Overcoming sandbox effect

March 23, 2009

   For an SEO expert search engine optimization is a combination of science and art. For a client it is a marketing technique in the first place, everything else in the second. I haven't seen many businesses who would want to wait a year to see the first results from the advertisement that they pay for right now. Unfortunately, Google's filters do not let new websites to rank for highly competitive "volume" keywords for the first year. These filters are called "sandbox effect". Out of major search engines they are only know to be practised by Google. I want to expand on the definition of the sandbox effect a little bit more to clear out a lot of confusions and misunderstandings before going into the actual techniques of overcoming it.

   First of all, I would like to note that sandbox effect applies to the indexed website's age, not the domain age. In other words if you bought a domain 2 years ago and it did not have a single page hosted on it (domain/hosting provider default landing pages are not considered as a website by Google in 99% of the cases), it is not going to help you much in overcoming the sandbox effect. That is why I advise all of my clients who are planning to launch a new project in several months to have at least 3-5 interlinked unique and relevant content pages hosted on the domain right away. I would also recommend having a few inbound links pointing to the website to have it indexed or just submit it to the search engines manually. It is very important to have the site indexed right away, otherwise there is no way for Google to know how old your actual website really is.

   Secondly, I would like to expand on the myth brought out by some inexperienced, so called "SEO specialists". They are going around forums and blogs claiming that there is no such thing as a sandbox effect or even bragging to overcome it because their linking technique is "so superior". Sometimes they would even show the results where they indeed rank on the first page and their website is only a few month or even weeks old. However, before asking these "experts" to do an SEO project for you, please check the search volume on the keywords they are ranking for. I would like to highlight the importance of this factor. Google does not let you rank only for the keywords that generate high number of clicks to your website. There is nothing extraordinary in ranking your website within the first month for the "New Jersey city downtown moving company" since this keyword would generate insignificant number of monthly searches, even compared to "moving company". It is hard to say where exactly lays the border in the eyes of Google between high and low searched keywords. I would say it depends on the industry and the percentage of the searches particular keywords holds against the total number of searches within that niche or industry.
Now, as we are clear on the definition of the sandbox effect I am going to cover several techniques that will help you to overcome it.

Solution #1: The basic and highly recommended one.

   I highly recommend this technique since I have experienced a great success rate executing it. It will also normally cost you just a few hundred in direct expenses, but sometimes can take a lot of time in research. The technique idea is pretty simple: buy an aged website (again not just an aged domain). From the first look it seems like a pretty task to do, however there are a number of very important factors to consider while performing this task. You have to be careful since you do not want to spend a lot of time and money optimizing a newly purchased age website that will not help you get out of the sandbox or even worse get you banned from Google. You neither want to in the position where you have to explain to the client what exactly went wrong with your technique and why some much money was wasted.

   First I would like to list a few places where I would go to search a website for sale at an affordable price. These places are of course forums where you can deal directly with website owners avoiding the middle man reseller who can easily double the cost of would you would pay to the owner, not even mentioning the possibility to bargain. Here is the basic list:

  1. DP forums ( http://forums.digitalpoint.com/)
  2. Site Point Marketplace (http://marketplace.sitepoint.com)
  3. Google "inurl:[related keyword to you niche] for sale" or some related  searches. Sometimes there is a coupled paged website for sale by the owner that you can stumble upon using these or similar searches.

I would also appreciate readers input to update this list. Now that you know where to search for it I will go over what to search for.

  1. As you already know you want to get at least 1 year old website. How would you check for it? Here is when the a archives or also called way back machine (http://www.archive.org/web/web.php) comes in handy. This website keeps a copy of almost every search engine indexed website in its database. If you came across a website and it has no record in the archives, I would recommend to keep away from purchasing it. It does not mean the website is not actually over 1 year old, but what it means is that you have not proof of it and would have to rely on the owner's word, which is kind of risky.
  2. I also recommend the website to be relevant to the keywords you want to rank for (not necessarily the domain itself, which can be general). I am not saying it will not work otherwise, but you want the transition to look as natural as possible. I want to note that in the eyes of Google this action should look like "hey we are still the same company and we are using the website, but we just bought out/merged"
  3. Make sure that the website is indexed and not penalized. Although, there is no real way to know if the website is actually penalized or not, (since it seems like Google is making up a new type of penalty a day) one of the good indicators of a healthy website is its ranking and PageRank. I prefer to keep the risk down and pick website that rank at least for their own domain name and homepage title (unless the title is really general).

These are the major factors you have to consider when purchasing an aged website. There is one more step that you might want to take to complete the process: forward the aged domain to the one you wish to rank with. It is a complicated process as well and it will be described in details on our next SEO post (how to transfer website to another domain without losing SE rankings).