The Google Sandbox: Fact or Fantasy?

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What is Google Sandbox?

Updated: 22nd October 2019

So as the owner of a very new domain (ahem, this one) today I am going to talk about a very controversial subject… at least it’s controversial for some. That subject is (drumroll)… the Google sandbox!

The Google sandbox is an oft discussed beast, the existence of which is analyzed, dissected and discussed by experts… much like the Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman.

Some people believe there is no such thing as the Google sandbox. Others argue they have hard anecdotal proof to put the discussion beyond academic dispute.

It’s a hotly contested topic that’s for sure!

So what is the Google sandbox and why is there such a big hoo-hah about it?

What is the Google Sandbox?

As I say, the Google sandbox is a mythical beast in the SEO world.

The theory goes that Google doesn’t trust sites that have not been active for very long and so deliberately holds them back to prevent them from ranking highly in its results pages (SERPS).

As a result, the theory explains this is the reason why new sites get VERY little organic traffic from Google in the first 6 months (and possibly even longer) after go live, even when they are beautifully coded, packed with great content and fully indexed.

Does the Google Sandbox Really Exist?

Well I’ve certainly seen with my own eyes that newly active sites take a good long while to rank for any search time, regardless of how competitive it is.

I’ve seen beautifully coded sites, with very high-quality content AND with one or two decent inbound links apparently dead in the water for months.

Is this due to a sandbox algorithm dedicated to holding back newly activated sites? Perhaps not. 

Is it likely that algorithms factoring domain importance and relevance take into consideration the activation date of a site? Quite probably… and why wouldn’t they?

If there were, we might call this a sandbox type effect.

Now… no high-profile figure from Google has publicly gone on record to say that a sandbox or sandbox-like algorithm exists (would they though?).

Quite the opposite in fact:

On August 19th 2019, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google John Mueller posted “There is no sandbox” on Twitter, in response to being asked how long it takes to get out of it.

But… on February 23rd 2013, John Mueller also stated the following in a Google Webmaster Hangout:

We have a number of algorithms that might look similar, but these are essentially just algorithms trying to understand how the website fits in with the rest of the websites trying to rank for those queries.

John Mueller – Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

He goes on to say Google has such algorithms because:

It’s always kind of tricky in the beginning when we have a new website and we don’t quite know where we should put it.

John Mueller – Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

This seems to confirm that Google doesn’t rank new sites too quickly on purpose, until they “understand” them.

Why is there a Sandbox Effect vs. an Actual Algorithm?

Google has long promoted the importance of delivering high quality results. Does a newly active site mean it doesn’t contain quality content?

Of course not.

However new sites haven’t yet proven themselves over the same duration as other sites that do rank highly… especially in competitive niches (aren’t they all these days?).

Neither has they shown themselves to use non-spam techniques in the case of link building, which perhaps is another hoop that Google wants new sites to jump through first… as a kind of trial period.

We know that Google counts links as “votes” for the relevance / importance of a website. Google rewards sites that have lots of links from other high-quality and trusted sites by bumping them up the SERPs for search queries they are relevant to.

Since it’s pretty easy to generate many thousands of links to a site using black hat techniques in order to manipulate search results, a sandbox style effect is one way to handle new sites until they’ve proven themselves as trustworthy.

Visitor Signals

Sandbox Visitor Signals

A further thing SEO experts believe is Google uses visitor signals to determine how to rank a site.

So factors like click-through rate, pages per session and average session duration help Google understand how visitors interact with a site and how successfully the site satisfies visitor searches.

By and large, new sites do not receive the volume of traffic Google requires to understand such visitor behaviour. Consequently, Google might hold new sites back until they have enough data to make a judgement about them.

Does Niche Play a Role?

A further thing to consider is the niche. Although most niches are competitive these days, some are more competitive than others!

Certain niches are very competitive and some of them require a very high level of provable expertise.

As a consequence, such niches might take far longer to rank for higher-tier keyword phrases than others.

What Can You Do to Shorten the Sandbox Effect?

