While Google has set out to tackle exact match domains of dubious quality, it seems this is an SEO tactic that may still work. 

Indeed, a recent study found that exact match domains were able to rank highly with fewer links and less content than branded competitors. 

I’ve decided to delve deeper into this issue with some examples and opinions from a cast of SEO experts… 

Exact match domains and search rankings

Exact match domains are those which match the search query precisely, as opposed to domains, such as glassesdirect.com, which merely contain a keyword they would hope to rank for. 

EMDs have been used as a shortcut to higher rankings and, as such, can command high prices. 

Google has been looking to reduce the value of low quality EMDs, but we can still see a few examples. Here, while you can watch movies online on Amazon, Netflix, Sky and many other ‘kosher’ sites, the SERPs are dominated by what seem to be pirate sites with exact domain names. 

According to Jon Earnshaw, CTO of Intelligent Positioning: 

The proliferation of EMD depends on the sector. There were historically many in the ‘watch movies online’ and ‘pay day loan’ related searches. This has a lot to do with the sectors in questions, where there are transient businesses attempting to sell perhaps not 100% bona-fide services. In the movies sector there were also huge amounts of eastern-european TLDs such as keyword.ro  or keyword2.po  

Our toolset collects and stores all returning URLs for particular search terms. Within the payday loans sector and watch movies sectors there are fewer EMDs and very close PMDs than this time last year.  

However, that is not necessarily down to Google, but perhaps down the fly-by-night businesses succeeding and failing in the SERPs – see separate images which show the short termism of their success.  

In this chart, the first batch of EMD sites for loans were prominent last year, and then collapsed:

The second batch shown below are new to the game and have proliferated recently: 

Exact match doesn’t always work… 

Here, though cheapflights.com has the exact domain for this query, it still ranks below Skyscanner, while Google’s own flight search function has pushed its organic listing further down the page. 

This perhaps shows that it’s harder to achieve results with exact domains in more competitive verticals like this one. 

EMDs: the stats

The canirank study mentioned earlier found the following: 

  • Keyword domains rank on average 11% higher than branded domains. 
  • Brand (non-EMD) domains needed an average of 40,000 more links to hit position one, and 35,000 more links to reach the Top 10. 
  • Branded domains needed 69% higher Domain Authority and 22% higher Page Authority to rank in the Top 10.
  • Keyword domains were able to reach position one with half as much content, and only using the keyword half as frequently. 

The report also recommends exact match domains as a shortcut to increased rankings, but is this a wise tactic?

I’ve been asking SEOs about the value (or otherwise) of such a tactic… 

Are exact match domains an SEO tactic that works? 

Marcus Tober, CTO and founder of Searchmetrics:

Online success does not depend on the domain name. At least not from a technical SEO perspective.

Of course, there are other benefits, such as branding and recognition value,  but our analyses have shown, that the factor ‘Keyword in the domain name’ as an SEO tactic  has lost its influence over recent years.

Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director at DigitasLBi:

There’s an important question of focus. 

If you’re planning on entering the competitive jobs board market and cover a range of geographies and industries then an exact match domain probably won’t be worth the mega bucks.

On the other hand, if your new site is specifically about “Media Jobs in Glasgow” then you may find an exact match domain suits you. 

An even better SEO tactic is to coin a phrase which gets people searching for your domain. Buy the website “Quote Me Happy.com” before you run an intensive TV campaign around the phrase and injects it into the mind of millions.

Patrick Altoft, Director of Strategy at Branded 3:

It all depends on your goals & how well established your business is. It’s very rare that a major brand would be built on an exact match domain and we see very few examples of an EMD doing well in the long term.

Even if exact match domains were given some kind of boost it’s only for one keyword and when the vast majority of SEO traffic is long tail that isn’t going to help very much. The only way to build a business around EMD’s like this is to either rank for a really big keyword (which you need to be a big brand for anyway) or to have multiple sites (which is hard to do if you want to stay within Googles guidelines).

Kevin Gibbons, MD at BlueGlass:

It really depends on what your goals are. If you’re looking to build a long-term brand, I’d say it’s probably not the most important thing you should be focusing your time on.

However, if a very high percentage of traffic within your market comes from search, or if you’re looking at a shorter-term business model I can see why it would be an appealing approach. 

My thoughts are if you can build a brand long-term – and get in some quicker wins to capitalise on extra organic traffic and double search listings in the meantime – providing you can justify the returns on your effort, why wouldn’t you do this? 

Do you think some exact match domains are outranking more worthy sites? 

