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Web Search & Marketing Newsletter - October 2005

This month we return to the theme of Google and consider the 'Sandbox' effect that has been the subject of debate for some time and appears to have been confirmed by Google in the past few months. We consider what it is and how it can affect your website's rankings.

We also look at the measurement of UK websites by the ABCe, which aims to provide a standard method of visitor statistics that can be used and trusted by advertisers. And finally this month, we ask whatever happened to Excite, one of the leading search engines in the 1990s.

To find out more, please read on below. You can also browse through previous editions and if you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, just submit your details using the form at the side of the page.

On to this month's news...

The Google 'Sandbox' debate

The Google Sandbox is a term that has been used over the last year or so within the search engine optimisation business to refer to a perceived effect that has been noticed with some sites, whereby they do not rank on Google for a period of time. It has been an issue that has generated much debate and comment, but in the past few months it appears that Google has finally confirmed its existence.

The Google Sandbox describes a checking or ageing process that has been noticed by websites since the last big Google update was implemented in the spring of 2004. It describes a penalty, or probationary period, that is implemented by Google on either new websites or existing sites that appear to achieve a high number of inbound links in a short period of time. This was seen to be a new way of Google checking whether sites are legitimately established and optimised, or whether they are being manipulated in some way to achieve quick ranking results.

The effect of this Sandbox has been that new sites may get indexed and rank well for a short period of time, but then disappear from the results for a period of time - in some cases for 6 months or more - until Google's algorithm is able to confirm that the site is genuine in some way. We believe that we have seen this process affect a number of sites, including one of our own, although there has been much debate about whether this process does actually exist or not.

During a conference in August, it appears that some senior Google engineers have now confirmed informally that such a system is being used. Although this could be Google playing games with the search engine optimisation community - as they usually guard their ranking criteria very closely - it does appear to carry some credibility. The comments have been reported by a number of blogs, recounting the comments that there is a probationary period being used for some sites that are 'triggered' by certain criteria.

So can it be avoided? Yes, existing sites should not 'attract attention' too quickly and try gradually building quality inbound links rather than multiple links from link farms or similar dubious techniques. Our method of link building would certainly avoid this type of penalty although it can still take a long time to build up quality links to support a competitive ranking position. For new sites it can be harder, as it may depend on the new domain name, or perhaps a shared server with an established site, or even multiple links from other sites that may be used in the normal manner of interlinking between associated sites.

If this filter does appear to be affecting a website, there is unfortunately very little that can be done, except to be patient and to develop the optimisation of the site so that it does well on Yahoo and MSN before the Google listings appear normally. There is also Google AdWords to ensure coverage of the market and perhaps cynics may say that this is Google's way to get new websites to use this technique earlier and to get hooked in! Either way, it does now appear that the 'Sandbox' is an element of Google's ranking criteria and one that may have to be built in to a website's long term optimisation strategy.

If you'd like to know more about the Google Sandbox and its possible impact on your website, please contact us for more details.

Traffic measurement by ABCe

ABC Electronic (ABCe) is an organisation that provides an industry standard measurement in the UK for websites that wish to sell advertising and need independently verified statistics on their visitor numbers and usage data. In such a confusing area where websites tend to quote a wide array of statistics gathered in different ways - including the irrelevant figure of 'hits' - the ABCe site can provide some valuable data on the state of the Internet market.

ABCe was formed at the end of the 1990s as an offshoot of the established Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry owned, non-profit organisation set up by print publishers to audit and verify the circulation figures of newspapers and magazines to provide advertisers with trustworthy and reliable data.

Measuring standardised visitor numbers in the Internet market was a bigger challenge, but the ABCe system was established to create industry accepted metrics that could be used by participating companies so that website and advertising traffic data could be published, along with other forms of electronic media such as SMS and iTV. The companies who register with ABCe to verify their data tend to be some of the largest web publishers in the UK. Certificates are issued following the audit of each site, which takes place on a regular basis from monthly to quarterly or even annually in some cases, and this information is then used by the publishers to sell advertising on their site.

By going on to the ABCe website, you can search or browse the database of participating publishers by name or business sector. Within each option, you can click on the publisher / website name to view usage data over time or download the certificates that include more detailed information, although this can vary in depth.

This data would certainly be of interest to anyone intending to advertise on any of these sites and should be openly provided by the publisher anyway. The value to other observers is to see what volumes of traffic are actually being attracted to some of these major sites, either in a specific business field or in the market generally.

For example, in the search market, a number of sites have been certified although most have not done so for the last few years as the market becomes more sensitive. The most recent figures for Yahoo UK (Jan 03) show 930m page impressions in the month, Ask Jeeves UK (Nov 03) shows 128m page impressions and 6.4m unique users, whereas AltaVista UK was last audited in March 2001 and records 42m page impressions in the month.

In the business market, the Applegate directory was audited in May this year and records 4.7m page impressions and 853,000 unique users. Finally, as an example of a major player in the UK web market, Sky's website was audited in August and shows 514m page impressions in the month and 10.8m unique users visiting the site.

If you'd like to know more about the ABCe statistics and the process employed, please contact us for more information.

Whatever happened to Excite?

In the latest of our series reviewing search sites that have now largely disappeared from view, we look at Excite this month. Originally one of the earliest and most prominent search tools, Excite has now become a minor search player and a shadow of its former self.

Excite first appeared at the end of 1995 and was one of a spate of launches by the new 'crawler' based search engines, sending out spiders to record websites and build a searchable index - others from this time were AltaVista, Lycos, WebCrawler and Infoseek. In 1996 Excite was growing fast and purchased WebCrawler and also Magellan, a smaller but highly regarded search tool.

Excite continued to build a strong position within the search market at the end of the 1990's and established a series of partnerships with MSN and Netscape to provide search services. However, the main Excite site, along with international versions that had been established, tended to follow the portal route that many of the search engines of the time pursued, offering a range of other services as well as search.

Consequently, the impact of Google's launch in 1998 meant that these established search sites began to lose traffic and Excite was acquired by @Home.com (a broadband service provider) in a $6.7 billion merger in 1999. This failed to halt the slide, however, and by 2001 Excite@Home was facing significant debts, despite being one of the top ISPs in the US. The Excite search index was also falling behind the other main players of the time - Google, FAST, AltaVista and Inktomi.

Eventually filing for bankruptcy in the US, Excite@Home was broken up as part of a takeover of the service by AT&T. The Excite.com portal was eventually purchased by Ask Jeeves in March 2004 and the European operations were also taken over this year, giving Ask Jeeves ownership of all the domains and portals in different countries across Europe.

Excite continues to exist as a brand at the moment, with its range of portal services being offered in the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria. In the US, search results are provided through a metasearch tool combining results from a number of pay-per-click and natural search tools (including Google and Yahoo) whereas the Excite UK website currently replicates the results generated by Ask Jeeves and also offers directory results from the Open Directory.

If you'd like to know more about Excite, or if there is a search tool that you used to use in the past and wonder whatever happened to it, please let us know.

We hope you've found this month's newsletter informative. Please contact us if you need any more details on the items covered, or our advice on any aspect of your website's performance. Also, if there are any issues you would like to see in future editions of this newsletter, please submit your suggestions.