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Exact Match Domains Are NOT a Problem

     
7:59 pm on Nov 17, 2010 (gmt 0)

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I just got back from Pubcon(great convention) and I left with a feeling of frustration about exact match domains after hearing Matt Cutt's talk.

This all started about a month ago with a rumor that Google was going to "do something" about exact match domains ranking so well.

At Pubcon Matt Cutts made a statement to the effect that he "hears a lot of webmaster complaining about exact match domains doing so well" and now they are going to "take a look at fixing this". I'm paraphrasing.

I think it's a mistake to downgrade the value of exact match domains.

Here is my summary of the problem: Over the last 6 months since Mayday and the concurrent caffeine role out there have been many technical issues and unexplained changes in the SERPs. Also, Matt Cutt's has had his team working on non web spam projects(he said at Pubcon).

The result is that there is more spam combined with lots of frustrated, angry webmasters looking for patterns or some explanation of the changes in the Google SERPs. One clear pattern through has been that exact matches have ranked fairly well and so I think people were just complaining about it b/c that's all they could see.

Somehow Google seems to have interpreted this as webmasters think there is a problem with exact match's having inherent ranking value.

To me the real problem is not that exact matches have too much power but that there is more spam and in general the relevancy is a bit off(though it seems like its getting better again lately.)
(One example is that in several competitive verticals I watch I see SERP results that aren't domain exact match, no keyword in the title and the content is one page with little to no value.) Changing exact match power doesn't address this.

I think exact match domains should retain their power b/c:

1. The name says it all..If it's an exact match it's exactly what I typed in to search for.
2. An exact match domain is relevant to the topic 99% of the time in my experience.
3. There are a limited amount of good exact match domains so it can't be easily manipulated.
4. Since there are a limited amount of valuable exact matches over time these will be developed in to higher and higher quality relevant results.
5. Exact match domains only have an advantage ranking for their the exact match keyword search an not for anything else. The advantage they gain is for a search they are inherently relevant to.
6. Many people have invested large sums of money in exact match domains because of branding value and if users search for that keyword that's most likely what they are looking for.

I don't want Google to "fix" something that isn't broken.

What do people think about Google claiming they are going to "do something about" exact keyword match domains? Do you agree they should leave the inherent value in exact match domains to rank?
5:51 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Here's another exact match domain a member sent me: optimum-nutrition-wholesale.com

I thought that exact match domain is the one with no hyphens and that hyphenated version gets no boost? Or has this now changed as a result of MC giving exact match domain example with hyphen?

Or are we saying that both will get boost - and in this case, does the version with no hyphen get bigger boost or not?
6:09 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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My feelings here it the ones that are complaining have no merit. I just don't see the problem in Google.


bwnbwn - I'm not sure anyone is complaining. There hasn't been much "Google is Evil" talk in this thread around the fact that exact match domains have a strong weighting in the algorithm. What we are mostly discussing is simple facts. I have no vested interest in whether exact match domains are good for ranking or not (as I don't own many).

This is more a discussion of the facts of how much weight exact match domains get. I think there are a lot of strong examples of sites that appear to have no reason to be where they are in the SERPs beyond the exact match domain. The competition ranking around them has more content, better and more links, in many cases older domains, more fresh links, more social quality signals, etc.

While I don't own a lot of exact domains I've seen experiments where they can be made to rank well and get those rankings quickly, and retain those rankings. Matt Cutts essentially admitted at Pubcon that they have a relatively strong weighting in the algo and that perhaps it's time that Google look at that weighting.

Time will tell as to whether Google actually takes any action to change the weighting of this factor in the ranking algo. Watch for changes. I'll bet you'll see some of the examples presented here dropping in the SERPs over the next 4-6 months. Matt is generally pretty tight with giving out info. If he drops a "hint" it's usually prudent to pay attention to it and try to deduce the full meaning behind what he's saying.

A wise man I saw speak at Pubcon suggested that you try to think as if Google was your search engine. If you owned Google and were trying to present good results, would it make sense to rank a site well based on the fact that the owner was lucky enough to buy a keyword rich domain? Is that the best user experience or would you transition your algorithm from on-site/on page factors to factors that speak more to how useful the site is to users based on their behavior? A lot of domain owners aren't going to like it if the change happens and may want to lobby for the fact that exact match domains make sense to rank highly, but when viewed from a purely neutral search quality perspective, I'm not sure it makes sense to have the weight in the algo that it does.
6:27 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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wwconnect, you give several reasons that
I think exact match domains should retain their power b/c:


I just can't agree with you that any of your points are valid for why an exact match domain should rank. A site with an exact match domain probably will have content related to the exact match keyword in question, but why should that site rank any better based on the domain name than a site with the same quality content that doesn't have an exact match?

