Practical Ecommerce

SEO Report Card: Escaping the Google Sandbox

New sites are always at a disadvantage when it comes to ranking well in Google, particularly when the domain name is new, too. This phenomenon, known by some as the “Google Sandbox” and by others as the “TrustBox,” is not a myth. It is very real and very much an issue for the subject of this issue’s SEO Report Card — the fair trade supporting merchant Two Hands Worldshop

SEO report card for

Two Hands registered its domain in September 2006 and launched the site in November based on a customized installation of osCommerce. In December it reached out to SEO forums asking for advice. Some of the advice was good and was taken on board, such as switching from dynamic URLs to static (i.e. no ? & = characters), and addressing its duplicate site issues (both and were getting indexed). That I was happy to see, although the latter should have been solved using 301 redirects rather than BASE HREF tags.

Some of the advice given I didn’t agree with, such as a focus on exchanging links. My hope is that Two Hands didn’t give that suggestion too much credence, since — as I have written in previous columns — reciprocal links are discounted by the engines as they do not appear to be “earned.”

Regardless of what the folks at Two Hands do to the site itself while it sits in TrustBox purgatory, these enhancements will do little good. Off-page factors (clever link building and link baiting) should be the site owner’s immediate concern, as that is what will shorten the site’s time in the sand.

It’s worth noting that this unfortunate situation could have been avoided altogether by acquiring an old domain (circa 2001 or older), preferably one that hosted a well-linked site with a long history in, rather than just a parking page.

I became certain of’s sandboxed status as I conducted Google queries for product names like “onyx pillar candle holder” and “tropical silk coin purse” and had to dig deeper than the first couple pages of results to find Considering its backlinks, PageRank, lack of spamming and content-rich product pages with the product name in the title tag, one would expect to see a Two Hands product page on the first page of results for such obscure search terms — unless Two Hands had been sandboxed.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the company in Froogle and sometimes in Google’s web results in the “Onebox” — which are three results pulled from one of Google’s vertical engines and immediately precede the natural (unpaid) results on some queries. Onebox results lead with text like “Product search results for tropical silk coin purse.”

The backlinks were rather weak, which is to be expected given how new the site is. Thankfully, a sitewide link from the blog of the founder’s father helped prop up the site’s link importance. Much more effort is required here, though.

Not to neglect on-page issues entirely, there’s plenty to be done to improve the site. The home page definitely needs some work. When I viewed the home page in the Safari browser on my Mac, I got a bit of a shock, as you can see from the screenshot (above). It seemed like they ran out of budget halfway down the screen! That’s one heck of a long (and large!) H1 heading tag — four times too long, I reckon. It smells like keyword-stuffed doorway page copy.

Upon inspecting the HTML of the home page, I found meta keywords and a meta description were present but left blank. If you have nothing to say in your meta tags, say nothing at all. In other words, either include some text in the meta tag or leave the meta tag code out entirely.

In general, the HTML could definitely be improved by adding H1 tags to category and product pages and intro copy to category pages, as well as by reducing code bloat by removing all HTML comments and avoiding the use of tables for layout. A number of pages employ the same exact title tag of “Two Hands Worldshop,” a big no-no, as you want to make each page appear unique to the engines.

The logo in the top left, the Shop link, and the Home link in the breadcrumb navigation all point to the home page but at /index.php instead of at /, which can lead to a duplicate home page getting indexed. (There is a duplicate home page at in Google, incidentally.)

I was initially alarmed to see session IDs (osCsid) in the URLs. However it was a false alarm. None of those osCsid-containing URLs made it into Google’s index and only one into Yahoo!’s. Hats off to the folks at Two Hands for detecting spiders and selectively stripping session IDs from the URLs for them.


Home Page Content D

Inbound Links and PageRank D+

Indexation C+

Internal Hierarchical Linking Structure B

HTML Templates and CSS D

Secondary Page Content D

Keyword Choices B

TItle Tags B-



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Stephan Spencer

Stephan Spencer

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  1. Legacy User February 25, 2007 Reply

    That would change the nature of those links to one-way.

    — *Stephan Spencer*

  2. Legacy User February 22, 2007 Reply

    Hi Brady. That's great that you've already started implementing my recommendations. Wow you're fast! :-) Please keep me posted of the resulting impact on your rankings and traffic.

    To answer your questions…

    1. It's good to keep an H1 tag (I'd make it shorter though), for SEO purposes. You have the right idea, but the div tag didn't fix it. It still looks bad in Safari. Use the free Safari browser screenshot generator at to do your troubleshooting. You'll be able to see when you got it working.

