In October 2012 Google finally closed one of the most efficient loopholes (or so it seemed) that was perpetuated by both business people and, unfortunately, spammers. We are talking about the exact match domain Update. This was really sad news for an entire industry of EMD tools that brokers and retailers came up with. We will succintly explain the phenomenon to you so that you better understand. In the past (in the beginning of SEO), it was possible to rank in the top 10 Google results with literally no back-links or ethical SEO practices.
Compared to non EMD sites, EMD ones would appear in results for the simple fact that they had the keyword that they were ranking for in the website address. You see, back then, keyword optimization and back-link creation were the most popular SEO practices. Ironically enough, they were the most spammed ones. Many black-hat specialists would create low quality links, on obscure websites, spam comments and create irrelevant content simply to insert one or two suspicious links.
“…a company may attempt to “trick” the search engine into listing the company’s web site more highly. For example, if the search engine gives greater weight in ranking results to words used in the domain name associated with web sites, a company may attempt to trick the search engine into ranking the company’s listing more highly by including desirable search terms in the domain name associated with the company’s listing.”
As far as keywords are concerned, KWD stuffing was already a daily basis activity. Back then Google was definitely not the best source for your answers. You probably remember the times when you would click on a -doorway- site, and be sent to a totally different place. Obviously, this no longer happens in 2013 (with a few exceptions), and this is because Google has taken steps to optimize their filters and algorithms. One of the most important changes that they implemented was the EMD Update which turned the free lunches for those in-the-know, into a dead end.
You can imagine how dissapointed and frustrated online business people were, but the truth is that they should have seen this coming from miles away. Matt Cutts actually warned people that this problem will soon be solved, and it seems that Slawski, Shigal and the team were working on this problem for quite some time now.
“Now if you’re still on the fence, let me just give you a bit of color, that we have looked at the rankings and the weights that we give to keyword domains, and some people have complained that we’re giving a little too much weight for keywords in domains,” Cutts said. “And so we have been thinking about adjusting that mix a little bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm, so that given two different domains it wouldn’t necessarily help you as much to have a domain with a bunch of keywords in it.” (Source: SearchEngineWatch)
You see, Google has no problem with EMD sites, as long as they provide value to the visitor, but as long as it is a thin site, filled with gibberish, it definitely does not want to rank it. The main purpose of Google is to rank websites that were build for people, and not for crawlers. As a result, not all EMDs were targeted by this update, but rather the ones that were violating Google’s rules: they were stuffing keywords, or giving false information. Just so you understand the force that EMDs had in the past, let’s take an example. Let’s say you are trying to rank for the keyword Caribbean luxury cruise. The first thing you do, is create your website: www.caribbeanluxurycruise.com. This will already ensure that you advance a few positions through SERPs. The next thing you must do is to stuff it with keywords like: Caribbean luxury cruise, Caribbean cruise, luxury cruise etc..
In the past, this would ensure that you gained enormous amounts of traffic from Google, and a decent position. But don’t think for one second that you somehow tricked the search engine by doing this. Google was aware of this problem since 2003. As a matter of fact, the patent for the EMD algorithm, systems and methods for detecting commercial queries was ready in September 2003. It was finally approved in October 2012. Matt Cutts also stated that the EMD game would soon change. But before you start cursing again, keep in mind that Google was quite transparent about their decision. They gave you a heads-up in March 2011, and it’s not like they punished every EMD site. The only ones that suffered were the ones which proliferated with the help of black hat SEO techniques.
Was the EMD Update Really a Shock?
The only shocking part of the EMD Update was the fact that certain webmasters were shocked by Google’s decision. Following the 29th EMD update, many webmasters resorted to curses and insults at directed to Google, and we can’t really understand why. They were actually angry because their black hat techniques were rendered obsolete. In a way it is funny, but what could you expect? It is impossible to even phantom the idea that a site can be grown with EMD alone. The only way to make your web-site more visible on SERPs is by playing by Google’s rules (mobile optimization, on-site optimization, quality back-links, insightful content, social signals etc.). Here are the key takeaways of the EMD Update:
#1 Trust is the Foundation of Every Business
After having analyzed a few sites in the past, we came to the conclusion that Google has indeed made the right decision. We actually came across a site that had face testimonials, accompanied by stock photography! Seriously? As a matter of fact, they even had a few keywords stuffed in the testimonials. Can you imagine how many innocent victims they made? People who really needed a certain service, and would fall pray to such lame practices?
