New Website SEO: How to Avoid the Sandbox Effect

New websites are notoriously hard to rank. Some SEOs even say that new websites can’t be ranked in Google until they reach a certain age. This is commonly referred to as the sandbox effect.

What is Google sandbox?

The idea of Google sandbox dates back at least 15 years. At some point, SEO specialists began noticing that it is much easier to rank a new website with Bing or Yahoo than it is with Google. This observation gave birth to the theory of Google sandbox.

The sandbox is believed to be a filter for new websites. The assumption is that the filter traps new websites and doesn’t let them rank until they reach a certain age. There is much debate about what this age is exactly. Some say it’s at least a month, while others claim that it could be a full year.

Does Google sandbox really exist?

Google representatives have repeatedly denied the existence of a sandbox filter:

Gary Illyes is webmaster trends analyst at Google

However, they do admit that new websites may indeed experience a sandbox effect. This is not, however, due to the young age of the website, but due to the lack of trust signals. A new website might be thin on content or lacking authority, so it is hard for Google to determine its proper placement in search results. Here is the quote from the office hours with John Mueller:

With regards to sandbox, we don’t really have this traditional sandbox that a lot of SEOs used to be talking about in the years past. We have a number of algorithms that... that might look similar, but these are essentially just algorithms trying to understand how this website fits in with the rest of the websites trying to rank for those queries.

John Mueller

So yes, a new website may be disadvantaged in search, but Google does not have a predetermined probation period. Your website will be able to occupy top search positions as soon as it starts demonstrating proper trust and quality signals.

How to avoid the sandbox effect?

If you want to push through the sandbox effect quickly, you have to come out of the gate running. As soon as your website goes live, double down on creating quality content and building links between your website and the rest of the web. Here are a few things that should be a priority when search optimizing a new website:

1. Run a post-launch audit

Before you start building rapport with Google, make sure that there are no technical obstacles to ranking your website. Run a post-launch website audit and see if your website is search and user friendly.

Check for indexing issues

First stop — make sure that search engines can access all of your important pages. To do this, launch WebSite Auditor and create a project for your domain name. The tool will immediately start an audit of your website and, once it’s finished, provide you with a complete report of technical issues:

Report available in Site Structure > Site Audit

While there’s lots of useful stuff in the report, for now, we are concerned with resources restricted from indexing. Scroll through the list and make sure that it does not contain any of the pages you want to appear in search.

Check for UX issues

Apart from content quality, Google is becoming increasingly concerned with user experience metrics. Google will be hesitant to rank your pages unless users are able to access the content quickly and to interact with it easily.

To check whether all of your pages meet Google’s user experience standards, head over to your Google Search Console account. In the Enhancements tab, you will find two user experience reports: Core Web Vitals and Mobile Usability.

Enhancements reports in Google Search Console

Core Web Vitals are a collection of three metrics all of which are more or less about page speed — how fast the elements load and how soon the page becomes interactive. Mobile Usability has more to do with the layout of the page when viewed on a mobile device, things like font size, button size, content width, etc.

Conveniently, if Google discovers any problems with your website, it will provide you with a list of offending pages, specific issues, and even some advice on how to fix them.

2. Join business directories

Your chances of ranking increase dramatically as your website becomes more interconnected with the rest of the web. For a new website, the best approach to sourcing these connections is to get listed in relevant business directories.

Claim your GMB profile

The best way to prove to Google that you actually exist is to create a listing in Google’s own directory — Google My Business (GMB). Head over to the “create” page where you can tell Google about your business as well as verify your business ownership.

Once your verification goes through, you will be able to access your GMB dashboard, where you can fill out your profile with additional details. We highly recommend taking advantage of as many GMB features as you can — the more information you provide the more of an entity you become in Google’s database.

Some of the additional features in Google My Business

Apart from improving your overall credibility, a GMB profile will also make you eligible for local search results: local pack in the regular search and a pin in Google Maps:

Example of Google search results for a local query

Find popular local directories

Although to a lesser extent than GMB, other local directories may also contribute to your online visibility. There is no need to follow outdated SEO practices and create thousands of listing in every business directory imaginable — if you encounter this advice, disregard it. Instead, we suggest finding a few business directories that your potential customers actually use. It could be Yelp, or Foursquare, or Yellow Pages, or something much more local — limited to your state or your city. Go by whatever makes sense in your particular case.

