If you’ve recently launched a new website, but you don’t seem to be making progress in search engine rankings, there’s a chance you’re suffering from a Google Sandbox Penalty—otherwise known as the Google Sandbox Effect.
Or are you?
The Google Sandbox effect is a hypothetical effect that applies to new websites, preventing them from ranking in the top search results of queries related to their content, even if they have ample high-quality content and links to support high rankings. But it also happens to be one of the most contested, debated, and questioned concepts in the world of search engine optimization (SEO).
So where does the truth lie? Is the Sandbox effect real? And if it is, what can you do to combat it?
Google Sandbox is an idea that dates back to 2004. Experienced SEOs would build new sites, establish some links, write great content, and optimize for low-competition keywords—yet they wouldn’t be able to rank the way they should. To make matters more interesting, the website would rank as expected on competing search engines Yahoo! and Bing. The website would be fully indexed by Google, so indexation wasn’t an issue, yet ranking would be elusive.
What could account for this?
SEOs theorized that the mechanism responsible for this lack of ranking, or delay in ranking, was some filtering element within Google’s search ranking algorithm. This mechanism would selectively quarantine new websites and pages, relegating them to a “sandbox” area separate from more mature pages, and would prevent them from advancing in rankings the way they ordinarily would.
There are two main factors that supposedly influence the Google Sandbox penalty:
Assuming the Google Sandbox exists, why would Google do this?
There are a handful of theories. For starters, the Sandbox penalty could apply as a way to fight against spam. Without such a mechanism, SEOs and webmasters okay with black hat tactics could produce and build up new websites on a more frequent basis. The Sandbox helps to ensure that new sites are legitimate and valuable for users.
It’s also been suggested that the Sandbox effect is meant to push new webmasters toward pay per click (PPC) advertising. Imagine this scenario; you’ve started a new website, you’re excited about it, and you’ve done everything possible to increase its likelihood of ranking in search engines. Yet you’re getting little to no traffic from organic searches. At this point, the only real option to generate search traffic is with the help of paid advertising—and Google has just what you need.
This hypothesis is a bit conspiratorial, with no real evidence to back it. However, it could serve as a suitable explanation for why the effect exists (if it exists) as well as why Google is intentionally quiet about it.
There is no official word from Google that such an effect exists. The term was coined by the community, and most authorities from Google either remain silent on the matter or outright deny the existence of this effect.
For example, according to Google’s John Mueller,
it can take a bit of time for search engines to catch up with your content, and to learn to treat it appropriately. It’s one thing to have a fantastic website, but search engines generally need a bit more to be able to confirm that, and to rank your site – your content – appropriately.
Mueller suggests that the perceived Sandbox effect is merely a byproduct of Google’s need to carefully evaluate the quality and legitimacy of a website. However, this explanation doesn’t sufficiently resolve the discrepancy between Google and other search engines; are Yahoo!, Bing, and other search engines simply faster than Google at making the evaluation?
According to David George, the Sandbox effect “doesn’t seem to be borne out by experience.” In a recent book, he claims to have created a new website circa October 2004, and was able to push it to the top 20 positions in Google SERPs for a target keyword in less than a month. He does say, however, that “no one knows for sure if the Google sandbox exists,” and adds that the Sandbox penalty “seems to fit the observations and experiments of many search engine optimizers.” He further states that the Sandbox “has introduced some hysteresis into the system in order to restore a bit of sanity to Google’s results.”
George believes that the Sandbox effect may or may not exist, and that it doesn’t seem to impact his ability to get a website to rank early. He also describes it as a kind of “lag” between the development of high-quality website content and its true effects on search engine rankings.
Senior Google Engineer Matt Cutts was directly asked if the Sandbox effect was real in an interview from 2005. His summarized response is as followed: “How many feel there is a sandbox? How many feel there is no such thing as a sandbox? SEOs normally split down the line. There are some things in the algorithm that may be perceived as a sandbox that doesn’t apply to all industries. He knows it works to keep some spam out.”
