The ‘Sandbox Effect’, which is said to affect new sites, was always a topic for heated debates among SEO specialists. Most SEO specialists think that it does exist, but I used to talk to pretty authoritative experts who think that this penalty in fact doesn’t exist. While there does exist some form of pseudo penalty which blocks new sites from getting traffic. This is not because of some penalty awarded, but because of other objective factors – such as poor site authority, which is determined by a combination of factors, not by a site’s age.
The Sandbox Effect… Is it truth or fiction?
Firstly let’s try to identify what SEO specialists mean by the ‘sandbox’. It’s a period of time after launching a site, when anything you do gives absolutely no visibility in search engines, without taking branded and ultra low-frequency queries that just have no other relevant results on SERPs’ into account.
So, where does the debate about the so called sandbox come from? Search engines’ representatives have never confirmed its existence. It’s very simple. Any optimiser, who has experience in working with newly created projects, has faced this penalty head on. Take a new e-commerce project. You do everything right: nice site structure, correct navigation, great texts, it even has natural backlinks, but there’s no result. Then BOOM – a sharp rise, low-frequency queries start getting to the top, not some specific queries, but a great number of diverse ones – commercial, informational, geo-dependent and -independent ones. We have had a lot of similar experiences in our practice. What can I say – the sandbox exists, it exists! Wherein, a site can stay in the sandbox for a pretty long time when promoting it in competitive niches and central areas, like Moscow and the Moscow region. For example, this is our customer in “legal services” sphere:
We’ve been working on this project since it was launched on June 2013. We’ve been doing everything right since the very beginning – creating a broad keywords list, nice structure, correct navigation, properly engaging texts and great coding. However, these are legal services, and this is the Moscow region, which is a very competitive area. During the first 6 months, search engine traffic hadn’t been growing at all, staying at 20-30 natural visitors per day. We didn’t change our strategy, just continued working as before and then – BOOM! – the traffic exploded up to 150 natural search engines visitors per day. Wherein, the first 3-4 months were much more labour-intensive than next few months – the first stage was about expanding keyword lists and primary content creation, whilst after 6 months – internal optimisation, internal linking and content marketing took over. It is one thing is to write 2-3 articles or pieces of content a week on blog, but it is quite another to fill 300-350 informative sections of a site.
Seems familiar, right? Any optimiser is used to facing this while working on a new site.
As a matter of fact, it’s ok, and everyone is already used to it. An e-commerce site (selling products or services) will remain in the sandbox for 6, 8, 10 and sometimes even 12 months – it doesn’t matter what you try. Wherein, some people think that you can have a rest during this period. That’s a big mistake, this is the period when you have to work especially hard on on a site. Both the quality and quantity of your work here will affect the length of time that a site will spend in the sandbox. Achieving results after leaving the sandbox also depend on how hard you have worked at the beginning – whether you will be hanging in top-30 for low-competitive queries, or conquer the top-5 for low-frequency queries that sell.
Something makes me constantly think about this penalty. The thing that makes me think about it is that there’s no sandbox at all in some projects, or it only lasts a couple of weeks. Here’s the example.
Quite impressive, isn’t it? After 3 weeks of work we had reached to 800 unique visitors per day, after a month – 1400 unique visitors.
Cases such as this do happen. Where’s the sandbox? Why there’s no sandbox?
It’s pretty simple. I have no facts, just lessons learned, but I want to share them with you.
I’m deeply convinced that the sandbox exists. Whether it is a real penalty that search engines apply to sites, or some logical consequence of the absence of proven authority of a site for search engines – it doesn’t matter. The sandbox exists! However, according to my experience, only e-commerce sites (sites of companies, start-ups, services and products providers) face it, wherein these services or products should be… I don’t how to say it… usual, widespread, popular. Do you want to open a law firm? Be prepared to pass through the sandbox. Are you going to sell products for children via an online shop? Be prepared for the sandbox. Are you engaged in web design? The sandbox. Do you sell kitchenware? The sandbox! Whatever you do to your site, your natural traffic won’t be enough to get some payback from your business during first 4-6-8-10 months. Keep that in mind and plan your marketing activities accordingly, accounting for the fact that at the beginning you’ll need serious money to get traffic from other sources (yep, PPC is preferable here, but it’s expensive, so think for yourself and look for innovative solutions).
