For a long time, using exact match domains to rank for specific keywords was one of the easiest ways to gain an edge in the competitive SEO wars. Domains names were given a ranking advantage over websites when it came to the keyword phrase contained in the domain.
While this ranking boost made sense from common-sense standpoint – after all, if your website is bluewidgets.com, it’s likely relevant to a search for “blue widgets” – this phenomenon was often used by SEOs to easily outrank more authoritative sources for specific key phrases, especially long-tail search terms.
Whether you think it’s a positive development or not Google released an algorithm update on Sept 28, 2012 – known as the EMD update – that has severely reduced and possibly eliminated any SEO benefit of having your targeted search phrase in your domain name. According to Google’s head of webspam Matt Cutts, this update noticeably affected .6% of English-US search queries. To add to the confusion, Google released a major Panda algorithm update during the same period which affected 2.6% of English-US search queries. This caused many webmasters and SEOs to confuse the algorithm update targeting exact match domains with a panda update designed to target low quality content. The timing of the updates was likely intentionally designed to cause confusion.
What To Take Out Of The EMD Update
While there is no way to know with 100% certainty at this point, it seems likely based on the initial data and that the EMD update devalues exact match domains, rather than penalizes them. Many strong, white-hat exact match domains dropped a few positions/pages in the search engine rankings but didn’t suffer anything that would be consistent with a penalty.
For exact match domains that were severely demoted, this is likely because they were experiencing significant boosts from their domains which – once devalued – severely hurt their rankings. Some of these significant drops also look a lot like a panda penalty, and could also be a result of the Panda update that occurred at the same time, and may actually be unrelated to the EMD update. After all, Panda is designed to target what Google deems to be low quality websites, and the reality is that many exact match domains built around long-tail search terms are created by SEOs solely for the purpose of generating Adsense or affiliate revenue.
With reports that many EMDs with highly optimized keyword density and header tags experienced significant drops, one other possibility is that the EMD update not only removes exact match SEO benefits, but it also goes beyond and penalizes domains that are over-optimized for their exact match key phrase. Because the EMD update was released at the same time as a major Panda update (which could also target over-optimized sites), it may be awhile before we sort out whether the EMD update has any actual penalty effect, or whether it’s merely designed to remove the extra boost given to exact match domains.
How The EMD Update Will Affect Your SEO Strategy Going Forward
One thing is clear going forward after the EMD update – relying on the exact match domain boost for easier search engine rankings is no longer a viable strategy. With reports of heavily keyword-optimized sites being penalized, it also seems clear that Panda, Penguin and the latest EMD update are working together to force SEOs to develop ranking strategies that look as natural as possible.
While there will always be exceptions to the rule, the general trend in SEO will be focused quality and diversity. Including a targeted keyword in your title, url, h1, h2, h3 tags, picture alt tags, and bolded throughout your content may no longer be the best idea. While you should ensure that your targeted keyword appears in your title and at least one header tag, focus your on-site efforts towards creating a quality user experience. Whether it’s due to the latest EMD update or an addition to the Panda update, it looks like Google is targeting websites that are over-optimizing their on-page SEO for specific keywords – especially if your website is new or has less authority.
Continue to build links from quality sources with a wide variety of anchor text. Avoid links from linkfarms, spam, or any source that will link out to bad neighborhoods such as low quality directories/bookmarking sites. The more natural your link profile and on-site SEO, the less likely you can be targeted for penalties.
Is SEO Dead?
The cries that SEO is dead are as always – totally misguided. This latest algorithm update didn’t change the number of organic positions in Google, and many of these positions are still occupied by smaller niche sites. There is definitely a trend with Google towards favoring larger authority websites, established brands, and Google’s own content, but there is still plenty of room for other sites to rank.
Nat is a full-time SEO and a part-time blogger for Whoishostingthis.com – an Alexa top 10k web property. You can find additional information about their hosting reviews through their company website.