A few weeks ago, I presented myself with a challenge – to do some Internet sleuthing and get to the bottom of this perplexing condition that newly search engine optimized websites (that’s SEO) face known as the Google Sandbox. At times this endeavor made me empathize with Captain Ahab chasing his white whale, but unlike Ahab, I’m not going to meet a watery grave today. ICMediaDirect.com provides SEOs with life jackets – so I got that going for me, which is good. The obsession to confirm, pin down, and counteract the effects of this Sandbox is proving as difficult and elusive as any whale hunt I’ve ever been on.

Before explaining to the uninitiated just what the Sandbox is exactly, or what it’s purported to be, it warrants mentioning that Google officially neither confirms nor denies its existence. So from the word “go” we wade into mystery. We’re forced to consider the Sandbox as either a modern quasi-myth of the Computer Age or an actual no man’s land created by Google where SEOs are pitted against the machine. Kinda cool, right? This would be a limbo, an undesired waiting room for web properties seeking quality recognition from Google’s Search Engine Results Pages are, as I like to say, unSERPable. Incidentally, the stakes are very high, too, since higher rankings mean increased revenue.

The effects of the Sandbox are not in question. Websites listing with Google are simply beat down in their rankings for no apparent rhyme or reason, thus leaving the afflicted with no avenue of redress but time itself – no magic linking is known to spring sites out. (Though it’s whispered that influential friends at Google can pull favors.) New websites and overhauled existing websites (often reworked, ostensibly, for better rankings) are its primary “victims”. It was first noticed or acknowledged in October, 2004. No one outside of Google knows exactly how or why sites are Sandboxed.

Here are some Sandbox basics: it only happens to English speaking websites; it is a “.com”-only phenomenon, no “.edu”s, “.us”s, or “.org”s need worry; it could last from weeks to a year before release into deserving results rankings; its effects are seen with Google only, so you can rank high on Yahoo and be in the Sandbox (or even rank poorly – I have little info handy on poorly optimized websites mired in suspected Sandboxes); the Sandbox is by no means universal and not automatic. It’s a crapshoot.

There is a minority of SEOs who think that the Sandbox is the end result of better algorithms and not and specially created punishment. Believing, as I do, that Google has the best search results, this isn’t implausible.

I believe Google intentionally Sandboxes websites because they can. Google’s search share is largely unrivalled and growing strongly. What better way for Google to keep separating itself from the search engine pack than to have websites jumping through hoops in hopes to conform to Google’s semi-secretive algorithmic wishes. And what better way to do this than through the secret sauce of unacknowledged spider block. Google’s engineers keep the search world apprehensive and guessing so that SEOs will employ conventional and anticipated optimization methods in hopes to evade the Sandbox.

Talk about your Jedi mind tricks: SEOs are now optimizing in a fashion that suits Google with much less link bombing and more content emphasis. This aids Google’s indexing efforts greatly. The Sandbox, being a phenomenon oft-alluded to and ill-explained, is totally logical when viewed in this light. Fearing the unknown (and the ire of clients) we optimize humbly, to start.

And I love this. “No one knows” is what most SEOs will say about various Sandbox details. Someone knows. Someone besides in-the-know Google engineers always knows, but isn’t saying. SEOs will have you believe they’re giving away everything but their gym locker combination; to the point where you’d think that there are no secrets in this business. Well, as in any other business, information is the most valuable commodity and there will be nothing that you will get for free; nothing of a proprietary nature will be shared that will not provide its source with either direct or back-end value.

It’s tough to declare this, but I must: no SEO has enough data or access to solve the Sandbox. It’s not even worth trying and the best thing we can do is compare notes. Pretty sad, but it’s all we got. (Or is it?)

It is widely believed that Matt Cutts, an engineering guru at Google, acknowledged the existence of the Sandbox at SES NYC in March, 2005. That’s bunk. He didn’t acknowledge anything, but he did answer his questions carefully supposing there was a Sandbox. He played with words and said some algorithms “might” affect “certain” websites in “some” circumstances that would, in effect, ape Sandbox-like results. Well, gee. Thanks, Matt. You didn’t say anything, but legions of SEOs rushed to the messageboards with their confirm reports like they’d just filmed Sasquatch. No free lunches, no free secrets. Mr. Cutts just stoked the fires- that’s all. Good job, Matt, but I’ll get you yet. Cheers.

Joseph Pratt
Media Analyst
e: joseph@icmediadirect.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.