Google’s John Mueller answered why new content sometimes pops into the search results ranking high then drops off. John explained what Google does with new content and how that explains the Sandbox and Honeymoon phenomenon that the SEO community has been talking about for decades.
The Google Sandbox
In the early 2000s some publishers noticed that new content sometimes took months or even longer before it started ranking. It seemed as if new content was not being trusted and not allowed to rank.
John Mueller on Why New Pages Rank then Taper Off
Matt Cutts asked for some URLs, investigated and reported back to the webmaster community that Google was not preventing the content from ranking but that an algorithm was working as it was supposed to work.
Some felt that explanation was cryptic. I never understood how the answer could be seen as contradictory or cryptic.
To put some context into the beginning of the Google Sandbox theory, it was created during the time when publishers would promote new sites with directory links and reciprocal linking campaigns.
That was the standard procedure and in hindsight it’s painfully obvious that it stunk. But back then everyone was doing it and then as now, people tend to believe that if everybody is doing it then it must be okay.
So obviously (to them), if they are doing everything “right” it must be Google unfairly blocking new websites from ranking.
The Google Honeymoon Effect
The Google Honeymoon theory is that Google will rank new content at the top of the search results in order to test it to see if users like it.
If the click through rate and bounce-back rates indicate that users don’t like the new content then Google will taper off the traffic.
This question is specific to the Google Honeymoon theory.
The person asking the question makes a reference to user behavior, which seems to be a reference to the idea that Google is testing how users respond and de-ranking the page if users don’t like it enough.
Why Does Ranking and Traffic Taper Off to New Pages?
The person asking the question is asking about new web pages. Although the person doesn’t make reference to the Google Honeymoon theory, the nature of the question implies that this is what they are asking about, and Mueller makes an explicit reference to it later on.
The question asked:
“We see a spike in traffic shortly after introducing new types of pages followed by tapering off.
Though we don’t expect our users to behave any differently based on how long the content has been live, our content isn’t very time based nor at all newsy.
Do you have any thoughts on why we might see this sort of release spike?”
Google Has Systems that Make Assumptions About Content
John Mueller’s answer seems to confirm that there is a Honeymoon Period with new content. But keep reading because the answer reveals more nuance than that.
Mueller states that part of the judgment has to do with what the rest of the site is like.
John Mueller answered:
“I think probably what is happening in this particular case is that we’re seeing new content for a website and especially when it comes to new content on a website or new websites overall… there’s kind of this period where we recognize the new content, we can crawl and index the new content but we don’t have a lot of signals for that new content yet.
And then we have to make assumptions. And our systems try to make assumptions where they think this is probably in line with the rest of the website.
But sometimes those assumptions are on the high side where we say oh this is fantastic content, probably…
And sometimes the assumptions are more on the lower side where we’re a little bit more conservative and like, uh we have to be careful with showing this new content.
And that’s something where you’ll see that sometimes new content performs particularly well for a period of time and then it settles down again.
Sometimes it performs kind of badly initially and then settles down in a higher state.
This is something which is essentially just our systems kind of trying to figure out where this new content should fit in before we have a lot of signals about the content.”
Mueller Comments Directly on the Sandbox and Honeymoon Theories
This is where Mueller refutes the existence of a Google Sandbox and a Google Honeymoon for new pages and explains what is going on.
“In the SEO world this is sometimes called kind of like a sandbox where Google is like keeping things back to prevent new pages from showing up, which is not the case.
Or some people call it like the honeymoon period where new content comes out and Google really loves it and tries to promote it.
And it’s again not the case that we’re explicitly trying to promote new content or demote new content.
It’s just, we don’t know and we have to make assumptions.
And then sometimes those assumptions are right and nothing really changes over time.
Sometimes things settle down a little bit lower, sometimes a little bit higher.”
What You See Isn’t Always What is There
Sometimes humans unwittingly invent an explanation for what they see, which might be something completely random with no explanation or might have a cause that is not perceived.
It’s like the six blind men who touch a different part of an elephant and explain what it is from just the one part they can perceive.
According to Psychology Today, humans are biased to see themselves as doing a good job and sometimes unable to see the faults that are leading to a negative outcome.
“People make attributions that are biased in a self-serving direction. In general, we take credit when we think we performed well than when we think we performed poorly.”
And that’s very much like the origin of the Sandbox theory where the common practices for site promotion were of a very low quality but most publishers did not perceive it that way.
It’s good to have someone like John Mueller who is on the inside of Google explain why we see this and why that happens. It helps expose how ideas like the Google Sandbox and the Google Honeymoon do nothing to explain what is really going on.
Watch John Mueller talk about honeymoon and sandbox period for new content, located at 23:05 minute mark