Exact Match Domains – History, Present & Future
When I first began reading about SEO a few years ago, talk of Exact Match Domains seemed to crop up in almost every forum, blog and SEO resource around – and justifiably so. EMDs were at one time as close to a ‘golden ticket’ to the top of Google’s search results as you could get. So much so that the prices of EMDs in domain auctions were extremely consistent in relation to their exact match search volume.
In other words, you could basically make an informed decision as to whether purchasing a given EMD would be profitable by saying “the KW for this EMD has [16,000] and at position 1 in the organic SERPs I can expect 55% of clicks or 8,800 monthly visits of which my generic WordPress template typically has a conversion rate of X% which makes me £X”.
You didn’t have to create a ton of pages and your content didn’t have to be amazing. It was a simple case of buy domain & build anchor text rich links. However, in the last year or so there has been a noticeable decline in the SEO value of EMDs which can be associated with various penguin, panda and other Google algorithm updates. The change was mainly noticeable through an increase in search engine real estate for big brands (seemingly a continuation of the Vince update) whilst webmasters who owned niche EMDs more often than not saw their rankings plummet.
It wasn’t until the end of September that Matt Cutts announced an algorithm update that would specifically target low quality EMDs and it rolled out at the beginning of October. The effects can be seen in the following Mozcast graph:
I can supplement this with data from one of my own niche EMD sites. The following shows organic visits for the exact match keyword only between 1st July and 15th September 2011.
Now look at the same data for the exact same date range in 2012 – very different! And to my mind, there are no other significant SEO factors that should have caused this. If anything, the domain has gained more authority in the past year.
Where does this leave us regarding the value of EMDs to online marketers? Well the first thing to emphasise is that this algorithm change targeted LOW QUALITY EMDs. Matt Cutts and Google were completely clear about this, yet as usual with a significant algorithm change some people have got carried away and are already preaching against the use of EMDs altogether.
Simply put: EMDs did carry a huge amount of SEO value, now they carry less. You can’t rely on having a keyword in the domain to push a crappy site but there are still benefits to be had in having a keyword rich domain providing you have great content, UX, on-page optimisation and so on.
The following shows the search visibility for a colossal ’EMD’ site grow over the last year reinforcing the fact that it is EMD websites which are thin on content that are being punished and serves as a reminder that the benefits (which stretch beyond Google’s algorithm remember) of having a keyword domain remain – but cannot be depended on to the extent of previous times.
It is hard to argue with Google’s logic regarding these updates. Yes, it is another step in favour of the big brands but placing a large amount of value in keyword rich domains benefits nobody other than lazy webmasters.