The Google Sandbox is a concept that’s been around for over ten years. It was initially created to describe the phenomenon where websites would struggle to rank for months after any sort of bad SEO actions were penalized, even if those penalties were lifted. It was the cause of much uproar until Google stealthily removed it, varied it or otherwise made it much less obvious. This state persisted for years, but slowly the sandbox is coming back.
There are a few reasons you may end up in Google’s sandbox.
• You are actively practicing poor SEO and have lost trust with Google, though you do not have a manual action levied against you.
• You practiced poor SEO in the past, or hired a black hat SEO company, and suffered the consequences. You may encounter the sandbox effect when you have fixed the initial problems but have not yet proven your trust to Google once more.
• The most insidious option; you purchased a new domain name to set up your site, only to discover through the Internet Archive that your site was previously used for spam or black hat SEO. You may suffer under the penalties from previous owners and never know.
• A malicious user catches your domain when you let the registration lapse and buys it to park it with a spam site until you can recover it. If Google notices – and they likely will – this can earn your site penalties.
All of this comes back to two things; bad SEO and trust.
Bad SEO is obvious. Anything that goes against Google’s guidelines will diminish your site ranking. The worse the offense, the worse the penalty, until you start reaching the level of manual actions and complete removal from the search rankings.
Trust is a little harder to explain and measure. Google builds a relationship with your site that is largely invisible. It watches what you do in the realm of SEO, and it grades you on how you act. This is Google trust. If you have a history of just barely scraping by, staying one step ahead of the penalties by doing the bare minimum necessary to succeed and nothing more, you’re not going to have a very high trust score. If you’re using bad SEO, your trust score will drop. If you go above and beyond the call of the basic necessities, striving to excel within Google’s boundaries, you’ll end up with a high level of trust.
Trust is a hidden factor that, for the most part, acts as a fallback. If some action takes place, such as the parked domain during a lapse listed above, it can affect your site in wildly different ways depending on your trust. A low trust site will see a harsh penalty for the spam, while a high trust site may recover quickly if not instantly. Duplicate content issues are another big thing influenced by trust; a low trust site may be considered malicious while a high trust site will be more likely to be flagged as the originator of the content, regardless of index date.
The sandbox is an effect of trust. Essentially, when your trust is low, you have to spend time building it up before you can rank properly. High trust sites have an easier time ranking, while low trust sites have an uphill fight ahead of them. So, how do you build trust?
Fortunately, building trust with Google is easy, all things considered. If you break Google’s trust by using black hat techniques, it stands to reason that you build trust by staying firmly within their guidelines. Unfortunately, this is a long process and can take several months, depending on how deep in the hole the site is to begin.
Step 1: Check for any SEO penalties.
If you haven’t paid much attention to SEO, or if you’ve contracted a black hat company before, you may have existing penalties on your site. If you bought a new domain, that domain may also have existing penalties from the previous owners. If you catch these early, you can have them purged; if not, you may have to hit Google with reconsideration requests.
If you have any existing penalties, you need to take the steps necessary to fix them as soon as possible. Of course, you may still be in the sandbox without penalties; it’s hard to tell when you’re suffering without the comparison of previous success.
Step 2: Clean up any old black hat remnants.
There’s a lot that a black hat company may have done to your site. Check through the code of your pages and look for anything that’s cloaked and hidden from the view of the average user. Cloaked or hidden content is generally a sign of something negative going on. Additionally, clean up any spam, bad internal links, broken links, keyword stuffing and other such issues. Essentially, you’re performing a complete site audit and removing anything that violates one of Google’s guidelines. You may also consider removing anything that comes too close or that may be deemed too close to the line in a future update. This helps future-proof your site and helps build greater trust faster.
Step 3: Disavow harmful links.
Poor link building is a common reason for sandboxing. Even if you just bought a new domain, run a link audit in case a previous owner build bad links. Any link you don’t want to claim as your own, disavow using Google’s tools. If you want to take more time, you can also contact the host of the links you’re disavowing and get the webmaster to remove them.
Step 4: Purge duplicated content.
There are a few legitimate instances of duplicate content, but they are few and far between. If you have one, you can simply use canonicalization to fix them. If you have issues with duplicate content from off-site content scrapers, or if your content was scraped or spun from another site, deal with the problem. If your site was a scraper, remove the content, no questions asked. If your quality content has been scraped, report the scraper pages to Google. If you have low trust, they can be harmful.
Step 5: Build up or replace thin content.
Thin content is generally an issue when it comes to trust; Google vastly prefers detailed, quality content. Identify any cases of thin or low quality content on your site. For each page, you have a decision to make.
• Remove the page. This option is best used when the page has no incoming links, as Google doesn’t like broken links.
• Build up the content. This is generally the best option, as you can take an existing page and add value until it’s a useful page to have.
• Merge with another page. This is typically useful when you have several small subcategory pages that can be merged, or if you have an FAQ with different pages for every question.
Step 6: Publish new, valuable content.
This is the most time-consuming part of the entire process. You need to take up the mantle of a white hat SEO webmaster, which means content. Quality content published frequently on a regular schedule, relevant to your audience, is the only way to succeed in this business.
Once you’ve cleaned up any outstanding issues, all you can do is work to build trust, an audience and a base of valuable content. Over time, your trust will grow and you will escape the sandbox. The boulder takes a lot of effort to move, but once it’s rolling, it will build up speed.