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Google EMD update to target exact-match domains

On the 28th September 2012, Matt Cutts (head of Google’s Webspam team) released a tweet informing that Google was due to release another one of it's algorithm updates,.

This update would affect “0.6% of English-US queries to a noticeable degree”, namely Exact-Match Domains (EMDs).

Matt Cutts' Google EMD Update Tweet

What are Exact-Match Domains (EMDs)?

Exact-Match Domains (EMDs), are domain names based on a keyword phrase (e.g. www.cheaphotelscheltenham.co.uk). Up until this point, having a keyword friendly domain name was a common SEO strategy by many aiming to improve their rankings or expand the keyword phrases they are targeting. Some companies and individuals have also been known to opt for a keyword friendly domain for their main website (as opposed to their brand name), in an attempt to rank higher in the search engines. For a long time, having a keyword friendly domain name would actually contribute to higher search engine rankings in Google, which Matt Cutts confirmed back in March 2011, however also stating that they may adjust this in the future (from 2:20 in the video). Well, that time has now arrived.

Why are Exact-Match Domains (EMDs) being targeted?

As Matt Cutts explains, many were complaining to Google that too much ranking and SEO benefit was being given to websites which had a keyword friendly domain name. In effect, a website could appear higher in the rankings as a result of a domain name which matched the keyword search, even if the content on the website or page was of a poor quality (or lesser quality compared to results further down the rankings). This leads to a quick and effective SEO strategy (commonly referred to as "Microsites"), in which businesses and individuals could rank highly in Google for a keyword phrase by simply purchasing a domain name related to the keyword, and placing keyword specific content onto it. The strategy was (up until this update) a quick and efficient strategy for getting a website ranked highly for a specific keyword phrase with little effort required. With the release of the new EMD update, it would seem Google want to flush out such approaches in order to grant better exposure to websites that instead take the time and effort to produce great and genuine content for their visitors.

When would this update have occured?

The update was announced on 28th September 2012, so it's likely that the update had either been implemented that week, or was about to be released following the announcement (i.e. beginning of October).

How will this affect search results?

Following the initial tweet announcement about the update, Matt Cutts confirmed that the update would "affect 0.6% of English-US results to a noticeable degree". Following the update, you should expect to see a lot less of the keyword-friendly domain names that can usually rank quite highly in the search engines. The introduction of the update is bad news for businesses using exact-match domain names, but potentially great news for websites which have instead opted to include their brand within their domain name.

What would cause an Exact-Match Domain to be penalised?

It's unclear (as with most Google algorithm updates) as to how exactly EMDs are reviewed by Google. Some EMDs may experience a decline in rankings (as a result of the domain name not helping as much as what it once did), or in other cases there could be significant drops or even the website being removed entirely from the Google index. This is likely to depend on the quality of the content that Google finds on the exact-match domain. It's likely that a website could be at a greater risk of being penalised by Google if:

  • content includes excessive keywords phrases
  • content is duplicated from another website
  • a lot of the content throughout the website is duplicated, or too generic
  • website provides a very poor volume of content (i.e. one page with very little copy)
  • layout/structure of content is very similar to another website

How do I know if my website has been targeted?

If your domain name is made up of a keyword phrase (i.e. does not include any brand name/wording), then your website could have been affected. Search on Google using the keyword phrase(s) your website was ranking well for the last time you checked. If your ranking has declined dramatically (or worse you cannot find it) then it's likely it has been affected by the EMD update. To find out if your website has been completely dropped by the Google index, type the following into Google:

site: www.yourwebsitename.co.uk

If none of the pages for this domain name show up, then this means it no longer exists within the Google results.

I've experienced declined or lost search engine rankings - what can I do?

Retrieveing declined or lost rankings in Google can be a lengthy road to recovery. But there are cases where people have managed to claw back lost rankings by reviewing and improving their website content. Here are a few things you can do to try and recover lost/declined rankings if your website has been affected:

  • Remove any copy/content/pages within the affected website which is duplicated or very similar to another website
  • Avoid any content which is a duplicate, or similar to another page on the same website
  • Have a full review of the copy and aim to expand or improve upon anything of poor readability
  • Remove any excessive keyword phrases (applies to copy, META titles & descriptions, image ALT tags, link title tags, etc.)
  • Remove excessive and suspicious links
  • Try to avoid having a one page website - try and provide additional pages related to the topic/purpose of the website that serve a genuine purpose
  • Identify and correct any scripting errors, or underlying issues
  • Ensure there are genuine and clearly identifable contact details
  • Consider having an area on the website where you can add/grow genuine and useful content e.g. latest news, blog, advice section, etc.

Once you have reviewed the above for the affected EMD, you can also submit a reconsideration request to Google, however make sure you are 100% confident that your website now adheres to providing great and genuine content that is both unique and of purpose.

Alternatively, if for whatever reason you're unable or unwilling to address the above suggestions, or feel that there is no genuine purpose for keeping the domain (i.e. if it was just for the sake of quickly and easily ranking high in the search engines), then it may be wise to cancel the next renewal of the domain name, and save on domain and hosting costs!

To conclude:

While the EMD algorithm update may be a headache for any who have an exact-match domain, this should also be welcome news to those who invest time, effort, and resources into creating and maintaining great content for the website, who in the past have been overtaken in the search engines by keyword-friendly domain names with poor quality content. For those who used exact-match domains for SEO benefit, this update is a wake-up call to either move away from such strategies, or to invest the proper time and effort required to ensure unique high-quality content and to avoid the risk of being penalised.

This update does unfortunately leave many questions unanswered for the time being: what if my exact-match domain is a genuine website with great content - is it still at risk? What if my company name is keyword friendly? What if my domain name includes both a keyword and a brand name?  The answers to these questions will be easier to determine in time as we gain a better understanding of websites that have been affected or managed to avoid the hit.

So has your website been affected? Has your exact-match domain escaped a drop in rankings? What measures are you putting in place to avoid any risk? Do you feel the update has improved search results? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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