By Andy "Organic-Is-My-Middle-Name" Hagans
The sandbox is no longer the pink elephant in the room. As webmasters, together we’ve cried about it, argued about it, and fretted over it. We’ve gone through the emotional steps, too; first there was grief (waah waah my site won’t rank), then bargaining (I promise I won’t spam if you un-sandbox me), anger (darn it, greedy Google just wants me to spend more at AdWords!), and finally, acceptance (OK, how do I beat it?).
Over a year ago, I wrote my Guide to Beating the Sandbox at WebmasterWorld (supporters forum). I think my post mostly stands the test of time, but there’s a lot more that we know now, so I figured it’s time for an update. I’m also going to try to make this guide as detailed as possible, because it seems the solution everyone (including me) constantly refers to is to build trustâwithout saying exactly how. So let’s get short on theory, and long on details.
What is the sandbox? Does it really exist?
I almost didn’t include this little section, because the "Does the sandbox exist?" debate has become as annoying as the "white hat vs. black hat" one. But just to be absolutely clear, the sandbox does exist. No, it’s not just a straight aging delay, as originally thought; and no, you don’t have to call it "the sandbox" if you don’t want to. (In fact, I kind of prefer the term "Trustbox".) But speaking as an organic-only guy who has launched a site every other week for the past two years (really), I can tell you that "this sandbox/Trustbox thingy" appears again and again independent of niche, type of site, number of pages, etc.
As for what it is: The sandbox/Trustbox is a set of filters in Google’s search algorithm that together prevent new sites from ranking well until they gain trust. To gain perspective on this definition, you’ll need to understand the Link Algo Cycleâ:
The Link Algo Cycleâ
- Google develops an effective new link popularity algorithm.
- We as webmasters game the crap out of the new link popularity algorithm, thus rendering it less effective (from Google’s perspective).
- Repeat Step 1.
Remember PageRank? Remember buying PR7 links and ranking for anything a week later? Yeah, apparently Google thought that was a problem. Well, the "effective new link popularity algorithm" of late 2004 relied heavily on trust. Google decided to assume a new site didn’t deserve to rank until it proved it was trustworthy. (Note: when I use the term "site", it’s sort of interchangeable with "domain name"; Google is really sandboxing new domain names.)
The Sandbox 2.0: Indexing
The heavy shift towards trust in 2004 is still the dominating factor in the algo today. With the BigDaddy update however (January 2006), Google gave us a new gift: "sandbox crawling" (credit Graywolf for the term). Gee, thanks, Google!
At least this time we got an honest explanation. From Matt Cutts himself:
The sites that fit "no pages in Bigdaddy" criteria were sites where our algorithms had very low trust in the inlinks or the outlinks of that site. Examples that might cause that include excessive reciprocal links, linking to spammy neighborhoods on the web, or link buying/sellingâ Some folks that were doing a lot of reciprocal links might see less crawling. If your site has very few links where you’d be on the fringe of the crawl, then it’s relatively normal that changes in the crawl may change how much of your site we crawl.
This isn’t earth-shattering and doesn’t really change what we learned about the sandbox/Trustbox above. If anything, I kind of appreciate the sandbox crawling, because now when I launch a new site, I can tell if it’s beginning to gain trust just based on how it’s crawled or indexed. Getting fully indexed is certainly not the same thing as beating the sandbox and ranking well, but it’s an indication that you’ve gained some trust and you’re on your way.
Alright, enough with the history lesson. We know what the sandbox is and how it works. But how do we beat it? How can we get our new site some trust?
1. Make a good site. â I hate myself for writing that
I pretty much roll my eyes whenever I read "just make a good site with good content" on the forums. Number one, I am lazy. Who wants to spend the time making a good site and writing good content? Number two, this answer is too simple. It’s not the entire solution, despite the idealists’ claims.
But the fact is, having a professional design, good usability, and high quality original content which is titled and packaged in a user-friendly way will make the next steps far easier.
*Bah. If we’re ever drinking a beer together at a conference, and you remind me that I advised people to "just make a good site with good content", I may splash the beer in your face.
2. Get those easy trusted links.
Much like the above make a good site advice, just get trusted links is a line that’s starting to get on everyone’s nerves. Can you tell us where to get these links please? Like, can I write you a check? Just tell me the danged URLs!
Actually, this is sort of a re-post, but yes, I can tell you exactly where these easy trusted links are:
- Ultra-trusted directories â They charge for an editorial review, not a listing (meaning they can legitimately be trusted). One is specifically recommended in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines; I’d bet my [insert valuable appendage here] that the other two are highly trusted, too… Yahoo! Directory, MSN bCentral and Business.com.
