I think I’ve seen real proof of the Google Sandbox, at long last. One of our clients launched a site at a new URL last October. They achieved a top-4 ranking on MSN and Yahoo! within a few weeks, but Google left them in the depths of the rankings — around page 20, in fact.
Their site is totally legit — clean CSS2, very good copy, with solid link popularity and such.
After tearing at what little hair I have left, and chatting with some other marketers, I realized that this web site was likely a Sandbox victim.
And it looks like I was right: This week, after eight months — the average estimated sandbox timeframe — they’ve started appearing in the top four on Google.
Here’s what I’ve learned, or at least taken from hypothesis to theorem:
- Sites with brand new URLs are almost guaranteed to hit the Sandbox, and stay there, for at least eight months. This dovetails with Google’s recent patent application, which included using a domain’s initial reservation date and launch date as factors in search ranking.
- Sites that have had multiple URLs pointed at them using 301, rather than 302, redirects are likely to end up in the Sandbox, too, when they relaunch. 301 redirects tell a web browser that lands on one web address to go to another. 302 redirects tell the web server to send all visitors that land on one address to another. Search engines generally respect 302 redirects, but dislike 301 redirects because they are a common spamming tactic.
- Sites that suddenly grow by a tremendous amount — say, from 10 pages to 500 — will likely spend a month or so in the Sandbox.
So, what to do? There are ways to mitigate the sandbox:
Launch your site now. It’s tempting to wait until the last word of copy is reviewed, and every single person involved in the process has signed off. But you’re only hurting yourself — if you’re launching a brand-new site, at a brand-new URL, get something up on the web asap. Even a 5-10 page site is a good start. That’ll start the Sandbox clock ticking. When you launch your final, larger site, you may set yourself back a bit, but the head start is far larger.
Grow steadily, not suddenly. If possible, plan your content strategy around steady site growth. You can’t always do this, but the more you can, the better.
Always use 302s. If you have multiple web addresses pointing at your home page, use a 302 redirect. Also known as permanent redirects, these don’t have a negative impact on search engine rankings.
Think strategically. Search marketing is not a do-it-now-and-forget-it activity. You need to plan for the long term with solid architecture, a good content strategy and a fundamentally sound internet marketing plan.
You can read my first posting about the Sandbox here.