Exact match domains have for a while received what is effectively an added boost in search results due to their additional perceived relevancy. It’s finally time for webmasters running these sites to change their tactics, as last Friday Google finally made it’s first notable move against Exact Match Domains (EMDS). Jump to:

History of Exact Match Domains and Google

Matt Cutts, Google’s Head of Webspam, and two others triggered some discussion in the SEO world in late 2003 when a patent was filed by Google at the US Patent Office called “Systems and methods for detecting commercial queries“. At this point in time an EMD was likely to be able to perform well for commercial keyword searches, and due to this its misuse spiraled. Google obviously saw this coming, and in an answer in a Youtube Google Webmaster Help video in 2011 titled “How important is it to have keywords in a domain name”, Cutts dissuaded viewers from using this technique in website naming conventions. In this video, Matt says “given two different domains it wouldn’t necessarily help you as much to have a domain with a bunch of keywords in it.” – potentially hinting at the changes we saw last week. Here’s the video from 2011.

At this time, Simon Heseltine (Director of SEO at Huffington Post), bluntly said “If your strategy is based around keywords in the domain name, then you may want to start working on a new strategy.” We couldn’t have agreed with him more.

Recent changes to keyword rich domain names

Matt Cutts, Google’s Head of Webspam, mentioned the ‘slight change’ on Friday evening on twitter. The EMD penalty should affect 0.6% of English-US searches. SEOMoz’s MozCast picked up a slight change in the ‘search weather’ overall, but if you dive deeper into the ‘Importance of Exact Match Domain’ tab, the story is much more clear. See the image below. We also noticed a few more local exact match domains in our current industry slip a position or two – something we’ve been wishing for some time now.

MozCast Exact Match Domains Influence Following changes in Google algorithms, searches affected by the change seem to fluctuate for a few days as the actual results are fine tuned. Now that almost a week has passed, we can assume that if any EMDs that have fallen in your niche (if any) will stay down. The range of sites immediately affected by the change is unknown to us, but Webmasters of sites large and small were hit by the penalty if their site was deemed to be of a lower quality and were therefore only adding relevancy through their domain name. Here are Friday’s (28th September 2012) tweets.

Matt makes it clear that this is unrelated to the Panda and Penguin updates of the last 18 months. However, irrelevant of this, it is just one more tool Google have in its arsenal against poor webmasters that will ultimately increase the quality of it’s search results for its users (and allow honest websites to perform well!)

Partial Match Domains (PMDs)

As expected, Partial Match Domains (PMDs) have also seen a decrease in their influence – but still remain more influential than EMDs. PMDs are a little harder to find and penalise as they are not necessarily playing the same game that EMD Webmasters are playing, so this is understandable. Partial Match Domains seem to have been affected just after EMDs, perhaps due to the above reasons. Over the past 90 days, the general trend for PMDs influence has been much clearer than EMDs. [Awaiting graph].

MozCast Partial Match Domains Influence

Exact match domains in the future

Perhaps pessimistically, I don’t think many Exact Match Domains will last the test of time as Google learns more about how to remove low quality domains. Some will undoubtedly last, but I don’t think it will be on their search relevance alone. Many of them will need to develop and sustain a true online and offline brand to be deemed valid and to gain a natural link profile, similar to that of an average site. Brand will continue to play a larger part of search in the coming years – only further reinforced by the new seven-result search engine results for brands (down from 10), leaving little room for lower quality sites trying to take advantage. If you’ve noticed a drop in search results, or have noticed significant changes in your commercial terms, let us know in the comments.

Aaron Dicks

Managing Director

Managing Director of Impression. Search engine optimisation, paid media and web analytics consultant. Also web developer and digital all-rounder. @aarondicks

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