A mandatory ranking delay for new sites is the kind of SEO principle that doesn’t make sense for most websites but benefits the entire ecosystem. Google instituted the sandbox, or the waiting period that all new websites must incur before they can rank properly, to keep fly-by-night spammers out of the index. As mentioned in Chapter 2, “The Five Ingredients of Google Optimization,” if you were doing a lot of Googling in the early 2000s, you might have noticed many spammy sites in the search results. These sites were set up for the purpose of making money quickly and unethically, and then shuttering their online doors after just a few weeks. Using link farms (vast, interconnected networks of low-quality links), these sites were able to rise to the first page quickly due to Google’s then-weaker algorithm. Many of them took a lot of money from people before Google discovered and banned them.
Because of this group of scammers, we all have to suffer. As I was saying, the sandbox nearly broke me when I was first learning about SEO. It took a full year for my college consulting website to finally see the light of Page 1. If another three months had gone by without reward for my work, I would have run out of money. Thankfully for all of us, Google has found other ways to identify spammers, and today the sandbox is a shadow of what it once was.
In addition to the number and quality of links pointing to your website, the age of those links is also important in determining your site’s TrustRank. On the day a link to your website is published, Google awards your site only a portion of the total TrustRank that link possesses. The rest of its TrustRank is earned later on, as the link settles in as a permanent part of the website hosting it.
With all the waiting webmasters have to do, I thought it would be helpful to offer an outline of the typical journey a well-managed site takes before it is able to rank for the most difficult keywords.
What you do in the time period before publishing your site to the Web is crucial. The moment Google learns there’s a new kid in town, it starts sizing him up. One of the biggest distinctions Google will make on Day 1 is whether your website is a resource or a commercial site. If you are purely publishing a blog, Google gives your site special favor; if a commercial site, it starts at the bottom like everybody else’s, rising up as it earns TrustRank.
I learned of this distinction in early 2011, while creating a community for a client of mine. This particular client wasn’t concerned with commercial gain at the start of our campaign; he just wanted to amass an audience interested in the general theme of his company’s services. So, we built and designed a beautiful blog on the WordPress platform for him, publishing great articles each day. We were thrilled to see the community grow steadily right from the start, reaching about 35,000 visitors per month by the second month of the campaign. This was unusually generous of Google; they were allowing thousands of keywords to rain traffic on a site that had barely been around 60 days. Well, the client was thrilled—so thrilled that he decided it was time to start offering his company’s services on the site. We minimized the blog on the home page, making room for information about his services. On the same day that we compromised the purity of the blog by adding a commercial element, the traffic took a nosedive. Fifteen days later, it had halved (see Figure 4.1).
Figure 4.1 A chart showing the traffic of a site that was originally built as a noncommercial blog, which was then converted to a more commercial site around March.
At first we were confused, but then I started noticing similar trends in other clients for whom we had created blogs simply for branding or exposure. The interesting thing is that Google did not make the reason for the demotion immediately clear. Rather, it slowly reduced the number of keywords the site showed up for over time, even allowing a big spike in the midst of the decline. This is typical Google. If they made their algorithms too clear, more people would be able to decipher them.
0–1 Months: The Period of Nothingness
Whether your site is classified on Day 1 as a resource or a commercial entity—and the vast majority are considered commercial, including nonprofit websites seeking donations—your first month is unlikely to be a high-traffic one. Google is waiting to see what will happen with it, stealthily collecting data to understand your site’s content production and link-acquisition trajectories. Make no mistake that, although few people may arrive at your website from organic search, your actions during this period will affect your site’s future traffic. This is exactly the time when you need to get busy building links. If you do not build links in the first few months, your site will continue to be stagnant until you do build links.
2–4 Months: Behold, a Brave New World
After your site has been around for a couple of months, it has the opportunity to rank for some fairly competitive keywords. The number and competitiveness of keywords depends on the TrustRank you’ve built thus far. In my company’s own campaigns, we usually see an up-and-to-the-right traffic trend begin to form in the first few months, with several hundred different keywords sending traffic by the third or fourth month. This is not time period where you should expect to rank for your most difficult keywords unless you’ve built a lot of great links (think 40 to 50) and you’ve got a very niche business.
4–6 Months: The Winds of Trust
If you were building links in a casual, nonaggressive way for the past few months, your site will now be able to rank for a number of valuable keywords. It could even rank for some competitive ones. If you’ve been an animal about link building (50 to 100 links), you could already be on Page 1 for some of your most valuable terms. However, you will almost definitely not be dominating your industry. Yet.
6–12 Months: Dropping Anchor
For the average, hardworking webmaster, this will be a time of great prosperity, where your consistent hard work building links, crafting meta page titles, and optimizing your website for conversion pays off. At this point in a site’s life, it very well may have built enough TrustRank to prove out the viability of SEO for your business. Although your site still won’t rank for huge terms like mesothelioma or airline tickets, it could rank for slightly longer tail terms such as jewelry store los angeles, personalized china, and the like.
1–2 Years: Welcome to the Land of Trust
If you’ve followed the advice in this book, this stretch will be an exciting one for your business. Your traffic graph has seen its biggest lurches upward, and is now moving up in a slower, more steady fashion each month (taking seasonality into account, of course). Google’s door is now 100% open to you, and as long as you keep all of your methods above board, your site has the opportunity to rank for pretty much any keyword. Google now views your site the way society views a young, roguishly handsome businessperson—as impressive and capable of great feats but not as well respected as he will be later on in his career.
2–4 Years: A Seasoned Citizen
By now, your site should have a number of old, trusted links and be a shining member of its community. Not only is it ranking well for uncompetitive and competitive keywords alike, but your site is also a highly sought-after influencer—a site from which any other site would feel privileged to gain a link. These are the good times. With a history of building links in a natural way and continuing to attract links on a regular basis, your site may rise in search results as you please. Your site joins the ranks of those “unbeatable” websites that are always on the first page for the most competitive keywords in an industry.
May this list keep you oriented on the sometimes-dizzying road to top rankings. After publishing Outsmarting Google, I got emails from a number of people who experienced a trajectory very similar to the one in this list. I hope you do, too.