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Google's Effect on New Domains

Google sandbox effect (a new SEO term introduced relatively recently – approx middle of the 2004) is one of those amazing topics everybody talks about, though nobody really knows or understands what it is.

The Obvious

Some people think that is means that a new site can't be found anywhere in Google even for the most useless and exotic terms one could invent. They will tell you "My site is not sandboxed" and show their rankings for terms nobody would ever think of typing into the search engine. Well, if the site ranks in the TOP 10 even for such terms, it is a good sign, because it shows that Google doesn't apply any deadly filter to it, and the site has good chances to improve its situation in the future. But it doesn't mean it won't have to encounter the problem that has become so typical with new domains launched after March 2004 or about that time.

By mid-summer 2004, people involved in SEO activities as professional SEOs or in-house amateur promoters, all started talking of a new tendency in Google that hadn't been so noticeable before. They were complaining about the impossibility of achieving good rankings for their brand-new sites in Google (though they did fine in MSN and Yahoo!) even though they were very active in link building (through buying or exchanging links aggressively as was the norm with SEO at that moment). Of course, the first conclusion they drew was this: Google decided to discourage over-aggressive SEOs and sandboxed the sites that were jump-starting their link campaigns. That's how the "sandbox" term was born.

This theory stuck in humans' minds, and many people still think that sandbox is only applied to new websites that start building links too aggressively from the first day. But later events showed that life wasn't that simple.

New websites that never tried overly aggressive link building techniques, experienced problems with rankings in Google just like link chasers' websites. All attempts to make initial link building slower than slow didn't help. Still, the sites were invisible in their targeted (mildly competitive) SERPs for months and months, outranked by sites that had nothing to do with the query at all, as well as by their very own directory listings. Some managed to get to the first page of Google for things like the site's business name or the owner's name, after three or so months of invisibility; others didn't have even that. Some people were losing their patience and calling Google all sorts of names; others were listening to happy stories of those who finally had "jumped out of the box" and waited patiently for the happy day to come. Sooner or later, it came to everyone.

A new name for the old thing

By 2005, people were calling many different things "Google Sandbox". Trying to fight the confusion, Scottie Claiborne came up with the "aging delay" term, trying to describe the same effect when new domains rank poorly in Google at first. Her Google's Aging Delay for New Sites (http://www.rightclickwebs.com/seo/google-aging.php) article summarised the experience of many webmasters who were promoting their new websites since March 2004, gladly sharing their difficulties and achievements in various SEO forums. But people were already too accustomed to the "sandbox" term, so "aging delay" only added to the overall confusion. Some SEOs now prefer to call the effect "aging filter".

What exactly it looks like

It is not easy to figure out and describe any common pattern, because in all cases it looks differently. In 2004, no new sites ranked anywhere in the TOP 50 of Google SERPs for anything convertible; now the aging delay seems to be getting smoother, and here and there 3 month old sites get TOP 10 positions for terms that show 2 or 3 searches per day in Wordtracker. Recently, I managed to get #13 for a 46 searches/day term within three months. I did it for a site showing only 13 (yes, thirteen) backlinks in the MSN search engine. But it happened in a very uncompetitive niche. This example illustrates the point nicely: what would have sounded laughable in 2002 is considered a big achievement now.

Often, new sites can't be found for any terms in Google for the first month to three. Sometimes, they receive a "honey moon" first (a few weeks of ranking incredibly high), but then drop like a stone. Then, a slow progress starts for mildly competitive terms. Sites get stuck somewhere below 100 for months (regardless of all the on-page or off-page SEO efforts). Then all of sudden they move drastically forward and get frozen again. For how long, depends entirely on the niche and the competitiveness of the term. There are reasons to believe that SEO-related sites receive special treatment (a longer aging delay). If it's true, it's quite understandable. The final jump – to the first page – is usually so unexpected and impressive that people can't help talking about it for days and days, especially if it is their first time.