Even if EMD sites aren’t as effective as before, they still have a small advantage, as long as they are correctly optimized. The past few months were extremely difficult for SEO specialists because they were marked by several major algorithm updates. Let’s take a quick look back. On 8 May 2013, a mysterious update caused sites to plummets. It was dubbed the Phantom update, and according to different studies, it was content focused. A couple of weeks later, the Penguin 2.0 followed, and soon after the Penguin 2.1 (fifth update) also rolled out. They have had negative impact on the organic traffic of several sites. Unlike the Panda and Phantom updates, the Penguin is focused on combating web-spam (unnatural links, suspicious pages etc.). All in all, the SEO landscape is changing right before our eyes. If it was possible to pull things like keyword stuffing a few years ago, you can rest assured that this is no longer the case.
#2 Google is Trying to Organize Information Correctly
Google is trying to rank sites that will actually help people, and can you blame them? Even if it is the online medium, trust is still important, and pages that can’t help anyone have nothing to do in the top results. Its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, and if you think about it for a second, all you really have to do is to not violate quality guidelines, and build higher-quality websites.
“Please note that according to our definition, all types of actions intended to boost ranking (either relevance, or importance, or both), without improving the true value of a page, are considered spamming.” (Web Spam Taxonomy by Zoltán Gyöngyi & Hector Garcia-Molina)
If you wish to stand a fighting chance, you should definitely review Google’s quality guidelines. In other words, you must make sure that you are not violating any of the rules. It’s not like you should be surprised by all the algorithmic changes. They are not a surprise at all. Google has already stated that it wants high-quality websites, so instead of worrying about then next catastrophic update, why not build brick by brick before?
#3 Overall Domain Strength is Still Important
When the EMD Update initially rolled up, it didn’t smite all the exact match domains. As a matter of fact, the ones that were ethically build, and contained useful information, were rewarded. The only ones that got slapped were those which were built with the help of questionable methods (the most commonly perpetuated one being keyword stuffing). Domain age and overall domain strength are important parameters, and together with the other 200 parameters they will determine your position in SERPs.
#4 Quality of Back-links > Quantity of Back-links
If you have an EMD website you can still promote it with anchors that reflect your website’s name. There is actually no problem with this practice, as long as keywords vary (meaning you don’t just spam the same anchor all over the world). Furthermore, instead of posting articles on article directories, or slapping them on obscure websites that have nothing to do with your niche, why not concentrate on creating amazingly awesome guest-posts for incredibly-awesome websites? A good backlink is ten times more valuable than 30 back-links on suspicious websites.
Types of EMDs and How to Choose them
According to several SEO Specialists it is still possible to put EMDs to good use, as long as you play by Google’s rules. But before we get into any more details, it would be good to identify the types of exact match domains available. They can be sorted according to TLD extension (.com, .net, .org etc), dashed or non-dashed, number of keywords and “stop words”.
Whatever you do, don’t choose double-dashed EMDs (I am also against single-dashed ones but if you really want one, you can go ahead). It has been proven that most double-dashed domains are spam, so stay away from them. The same rule applies to hyphens. The next thing you have to worry about is keywords. How many of them would you want in your site name? You should firstly consider the effectiveness of long-tail keywords for business, and also think about the possibility that a shorter name is already taken. Three keywords in a website name may sound like a lot, but it can work. However, don’t go for more than three words, and definitely don’t insert words like “in”, “for” etc.
A good domain name can be www.seobeginnerguide.com, as opposed to www.theseoforbeginnersguide.com. The first address is easier to remember and type in. Last but not least, what extension would you like to have? You can chose from .com, .org, .net etc. You probably already know that .com is the best idea, but you can also go for something like .net/org.