3. Create content in clusters

Google feels more confident ranking pages that come from niche websites. And one of the best ways to demonstrate that you are an expert in a particular niche is to create lots of quality content on a particular topic. That’s why, especially in the beginning, it is important to create your content in clusters.

What it means is that instead of jumping from topic to topic, you should focus on one topic and cover it from as many angles as possible. For example, let’s say you are a bicycle retailer. A good content strategy would be to choose one aspect of biking and create a bunch of content on this aspect, then move onto the next aspect.

If you were to start with, say, gravel bikes, you would first create a pillar page — best gravel bikes. Then, you would surround this primary page with a cluster of secondary pages — how to choose a gravel bike, best gravel bike accessories, gravel bike vs mountain bike, gravel bikes under $1000, and so forth.

4. Display positive user behavior

While Google says that they don’t use behavioral signals to rank pages, there’s been plenty of evidence to the contrary. It is believed that positive user behavior (visits, interactions, long sessions, comments, reviews, and social shares) may be of substantial help when trying to get Google to rank your pages.

Source some initial visitors

You obviously need some actual visitors to be able to display positive user behavior signals. And sourcing visitors for a new website could be a challenge. One thing you can do here is capitalize on the momentum of launching a website/business and publish an announcement via local media, forums, interest groups, and your own social media accounts.

Keep your visitors engaged

Design your pages in a way that encourages user interaction and invites users to stay for longer periods of time. A lot of this comes down to basic user experience features: segmented content, easy navigation, plenty of high-quality visuals, and no annoying pop-ups. The goal here is to make a good first impression and to move users down the page.

Another thing you can do is add elements that encourage your visitors to navigate to other pages of your website. A simple recommendation system should be able to do the trick: recommending posts or products based on the currently viewed content. This is where clustered content actually comes in handy — offering several angles on the same subject should make it relatively easy to move visitors from page to page.

And if you want to take it a step further, you can offer incentives for positive user behavior. For example, if you have a loyalty program, you can reward those users that leave reviews and comments on your website, invite their friends, or share your content via their social media.

5. Grow a backlink profile

One of the strongest authority signals a new website can send is being backed by other, preferably better-established websites. Basically, the more websites link to your website, and the higher the quality of these websites, the easier it would be for Google to trust you.

The challenge here is to find quality websites that would be willing to accept your links. Especially considering that most SEOs out there are also competing for backlinks and the whole practice of asking for backlinks has long reached the utmost levels of annoyance for everyone involved.

Luckily, there is one approach that still works relatively well. The trick is to find those websites that already link to at least a few of your competitors. The fact that they link to your competitors means they are interested in your business niche, which naturally increases your chances of success. But even better is the fact that they link to more than one of your competitors. It means that they do not have an exclusive relationship with any one company and will probably be open to more partnerships.

To find these backlink prospects, launch SEO SpyGlass, go to Domain Comparison > Link Intersection, and add a couple of your most immediate competitors. The tool will analyze all of your backlink profiles and generate a list of linking websites. The list is equipped with multiple sorting and filtering options, allowing you to view backlink gaps and backlink overlaps, to sort domains by quality (InLink Rank) and by attributes (dofollow/nofollow):

Sample analysis for an outwear retailer returns over 5K backlink leads

Once you start building your backlink profile, SEO SpyGlass will also help you keep track of your progress. The tool logs gained and lost backlinks, as well as analyzes backlinks and their properties. This will come in handy if you suddenly lose some of the good links or gain some of the bad ones, which could have an immediate negative effect on your rankings.

6. Reference quality sources

Another way to create connections between your website and the rest of the web is to link your content to high-quality sources. Now, this is considered to be a very minor ranking signal that has nowhere near the power of backlinks, but every little counts when you are building your initial authority.

Furthermore, this strategy can be implemented at no cost and with very little effort. All you have to do is create opportunities to link your content to high-authority external sources. Basically, whenever you create a piece of content, find a way to quote a recognized expert, reference a paper from a respected organization, or link to a Wikipedia article.

This doesn’t have to be limited to blog posts also. If we are talking about product pages, you could include links to popular external reviews of the product, promotional videos, or supplier/manufacturer websites. If we are talking about the main page, you could include testimonials from your clients or partners.

Final thoughts

When faced with the sandbox effect the idea is to blast Google with a jillion of convincing trust signals. While there are quite a few things you can try, I’d say that a targeted content strategy and a link-building campaign should be your top priorities.