Parasitic link sources â You can leverage the trust of older authority sites if they allow user-generated content. OK, in plain English please? Squidoo and Wikipedia are trusted domains. You can add links to Squidoo and Wikipedia. (â I know that will get me hate, but I promised to give away my entire playbook here, so there it is). It’s important to do this the right way:
Wikipedia: Do you have an investment-related site? Do not try to add your homepage link to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investment or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stock. Instead, add the deep link to your "The Forward P/E Ratio Explained" page from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PE_ratio. It’ll have a much better chance of still being there tomorrow.
Squidoo: Make your lens useful and link out to other authority sites in your niche. I’m not saying that to be a nice guyâthis will help to map your site into the neighborhood.
- A few rented trusted links â I really, really like the bloggers in TLA’s inventory that currently have zero or one link sold… why not get in there and gobble up the lion’s share of that link pop?
- Your existing sites â Earlier in this article I claimed that I launch a site every two weeks. Do you think, when I launch a new site, I might link to it from one of the older sites in a relevant place? Does that sound like something Andy Hagans would do? I’ve earned trust in the past with other domains; why not leverage it? (Leverage = success, in both day trading and SEO; that’s probably the subject of a future post, thoughâ)
Now, a few notes here. The current sandbox is not an all-or-nothing game; i.e., you don’t suddenly get out and go from "barely indexed" to "ranking for everything under the sun." Instead, you get out by stages, which I would very loosely classify thusly (â great word, "thusly", I’m cool):
- Stage 1 (You’re completely ‘boxed): The site has zero trust. It is not being crawled or indexed, or is only crawled or indexed superficially.
- Stage 2 (You’re halfway out): The site has a small number (a few dozen or fewer) of trusted links. It is not ranking for very many terms, and certainly no competitive terms; however, being fully indexed, and maintaining a few long tail rankings can be construed to mean you’re on the right track.
- Stage 3 (You’re all the way out): The site has received a larger number of trusted links and natural citations (a lot more than a dozen). It is now probably ranking for some more competitive keywords.
- Stage 4 (You’re fantastically rich): The site has gobs of trust because it has thousands of trusted backlinks. This is the point where a site is an "authority", both by Google’s definition, and Webster’s. You can throw up a page on virtually anything, and it will be indexed within 48 hours and rank for the keyword phrase immediately.
Of course, most sites never reach that last stage; and actually, most sites don’t need to. But anyway, if you’ve gone out and gotten the "easy trusted links" I named above, your site is going to be in the "halfway out" stage (Congratulations, you’re almost there!). But to get "all the way out" you’re going to need toâ
3. Link bait like crazy.
The SEO theme in 2006 has been link baiting, and for good reason: it works. Of course, many webmasters do it for traffic and branding purposes, but our focus here is on organic rankings and link popularity.
A typical piece of link bait that makes it to Del.icio.us/Popular or the Digg homepage is going to receive dozens or even hundreds or natural, organic backlinks. These organic backlinks are exactly what’s going to take a site from "halfway out" to "all the way out" of the sandbox. And for good reason: if a site has content that is "baity" enough to get a ton of blogs to link to it naturally, then it deserves to be trusted.
Now, I did say I would be giving away the entire playbook in this article, but I’m not going to give the full run-down on how to link bait successfullyâthat would have the potential of turning this "article" into a "book". (I suppose I could just scrape Copyblogger in its entirety.) For further reading however I strongly suggest you take a look at the following posts:
- The Art of Linkbaiting [Performancing.com]
- Digg is for Dweebs: Free Link Bait Ideas [SEOBook.com]
- Free Link Bait Report [Copyblogger.com]
- How to Attract Links and Increase Web Traffic â The Ultimate Guide [Copyblogger.com]
I do want to touch on some details of link bait promotion. The fact is, every day a lot of people publish "baity" articles, but only a portion of them go viral. This natural selection process is driven neither by luck, nor "what’s fair." The fact is, a lot of what gets on Digg or Del.icio.us/Popular got there because the authors are good at promoting their work, or they have connections who can help them "seed" it (i.e., friends who are prominent bloggers, or influential users at the bookmarking sites).
So, what does this mean for your own link baiting effort? It means you need to do a few things when you release the link bait.
- If friends have VALID accounts at social bookmarking sites, ask them for a bump. Just to be clear, I’m not advocating setting up a dozen dummy accounts with proxies to spam Digg. I think the "friend bump" however is generally accepted as harmless, and even a few initial votes are going to help (for instance, you only need to get a post tagged 10 times to get on Del.icio.us/Popular; why not start at 3?) Even Jason Calacanis ("the Netscape guy") went on record saying:
I’ve had many discussions with Kevin Rose (founder of digg) about the issues of friends voting for each other on social news sites including digg and he has told me over and over again it’s not only fine, it’s encouraged. When a dozen or so folks digg a story for each other on digg that means they are 12 out of the 500-2,500 diggs on a story.