All this begs a question. Since we know there is something holding new sites back, what can you do to shorten sandbox effects on them?

Indexing

Well, for any site to get traffic from Google its pages need to be in the index.

Check to see if your site is indexed by making a search in Google using the site: operator like this:

site:yoursite.com

This will return all pages from your site that Google has indexed. If you don’t see any results, your site is not indexed and you’ll need to submit your pages.

The good news is you can do this using the Google Search Console. Read my guide on how to get your pages indexed quickly.

Content

Firstly, no site new or old is going to appear high in the SERPs and generate thousands of organic visits if they don’t have a lot of content. That’s just the law of numbers!

The more pages you have on your site, the more likely it is that you will appear in searches for something, even if it’s just long-tail rather that top tier keyword searches.

For many new sites, it will be difficult to generate the sheer number of pages and posts required to start making a noise in the search results. Not only this, but content quality also plays a big role

Google is very open about the importance of high-quality content and very public about how it determines quality through its E-A-T guidelines for content raters:

  • Expertise
  • Authoritativeness
  • Trustworthiness

Read my report about the importance of content quality for tips to understand what Google is looking for.

Backlinks

Backlinks

We know how important backlinks are. For new sites with little content, it can be very difficult to win backlinks from sites that have high E-A-T scores. Even more so if the content quality on the new site does not rock.

It’s very easy to build lots of links to a new site in a relatively short period early in a site’s life. However, these will likely come from less authoritative sites and so will not pass on enough value to help the new site rocket up the results pages. That said, it doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t start link building.

Something also to bear in mind… if you could win lots of links from high ranking and established sites, the sudden appearance of lots of links like this might look unusual to Google.

Google does not like unusual backlink profiles and can determine that you’re doing something naughty and hand you a manual penalty, which won’t help matters. 

The moral of the story is that you should start link building but DO NOT BE over aggressive.

Links will help for sure, but be delicate in your approach.

Social Signals

Although we don’t know the precise details of how Google factors social signals, we know they contribute to Google’s understanding of domain popularity.

Create social media accounts if you don’t have them and start being active.

However:

Don’t start making social posts just to promote your site though. Get involved and add value to communities.

Manage Your Own Expectations

Perhaps the best thing to remind yourself is that Rome wasn’t built in a day! It takes time to generate traffic… often a LOT of time.

Accept that it may take months of regular content writing and publishing to start seeing the fruits of your labor.

Keep writing well researched posts that add value, work in social media to to build your brand and start building backlinks.

Over time, regular and consistent activity will pay results. Make a content planner / schedule and stick to it as closely as possible. This will show Google that you are serious and not some fly-by-night spammer.

SideGains and the Sandbox

At the time of posting this, SideGains is “enjoying” the sandbox effect. I put the site live at the end of July 2019 and began adding content right away.

I am now a little over two months in and traffic is very slow. However I am seeing indications that the site is slowly getting traction in the Google SERPs.

My content is not appearing high in the results, however I am gaining more impressions and visits each day. I put this down to adding regular and substantial content.

Since mid-July 2019, I’ve also been active in SideGains’ social media channels. However, as yet I’ve not tried to build links. My focus has been on producing content that adds value… and trying to produce lots of it.

I am documenting SideGains’ progress on a regular basis on my monthly stats pages.

Additionally, I’m charting this over time as a kind of project to show people what sandbox-like effects they might expect when starting their own blogs.

Google Sandbox Summary

  • The sandbox or sandbox effect is a widely accepted phenomena in the SEO community but…
  • Google representatives have explicitly said there is no sandbox algorithm.
  • Google representatives have said though that there are a number of algorithms that might look similar.
  • So, it’s a mechanism to hold back new sites from ranking high in search results, kind of like a trial period.
  • We don’t know precisely how long the sandbox effect period is, but it lasts longer for some sites than others.
  • Certain factors such as the size of a site, content quality, backlinks, site activity and social / visitor signals might help to shorten the time spent under its effects.

That’s all for now.

Paul

What are your thoughts about the Google sandbox? Please leave a comment or question below and let’s talk about it!

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