Exact Match Domains Killed by Google

Hold the phone, my Internet comrades. We have another casualty of war, and this time, it’s exact match domain (EMD) names. I can’t say that I’m really that surprised about this one. In fact, earlier this summer, I wrote a post about the value of niche websites versus authority sites in light of a long-form debate hosted by the guys over at AdSense Flippers.

One hallmark of a classic niche website – that is, a microsite built around a highly specific sub-niche that often derives its sole revenue from some form of PPC advertising – is an exact match domain name. Many of the websites you find for sale on auction-style platforms like Flippa.com have EMDs, thin keyword-laden articles, and templates that feature AdSense blocks in all the right places.

The Official Announcement

Matt Cutts tweeted a warning about the upcoming change on September 28, and followed up the announcement with this tweet:

The EMD algo has opened a can of worms all its own. It’s not a part of the Panda updates that rolled out earlier this month, and it’s not a Penguin update. It’s an algorithm specifically targeted to knock low-quality EMD domains from the top of the SERPs into Google oblivion. Here’s a little insight into the change from the folks over at Search Engine Land:

Surely you’ve seen this longtime SEO strategy play out in the SERPs for years. Even after the Panda and Penguin refreshes, I’ve consistently seen terrible websites with EMDs occupying the top spots when I searched, and I’ve honestly wondered why this was the case.

This Was a Long Time Coming

This shouldn’t be a shocker for most of you out there who specialize in – or even have a working knowledge of – SEO. Cutts even alluded to the possible update at a 2010 PubCon speech, noting that that Google would be “looking at why exact domain matches rank well when they shouldn’t, in some cases.”

To me, it seems like the logical next step in the war against spam and the relative usefulness of EMDs has been hashed and rehashed a million times over in forums from one corner of the Web to the other. The real question I have is this: if the algo targets websites with EMDs, then what constitutes “low-quality”, exactly? Would human reviewers issue manual penalties for offending sites on the first page of results for all competitive terms? Surely not… I’m thinking this is a blanket change affecting EMD websites that meet a predefined (super secret) set of highly specific factors.

Reactions ‘Round the Web

I was really curious about how this change would affect those who’ve made their living from building and selling niche EMD websites – AdSense Flippers in particular. I’ve been fascinated with these guys for a while now; I guess it’s because I’ve been flirting with the idea of buying a few of their websites to build upon as a side project in my spare time.

However, the search climate has been mighty turbulent over the past few months, and between Panda, Penguin, the great blog network takedown, the assault on anchor text, and other casualties, I held off. I wanted to see what would happen to the business model before I took the plunge.

When I was researching this article, I found a lengthy post addressing the topic on the AdSense Flippers website. I love that these guys lay everything out in real-time and don’t BS anyone. The post had the numbers, the negative effects, everything – and given that the crew has made its living building and selling EMD niche websites, I knew that their experiences would make the best case study once I heard the news of the update.

According to the post:

“Unlike the previous updates Panda and Penguin, this has had a more devastating impact on our sites across the board.”

Ouch. To put it in perspective, here’s the current measurement data for EMD fluctuations on SEOmoz:

So, this update is affecting EMDs much more heavily than the original announcement let on. Which lead me to the part of the AdSense Flippers post that left me scratching my head the most:

As I thought – legit websites that had the unfortunate luck of bearing an EMD are taking massive hits in the SERPs right alongside the low-quality offenders. This hardly seems fair. It’s very early, so we have yet to see who the true victims of this update will be once the dust settles over the next few weeks.

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