Feature Article (Pub: January 06) The Google Sandbox Theoryby Paul Rudman
In the past few years a semi-mythical beast has reared it's head in the world of search engine optimisation and the building of new web sites, it's referred to as the Google Sandbox effect.
The principle behind this theory is that new web sites can be penalised - or rather prevented from achieving the same success in the Google rankings as more established web sites. SEO paranoia or a genuine occurrence? At this point let's just make it clear that this article - like every other article on the Sandbox theory - is just that, a theory. No-one outside Google understands the precise nature of the Googlebot algorithm, and if for one second somebody did have this knowledge, you can be sure that the brains in the Google nerve centre would pretty quickly switch it... and sue.
What is obvious is that when brand new web sites are created, there does seem to follow a pattern with some of them this being:-
- Web site goes live
- Googlebot follows a link and indexes a few web pages
- Googlebot indexes the entire site over a period of a few weeks
- Site indexing appears erratic over the first month or two (some days only home page will appear indexed)
- Site appears at the bottom of the search engine listings for important phrases, however niche
Now this last step is where the Sandbox theory comes in, the idea that there is almost a ranking limitation placed on new sites to prevent them appearing above more established web sites for a set period of time, commonly regarded as 9-12 months.
If you were to put logic forward for why this occurs, perhaps it is because it is so easy and cheap now to create a new web site, whereas longevity suggests you have given your web site lots of love and cuddles, and the new web sites have yet to prove that they have staying-power.
The flip side to this argument is that why should all new web sites be tarred with the same brush as being fly-by-night sites that are likely to disappear tomorrow? And even if they were, that isn't to mean they don't contain interesting and relevant content for today's search engine users. After all, with Google spidering websites every week or two, it wouldn't be long before a quickly defunct web site was spidered, Google realised it had disappeared and it was dropped from the index again.
Of course, from the outside we don't know what has prompted this decision to create this ranking limitation on some web sites and why it affects some web sites more than others. Perhaps having done extensive research on user search behaviour they have discovered that people prefer more established sites, in the same way you place your trust in a brand that has been established for longer and has proven itself to be a trusted web site.
Some of the facts in the Sandbox theory debate are as follows:-
- Some web sites struggle to get good placements for niche phrases when the site is new
- Google are believed to place emphasis on site longevity when providing rankings
- Google are believed to place emphasis on length of subscription to a domain name
While the guys over at Google have denied there is such as thing as the Sandbox, what they do not deny is that there could be a limitation to the ranking placements on some new websites. Of course, if they had to deny every potential rumour and theory, how would they find the time to attempt to hijack Microsoft? So like every conspiracy theory this has to be taken with a pinch of salt, especially as the controlled conditions needed to establish this theory and it's impact are virtually impossible to achieve. For example, all content the same, launched and spidered on the same day, maybe one domain purchased for 5 years but one domain only purchased for 1 year. You'd then risk the problem of duplicated content from Google which could then penalise the sites, negating the controlled conditions you were trying to create in the first place.
As a web site owner or SEO it is essential to bear this possible problem in mind when launching a new and optimised web site.
Don't necessarily think that because your web site is the best thing since sliced atoms that you are going to find yourself king of the Google castle, and that getting good rankings takes a lot of hard work and high quality unique content. Plan your early web site days without Google traffic and view anything you get in the first few months as a bonus, focus on building up the site and its presence, and one day Google will forgive you for being born and let you experience the riches of delivering it's search traffic to your site - it might not be quick but it will be worth it.
Paul Rudman is the director and head of optimisation at Commercetuned, he's been involved in developing search strategies and search engine optimisation for 7 years.