Are Exact-Match Domains (EMDs) Going the Way of the Dodo?

EMDs, or Exact-Match Domains refer to domain names that contain keywords that match the keywords of a particular search query. Picture Joe Fitness, sitting at the computer shopping for new running shoes. As with most of us, he might mosey over to Google and type in the search phrase Best Running Shoes and be given a list of websites likely to sell or review running shoes: Nike, Men's Health, RunnersWorld.com etc. But among that list of quality sites which might give Joe valuable reviews or purchasing options he sees www.bestrunningshoes.com. A quick visit to the site reveals, yes, they do fact sell running shoes but overall the site seems quite spammy and not nearly the quality of the other of the other non-EMD domains. In short:

  • www.bestrunningshoes.com is an exact match domain
  • www.nike.com is not

For years this has been a common occurance and cause of consternation for business and site owners alike. But why does this happen? Why have the search engines valued EMDs so highly over the years?

A search engine's primary objective is to return the highest and most relevant quality websites to searchers for their given search term. They do so by looking at a variety of both 'on' and 'offsite' signals to determine a) what the site is about and b) its quality and trustworthiness before recommending it to their search engine users. Among the thousands of ways to figure out what a site 'is about' it is reasonable to look at the domain name they chose (one of the most fundamental marketing decisions a brand makes when establishing their web presence) and assume that www.best-running-shoes.com is a site about running shoes and not square-foot gardening. The key question as we move through 2012 is what weight search engines such as Google will place on exact match domains (EMDs)?

Evidence gathered by SEOMoz's Mozcast project has shown a decline in the value of exact-match domains' correlation to rankings:

A Chart Showing the Decline of Exact-match domains since 2010

Google has warned of the diminishing value of EMDs, or "keyword-laden domains" for a while now. Here's Matt Cutts talking about the issue back in March of 2011

More recently Cutts confirmed what we already knew would eventually happen when he tweeted:

Matt went on to write that this change only "affects 0.6% of English-US queries to a noticeable degree." But it should be noted that this algorithm update will be updated on a periodic basis, so it's difficult to predict how many exact-match domains will be affected in the future. Those not hit now, may certainly fall victim before long when the filter is updated.

Some Advice Moving Forward

It's perfectly natural for many new companies to purchase an exact-match domain. Google's algorithm change targets poor-quality exact-match domains, not exact-match domains in general. If your company's website is ranking well solely on the strength of an EMD, then we suggest getting started now, building your onsite and offsite SEO signals including link-building and content development. If your EMD site has taken a recent hit in the rankings we also recommend reviewing (or having someone else review) and diversifying your backlink anchor text as it may target your domain too closely and be a casualty of Google's Penguin algorithm update targeting overly aggressive anchor text. Then, wait for a few months until the next time the filter is updated.

Not only are exact-match domains on precarious footing (for now, just poor-quality EMDs) but Google has a propensity for ranking brands so if your new company is looking to purchase a domain we'd suggest you opt for "branded" top-level domain name. If an EMD makes sense from both a branded and an SEO standpoint — go with it, but either way be prepared for the long-term investment in brand recoginition, rather than relying on short-term rankings from an EMD.