What Is Google Sandbox in SEO? How to Get Out Faster

In this article, we’ll recap Google’s statements about the sandbox, provide five steps to take to get out of the sandbox faster, and highlight leading indicators that will tell you whether you’re on the right track.

July 12, 2023
Written by
Nate Matherson
Reviewed by
Charles Purdy

Join 1,850+ SEO and marketing professionals staying up-to-date with Positional's weekly newsletter.

* indicates required

If you’ve recently launched a new website or blog, you’re likely wondering how long it will take for your pages to appear in search results. 

For new websites, indexing typically happens within a week or two of the content being published. However, it often takes some additional time to go from indexing to actually ranking well for the keywords you care about. If this is happening to you, your website might be stuck in the sandbox.

You’ll often hear about “Google’s sandbox,” a term that has been popularized in many SEO communities. The sandbox is typically described as a testing or probationary period for new websites that happens while Google indexes your webpages but only very slowly surfaces them to searchers. This can be incredibly frustrating if you want to move quickly and drive traffic from search engine optimization (SEO).

While Google’s team has denied that there is an algorithm specifically designed to sandbox websites, they have stated that there are a number of algorithms that impact the rankings of new websites, and that those algorithms may lead to this phenomenon.

If you’ve ever launched a website, it’s pretty obvious that the sandbox does exist, or at least that there are algorithms that limit the rankings of a new website. In my experience, the sandbox period typically lasts for about one to two months, but for certain high-risk industries like consumer finance or health, it often lasts a bit longer than that.

And it makes sense that these algorithms would exist. Google wants to ensure that searchers are having the best possible experience. And before driving significant amounts of traffic to your website, Google wants to be confident that your website is legitimate, trusted, and a particularly good source of information on the topics that you’re creating webpages about.

In this article, we’ll recap Google’s statements about the sandbox, provide five steps to take to get out of the sandbox faster, and highlight leading indicators that will tell you whether you’re on the right track.

Google’s Statement on the Sandbox

Google’s search team has made a number of statements about the sandbox over the years.

Going back to 2016, a Twitter user asked John Mueller and Gary Illyes about Google’s sandbox and which types of websites and search queries it impacted. Gary and John quickly responded by saying that Google doesn’t have a sandbox.

However, in 2018, in a Google Webmaster Central office hours session, John was asked about the sandbox again. At 25:38 in the recording, John clearly explains that Google does not have an actual sandbox, but that the phenomenon might be caused by a number of related algorithms that impact new websites. John says that Google’s algorithms are trying to understand what the website is about and whether it’s a good resource. And he adds that the algorithms will go through a period of testing the website to get a sense of its quality, and that this testing can often lead to sites not ranking as quickly, as well as to some websites seeing initial spikes in traffic only to then drop in rankings.

As with many things in SEO, Google’s statements are less than helpful and sometimes contradictory. Today, many SEO experts believe that the sandbox phenomenon does exist, and I’ve seen it firsthand with a number of websites that I’ve built over the years. While there might not be one sandbox algorithm, it’s extremely evident that there are algorithms that limit the visibility of new websites in organic search. And we can use the term “sandbox” to describe these filters.

5 Tips for Getting Out of the Sandbox Faster

You’ll find that in SEO, your new website will often hit different inflection points around months two, three, six, and 12.

Getting out of the sandbox often takes a month or two and is typically that first inflection point when rankings and traffic start to scale faster. But in certain high-risk industries, including any website in a Your Money or Your Life category, the sandbox period can often last a bit longer than that, as Google needs to be more careful about the results it displays to searchers in those categories.

Fortunately, there are five steps you can take to get your website out of the sandbox period faster.

Step 1: Create Fantastic Content Faster

Simply put, you should move faster with new content creation.

When building your blog from scratch, it’s often helpful to batch publish many pieces of content all at once — for example, 10 to 20 pieces. Many SEO experts believe that batch publishing that the first block of articles will help get Google to pay attention. From there, I recommend getting into a regular cadence — for example, publishing one or two pieces of content per week from then on.

You can always slow down content creation in the future. But by moving quickly on content production in the beginning, you can often get Google to pay attention faster. 

However, this is not a recommendation to publish a large number of low-quality pieces or thin content just for the sake of trying to break out of the sandbox. You will, of course, want to publish high-quality, helpful, and optimized content.

Step 2: Build Topical Relevance

You’ll often hear that it’s important to build topical relevance or authority. In short, topical relevance simply means showing Google that your website is a good source of information on a particular topic. 

You can accomplish this by creating a number of very focused blog posts or pages on the given topic, albeit with different primary keywords for each. And ultimately, for each question or long-tail keyword in your niche, you should probably create a piece of content on that topic. You want to show Google that your website is clearly about this specific topic and a good source of information on it.

A mistake that people often make with new websites is that they’ll spread content too thin when it comes to topical relevance. 

For example, if you have a website that’s about pet food, you’ll want the first 10 to 30 pages on your website to be very clearly about pet food: types of dog food, types of cat food, best dog food, ingredients in dog food, and so on.

It might be tempting to write articles about the most popular dog breeds or tips for training your dog, but in the beginning, it’s best to focus on one specific category of content — in this case, pieces of content explicitly in the pet food category.

