How can you know for sure a website has been penalized by Google?

Quick answer is, you can’t unless Google has informed you of a Google penalty via Google Webmaster Tools.

Let’s take a look at what MANY webmasters fret about, the Google Sandbox Penalty.

When is a Google Penalty not a Google Penalty?

A lot has been written about the Google Sandbox effect, but much of it is based on early reports of what webmasters thought was a downgrading of a site that was just beginning to do well.

Many webmasters concluded from this drop that Google was giving their new sites some good rankings so other webmasters could find their content to link to it and after a short test period of good rankings for being a new site the rankings drop.

The SEO theory was if the content was great that short test period of good rankings would be enough to generate enough backlinks to give it a start on the journey to long term rankings in Google.

As you’ll see after reading this article the drop in rankings was not as these webmasters first thought, but the side effect of a new Google algorithm, they were unlucky to have new sites at the wrong time.

For starters lets determine what’s normal Google ups and downs in SERPs and what’s actually being in the sandbox or some sort of Google penalty.

What’s NOT a Google Penalty?

If you’ve got a new site and after a few months from going live your seeing a steady 40 visitors a day from Google and it drops to 20 visitors a day, this is not the Google sandbox effect, this isn’t even a penalty.

A drop from 40 to 20 visitors a day is not a big drop, but webmasters will state they lost half their traffic overnight and that sounds like an awful SEO penalty!! The website probably lost SERPs, (very easy to do with a new site) happens all the time, you don’t notice it as much when you have 1,000+ visitors a day, but when on only 40 visitors a day the loss of a few SERPs is really noticeable.

You’ve got an old site that’s ranked well for years and it suddenly looses Google traffic for no obvious reason, this again is not the Google sandbox effect, Google has either changed it’s algorithm (AGAIN!) and you’ve been hit bad or something else has gone wrong (maybe you lost some important backlinks) or maybe it is a penalty, but it’s not the sandbox.

Is Your Site in the Google Sandbox?

Google Sandbox

You have a sandboxed site when you have a relatively new site or an old site that’s never gained quality links (low PR) and despite adding enough links to rank well for several months (these are quality links and enough to give a PR3 home page for easy niches) and having good on page optimization the sites not rankings for any semi-competitive SERPs are barely moving (feel like they are stuck in the sand).

If someone wants to jump in and say, but my new site was ranking really well after a couple of weeks then dropped like a stone, please post your traffic details, because I can practically guarantee your going to come out with low visitor numbers and that does not = the start of a well ranked site.

Has anyone recently started a modest sized site from scratch (newly registered domain, no backlinks) and in under 3 months got it to over 1,000 unique visitors a day from Google organic search?

I used to be able to do this with ease, now it’s damn hard and needs sites with several thousand pages of unique content: basically each page pulls in a visitor or two a day, (if your lucky and in a high traffic niche) not a single semi-competitive SERP amongst them, so if this was a 20 page site you’d be seeing ~20 visitors a day, 1,000 page site ~1,000 visitors a day, so you are gaining traffic through quantity of content and very easy SERPs (long tail SERPs), not a small number of well ranked pages generating hard SERPs.

Is the Sandbox a Google Penalty?

All sites start in what has been called the Google Sandbox, unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation about what it is and many think it’s a Google penalty.

I have created and worked on over a thousand domains some before and many after and a handful during the time this effect came to light. So I have a lot of data on how new sites rank in Google.

I have rarely seen what was originally called the sandbox effect:

Newish site (not too big, so not thousands of pages) started to get good rankings (meaning some semi-competitive SERPs = decent traffic numbers, in the hundreds not tens of visitors a day) then wham, traffic drops to barely anything (under 50 visitors a day) and takes months before it starts climbing again.

That was the original description of the sandbox and many webmasters got hit with this traffic drop when this effect first came to light, but I’ve not seen this since.

What I am sure has happened is Google changed the way links passed SEO benefit and the sites that had just beginning to do well in the old algorithm dropped like a stone in the new algorithm.

It’s analogous to having a sloping beach and when your out the sea (above the tide line) your doing well, in the water your not.