- Go ahead and just link beg from your CLOSE blogging friends. Nobody likes a link begger. That said, if you know a blogger well, don’t hesitate to ask, "Hey, I’m trying to get this post viral. Anyway you could throw a link at it?" The worst thing he/she can say is no. If you only ask twice a year, it probably won’t get on his/her nerves.
- Use the subtle link beg from acquaintances and not-so-close blogging friends. OK, so you may not know that other blogger in your niche very well, but a link from his blog could give your link bait a huge boost. Don’t directly beg him for a link; instead, email him a preview of your article, and ask for his feedback. He may or may not have time to give feedback, but he’ll probably consider it a compliment, and will at least be more likely to link to the bait when it goes live.
Now, if you can get even one piece of link bait to "go viral", your site is generally going to pick up a dozen or more quality trusted links (maybe more). Assuming you already built the base of "easy trusted links", this is going to push you out of the sandboxâor at least, right onto the edge. (It can sometimes take a month or more before you see the full effect of these links on your rankings.)
If one solid link baiting effort doesn’t quite break you out of ‘box, the next step is simple: do it again. On the other hand, if one solid link baiting effort does break you out of the ‘box, the next step is simple: do it again. (You can never have too many trusted links!)
If even reading this section on link baiting made you exhausted, don’t worry: that’s a common sentiment. The worst part about link baiting is the time, effort, and creativity it takes. If you’re like me, you have little of any of those things to waste. If you can’t suck it up and do it yourself, you still have some options: there are a few link baiting services on the market already, and I expect the number of options will increase greatly in the next 12 months.
So that’s my handy-dandy beating the sandbox playbook. Really, if you’re a master baiter, you can skip all the steps up to link baiting, and just do that, over and over. But most of us aren’t pros at that, or only have time to do it once a month (or year). So I wrote this article with the understanding that you’ll "ease into it", and take shortcuts where you can.
Frequently Asked Questions about the sandbox
- Why does it seem like many sites get out of the sandbox at the same time?
I can’t find the link, but I remember a thread at WebmasterWorld where many members got out of the ‘box on the same day. I think this scenario is related to "everflux"; Google’s algorithm is constantly adjusting, and when a trust/link/age filter or threshold goes live overnight, a lot of sites which were formerly right on the edge of "the wrong side" could find themselves barely on "the right side".
- Does the sandbox apply to existing older sites?
Any pre-’04 domain that has even a smattering of backlinks is probably not going to be touched by the sandbox. That said, you can easily run afoul of a filter in Google by building many low-quality backlinks, or committing other such "trust penalties". I suppose the difference is that an old site is out of the ‘box by default, whereas a new site is in the ‘box by default. My advice to anyone with a trusted domain: be careful. There’s a lot of value in a trusted domain, so if you’re going to experiment, you might want to do that with a new domain that you can afford to lose.
- Does the sandbox affect subdomains?
Actually… I don’t know. And I think this issue might be in flux. I partially included this question in the FAQ to try and break my reputation as the resident know-it-all in the TLA office. (See, Patrick? I told you I’m not a know-it-all!) Also, I’d like to bait DaveN, Caveman, Webguerilla, or Oilman into commenting here. What’s the story on this, guys?
- Does user data affect the sandbox?
Mike Grehan has suggested that user data may be one ticket out of the ‘box. When asked whether Google uses toolbar data in their search algorithm, Matt Cutts said, "I’m not going to say definitively that Google doesn’t/won’t use toolbar data (or other signals) in ranking." He also said, however, "Regarding cons of using toolbar data, the main reason would be if people were to spoof toolbar data to make a page or domain look more visited than it was… Given the attention that people have given to PageRank, which is in Google’s toolbar, you can see how I’d feel about using toolbar data." I am going to go out on a limb and say that user data does not affect the sandbox in a major way. Correlation does not equal Causation! Sites that receive a lot of traffic shortly after launch are probably picking up quality organic links as well, why is likely the main reason they gain trusted status and beat the ‘box.
Secret to Beating the Sandbox 2.0 REVEALED: The Alternative Guide
Find a ranking site, with a domain that’s at least three years old. Buy it.
Ha ha, just kidding, don’t do that. I would never recommend that.
Wrapping it up
I’m too exhausted to write any sort of meaningful conclusion to this article. Readers, please beat the sandbox, and make a boatload of money. It will make me very, very happy inside.
One extra special secret little message
There’s going to be a huge, exciting, awesomely-awesome product launch at Text Link Ads this week. We’ll announce it here of course, so stay tuned.
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