Google's Sandbox

Charles Michael
If you've been dabbling in search engine optimization the past few months, you may have noticed it has become much more difficult to get your listings into Google's index. Well, you're not alone. The fact is there have been endless discussions on SEO forums about the possible theories that Google has been imposing penalties against various sites, particularly brand-new pages and sites that acquire a large number of links in relatively short time.

The "Google sandbox" theory is very similar to placing a web page on probation and artificially keeping the page lower than expected in search results for a certain amount of time. The end result is that these sites lose out on a large share of potential surfers.

Although it is thought by many SEOs that the sandbox was designed to curb spammers' efforts of manipulating Google's listings, it is clear that the same effect is preventing legitimate webmasters from obtaining fair market share. And while the Google sandbox does index new sites into its database, pages rarely show up for the intended keywords webmasters are trying to capture. Typically, it's the obscure keywords such as the company/website name that will appear but will not show well for other phrases that are relevant to the site.

The sandbox theory also suggests that older and established sites that suddenly obtain hundreds or even thousands of links from other sites can be sent to the Google sandbox. Obtaining links in this fashion and especially in large quantities is typically the result of some sort of link trading scheme or the purchase of multitudes of text links for the sole purpose of manipulating the page rank value. This type of manipulation is exactly what Google is trying to curtail, but it also circumvents legitimate websites from entering the Google index. Whether or not your site is optimized seems to not matter either. Those who base their jobs on optimizing sites have driven themselves to the brink of insanity trying to adapt to Google's sandbox with little to no success.

It is widely thought that the sandbox effect was implemented sometime in spring 2004. It was around this time that many webmasters began noticing it took several weeks for Google to index their sites on the more competitive keywords. Despite having a strong network of inbound links, good optimization practices and a strong page rank, webmasters noticed that their relative positions were obscure and ranked poorly compared with those sites that were dominating the rankings.

The average time frame that sites stay in the sandbox is anywhere from 3-16 weeks, often depending on how competitive a keyword is (the more competitive the keyword, the longer the stay in the sandbox). The average stay seems to be hovering around the 8-10 week period for most webmasters, and although the situation seems bleak, there are quite a few strategies that webmasters can do to help expedite the sandbox process.

Breaking Free
Although the best way to get out of the sandbox is to simply wait it out, there are a few techniques to help the process along. First off, understand that this penalty is Google's way of blocking spammers. As a result, your site should be as clean as possible: Refrain from using any spam techniques such as hiding text, using invisible links or trading links with link farms. Only use ethical techniques, and don't try to circumvent Google's spam filters.

Next, continue to add keyword-rich content to your pages on an ongoing basis. Even though your site is in the sandbox, it is not banned. Google is spidering your site on an ongoing basis, and if it sees a steady flow of new pages being added that are relevant to your site, you have a better chance of getting out of the sandbox sooner. Also, continue seeking link trades with sites that are relevant to yours. Don't necessarily go after those sites with the highest page rank (as they could be in the sandbox as well), but go after sites that are contextually related to yours. Ideally, trading links with an authority site, or a site that is not in the sandbox will significantly help.

Make sure your on-site optimization is up to par, ensuring that your title and header tags match the most important keywords for that page. Similarly, make sure that your off-site optimization is geared toward your target keywords, such as ensuring that your anchor text matches your most important keywords.

Another suggestion I'd like to throw out there is implementing a Google site map. By creating a sitemap, webmasters can create a weighted mapping of their site so that Google can understand the hierarchy of the website. Although this doesn't mean Google will send more traffic to your core pages, it does make it easier for Google to understand the flow and layout of your site instead of equally weighing each page individually.

In summary, be sure your sites are optimized and continuously add content and relevant links on a gradual basis, and you should minimize your waiting period in the sandbox. Finally, remember patience is a virtue. Eventually your website will get out of the sandbox, and a whole new stream of traffic will be available.

In 2006, expect to continue seeing search engine giants monetizing on contextual advertising as well as the selling of links on relevant web pages such as Google's AdSense. Yahoo already is experimenting with a beta version of its own contextual product, and MSN is working on implementing its own pay-per-click system.

It's clear that the search engines are trying to monetize on their traffic base, and we can expect this effort to continue into 2006.

Additionally, we also can expect MSN to gain a significant market share by mid-year once Microsoft releases its new operating system, Microsoft Vista. It should come as no surprise that Microsoft will be integrating web search directly into the operating system.