Before the time of the sandbox effect being reported by thousands of webmasters the tide was low, Google made an algorithm change and not only did the tide rise, but the beach front moved a few hundred feet inland swamping sites that had just started to do well.

Since the tide never went back out new sites that are in the ‘sea’ have much further to climb up the beach before they reach dry land.

That’s not a bad analogy and fits in with the sandbox: sand, sea etc… :)

Before the change with a strong links campaign you could get a brand new site ranked for semi-competitive SERPs in 3-6 months.

Black Hat SEO Techniques

For example I had a site banned (I used to use blackhat SEO techniques) before the sandbox (was getting 8,000 unique visitors a day in a money niche, loosing that site taught me a valuable lesson I’ll tell you!), made a similar site and within 4 months was close to 3,000 unique visitors a day (that doesn’t happen now).

When I use the same SEO techniques today it will take about a year to gain that sort of success due to what the sandbox really is. So what took 3 months to achieve pre sandbox Google algorithm now takes 9+ months post sandbox Google algorithm.

One way of looking at this is new links do not pass full benefit right away, there’s a dampening effect on new links. Before the sandbox effect the link benefit dampening factor lasted around 3 months, but now it’s around 9 months.

I believe Google made this change to combat comment link spammers, at the time of the change link spamming was rampant (and it worked), since comment links on blogs and forums tend to drop deep into the archived pages (usually low PR pages long term) after a month or two the benefit passed from links from popular blogs are not going to effect Google rankings as much if they don’t pass full benefit until they are deeply archived.

How To Climb Out The Sandbox

There’s only one guaranteed way out of the sandbox for a new site and that’s a good links campaign and patience.

Whatever links you add today will not pass full link benefit until around 9 months from now (used to be about 3 months). Unfortunately this means for most new sites to rank well your going to have to wait about a year, since it takes time to gain links to a new site.

Backlinks SEO Value

Most important thing is to remember the links are growing in power, but not enough to help until around 9 months, so don’t think the sites failed and give up or do something stupid like trying blackhat SEO techniques in desperation.

Keep working on your content and on new backlinks and be confident your site will rank well long term if you’ve got the backlinks and reasonable on page SEO.

Can the Google Sandbox be Avoided?

The sandbox can not be avoided for a new site, but since what we are waiting for is links to age if you can buy an old site with aged backlinks and a reasonable PR home page (PR4 ideally, PR3 minimum) you could cut the waiting period between adding your content to good rankings from at least 9 months to potentially overnight** with the right site.

** It would be overnight for easy SERPs and some semi-competitive SERPs, but even if you bought a site with a PR6 home page since there’s the anchor text of incoming links to a page is important to that pages rankings, your going to be lacking that targeted anchor text.

If you bought a PR6 home page site about “Sandboxes for Children” and wanted it to rank well for “Cheap Mortgages” all the anchor text of the current backlinks will be about Sandboxes and not Cheap Mortgages, so there will be no anchor text supporting the new contents SERPs.

I’d estimate this sort of content change will loose around 30% of an aged sites ranking benefit, still much, much better than starting with a newly registered domain, but not as good as having those links using the right anchor text.

Fortunately internal links anchor text is just as good as anchor text from external links, so if you optimise your internal links you can at least benefit from the link benefit flowing through the site.

Since this link benefit is from aged links your internal links pass full link benefit from day one (there’s no link benefit dampening effect on internal links).

Note: the above is bordering on blackhat SEO, so be smart about the domain you buy and what content you add. Buy a ranked site about cheap Mortgages and add more content about Cheap Mortgages that’s building a quality website. Buy a domain about Children’s Sandboxes, delete the original content and add new content about Cheap Mortgages and you are pushing it.

David Law

David Law > AKA SEO Dave
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20+ Years Experience as a Freelance SEO Consultant, WordPress SEO Expert, Internet Marketer, Developer of Multiple WordPress SEO Plugins/SEO Themes Including the Stallion Responsive Theme (tested to WordPress 4.9 November 2017).

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