Sometimes, websites manage to escape completely. Personally, I know of three examples (proven), and by a strange coincidence, they were two blogs and a forum (the "news" type websites without any static part). Only time will tell if it was indeed a coincidence.

It is necessary to point out this: all the time while the new domains are waiting to achieve the rankings they deserve, they get perfectly indexed in Google, start showing PR after the first PR update and also show backlinks. The aging delay only affects actual rankings.

Possible explanations

Since the day sandbox was first mentioned, people came up with a lot of possible explanations of the effect. I agree with some and disagree with others. The following four are those I like best. In reality, we have probably a combination of all these factors plus something known to the Google engineers only. Or they all could be totally wrong. It's for my readers to decide whether the logic behind these theories has something in it.

Explanation # 1

With the latest algorithm changes, the age of the domain has become a new major ranking factor, along with content, links, quality of coding and other traditional SEO factors. Its affect on actual rankings does not have to be linear; it can well be pseudo-logarithmic (like early PR calculation formulas) or involve more complicated maths. When Google published its new Patent on Historical Data, many SEOs considered it an indirect confirmation of the theory.

Explanation # 2

New incoming links are now given a trial period, and until they pass it, they give no ranking boost to sites, and so new sites can't rank for anything at all, as all their links are too new. Plus, a theory suggesting that too quickly collected links receive an additional filter can still have grains of truth in it.

Personally, I think, a combination of the first two explanations could be sufficient. But I also like the

Explanation # 3

Google is preventing new domains from ranking too well on purpose, in order to ruin businesses of doorway creators who expect to quickly drive a lot of traffic to the sites before the doorways are discovered and the domain where they are hosted, banned. It is also preventing other types of spammy sites from being too successful, hoping at least to make spam as a strategy less profitable. If it is really so, I love it.

Recently though, a completely fresh idea came to my mind, and it suddenly occurred to me that it could explain the aging delay effect just as well as the three popular theories mentioned above.

Explanation # 4

As we all know now, Google is currently reconsidering the ranking algorithms completely. It now values natural linking patterns, semantically correct, quality copywriting and clean coding standards and devalues over-abused reciprocal links, over-abused paid links and other aggressive SEO methods. There are reasons to believe that they started doing so at about the same time when we first heard about sandbox, but confirmed it just now when it became obvious. But here comes the problem. No matter how good their new algorithms could be, they couldn't switch to them overnight. It would mean very drastic changes in the SERPs. Very drastic indeed, not a partial ranking shift like Jagger but completely new SERPs in all niches. That would mean a lot of displeased searchers who prefer to see more or less the same results when they do search for the same keywords. That would mean unnecessary noise and speculations on the Net, displeased shareholders and, probably, the end to Google search engine as a business. So, they have to rank old sites according to old rules and change the way they rank old sites very, very slowly. But there is no reason not to apply new ranking rules to new sites right now.

That's what they probably did. And it would really explain a lot.

Is it the end of the world?

No, Google sandbox is not the end of the world. It is just a new reality to consider, and we have to take it into account when we quote SEO jobs for prospective clients (I always ask nowadays, how long it has been since the site on this domain was first uploaded and discovered by Google). New businesses shouldn't make quickly acquired Google rankings the core of their business plans (not a good strategy anyway). And it is probably a good idea to upload some good content to the new domain and make it live and linked while you are working on a really huge project requiring complicated business logic and a lot of back-end programming (though I don't actually approve of the practice when an obvious "Under Construction" page is being kept on a new domain for months and months). Other than that, we should live like we did before, start new good projects to make our life more exciting and the Net a better place, and never allow Google sandbox to make us less happy.

After all, obstacles make life a more interesting game to play.

Irina Ponomareva joined Magic Web Solutions ltd. (UK) on March 2003. She has been acting as a web master, a developer, and an SEO specialist ever since. Irina then launched Spider Friendly - www.spiderfriendly.co.uk - the autonomous SEO branch of Magic Web Solutions (UK) which provides SEO/SEM services.

Sandbox effect