    2. Traded (reciprocal) links don't count for much from an SEO perspective. So if you linked back to your dad's blog, then that would discount his link to you. You'd be connecting up the link neighborhoods and the link wouldn't look like a vote that you had earned anymore.

    3. Your time in the TrustBox might continue for weeks or for months. I don't anticipate that reciprocal links will shorten your time in the 'Box. One-way links from trusted blogs and news sites will help, though. So work on your link baiting!

    — *Stephan Spencer*

  3. Legacy User February 22, 2007 Reply

    Thanks for the tip on the Safari screen shot site. I was wondering if such a tool existed. I wrapped the H1 around only the first sentence (to shorten it) and display it inline so it still appears to be a whole paragraph. I'll crack away at getting Safari to cooperate with my CSS.

    If I nofollowed the links out to some of the other blogs on our blogroll who mind me doing so, would this force Google to count incoming links from these sites as one-way?

    — *Brady*

  4. Legacy User February 20, 2007 Reply

    Got some valuable insights, but much of it was beyond my somewhat un-techie self.

    — *Karen Gross*

  5. Legacy User February 20, 2007 Reply

    I think another important decision when designing a website is the choice of keywords.

    A website chasing the keyword "cars" or "used cars" might have better luck and better qualified leads if they choose "used acura" or "used toyota tundra" on its website and pages within the site.

    Knowing which keywords are the most popular and how easy or difficult they are to rank using SEO tatics can save you lots of wasted effort and gain faster results, too.

    Great article though!

    — *Greg Polk*

  6. Legacy User February 21, 2007 Reply

    Thanks very much for the article reviewing our site, Stephan. Here are a couple questions for you.

    #1 I hadn't seen the site in Safari, yet, and was shocked to see how large the home page text appeared. I used the H1 tag as I read it was treated with more importance by the SEs. Using IE, Opera and FF the text appears much more appropriately sized as I have redefined the H1 tag with CSS. I have changed the code to this. Will this work in Safari as well and help with SEO?


    Two Hands Worldshop offers beautiful fair-trade-certified
    arts and handcrafts from the world's artisans.
    Fair trade means fair wages, safe working conditions and long-term,
    stable business partnerships for disadvantaged artisans and producers.
    Your purchase makes a difference.
    Read more about Fair Trade here.

    #fronttext {
    font-family: Verdana, Arial, sans-serif;
    font-size: 10pt;
    font-weight: bold;
    text-align: justify;
    margin-top: 10px;

    #fronttext h1 {
    font-family: Verdana, Arial, sans-serif;
    font-size: 10pt;
    font-weight: bold;
    text-align: justify;
    display: inline;

    #2 So, if I trade blogroll links with other bloggers to build up the link domain on our site, do these links not count from an SEO perspective? For instance, if I link to my dad's blog from ours, will that negate the effect his sitewide link to our site has had thus far?

    #3 Any idea how long the sandbox treatment might last? Will reciprocal links, from bloggers, help at all with deboxing?

    I created the 301 redirect from to I added content to the meta tags. And to take care of all those cumbersome HTML tables I will be using the osCommerce 3.0 code as soon as it is out of alpha and stable (could be a couple weeks, could be a few months). It will be like the Word Press code: Functionality and templates are separated and that will help load times and indexing, I'm sure.

    Thanks again for your help, it is very very appreciated!

    — *Brady*

  7. Legacy User March 2, 2007 Reply

    We have similar issues at, and I was would love advice on how to fix problems identified:

    1) Dynamic Product Pages. We are using CandyPress (asp based), hosted on a shared box at CrystalTech. I have found a couple of solutions that change the dynamic pages, but these all require software loaded on server which is not allowed in my shared server environment. Are there other ways around this?

    2) We have a 5/10 page ranking on, but a 0/10 on I've Googled "301 Redirect" so I know the code for .asp, but where do I put this?

    TIA –Eric

    — *Eric Bernhard*

  8. Legacy User March 7, 2007 Reply

    The redirect to make sure that your site either has a "www" or not can be done using a .htaccess file with mod_rewrite, if your hosting server is running Apache and has this enabled. Contact your hosting company or server admin to find out if this is possible, and if not another alternative should be available (depending on the web server).

    In addition, mod_rewrite should be able to handle your dynamic URLs as well. Changes will need to be made to CandyPress in order to make sure that it is outputting the correct URLs. However, all of the actual URL mapping can be done with mod_rewrite. If your hosting company does not allow mod_rewrite (as it may be Windows-based hosting) there should be an alternative available to you.

    If not, switch hosts.

    — *Brian Getting*

  9. Legacy User March 12, 2007 Reply

    Did you guys do a test on ?

    — *Mark Tappia*