From the search engines' perspective ranking should be based on the quality of the site, of how useful it is to users, on how many people share that content and link to the site, on how rich the content is and on how much time users spend interacting with the content, and of course on how much $ the engines make from that site.

Ask yourself how a site having an exact match domain benefits not the site owner but the person searching for products or information. If there is no compelling reason that it benefits the user, expect Google to move toward making it less important in the algo. Google doesn't care about site owners, it cares about Google and it cares about retaining users. How does ranking a site based on an exact match domain benefit either of those groups? If someone owns exact match domains I can see why they want to keep the status quo, but why should Google want to keep it?
6:34 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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From Matt Cutts' comments, my sense was that Google already has tried to move in that direction. It certainly looks like keywords in the rest of the file path no longer give any major boost the way they used to. So the philosophy that robdwoods outlined IS what Google hopes to achieve.

Clearly with domain names, it can be more challenging because anchor text in backlinks often gives exact match domains a kind of natural boost. There often is also navigational intent in the queries involved, especially in 2-word and 3-word domains.
6:54 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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By all means wseoering the discussion is open and you to elaborate. I have to disagree massive problem so please feel free to discuss. As stated above ted will post good examples so we can see this massive problem frankly I don't.

robdwoods if and I say IF the owner of the exact match domain adds enough quality content to the site why shouldn't it rank? It what was searched for wasn't it. I use many exact match domains to gather information because frankly I find it a better hit. I don't have to click around for the information, and it provides me a better result.

Tell me why a site that is seeking the term should rank better if I land on the page and it contains the information but not in the detail a site built just for that specific term? There really isn't a good reason just the fact a site ranks better than mine holds no water for an argument. The fact an exact match domain has more information less clicks to find that information, and a better user experience makes them a better hit.

[edited by: bwnbwn at 7:07 pm (utc) on Nov 19, 2010]

7:02 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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bwnbwn - I agree with you that this isn't a huge problem. I just think that if one looks at the issue from a neutral perspective, an exact match domain makes little sense to be a strong ranking signal, so given that, expect Google to change it if they think it will improve the user experience. If they think it will help retain users they'll change it. If they think it will have no effect on user retention (results quality) they probably won't change it... and they won't care either way whether webmasters like it or not, or on how much someone has spent on buying and building the site on that domain.
7:12 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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@robdwoods
In my last post on this thread at
4:12 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

I looked at the example of carpet.org and pointed out how/why carpet.org IS the best result from a user experience looking specifically at the points you mentioned and others.

Again, I think from a user experience Google has it right to value exact match domains the way they do. Exact match domains are like a unique name tag that doesn't have any duplicates and you can't get much more specific/accurate than that.

The second example has hyphens so on second thought it's introducing variables that are another discussion.
7:18 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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bwnbwn - I'm not saying there should be a penalty against exact match domains. I'm saying that that Google wants to rank sites based solely on the quality of the site, the content, and the value to users, exclusive of whether there's a keyword in the domain, because this benefits Google in the long run. What value does an exact match domain provide to the end user? If there is no compelling reason that it provides value, expect Google to devalue it. I'm not arguing for either a change or the status quo. I'm neutral on the issue. My point is look at it from Google's perspective, try to predict what they are going to do, and prepare yourself for it.
7:27 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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robdwoods
I agree with your last comment about looking at what Google would do. I'm not saying that exact match domains should be the only reason a site ranks.
I'm saying that out of the possible signals that can be used to rank the quality/relevance of a site, and which can't easily be manipulated, 99% of the time exact match domains are a good/very good signal that the site is highly relevant to, or about, the keyword in the domain.
7:35 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Ask yourself how a site having an exact match domain benefits not the site owner but the person searching for products or information.

Because it matches exactly what they are looking for.