Marcus Tober:

In the past, exact match domains indeed outranked more worthy sites, even if these keyword domains had only little or even no relevant content, because Google’s algorithm had been much more keyword driven.

But with the EMD Update rolled out by Google in late September 2012, most of these ‘spammy’ keyword domains have vanished from the search results.

Since Google is a machine, some rather irrelevant exact match domains may probably still be among the top ranking sites, but in the long term, it’s always the quality that matters. Consequently, most of the exact match domains currently ranking at the top are sites do indeed provide some value for the user and are therefore competitive regardless of the domain name.

Andrew Girdwood: 

Weirdness happens all the time. The issue is really how long unexpected results persist. By and large I don’t see dodgy domains with nothing but a URL going for them ranking above a site that’s worked on both relevancy and authority.

When was the last time you saw a multiple-hyphen-dot-biz domain rank well in Google?

Patrick Altoft:

If you look at the ranking for one specific keyword then perhaps they do sometimes but this isn’t the way to measure SEO – you need to look at total traffic from organic search and an EMD doesn’t help with that.

Sometimes an EMD will outrank a more worthy site certainly, but the key success metric with SEO isn’t what is ranking well today it’s about what will rank well in the future. Google usually gets it right with rankings for big keywords and just because something is working today doesn’t mean it will work after the next update.

Kevin Gibbons: 

Of course. Any ranking of sites (whether Google’s algorithm, or someone’s opinion) is always going to cause disagreement, because who’s to say which sites are more worthy or not?  

Where I most often see exact match domains benefiting is for local sites. The Google Venice update probably isn’t spoken about enough (it’s penguin and panda relatives have obviously shadowed this somewhat).

But the appearance of local listings (based on searcher location) within competitive and generic queries is now very much commonplace in Google. In some cases could argue that these add value to a searcher, because it’s more targeted and localised content – but local domains would be where I’d place my effort in terms of getting the best results.

Is this something that Google needs to deal with? 

Marcus Tober:

Google can measure quality quite well using user signals such as bounce-rate or time-on-site as a signal for relevant content and user satisfaction.

So the search engine already is pretty elaborate in filtering spammy keyword domains, both from a content and a technical perspective. That’s why I think, EMDs are not a current focus for Google.

But of course, there are always new challenges, so the work never ends.

Andrew Girdwood: 

I think this is something Google will need to keep on its radar for a number of reasons. 

One interesting reason is the physiological effect of an exact match domain when the searcher is on a small screen device or using a card based interface.

In the absence of a compelling brand in any set of results then the exact match domain may attract an even larger share of clicks. If the site is good enough to satisfy the search then that will give Google cause for thought.

There is the possible rise of exact match TLDs but then… how often do you see a .jobs site ranking for a job search? 

The third reason I’ll leave you with is the ease of site creation these days. Google’s Udi Manber said that 20% to 25% of queries on any day are searches Google has never seen before.

It’s really easy to create a site with a domain that matches these ‘new keywords’.  For example, you see this in computer games; when a new title is announced the first fan sites, places for reviews, tips and communities, tend to have domains named after the computer game.  

When there’s a new concept that’s gaining traction the first sites that are often the best resource for searchers are exact match domains created to address that new trend.

Patrick Altoft: 

Google is already dealing with the lower end of this with its unnatural link crackdown, we’ve seen plenty of EMD owners being told that their anchor text is unnatural and this makes it harder for them to build links.

The biggest ranking factor these days is engagement so any EMD that isn’t satisfying users will probably drop down the rankings anyway – and if the site is genuinely useful then it deserves to rank whether it’s an EMD or not. 

Kevin Gibbons: 

Yes it is, and although far from perfect, I do think Google have improved as more algorithm signals have been brought in to identify a brand. 

Google is in a difficult situation here, because sometimes it’s just not that easy to associate a brand to a specific domain. For example, if a brand query goes up, it makes sense that the exact match domain rankings increase (especially if the listing has a high CTR), but what if that’s not really the result people are searching for?

This goes deeper into analysing the intent of the searcher, “Cheap Flights” is always an obvious query example, is this a brand query or a generic search? That’s a tough one for Google to fix.

There will never be a real right or wrong answer in rankings, it’s always in a state of flux – and that’s another reason why personalised search is so important.

It’s also important to remember that Google wants to reward brands – this means that they look for common brand signals such as links, anchor text, brand query volume, social engagement, CTRs and bounce rate (from SERPs) etc – and when they find the perfect mix of these factors, I think it will be much harder for exact match domains to benefit from increased coverage.

But until then, have fun experimenting!