So what about all sites that manage to avoid the sandbox? I’ll try to explain. These sites are… unusual, unfamiliar, with some unusual services that are barely in demand when launched, but rapidly gain popularity. I would also include in this group some types of informative projects, but not all of them. Why not all of them? If you run a culinary blog and write 2-3 materials a week, then you can’t avoid the sandbox. If your blog is about something unusual, and it starts getting visitors’ feedback (first of all, it’s non-search engine traffic, likes, shares and so on) from the very first material published, from the very first day, then the sandbox period will pass you by. In other words, in order to avoid the sandbox, your content (talking about media) or products/services should be at least a bit in demand and low competition no competition at all.
Let’s get back to the second example – the one with no sandbox on the graph. This project reminds me of a photo hosting project, a site built to publish users’ photos, but with some uncommon features (for example, no registration is required) about it. This is not a site where you can collect your photo albums and sort them by subject or year. It’s a site where you can quickly upload an image to put a link to it on the web. The service appeals to a small but pre existing audience. It’s this “here and now” demand that helped us to avoid the sandbox.
However, the bad thing is that there are very few similar projects. Most SEM customers are not likely to be included in this group. Law and accounting firms, e-commerce sites and production companies are much more frequent than such “extravagant” services. In general, it’s not so bad. As a rule, such “usual” companies are likely to earn money, even if they have a bad time trying to get natural traffic at the beginning. Yes, you’re right, there are competitors (both online and offline), there is the sandbox, but there’s also pre existing demand and clear rules of monetisation. Profit for each search engine visitor attracted is also much higher for projects such as this, after they get out of the sandbox. In other words, the website of a law firm with a target of 150 unique visitors from search engines per day is a living business, which can only be bankrupted by making stupid and ridiculous mistakes. While 2000 unique visitors per day on an image hosting site can only be monetised by placing ads that are not so profitable, presumably (however, speaking frankly, I haven’t seen any financial reports, such projects do develop, which means that investment in optimisation is eventually paid back).
What should you do when you are in the sandbox?
What should you, if you haven’t managed to avoid the sandbox? The first and the biggest mistake to make is to do nothing during this time. You should work on your site, understanding that your project’s output will not be so great at this point. You should follow the path of improving its user-friendliness daily. Make sure these improvements are small but regular.
Content marketing can become your guide to surviving the sandbox. Create and publish various materials for your target audience – guides, articles, white papers, infographics, video reviews. There’s only one requirement – these materials must have some added informative value, they mustn’t simply be a “rehashing” of millions of already published articles. Why do you need content marketing during this period? There are two reasons. It will significantly shorten your duration in the sandbox. What is also important, you’ll be able to greatly improve user behaviour. That’s right, user behaviour. If you think that content marketing only influences textual ranking factors, then you’re making a great mistake.
By the way, we don’t like to optimise new projects with a limited budget and usually don’t work with them, because in this case you can only get out of the sandbox and get a significant growth in search engine traffic growth if you use content marketing. It’s a big problem, what else can I say. Not every customer is ready to invest in work which doesn’t give an immediate payback. However, a market slowly retrains, and customers also start learning expertise (there’s just no other option – life rules force them to do it).
What’s the conclusion?
Promoting new projects is a big and serious problem in most cases. The sandbox effect doesn’t allow you to conquer the top of natural SERPs’, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. Such is life. You have to stop relying on magic, it’s important to learn how to live in this new reality and work on a site by constantly publishing brand new interesting, unique and in demand content. Never give up. The sandbox is not a life sentence, you’ll outgrow it – time is on your side.
If you will not give up ahead of time.