[edited by: artek at 7:37 pm (utc) on Nov 19, 2010]

7:36 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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wwconnect

I agree that it likely makes sense that Google will keep exact match as one of hundreds of ranking factors. I just think that they will reduce it's weighting as part of their overall transition from on-site ranking factors to user behavior ranking factors. I think it likely over the next few years that many on-site factors will continue to decrease in weight in the algo as Google adds more ways to get data about how users interact with and value a site. I hate to sound like I'm drinking the Google kool-aid (I'm not) but I think they are going to continue to improve their ability to promote sites that prove they have value to users beyond the traditional ranking factors that SEOs have mastered over the past 10 years. That means that SEOs are going to need to become more masters of content creation and promotion than people who can master on-site issues and link equity. It's coming and those who don't realize it are going to be left behind. That may not be a comfortable though to many SEOs but that doesn't make it any less true.
7:42 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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artek

Because it matches exactly what they looking for.


That's a statement of fact, not really a benefit. If I search for widgets how does finding widgets.com actually provide some benefit to me? Finding the sites that provide the best information or prices on widgets benefits me, regardless of what the domain name is. The average search engine user doesn't know the difference between a paid ad and an organic result. They certainly don't care what domain is served for a query, they just care if they can get to what they are looking for quickly. Ask yourself "what's in it for the user"? If you don't have a compelling answer, expect that factor to lose weight in the algo more and more as time passes.
7:58 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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That means that SEOs are going to need to become more masters of content creation and promotion than people who can master on-site issues and link equity. It's coming and those who don't realize it are going to be left behind.

Very well said. I believe that organic search results now try to measure signals that only social media marketers used to look at - specifically "engagement": does the website actually engage their audience and is their audience actually engaged with them. Or said another way - do you just operate a website or do you operate a business.

If an exact match domain represents a real business, then it offers the kind of value that deserves to rank. If it's only a "play", an attempt to leverage a technical quirk and provide only a bare minimum of value, then it doesn't.
8:47 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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They certainly don't care what domain is served for a query, they just care if they can get to what they are looking for quickly.

It seems that you have answer already. What would you choose first, searching for hotel room: hotel_com or hotels_com or expedi_com or orbit_com?

G is not boosting exact match domains it just stopped ignoring keywords in domain names because it helps them to get results that users click on.

It certainly looks like keywords in the rest of the file path no longer give any major boost the way they used to.

Not major boost but still a part of the winning formula if you can use real 2-4 keywords phrase that describes your page and you want to rank for it.

If an exact match domain represents a real business, then it offers the kind of value that deserves to rank.

It is my understanding that we are discussing here only real business websites.
8:59 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Artek

It is my understanding that we are discussing here only real business websites.


I think we are actually talking about all sites here: well developed sites, MFA sites, thin affiliate sites, etc., and whether they rank higher based on exact match domains.

Your argument that someone would be more likely to click on a result if there's an exact match domain doesn't necessarily argue for the fact that a site should rank well based on that factor.

Meta descriptions can influence CTR and should be written to maximize CTR but they don't affect rankings. Exact match domains could eventually be treated the same way.

I still don't see why it's actually useful to a user to see an exact match domain. Having one that ranks on the top of the first page may well be beneficial to the site owner by getting a better CTR based on the exact match to the user's query, but I don't think it provides much actual value or utility to the user, and that's what Google is moving toward weighting more.
9:53 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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I still don't see why it's actually useful to a user to see an exact match domain.

Lets say I open a business in my town called 'Discount Lube and Oil'.
Someone sees it driving by and wants to find info, hours, prices, etc. So they search for 'Discount Lube and Oil' and my site [naturally] at discountlubeando**.com comes up first.

I would say that was a good result for at least that searcher. Maybe the next one...it wouldn't be. Who knows?

Back when phone books were the way to list businesses, the tactic was to call your business 'Aaa Plumbing' 'Aardvark Bail Bonds' etc. in order to get listed first. No quality was factored in. At least google considers (should consider) more factors than just the name.
10:30 pm on Nov 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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onepointone

That's true but since you want to rank for "Discount Lube and Oil" you're likely going to have that in your title and description anyway, having it in the domain is an added signal, I'm just not sure it should be a "strong" signal that the site should rank well. Quite honestly if I owned widgets.com I could have it ranking on the first page for "widgets" with not much effort in a short amount of time with minimal content and links. That doesn't make it the best result. It's not whether Google will continue to consider exact match as a ranking factor that is is question, I believe it will be part of the algo for the foreseeable future, it's rather - what weight will it be given relative to other ranking factors. I believe that regardless of what site owners want, Google will reduce it's value, probably in the relatively near term. If you are relying on exact match to rank your domain right now, start building out links, content, and social signals rather than waiting for another "mayday".
3:42 pm on Nov 20, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Exact match domains have a ludicrous value in Google right now; that is NOT a good thing for the user.

