There's some buzz starting to stir this week about some comments made by Grantastic Design's Shari Thurow in a recent discussion over at LED Digest. While much of the buzz has focused around HOW she said what she said, I'd like to focus on the meat of WHAT she said...and that is...that there is no such thing as the Google sandbox. Anyone that's spent some time in a search related discussion forum knows what a popular topic the sandbox is for debate and a great deal of the search community accepts the concept as fact. Guess what? They're wrong. Shari is right.

Here's a snippet of what Shari said in her post:

There is no such thing as a Google Sandbox. It's one of those terms that self-proclaimed search engine "experts" came up with to explain why their methodologies don't work.

A search-friendly Web site is built on a solid foundation of keyword-focused text and giving spiders a means of accessing that text. Then, objective 3rd parties should basically confirm what you say about your own content. It has been this way for years. I sincerely doubt that this foundation is going to change in my lifetime (especially since information retrieval systems are primarily based on what scholars and other professional researchers do offline).

For that reason, no Google Sandbox. If your site doesn't have the foundation, its pages won't appear in a search engine results.

Now, I'm going to add a qualifier to the whole "Shari is right" comment. She's right in the legalistic sense of the word...but semantically, she's a little off.

See when people talk about THE sandbox in forums, their logic goes something like this...

"Google has decided that they don't like new sites. So they look at the registration date on the URL and if the site is new, they automatically put it in a holding cell (the know, where little ones go to play...) until it grows up a bit. Then somewhere down the line...say six or nine months down the road...Google lets the site come out to play."

Thus, loads of forum readers come away with the idea that no matter what they do, their site simply isn't going to rank for ANY phrase for at least six months to a year. This has led to ideas like buying up old domain names for your new site, or putting up links to a site months before it's finished...just to take time off of the aging delay.

The problem is, that there is no Google sandbox! It simply doesn't exist.

What there IS, is a growing understanding on the part of Google and other engines that they need to deliver quality results. That means that new sites are going to be judged and "allowed" to rank based on how they compare to the sites that already exist in the index. After all, how many mortgage application sites does Google really need to list? Why should they think that your brand new mortgage site is any more worthy of a ranking than the 1.5 million (yes, MILLION) sites that are already indexed for the phrase "mortgage application."

I wrote a bit about the lack of a sandbox back during the 30 Day Lactivist project. Readers of the series will remember that I started getting Google traffic to my brand spanking new domain within a week of launching the site. I even gathered some great top ten rankings for phrases that people actually search for. No sandbox effect in play there.

Why? Because there weren't 1.5 million sites out there selling breastfeeding t-shirts. In fact, there were only 46,000 sites listed for the more generic "breastfeeding shirts." Thus...Google could see that they had "content holes" on that topic and they were more than happy to let my site in. Especially since it had good content, relevant keywords and a steady growth of incoming links. All of those things told Google "this site fills a need and people like it."

It's important to remember that above all else, a search engine algorithm is designed to IMPROVE the results displayed by that engine. It's not in a search engine's best interest to suddenly decide that they won't let any new sites in without making them sit around for months on end. There's zero logic to it and search engines try very hard to be logical. On the other hand, it IS logical to carefully consider whether a brand new site can really add something to the search results.

Is that mortgage site I mentioned filling a need? Do people like it? Perhaps...but they're going to have a LOT harder time convincing Google of that.'s going to take a lot longer for Google to "see the light" and decide that they should let that site in the door.

My friend Matt Bailey likes to compare this concept to Chinese Restaurants. (bear with me here...) Matt says that when a new Chinese place opens up in town, he's not going to rush down and try it. Why? Because there are a million Chinese restaurants around...who needs another one. Now, if Matt starts hearing from some friends that this place is really great, or if it stays in business for a year then it may make him start to wonder and he may go give it a try. On the other hand, if a new Sushi place opened (cause everyone knows there are NO good Sushi places in Ohio) he'd rush out and try it right away because there aren't other options there filling the void and Matt is always desperate for good Sushi. What it really boils down to is that a brick and mortar store can't expect business just because they open their doors...they have to earn a good reputation over time. The Internet isn't any different.

The thing that people need to understand about "the sandbox" is that it's not a place that all sites go to grow up. It's a concept that people have jumped on to explain what's actually the development of a higher level of judgement on Google's part. In theory, it provides an easy explanation for the trouble that people have suddenly had in getting new sites ranked. In reality, it just shows that the industry is growing up and that search engine algorithms are growing up with it.

I keep telling engines really do want nothing more than to be a real boy. To do that, they've got to emulate the way that human beings make decisions. Human beings know that if you introduce the same product that a million people before you have already sold, you either have to work harder, or more creatively to get them to buy it. The sandbox concept is simply that idea at work in the search world.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
June 8, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Does the Google Sandbox Really Exist?