Much has been written about the Google Sandbox effect. Much of what has been written is very suspect speculation! This article sets out to debunk a few myths and answer the most common questions that new site webmasters have. Specifically, I review whether or not the Google Sandbox really exists, how it works and how to escape from it. Vital reading if you have a new website!

Does the Google Sandbox exist?

The answer to this question used to be fiercely debated during 2005/6. It still is, although the debate nowadays tends to centre on semantics rather than any real disagreement. Why? Well if you hold to the semantics that a “sandbox” is some sort of holding tank into which new sites are placed, then the sandbox definitely does not exist (see below). If, however, you use the term “sandbox” to describe the general phenomena of new sites taking a long time to rank well on Google, then it definitely does exist!

So what is the Google Sandbox?

Following the Florida, Boston and Brandy updates of 2003/4, Google made a number of algorithm changes to tackle the increasing incidence of spam in the Google index. One effect of this was that sites launched after March 2004 seemed to take much longer to rank in Google than was the case previously.

In November 2005, at’s Pubcon in Las Vegas, senior Google engineer Matt Cutts confirmed, in a carefully worded response, the existence of the Google Sandbox:

To paraphrase, Matt said that whilst there was no sandbox per se, the Google algorithm may treat some new sites, under some circumstances, in a way that the webmaster would perceive as being sandboxed.
In other words, in practical terms, there is a penalty in ranking on new sites – so why not call it a sandbox if you want to? The rest, as they say, is semantics!

How does a site get into the Sandbox?

Time to start debunking a few myths! In my experience, the sandbox ONLY applies to totally new domains. You do not end up there as some kind of penalty for sharp SEO practice or for any other reason (such sites are penalised separately and until the problems with them are fixed and re-inclusion applied for). Also, excessive early link building with a new site neither lengthens nor shortens the duration of the sandbox filter per se.

How long does the Sandbox effect last?

In my experience, the answer is simple: a new domain suffers from an ageing delay (subject of a previous Google patent) that deflates the value of any link acquired for a period of up to twelve months. The ageing delay does not completely eliminate the value of links acquired so, for very uncompetitive search terms (e.g. the name of a company) a site can appear to emerge from the sandbox earlier (say 3 months). However, this is an illusion; it remains virtually impossible to rank well on medium-high competitive terms until the twelve months are up!

Many SEMs have speculated that the sandbox filter has different lengths for different industries (a theory that Matt and others have done little to discourage). However, I find this highly unlikely. The coding required – and fuzzy logic – to determine the industry of origin for a site (and draw lines) seems to me too complicated to contemplate. Plus, why bother? Naturally competitive industries (e.g. for male fertility treatment) act as their own best defence against the emergence of new sites (due to the large number of already well-optimised sites present).

I am quite sure, personally, that the industry differences are effect, not cause! It takes less time to rank well in less competitive industries because it is easier to do so overall (and has nothing to do with the sandbox itself).

How can I escape the Google Sandbox?

Be patient! There is nothing else for it. This ageing delay was designed to prevent unscrupulous spammers from setting up a thousand spam sites for Viagra in a single week on separate C blocks that all link to one payload site – then deleting them when detected and setting them up again somewhere else. This ageing delay works for Google and it is not likely to go away soon!

Some SEMs suggest buying old domains, then resetting the system clock on your UNIX servers to make the pages look old. Hmm. Sounds a bit too black hat for my liking! In SEO, anything that looks like a lie is a lie! Far better to buy your domain early (before you have set up your business operations) and undertake SEO activities in advance of launch. By the time you need the site to be live and doing business, most of the ageing delay has expired!