It says nothing about the value of a site or the business the site represents. It's tantamount to saying that Mr Butcher must be a butcher because he's called Mr Butcher. Please, let's not fool ourselves.

I have personally launched several exact match domains:

1) In a small market gone straight to the top with one link from a sister site (itself not an authority), then added extra pages closely related to the key term and had those at the top too, within days. Site has stuck there for one year with one link, beats the brand site most of the time.

2) In a competitive market, bought a natural keyword domain, again one link from a big brand sister site and gone top five straight away for a big term, also page one for other terms with that phrase in. Just checked that site - it's now 2nd six months on, and I know it's had no more work done.

I see these all the time when looking at link profiles. Most recent; just researched a new market for a potential client, again small market but the first result is an exact match domain that my link checker (based on Yahoo) shows not one link when others in the top ten have between 40 and 180 linking domains.

One other observation: all the exact matches I've seen kicking it (mine and competitors) have been .co.uks or .coms. I have an exact match .biz that has had to have the amount of work I would expect to devote to any other domain to get onto page one, whereas the number one site for years is the exact match .co.uk that I also worked on years ago and whilst it has some links has had no work done for four years and has been first all that time rock solid.
12:00 am on Nov 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

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By all means wseoering the discussion is open and you to elaborate. I have to disagree massive problem so please feel free to discuss. As stated above ted will post good examples so we can see this massive problem frankly I don't.


Sure thing.

By the way - this isn't a post stating that 'exact domain' or 'partial match domain' results are a bad thing (far from it). However, from my experience in multiple industries, I've noticed a number of websites outperforming 'better' websites and I believe the domain has played a factor in this (along with a number of other factors might I add).

Firstly, this is the original graph I posted highlighting the movement of a number of exact/partial domain matches:

[ploader.net...]

Since this changes has been made the demand for the keyword term has dropped dramatically:

[ploader.net...]

Now, as I said - I don't think exact domains are a bad thing....as long as they are serving the user what they want. By the look of the Google insight chart - they most certainly are not.
12:06 am on Nov 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Those are some pretty dramatic graphs. Were the keywords in just one vertical, or distributed around several?
8:36 pm on Nov 26, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Hi Tedster,

Sorry for late response - been away on business.

This isn't in isolation and within this sector I could pick out a number of examples - however - this isn't happening in other sectors i'm monitoring.

What are you thinking?
9:04 pm on Nov 26, 2010 (gmt 0)

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That's what I meant by whether the sampling was from one "vertical" - what you called "sector".

Were the search terms generic product keywords, rather than brand names? And in general, do they represent affiliate websites?
8:12 pm on Dec 10, 2010 (gmt 0)

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They are testing it. I can see it in limited verticals. Could be permanent--not sure
8:15 pm on Dec 10, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Stuff that is high cpc x high search vol.
5:56 am on Dec 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

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From what I'm seeing in my vertical 'keyword domain' urls are starting to lose a bit of rankings. "New" keyword domains seem to be getting demoted (as they probably should) instead of instantly ranking page 1 simply for their domain. Well over 10 domains Ive seen this happen to the past week or so for high, and not so high volume keywords.
6:16 am on Dec 22, 2010 (gmt 0)

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I agree that I see some verticals where the exact match have lost a bit of power. Don't expect many changes during the holiday season. It's likely more changes will come after the holidays.

Having said that I recently bought a domain which while non-commercial (it was my name on a .org TLD) was ranking #6 out of 8.3M results after being live for 3 days with virtually no content and one very low value link pointed at it. That's for a brand new domain with basically no link equity and no content. That's pretty compelling evidence to me that exact match still have an awful lot of weight in the algorithm.
12:08 am on Jan 4, 2011 (gmt 0)

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Hello my 2 cents to this post:

1. Longtail exact match domain is a Google "weakness" (?) not from Mayday/Caffeine, but from 2-3 years;

2. I have some crazy tests like a domain, with a single page with a single phrase ( usually the keyword + something like "coming soon" ), robots.txt noindex nollofow, 1 or 0 backlinks... Well for low and medium competitive exact matches my test domains ranks first or second positions.
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