In a previous blog post I discussed how Google throttles the number of times your site is shown in search results relative to how reputable and "desirable" your site is to prospective visitors. Today I ran across another good example of this effect, sometimes referred in more drastic cases as the "Google Sandbox" effect.
As a practice, I tend to keep a lot of half-baked websites laying around. Sometimes I just don't get time to work on them. Other times I'm doing the easy half first and getting enough content and structure on the site to let Google start chewing on my keywords. I will usually throw skeleton sites out onto the web en masse just to see which sites get more action, so that I know which one to prioritize over the others in the coming months. One site in particular had been left half-baked and un-protected for far too long, and was getting pummeled by spam bots for a long time. It was so full of prostitution ads from India and Thailand that my database filled up to capacity and my ISP had blocked it for TOS (Terms-of-Service) violations. By the time I blew it away and began working on it again I suspect that the domain had been shunned on every blacklist possible.
Once I restarted development I did the same thing I do for every site - implement an SEO strategy, organize the content, populate the site with juicy stories... But month after month it seemed that nothing I could do would make any of my keywords appear in the top ten listings, EVER! In fact, EVERY keyword I had was showing up no higher then the TENTH OR TWENTIETH PAGE of search results! I had never seen such bad SEO performance on a site. So I de-prioritized the site and let it site out there, fully seeded with content, and waited. Nothing. Week after week I saw absolutely nothing in terms of performance. Sure, my keyword list was getting longer, but still none of them would appear in anything less than three-digit positions.
But one day, about six weeks after the last change I had made to any content - BANG! The site lit up. In fact, it shot like a rocket to the top of the listings - but for only a couple of key phrases. Day after day I would see one or two new phrases ignite, while the rest languished in the triple-digits. But from that point on, the pattern with which new phrases popped into the single-digit positions, and the number of impressions or clicks I would see for each, began to resemble that which I'd expect for a new site at a new domain. It was as if some gate had been lifted and finally the horses were able to run around the grounds just a few minutes per day.
Given that this site had started from such a miserable state and was most probably under sever lockdown by the search providers (and rightfully so) I was wondering if I would see it gradually claw its way out of the basement... But I did not expect it to rocket up to the thousands-of-impressions level virtually overnight! It had been fluctuating in the 10's of impressions per day for six months. One day it suddenly jumped to 300, then to 400, and on the third day of the breakout it was at 900 impressions! The content and keywords are competitive and in demand, so I feel such performance is easily justifiable. But to see it jump as if the dam broke is really something else. I feel very strongly that this site had been in the "penalty box" and was pinned down by Google, and one day they simply took the straight jacket off. Pardon all these metaphors, but hopefully they did the trick in expressing what I feel the Google Sandbox Effect feels like to site administrators sitting in the time-out zone for bad behavior!