Ok, so over past month or so I've been collecting various search engine optimization questions from all of you. Today, I'm going to answer what was most frequently asked question over past month.
You guessed it... What is Google Sandbox Theory and how do I escape it? When you finish reading this lesson, you'll be an expert on good 'ole Google Sandbox Theory and you'll know how to combat its effects. So, pay close attention. This is some very important stuff.
Before I start explaining what Google Sandbox theory is, let me make a few things clear:
The Google Sandbox theory is just that, a theory, and is without official confirmations from Google or benefit of years of observation.
The Google Sandbox theory has been floating around since summer 2004, and has only really gained steam after February 4, 2005 , after a major Google index update (something known as old Google dance).
Without being able to verify existence of a Sandbox, much less its features, it becomes very hard to devise strategies to combat its effects.
Almost everything that you will read on Internet on Google Sandbox theory is conjecture, pieced together from individual experiences and not from a wide-scale objective controlled experiment with hundreds of websites (something that would obviously help in determining nature of Sandbox, but is inherently impractical given demand on resources).
Thus, as I'll be discussing towards end, it's important that you focus on ‘good' search engine optimization techniques and not place too much emphasis on quick ‘get-out-of-jail' schemes which are, after all, only going to last until next big Google update.
What is Google Sandbox Theory?
There are several theories that attempt explain Google Sandbox effect. Essentially, problem is simple. Webmasters around world began to notice that their new websites, optimized and chock full of inbound links, were not ranking well for their selected keywords.
In fact, most common scenario to be reported was that after being listed in SERPS (search engine results pages) for a couple of weeks, pages were either dropped from index or ranked extremely low for their most important keywords.
This pattern was tracked down to websites that were created (by created I mean that their domain name was purchased and website was registered) around March 2004. All websites created around or after March 2004 were said to be suffering from Sandbox effect.
Some outliers escaped it completely, but webmasters on a broad scale had to deal with their websites ranking poorly even for terms for which they had optimized their websites to death.
Conspiracy theories grew exponentially after February 2005 update, codenamed ‘Allegra' (how these updates are named I have no clue), when webmasters began seeing vastly fluctuating results and fortunes. Well-ranked websites were loosing their high SERPS positions, while previously low-ranking websites had gained ground to rank near top for their keywords.
This was a major update to Google's search engine algorithm, but what was interesting was apparent ‘exodus' of websites from Google Sandbox. This event gave strongest evidence yet of existence of a Google Sandbox, and allowed SEO experts to better understand what Sandbox effect was about.
Possible explanations for Google Sandbox effect
A common explanation offered for Google Sandbox effect is ‘Time Delay' factor. Essentially, this theory suggests that Google releases websites from Sandbox after a set period of time. Since many webmasters started feeling effects of Sandbox around March-April 2004 and a lot of those websites were ‘released' in ‘Allegra' update, this ‘website aging' theory has gained a lot of ground.
However, I don't find much truth in ‘Time Delay' factor because by itself, it's just an artificially imposed penalty on websites and does not improve relevancy (the Holy Grail for search engines). Since Google is de facto leader of search engine industry and is continuously making strides to improve relevancy in search results, tactics such as this do not fit in with what we know about Google.
Contrasting evidence from many websites has shown that some websites created before March 2004 were still not released from Google Sandbox, whereas some websites created as late as July 2004 managed to escape Google Sandbox effect during ‘Allegra' update. Along with shattering ‘Time Delay' theory, this also raises some interesting questions. This evidence has led some webmasters to suggest a ‘link threshold' theory; once a website has accumulated a certain amount of quantity/quality inbound links, it is released from Sandbox.
While this might be closer to truth, this cannot be all there is to it. There has been evidence of websites who have escaped Google Sandbox effect without massive link-building campaigns. In my opinion, link-popularity is definitely a factor in determining when a website is released from Sandbox but there is one more caveat attached to it.
This concept is known as ‘link-aging'. Basically, this theory states that websites are released from Sandbox based on ‘age' of their inbound links. While we only have limited data to analyze, this seems to be most likely explanation for Google Sandbox effect.
The link-ageing concept is something that confuses people, who usually consider that it is website that has to age. While conceptually, a link to a website can only be as old as website itself, yet if you have don't have enough inbound links after one year, common experience has it that you will not be able to escape from Google Sandbox. A quick hop around popular SEO forums (you do visit SEO forums, don't you?) will lead you to hundreds of threads discussing various results – some websites were launched in July 2004 and escaped by December 2004. Others were stuck in Sandbox even after ‘Allegra' update.
How to find out if your website is ‘Sandboxed'
Finding out if your website is ‘Sandboxed' is quite simple. If your website does not appear in any SERPS for your target list of keywords, or if your results are highly depressing (ranked somewhere on 40 th page) even if you have lots of inbound links and almost-perfect on-page optimization, then your website has been Sandboxed.