Exact Match Domains: This is Why They Can Still Rank

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I was on Facebook last night and it happened to me to see in the home stream some comments about Matt Cutts’ recent words about exact match domains and the possible end of their “superpower” in the SERP. I am sure you know what I’m talking about, or just ask yourself if you’ve ever seen domains like affordabledogdresses.com in the first spots of Google result pages…

Now, will this situation change, as Cutts is saying? I think not, or at least not radically, and I explain why, starting with a quick chronology of the problem.

Keywords in the domain count (too much?)

Having the exact keywords in the domain give a boost in rankings and SEOs know this since a long time for some time; in October, Rand Fishkin at SEOmoz shows significant datas to support this hypothesis: they demonstrate, unequivocally that the keywords in the domain, and in particular the condition of exact match with the query, represent a factor of great impact in rankings. In particular, exact match with TLD .com seems to be the case with higher incidence.

Google says it will reevaluate this factor.

Less than a month after this post (but the same Fishkin argued already that something was moving) Matt Cutts at PubCon states – among other things – that Google is asking whether or not to change something in the algorithm to stop this situation, since in some cases the domain name has become an element of spam.

A greater emphasis on the concept come March 7: in this video from GoogleWebmaster Help, Cutts responds with his usual “read between the lines” to a German demand for a webmaster who asks: “How would you explain the ‘Power of Keyword Domain’ to someone who has to decide which domain name to choose?”

Cutts begins by bringing the attention to the most important and popular sites that have a branded name that differentiates them and makes them recognizable (Google, Yahoo!, Facebook). Having a particular name stands out from the crowd. So far nothing new. At the end of the video then he adds: “we give too much weight to keywords in domain and we will make some changes to the algorithm to adjust this”.

But, can Google radically change the algorithm?

And then we return to the initial question: is the end of exact match domains near to come? As I said before, I don’t think so, and for one simple reason: there are many people using the search engine to perform queries that it is difficult to discriminate between navigational and informational.

If I type diesel, I want the site of the fashion brand, or information on the fuel? In many of these cases, you use Google to go to a specific site: the query is a navigational one. And this theory also could be applied in the previous “affordable dog dresses” example: how can Google be sure that “Affordable dog dresses” is not a brand? And how can it decide not to show in the SERP a site that you may be looking for? The answer is obvious: it can’t (and in fact I have not seen generalized drops in ranking for exact match domains, at the moment).

The question then moves to a little different point: can Google exactly discern when a query is linked to a brand or not? Exactly, it can’t. But it can capture some signals, and there are several.

Look like a brand and you’re ok.

Ross Hudgens identifies incoming links as a possible mean by which search engines could determine whether they are faced with a brand or not: is www.brokentoys.com mostly linked to as “broken toys”? T

hen maybe this is a signal of link building done to push the keywords, and then your domain is not a brand and therefore there is no navigational boost. However, if the anchor text is more often “Broken toy” with some “BrokenToys” or “BrokenToys.com”, then we could most likely be faced with a brand and in this case Google should give a boost navigational, to ensure that users can find the site in early position if it is exactly what they are looking for.

It seems reasonable to me. A SeoMoz webinar illustrates some other signals than can make you look a brand in Google eyes: domain navigational searches, social media presence, physical presence offline, private references (i.e. in Gmails) are some of the most great signals, but you could just have a company profile on Linkedin, some geolocalized links and these could be good indicators.

A bit of brand and a bit of keywords: the best choice.

The key to have (or not to lose) a navigational boost for exact match domain is to look like brand so Google can’t lower your ranking.

But if you have to choose a new domain name for your site, however, the decision between a brandable name or two straight keywords is not immediate: as also illustrates an interesting post on SeoBook, it depends on what are your goals.

In general, perhaps, is a good solution: invent something branded that contains one or more keywords and you get two birds with one stone (my blog name is Posizionamento Zen, for example). Don’t you agree?

Note: An Italian version of this post can be read on Tagliablog.

Giuseppe Pastore

Giuseppe Pastore

Gratuated in electronic engineering, I work as an SEO in an italian web agency and in my spare time I run a blog about search... Read Full Bio
Giuseppe Pastore

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  • Nick Stamoulis

    I’ve had clients truly believe they only way they were ever going to rank was to buy a keyword heavy domain name and use that as as funnel to their actual, branded site. Personally, I think it’s better to go after your brand name in the domain and target the keywords in your Meta descriptions.

  • Michael

    I’ve clients in competitive niches with new, never registered keyword match domains occupying first several organic spots. These are very small, non branded sites with no build out into the “related” metrics you imply may assist.

    Then if course there are others, where all the seemingly logical content and brand related (and link) metrics have been addressed. They initially bit in the SERPS.

    I think it’s hit or miss at this point and I don’t believe there’s any direct connection, especially considering how psychotic googles SERPS and product offerings have become in 2011 as a reaction to losing share to social.

    However, if enough SEOs insist this connection deserves to be an implementation item, after practice the discussion could very well evolve then rise into actual influencer status vis-a-vis Google identifying it as yet another SEO practice to devalue. Like exact match domains?

    When/if google addresses match domains in this context it would likely be:

    A. Very easy for them to implement, immediately.
    B. Based on factors which regularly rise and fall in influence to prevent gaming and which couldn’t be determined without application on a massive scale: if at all.

    For now Google is too busy reacting to social to address anything other than a VERY spam match, if that. For now I’d keep acquiring them as they make sense.


  • Alyasha

    I like the conclusion that one needs to strike balance between keywords and brand. Generally think it is the best tactic 🙂

  • Zippy Cart

    Domain name if you can, branding when appropriate/possible, keyword heavy content always.

  • Web Hosting Service

    I always believe Google gives more importance to domains with keywords on it. This is there in the existing algorithm of Google and this can only be changed if the algorithm is changed.

  • Ian Harte

    Although I do agree having the keyword in the URL is an important factor and if it can be achieved I would recommended it, but it’s not essential, no biggy really :]

  • Micha

    In my experience it is still advisable to have keywords in your domain name to improve your chances in the SERPs. Creating a brand around your keyword-domain is very simple and can be done by simply repeating your domain name often enough. Online branding is about consistency and repetition in your anchor text.

  • Moosa Hemani

    well i think this problem become very serious when the competition becomes really high i agree with the writer that bit of a brand and bit of a keyword is the ideal choice but if this is not the case i would prefer the brand name!!

  • Mini site design

    Giuseppe, I think you’re right. However, there are keywords google could use to determine you’re a brand or not. Such as “review(s)”. But other than that, linking as you said, to both get keyword optimized links AND brand links is the best route to follow. I know I’ve done it for one of my sites, before the main keywords became of interest (yeah, I managed to predict a trend I think) and that site ranks like crazy even for misspellings altho I’ve never optimized it for that

  • Infonote

    I think the domain name brand will only apply in cases when there is high competition and two or more sites have the same authority.

    In low competitive niches, I think the keyword in the domain name will count.

  • seo marketing

    Very Nice Article.

  • Anonymous

    These one is really nice article but i as i have been in to these industry from pretty long time so these had been noticeable many times by us and i am sure many other had also observed these.

    seo firm

  • Alex

    This makes a lot of sense. For my personal domain, I have an exact match to my name. I am usually number one in the results. I’ve experimented with other domain name for high volume searches (multi-million per month) and I have had a lot of trouble ranking anywhere near the top.

    I can only assume that my exact match domains are too broad and are therefore given no weight, where my personal name is more like a brand.