According to this, there is some kind of mechanism in Google’s indexing and ranking system meant to keep out spam, and it’s more impactful for some industries than others. However, the wording here—that something could “be perceived as a sandbox”—implies that there’s not a “real” Sandbox effect as described by SEOs.
Experts and officials from Google appear somewhat divided on the subject. Anecdotal evidence doesn’t seem to be much clearer.
For example, Rand Fishkin of Moz fame claims that SEOmoz was a veritable victim of the Google Sandbox. He claimed in 2005: “I suppose it had to happen at some point. SEOmoz is finally sandbox free for the first time since our move to this domain 9 months ago. We aren’t alone, either. Many folks had sites escape, and I’m happy for all of them. It looks like our 12,000+ all-natural links (never link built for this site, just link-baited) finally paid off.”
David Law of SEO-gold.com has tested more than 20 domains over the past 15 years and has seen mixed results related to the purported Sandbox effect. Some sites were able to attain a semi-competitive position in SERPs in relatively short order, while others took a much longer time to become competitive. According to his final analysis, “Brand new domains don’t rank for over 6 months for anything competitive, if a site was registered years ago, but not developed (no backlinks) again it’s like a newly registered domain.” He adds, “the Google sandbox as first described does NOT exist, a link benefit delay does appear to exist and seems to be a delay of around 9 months to a year.”
Law’s analysis seems to be in line with what we’re hearing elsewhere; new sites seem to have difficulty getting to a competitive position for the first several months of their existence, but a Sandbox penalty (as popularly understood) is unlikely to be the culprit.
As you can see, even top experts are unable to come to a definitive conclusion about whether the Sandbox effect is “real.”
Interestingly, some experts have asserted that there is a “Reverse” Sandbox effect in Google. The idea here is that Google intentionally gives a boost to new websites, on a temporary and sometimes inconsistent basis, to artificially promote them.
You can think of this as serving the same function as a “New Releases” section in a bookstore or streaming service. It’s meant to draw attention to websites that might otherwise go unnoticed for long periods of time; this way, Google can evaluate things like click-through rates (CTR) and onsite user behavior.
Again, your mileage may vary on this. Some websites seem to have a somewhat obvious boost in search rankings and organic traffic in their first few months, while others seem to gain nothing. No matter what, traffic seems to be volatile for new domains.
If the Sandbox effect isn’t real, what could account for the volatility that SEOs and new webmasters are seeing (often referred to as the “Google Dance”)?
There are a handful of potential explanations, including:
So assuming the Google Sandbox (or something like it) is real, what can you do to avoid it?
The short answer is that you can’t avoid it. If it applies to your website and your industry, there’s nothing you can do to remove the initial delay in rankings. SEO is a long-term strategy, taking months of development before you start to see the full effects, so a delay of a few months shouldn’t stand in the way of your long-term prospects. It’s important to continue writing excellent content, optimizing for target keywords, and building offsite links consistently—even with the Sandbox supposedly in play. Be patient, and eventually the sandbox will be a non-issue.
There is one tactic you can use to avoid the Google Sandbox effect altogether: buying an existing domain with established authority. Remember, the Sandbox appears to apply only to websites that are relatively new. If you purchase a domain that has had indexed pages in Google for many months, and/or one with a moderate domain authority, you can effectively “skip” the Google Sandbox and begin optimizing and ranking normally.
The Google Sandbox effect may truly exist, or it might not. Either way, it seems that new domains have a harder time ranking than established domains, and this effect might be stronger for websites in certain industries. Even if there were no such effect, you would still need to invest months of effort to meaningfully climb rankings with a new domain.
You can bypass the supposed Sandbox by purchasing an established domain. Otherwise, your best bet is to follow best practices for SEO in general. As long as you’re focused on quality, with effective competitive targets, eventually you should see the results you want.
Are you interested in starting an SEO campaign, or improving your existing campaign? Do you need help getting past the initial ranking hurdles associated with a new site? Contact us for a free consultation today!