You should be careful to keep the first 10 to 30 pieces of content you create very closely related to your core topic. This will help Google better understand that your website is, in fact, about that topic. If Google is confused as to what your website is a good source of information on, it will take longer for your website to rank in search results.

Step 3: Use Internal Links

Internal linking simply means linking from one webpage to another on your site where it would be highly relevant to do so. When creating a piece of content, you should try to internally link within the body of the article to related or helpful pieces of content. 

Internal links are important for proper site structure, and Google uses your internal links to understand what your webpages are about, how they’re related to one another, and how they are uniquely different. Internal links are also very helpful for people navigating your website.

Internal links help to strengthen topical relevance and show Google clearly that your website is a good source of information on a particular topic. You are, after all, effectively sourcing to yourself.

As mentioned previously, given that the first 10 to 30 pieces of content we create are going to be highly relevant to one another, it should be relatively easy to find opportunities for internal links. 

Positional’s Internals toolset is also very helpful for finding missing internal links in existing content and for suggesting internal link opportunities in new content.

Step 4: Build Backlinks

Building backlinks to your website can accelerate rankings and get you out of the sandbox faster. 

Google launched PageRank, often described as domain authority, as a way to measure the authoritativeness of a particular website or webpage. And while you can no longer check your PageRank with Google directly, backlinks are still very core to Google’s search ranking algorithm.

If your website has been established for some time, you may have already built a handful of backlinks to your website naturally. For example, if I were building a SaaS startup, I might have received backlinks from a funding announcement, from press coverage of the startup’s milestones, and from the investors who invested in our company.

However, if you’re starting a new website from scratch and you’ve very recently registered the domain, you likely don’t have many, if any, backlinks just yet. And to Google, it might be hard to trust a brand-new website without any backlinks vouching for it.

There are many different ways to build backlinks, including through guest blogs, from the press, and by building them intentionally with outreach.

Unless you’re in a highly competitive industry, you likely won’t need to build a large number of backlinks to get out of the sandbox. Building even two or three backlinks might be all it takes to get Google’s algorithms to pay attention to the content you’re creating and to build a baseline level of trust.

Step 5: Generate Social Signal, Nonorganic Traffic

You’ll often hear about off-page SEO, and building backlinks is certainly an important component of any off-page SEO strategy. However, there are other ways to show Google that your website is important and deserving of attention.

Today, many people believe that your website traffic as a whole is an important off-page ranking factor. There are many ways to drive website traffic without organic search, including through social media and video content.

Driving engagement to your webpages via social channels like Reddit, Hacker News, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube can shorten the sandbox period and get your pages ranking faster. On a recent Optimize podcast episode, Aakash Shah explained that he saw a direct correlation between going viral on TikTok and the performance of his company’s website in organic search — and that those resulting gains have been long-lived.

Building noise about your brand, and traffic to your website, can help to accelerate the search rankings of your webpages.

How Do You Know Whether You’re Making Progress?

I’m often asked about KPIs, and how to know whether the work being done on the SEO side of things is working. Of course, traffic to your website is one indicator that suggests that the work you are doing is effective.

However, for new websites stuck in the sandbox, search impressions in Google Search Console are often a helpful leading indicator that the work you’re doing is good. As you make your way out of the sandbox, you’ll typically see a spike in search impressions before you see a spike in traffic. This tells you that Google is now paying attention and starting to test your content in organic search.

At Positional, we started creating content for our blog about two months ago, and as of this writing, we are just starting to break out of the sandbox:

The graph above is tracking total Impressions in Google Search Console. Notice how impressions were fairly low and consistent as we published the first twenty or so articles on our website. But then, all of a sudden, our impressions started to increase and then suddenly spiked.

A spike or breakout in total impressions tells you that you’re getting out of the sandbox, and traffic will generally follow.

Final Thoughts

While Google clearly states that the sandbox doesn’t exist, it’s clear that there are algorithms that impact new websites and their visibility in search. For simplicity’s sake, many SEO specialists refer to the impact of these algorithms as the sandbox filter. These algorithms are trying to get a sense of what your website is about, the quality of the content you’re creating, and whether people are enjoying your website.

It typically takes between one and two months to break through the noise and out of the sandbox. At this point, you’ll notice a significant spike in search impressions for your website and an overall increase in the number of keywords you’re ranking for.

Most of us build organic search strategies to drive additional traffic and customers to our websites, and it can be extremely frustrating to wait. Fortunately, there are a number of ways that you can get Google’s attention and break out of the sandbox faster. You can accelerate the cadence of new content creation, create tight silos and build topical relevance, build backlinks, and generate noise off-page with social signal and nonorganic traffic.

At Positional, we’re building a number of tools for content marketing and SEO teams, including tools for keyword research, content optimization, technical SEO, and more.

Nate Matherson
Co-founder & CEO of Positional

Nate Matherson is the Co-founder & CEO of Positional. An experienced entrepreneur and technologist, he has founded multiple venture-backed companies and is a two-time Y Combinator Alum. Throughout Nate's career, he has built and scaled content marketing channels to hundreds of thousands of visitors per month for companies in both B2C (ex financial products, insurance) as well as B2B SaaS. Nate is also an active angel investor with investments in 45+ companies.

Read More

Looking to learn more? The below posts may be helpful for you to learn more about content marketing & SEO.