Google’s ‘Sandbox’ is a controversial concept in the SEO world. In short, it suggests that Google prevents new sites from ranking highly on SERPs until they mature. Google refuses to confirm or deny that such a system exists, and even if it ever was in place, the general consensus is that its influence has vastly decreased (if not disappeared) over the years. However, the idea of having a website effectively hidden from potential visitors is still a nightmare for webmasters and it can feel like a real knockback to your SEO campaign. Don’t worry too much though, we’re here to help your site survive those first few months on the web.

Why would it be instated?

If the Sandbox does (or did) exist, you may be asking yourself why the company would introduce such a system. Surely preventing new sites from ranking on their search engine would just put people off Google in the long run, right?

It’s actually quite to the contrary.

The theory goes that in 2004 Google was attempting to improve user experience by reducing the amount of spam sites on the web. Theoretically, the Sandbox would be the system created to stop any new spam sites from ranking highly in SERPs from day one through manipulative tactics such as buying thousands of poor quality backlinks. Young sites with high numbers of links could be deemed suspicious, as these sites won’t have had enough time to develop their links organically. Without some form of penalisation, many spam sites would be able to use Black Hat SEO tactics to quickly get to the top of the results pages for competitive keywords and make money before being banned by Google.

The Sandbox would exist to make sure that only good, non-spammy sites that follow Google’s Webmaster Guidelines would be able to rank highly. Furthermore, for these sites to rank highly following their time in the Sandbox, they would have to organically generate inbound links.

Am I in the Sandbox?

If you’ve been generating inbound links to your site and using a variety of White Hat SEO tactics but still can’t see your site on the SERPs, many webmasters take that as a sign they’ve been Sandboxed.

Of course, if you can’t find your page on Google’s results pages despite having a number of backlinks, you might worry that you’ve been hit with a Google penalty. However, as long as you can still rank for less competitive keywords and haven’t been contravening the Webmaster Guidelines, it’s highly unlikely that you’ve been given a penalty.

It was not necessarily a case of not being able to rank for competitive keywords, the sandbox would often result in a site appearing as though it was not indexed at all.

Can it be avoided?

As we’ve addressed, if a Google Sandbox exists you’re likely to find yourself feeling like you’re in it until your site matures. As Google has not confirmed that any such system is in place, there’s no information on how to avoid being Sandboxed – or if it’s even possible. For most webmasters who believe that they’ve been placed in the Sandbox, it seems that the best thing to do is to wait. Those who claim that they’ve been put in the Sandbox suggest that Google will consider your site mature enough to rank between 1 and 6 months after its initial indexing, with most people finding themselves ranking after around 3 months. Ultimately, you’ll have to play a waiting game.

Despite having to wait for your site to rank successfully, feeling like you’re stuck in the Sandbox is not the end of the world. You should use this time valuably to begin optimising your site during the months in which you don’t rank well. Make sure to create high quality, valuable content, as well as building strong, organic backlinks to your site. Do this well and you’ll start to see your site climb the rankings exponentially once your site is released onto the web.

Is there really a Sandbox?

Although Google is yet to officially confirm or deny the Sandbox, Google webmaster trends analyst, Gary Illyes tweeted in 2016 that there is no Sandbox. Here at Yellowball, we have to agree. Although such a system may have existed back in 2004 during the early days of SEO, it’s unlikely that there is any such system now. Historically, many SEO types considered that Google may have been taking ‘domain age’ into account when ranking sites, which is likely what makes people feel like they’re in the Sandbox. If your site’s domain has never been indexed before, it’s unlikely to rank highly within the first few months. However, since Gary Illyes’ colleague at Google, John Mueller, stated that domain age is not taken into account for site rankings the ranking of sites based on domain age is another concept now taken less seriously. This does contradict a video put out by Matt Cutts in 2010, but in the ever changing world of SEO, if domain age was taken into account in 2010, it’s unlikely that that’s still the case. It seems then, that Google still wants to keep tight-lipped on how the indexing, crawling and ranking of new sites is conducted.

Despite the lack of consistent information from Google on the topic, there more than likely isn’t a Sandbox. New sites are able to rank from the get go, although perhaps not as well as they will later in their life as they build their authority. Once your site has established itself – which may take a few weeks – built up a strong catalogue of backlinks and begun producing regular, high-value content, you’re going to start ranking well. As long as you keep running a strong SEO campaign, you’re unlikely to feel stuck in this perceived Google Sandbox for too long.