When a brand new site on a brand new domain is launched, it gets put into what SEO professionals have dubbed the Google Sandbox. Essentially Google is punishing the new site in search engine rankings for a period of time, lowering it’s ranking for keywords.
The Google Sandbox effect has been well documented by SEO professionals, and the Google Sandbox has even been indirectly confirmed by Google themselves, in a video by Google’s Matt Cutts discussing the relevance of domain age. In that video Cutts said:
“The difference between a domain that’s six months old vs one year old is really not that big at all. As long as you’ve been around for at least a couple of months, you should be able make sure that you can show up in search results.”
He went on to suggest that if you’re planning to launch a new site, you should first put up a welcome page describing the site that will be coming soon — then by the time you finish developing your site months later you should be able to rank.
But in those first couple of months, you’ll be struggling to rank well for competitive keywords, even with great SEO practices.
How long does the Google Sandbox punish new sites?
The Google Sandbox effect lasts somewhere between 1 and 6 months. The negative effect on rankings is very strong for the first couple of months, and by the time you’re past three months you should be pretty good. By the time your domain is at six months you’ll have very little Sandbox Effect at all.
As Matt Cutts said, there is some difference between a domain that’s six months old and one that’s 12 months old, but the difference at that point is incredibly small. The important thing is to wait out those first few month.
The Google Sandbox is for new domains, not new sites
It’s worth stressing here that while we often talk about the Google Sandbox punishing new sites — it’s really punishing new domains (domains that Google hasn’t indexed before). If you have an existing website that ranks well for various keyword phrases and then you decide to do a complete site redesign, you will be just fine.
A site redesign does not get you placed in the Google Sandbox. The Sandbox Effect is just for new domains.
Why the Google Sandbox Effect exists
Put simply, the Google sandbox punishes new sites as a way of combating black hat SEO practices. A lot of black hat SEO techniques involve building hundreds or even thousands of sites overnight through an automated process to build large volumes of backlinks to the sites for which they want to rank. If their first process (say, a link pyramid) didn’t work, they then reconfigure those thousands of fake sites in a different way in an attempt to get more links.
The Google sandbox makes those black hat practices much harder in two main ways:
- By punishing new sites by placing them in the Google Sandbox, the black hat SEOs have to wait months before they find out if the scheme of the day actually works. If it doesn’t it will take them months more to experiment with another loophole idea. This also makes it impossible to launch a brand new site with a thousand low-quality backlinks overnight and start outranking legitimate sites.
- By creating this waiting period, Google buys times to algorithmically detect and discount these various link-building schemes before they actually do damage to search results. So the black hat SEO builds a thousand fake sites in a link building configuration, but has to sit in the Google Sandbox for a few months first. During that time Google figures out what the SEO is doing and adjusts its algorithm to ignore the benefit of all those links.
You can still rank well, even in the Google Sandbox
Just because Google is punishing your new site by placing it in the Sandbox, doesn’t mean that you can’t rank well. You can absolutely build a brand new site on a brand new domain and still rank well in Google — but you’ll have to pursue keywords for which there is relatively low competition.
I even tested this recently by grabbing a domain and building a site collecting information about leather books. That site with no backlinks and a domain less than a week old was ranking on page 1 of Google for a handful of legitimate terms (meaning they bring traffic) and page two for another dozen. The key is that though there was competition, the competition was low.
The thing to remember is that Google is still indexing your site, even while you’re in the Google Sandbox. You’re still a part of their index, it’s just that the Google Sandbox is artificially devaluing your site. However, just as we saw with our test site in the Grizzly Equation, it’s all about beating your competition, not hitting any artificial target of links or optimization or domain age. Even in the Google Sandbox, you can still rank for low-competition keywords.
In other words, let’s say I launch a brand new site tomorrow called Brian’s Awesome Shoes. It has brilliant SEO, tons of fantastic original content, and I got some great quality backlinks coming to me right out of the gate. Despite all this I am not going to be able to rank well for “shoes.” It’s just too competitive. But I might well be able to rank for “Graffiti Art High Top Shoes.”
So if you do have a brand new site on a brand new domain launching without having put that placeholder page in place months earlier, one of your best bets is to try to attract some longtail or less competitive keyword phrases.
Also, spend time building links and collecting referral traffic. Don’t forget, it’s not all about the search engines!