will be perceived as a painful distraction by many webmasters, remember that it is not permanent and its main goal is to reduce search engine spam. It does not prevent people from succeeding. You should continue to build your site with solid original content, inbound links and an onsite community. The end result will be a quality site that Google cannot refuse.

    Visualscope Studios is a Seattle based web design and marketing firm offering professional advice and application of Search Engine Optimization techniques.

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