Guest post by Nathalie Sanderson
For the past decade, SEOs and marketers have been using exact match domains (EMDs) to boost search engine rankings for specific keywords. Anyone who was fortunate enough to snag the domain name with the exact keywords they wanted to rank for enjoyed a significant advantage over other websites for that particular keyword.
From the point of view of Google’s algorithm, it’s obvious why this “EMD boost” initially made sense. If your website is TravelToTimbuktu.com, it made sense that your website would be relevant if someone searched for “Travel to Timbuktu”. However, this phenomenon was quickly used by SEOs, web developers, and marketers to gain unnatural advantages in the search engine rankings. Webmasters and marketers would use the EMD boost in order to quickly rank small, low quality spam sites above more high quality, relevant content.
The EMD Update – Sept 28, 2012
On Sept 28, 2012, Google launched an algorithm change – known as the EMD update – which virtually eliminated any rankings boost enjoyed by exact match domains. According to data released by Matt Cutts – the head of Google’s webspam team – the EMD update affected up to 0.6% of English U.S. searches.
While this may not seem like much on a grand scale, 0.6% on a scale of hundreds of millions is significant – especially in the SEO community, where the impact was profound. Sites that had been ranking at the top of the SERPS (search engine result pages) for years dropped off the map. To add to the confusion amongst those trying to decipher the EMD update, Google also launched a significant Panda update – its algorithm filter designed to filter out spam – around the same time as the EMD update. This update affected 2.6% of all English U.S. search queries.
The combination of the EMD update and Panda update caused much confusion, leading many webmasters and SEOs to conflate the EMD update – designed to reduce the SEO benefits of exact match domains – with the new Panda release – designed to filter out low quality content.
What Does The EMD Update Mean To Your Business?
As with everything related to Google’s algorithm, the best we can do is informed speculation; the “black box” nature of Google’s search ranking methods makes it impossible to draw any conclusions with 100% certainty.
What we do know however, is that the EMD update doesn’t appear to penalize EMDs, but rather it appears to devalue them. Certainly, it wouldn’t make sense for Google to penalize anyone using an Exact match domain, as that would penalize millions of perfectly legitimate websites. Looking at the numerous “White-hat” EMDs that dropped slightly in the rankings, it’s clear that they didn’t suffer anything comparable to a penalty.
On the other hand, many lower quality EMDs suffered drastic rankings dropped consistent with a penalty. Many speculated that the EMD update may have included a filter that penalizes over-optimized EMDs, meaning that any exact match domain that also has the search phrase in the title, H1, H2, H3 tags, bolded, in image ALT tags etc., when combined with low trust and authority, likely triggers a penalty. For most webmasters, this isn’t anything to worry about. However, for those who built low quality EMD websites for the sole purpose of collecting Adsense or Affiliate revenue, this aspect of the update would have significantly affected their sites.
While many search engine experts agree that there is likely an over-optimization component in the EMD update, the other possibility is that some of the EMDs that suffered penalties around Sep 28, 2012 were not penalized by the EMD update at all, but rather were affected by the major Panda update that occurred around the same time. It’s certainly possible that the Panda filter was tweaked to further crack down on over-optimized sites. This theory makes sense, since many of the EMDs that suffered penalties were also sites with low quality, spammy content. At the end of the day, with 2 major updates released at the same time, it may be awhile longer before we can accurately sort out the true ramifications of the EMD update.
How To Adjust Your SEO Strategy Going Forward
Although the waters are always a bit murky when it comes to SEO, there are a few lessons we can take going forward. The primary lesson is that having a search phrase in your domain no longer seems to offer a significant rankings boost. That certainly doesn’t mean that EMDs are useless – they still carry significant branding power. After all, if your site is an e-commerce store named bluewidgets.com, anyone searching for blue widgets will be able to easily return to your store.
The second key takeway is that – with all the heavily keyword optimized sites that were penalized (whether by the EMD update or Panda), it seems clear that Google is doing everything in their power to reward sites that gather natural links and authority over those whose rankings are engineered by SEOs. Between Panda, Penguin, and now the EMD update, Google is slowly taking away the SEO techniques that have worked for years. While search engine optimization will continue to exist as long as search engines are still around, any efforts to boost the ranking of your site going forward needs to focus on looking as natural as possible.
What does this mean? This means that whenever you make an effort to optimize your site for the search engines, ask yourself if a site would naturally look this way. Would a site naturally have a targeted search term in its title, url, header tags, image alt tags, in bold font, and appearing frequently in the text? Would a site have 100 different links with a targeted search phrase as the anchor text? If the answer is no, then reconsider what you’re doing.
While you should avoid the more “artificial” SEO techniques, continue to put out quality content with the reader in mind. If you build links, search for links from quality sources that are selective in their linking, and opt for natural looking anchor text. Avoid links from poor quality sources that could get you flagged by Penguin – this means spam links, as well as links from sites that tend to link out to other low quality sites. As long as your link profile and on-site SEO look natural, Google will continue to reward your site.
Nathalie Sanderson is an SEO and blogger. Nat is passionate about search engine marketing and entrepreneurship.