The Sandbox effect (or sandboxing or Google penalty) is a name given to an observation of the way Google ranks web pages in its index. It is the subject of much debate—its existence has been written about since 2004 but not confirmed, with several statements to the contrary.
According to the theory of the sandbox effect, links which may normally be weighted by Google’s ranking algorithm, not least improving the position of a webpage in Google’s index, may be subjected to filtering to prevent their having a full impact. Some observations have suggested that two important factors for causing this filter to come into play are the active age of a domain, and the competitiveness of the keywords used in links.
Active age of a domain should not be confused with the date of registration on a domain’s WHOIS record, but instead refers to the time when Google first indexed pages on the domain. Keyword competitiveness refers to the search frequency of a word on Google search, with observation suggesting that the higher the search frequency of a word, the increasing likelihood that the sandbox filter effect will come into play.
While the presence of the Google Sandbox has been long debated, Google has made no direct disclosure on the matter. However, as the sandbox effect almost certainly refers to a set of filters in play for anti-spam purposes, it is unlikely Google would ever provide details on the matter. In one instance though, Google’s John Mueller, has mentioned that “it can take a bit of time for search engines to catch up with your content, and to learn to treat it appropriately. It’s one thing to have a fantastic website, but search engines generally need a bit more to be able to confirm that, and to rank your site – your content – appropriately”. This could be understood as the cause for the sandbox effect.
Google has long been aware that its historical use of links as a “vote” for ranking web documents can be subject to manipulation, and stated such in its original IPO documentation. Over the years Google has filed a number of patents that seek to qualify or minimise the impact of such manipulation, which Google terms as “link spam”.
Link spam is primarily driven by search engine optimizers who attempt to manipulate Google’s page ranking by creating many inbound links to a new web site from other web sites that they own. Some SEO experts also claim that the sandbox only applies to highly competitive or broad keyword phrases, and can be counteracted by targeting narrow, or so-called long-tail phrases.
Google has been updating its algorithm for as long as it has been fighting the manipulation of organic search results. However, up until May 10, 2012, when Google launched the Google Penguin update, many people wrongly believed that low-quality backlinks would not negatively affect ranks. While this viewpoint was common, it was not correct, as Google had been applying such link-based penalties for many years, but not made public how the company approached and dealt with what they called “link spam”. Since this time there has been a much wider acknowledgement about the dangers of bad SEO and a forensic analysis of backlinks to ensure there are no harmful links.
Penalties are generally caused by manipulative backlinks that are intended to favor particular companies in the search results; by adding such links companies break Google’s terms and conditions. When Google discovers such links, it imposes penalties to discourage other companies from following this practice and to remove any gains that may have been enjoyed from such links. Google also penalizes those who took part in the manipulation and helped other companies by linking to them. These types of companies are often low-quality directories which simply listed a link to a company website with manipulative anchor text for a fee. Google argues that such pages offer no value to the Internet and are often deindexed as a result. Such links are often referred to as paid links.
Paid links are simply links that people place on their site for a fee as they believe this will have a positive impact on the search results. The practice of paid links was very popular prior to the Penguin update when companies believed they could add any types of links with impunity since Google claimed prior that time that they simply ignored such links they detected instead of penalizing websites. To comply with Google’s recent TOS it is imperative to apply the nofollow attribute to paid advertisement links. Businesses that buy backlinks from low quality sites attract Google penalty.
These are links left in the comments of articles that are impossible to have removed, as this practice became so widespread Google launched a feature to help curb such practices. The nofollow tag simply tells search engines not to trust such links.
Blog networks are a collection of sometimes thousands of blogs that aim to appear unconnected which then link out to those prepared to pay for such links. Google have typically targeted blog networks and once detecting them have penalized thousands of sites who gained benefits.
Google has encouraged companies to reform their bad practices and as a result demand that efforts are taken to remove manipulative links. Google launched the Disavow tool on 16 October 2012 so that people could report to Google the bad links they had. The Disavow tool was launched mainly in response to many reports of negative SEO, where companies were being targeted with manipulative links by competitors knowing full well that they would be penalized as a result. There has been some controversy over whether the Disavow tool has any effect when manipulation has taken place over many years. At the same time, some anecdotal case studies have been presented which suggest that the tool is effective and that former ranking positions can be restored.
Negative SEO started to occur following the Penguin update when it became common knowledge that Google would apply penalties for manipulative links; such practices as negative SEO have caused companies to be diligent in monitoring their backlinks to ensure they are not being targeted by hostile competitors through negative SEO services.
In the US and UK, these type of activities by competitors attempting to sabotage a website’s rankings are considered to be illegal by experts.
A “reverse sandbox” effect is also claimed to exist, whereby new pages with good content, but without inbound links, are temporarily increased in rank — much like the “New Releases” in a book store are displayed more prominently — to encourage organic building of the World Wide Web.
David George disputes the claim that Google applies sandboxing to all new web sites, saying that the claim “doesn’t seem to be borne out by experience”. He states that he created a new web site in October 2004 and had it ranked in the top 20 Google results for a target keyword within one month. He asserts that “no one knows for sure if the Google sandbox exists”, and comments that it “seems to fit the observations and experiments of many search engine optimizers”. He theorizes that the sandbox “has introduced some hysteresis into the system in order to restore a bit of sanity to Google’s results”.
In an interview with the Search Engine Roundtable website, Matt Cutts is reported to have said that there are some things in the algorithm that may be perceived as a sandbox that do not apply to all industries. Jaimie Sirovich and Cristian Darie, authors of Professional Search Engine Optimization with PHP, state that they believe that, while Google does not actually have an explicit “sandbox”, the effect itself (however caused) is real.