freejung - 4:50 pm on Aug 30, 2010 (gmt 0)
There also seems to be some kind of freeze in rankings changes as if our sites have been graded and positive movement is much harder and slower.
I definitely agree with this. A damping factor is being applied somehow. Even downward movement seems to be slow - the fact that you used to rank well for a phrase seems to be a positive ranking factor even if you stop using that phrase (and if you think about it, there are all sorts of interesting possible uses for that).
I should have some good evidence on this during the next few weeks, as I've recently improved exact matching across a fair number of phrases. So far this doesn't seem to have hurt, but it doesn't seem to be helping much either.
Generally speaking, many recent observations seem to support the conclusion that exact match in title matters much less than it used to. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say it actually hurts but it doesn't seem to help much.
Here's another interesting observation on semantics that stands out very clearly in my niche due to overlexicalization of the subject matter:
Suppose widgets, woozles, wingdings and doodads are essentially synonyms, with possible slight differences in connotation.
There is a point where if you rank well for "red widgets" (exact title match at the front of the title) it becomes very easy to rank for "red woozles" etc without exact match in title. Indeed, sometimes the ranking for "red woozles" will actually be better than that for "red widgets."
Changing the title to contain an exact match for "red woozles" does not seem to affect ranking.
However, here's the point: in some cases, it appears you have to have the word "woozles" somewhere on the page. There have been several specific cases where I ranked for "red widgets," "red wingdings" and "red doodads" but nowhere at all for "red woozles." On examination, I was using the words "wingdings" and "doodads" in the page (not an exact phrase match necessarily, just using the single word somewhere). Merely adding "woozles" somewhere on the page popped me up to the first page -- but not to the top 3, where I rank for the others. Thus my thoughts on the dampening effect previously mentioned. I bet in six months I'll be in the top 3 for "red woozles."
My takeaway from this is, if you rank for a phrase, you may rank for synonyms, but it's best to use those synonyms somewhere on the page.