“.net/.org” keyword domains have proven to be very effective as a tool for bootstrapping a website. I think this is valid strategy. Instead of flickr.com, start with onlinephotos.net or even onlinephotogallery.org. I understand the value of a brand, but I think there’s also value in embracing “bootstrapper traffic.” There’s definitely a lot of value to a startup in some highly relevant long tail traffic from your targeted keyword phrase set. .net/.org domains are generally priced at about 10% of the value of a .com domain. This can be of great value in competitive verticals where most of the domains have been registered for many years. “ (Source: Moz.com)
Exact Match Domain Best Practices
EMDs are still lucrative, especially if you respect the following rules:
- Don’t be a cheep skate! Invest in the best domain name for your site. Consider the possibility that you will actually grow your site in the future, wouldn’t you want it to have the best name ever? You can check the online market for domain names that are already old and reliable.
- Avoid dashes in the domain name, and stay away from second level TLDs that nobody has heard about.
- GEO-Local EMDs are great to own → lower barriers to entry
- focus efforts on “de-optimization”
- Max 3-4 words for .com EMDs and 2-3 words for .net/.org ones
Pros of an EMD
- Great for a startup to gather some relevant longtail traffic
- Easier to get targeted anchor text
- Easier to get social mentions with keywords
- Can dominate a single niche (IE: “Category Killer”)
- Good for targeting variations in the long tail keyword phrase set
- Brand mentions and keyword mentions become one in the same
- They can be very effective for generic commercial intent queries
- They can be very effective in local search
- Great way to build startup “bootstrapper” traction
- Can be an effective strategy with a well built microsite to target a single niche.
- Some businesses have very limited keyword sets – this is a decent approach in these areas.
Cons of an EMD
- Limits future brand expansion
- Can create “brand confusion”
- You don’t get the same “credit” for brand mentions.
- Your brand can come off as “generic”
- It can be harder to claim social media profiles
- It can be more difficult to associate mentions with your brand
- Hatorade on your site quality if you outrank competitors
- More chance of “over-optimization” (seriously, does anyone else hate this phrase as much as I do?)
- There are a limited amount of them
- They can be very expensive
- The effectiveness of the advantages are slowly being neutralized
It has also already been proven that sites rank better when they have positive engagement metrics, and EMDs can help you with this. Statistics show that the length of time spent on a site, multiple page views, repeated visits and low bounce rates are beneficial, and with a little effort you can create exact match domains that meet engagement requirements. As we already mentioned, the EMD Update wasn’t as catastrophic as one might think. The loophole hasn’t been completely closed. As a matter of fact, it has only ensured that speculators were finally put in their rightful place.
After changing its filters, Google actually turned the SEO war into a correct fight. In a world were search engines look for evidence that a site’s content is actually in demand and useful, social media plays a vital part. Mentions on each of the huge platforms will translate into interest from real humans. If you want to put this to good use, find an EMD that shows the intent of your business, and this way you will be giving yourself the best chance to land on the top of SERPs.
How Much Do Exact-Match Domains Cost?
EMDs can cost a few thousand dollars, or a few billion dollars. It depends on how much the buyer is willing to pay for it. Most exact-match domain names can value even 99.999 dollars. And if you think about the type-in-traffic, limited supply and brand recognition and authority of EMDs its quite obvious to understand why certain business owners are willing to pay so much money for them.
Assuming two websites both have equally great content, beautiful design, strong marketing and social media tactics, regular publishing schedules, strict editorial standards and similar budgets, the website that has the exact-match domain will likely win over a non-keyword domain name for the desired keyword or phrase.
The Future Value of EMDs
Even if Google released its update for EMDs, this doesn’t mean that you can’t find value in exact match domains. At the moment they are very trusted because they are easy to find, and they give a sense of trust and powerful brand. The more websites pop up the harder it will be for business owners to find a decent name for their website, so EMDs will sale for more and more money. Having a brandable name like Amazon.com can help you tremendously in the future!