Exact Match Domains (EMDs) have always been an easy way to rank quickly but may have met their end thanks to Google's latest algorithm update.
The update was announced on Friday in two tweets by Google's head of webspam Matt Cutts:
Minor weather report: small upcoming Google algo change will reduce low-quality "exact-match" domains in search results.
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) September 28, 2012
New exact-match domain (EMD) algo affects 0.6% of English-US queries to a noticeable degree. Unrelated to Panda/Penguin.
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) September 28, 2012
Cutts didn't say when the update was due but early data from SEOmoz shows that it happened on the same day:
As you can see this is a big update, but why are Google after Exact Match Domains?
Why Does Google Not Like Exact Match Domains?
The benefit of EMDs in Google's algorithm is like many early ranking factors. When Google first started indexing pages it made sense that a query for 'Red Leicester Cheese' resulting in 'www.redleicestercheese.com' would serve up a site related to the query, this was before quality was much of an issue.
Like link building and any other factors that clearly affect ranking, SEOs started targeting exact match domains for keywords. The focus switched from brand domains to EMD or a combination of the two (no data to suggest the latter has been affected). Before the internet it would have been inconceivable to market a product with a broad keyword phrase as you wouldn't stand out from your competitors. However, anything that guarantees high ranking on Google is a good way of standing out!
The problem is that ranking with EMDs has been too easy. Up until recently, SERPs have been dominated by EMDs for competitive keywords - not always in the top spots but ever present on page 1. This isn't a problem except when those sites are low quality or when a better site is being outranked just because of the domain name. As you may have guessed from Matt Cutts' involvement, this update doesn't target all EMDs but just those with low quality content. This generally means that most No.1 EMDs have stayed at the top because they have done more than just use an exact match URL to get there.
Who is Affected?
As with most webspam algorithm updates, the sort of sites hit by this update are those unwanted in SERPs anyway - weak content with no authority and little value. As with most updates a lot of people will be up in arms because their site isn't ranking but as always - instead of focusing on building something great, they focused on manipulating the results for quick gains with little effort.
So if you use Exact Match Domains then don't panic too much, just make your site as good as possible. I'm not going to go into too much detail on what makes a site good in Google's eyes (that's covered on our SEO course!) but it's the usual stuff - good copy, rich media, user experience that works, high page engagement etc.
If your site has been hit and you don't think you've done anything against the quality guidelines then be honest and ask yourself - "Does my site deserve to rank in the top 10 for a competitive keyword just because of my domain name?" Remember, be honest. (Question adapted from Dr. Pete's post on SEOmoz)
Forum and blog comments are asking why EMDs are being penalised but based on the sorts of sites dropping and the ones remaining I would guess that this isn't a penalty but instead the value of EMDs has been reduced for certain sites. This is pure speculation but it would explain why decent EMDs have stayed up while spammy ones have dropped.
Future of Exact Match Domains
As it stands, if two competing sites have exactly the same signals then the one with the EMD is going to rank higher so they're definitely not dead yet. However, updates like this go to show that Google does prefer established brands over pop-up sites.
Our advice at Silicon Beach will always be to develop a trustworthy brand and build real relationships with real people. EMDs have had their day, it's time for digital marketing to take some hints from offline business. Go into any supermarket and you won't find brands like 'crisps' and 'butter'. Don't be scared of hard work and effort, embrace it and the rewards will be great. You also won't have to start a new website every time Google's algorithm is updated!
We don't teach quick win tactics because that's all they are and this was reinforced at the recent BrightonSEO where the emphasis was on an all-round strategy including social media, content, email and great web design. Follow the links to find out how we can help you out.