If you have an exact match domain (EMD) for a popular query you may be noticing that it isn’t as easy to stay on top for that query as it used to be. If not, you may be noticing it soon because many users, brands and SEOs have been calling for Google to dampen the effect of EMDs on SERPs for a long time now, and Google has said several times that they are trying to do exactly that.
SEO is less and less about title tags and meta descriptions, and even link-building, and more and more about brand building, conversion rate optimization and usability. Our jobs are many times more difficult these days. One of the difficulties include turning those EMDs that made us money in the past into big brands so they’ll continue to bring in the bucks going forward. But there’s a catch with that plan, as can be found in the latest leaked Google quality rater handbook for URL rating. You can download the PDF here (see pages 17-19) but I’ve summarized the catch below:
Queries for brands that result in the brand home page or official page are considered “vital” results by Google. But quality raters aren’t allowed to mark something as “vital” if it is something that nobody can own. So if you spent thousands of dollars buying bluewidgets.com your home page search result can be “vital” for “bluewidgets.com” as a “go” or “navigational” query, but not for “blue widgets”, which is what most people are going to be searching for, even if they’re looking for your specific website.
Compare that with your competitor, “Awesome Widgets” who has trademarked his name. Now he not only gets rated as a “vital” result for the navigational query “awesomewidgets.com” (where his site is located) but also for “awesome widgets”. In other words, he has traded in the benefit of the EMD for a chance to be a “vital” result for his brand. Meanwhile, you’re merely “relevant” like this guy. But sometimes sacrificing “vital” for the EMD can be worth it, like with this guy. Notice the lack of site-links in SERPs and his #2 ranking, both signs that he isn’t a vital brand for the query. But you have to ask: Would he even be #2 if it weren’t for the domain name matching for “SEO Company”?
Google even gives this example on page 18 of the PDF file:
Query = “diabetes”
First result is www.diabetes.com/
Google says: “No Vital page is possible for this query because it is an information query and no one can claim ownership of it. Even though the URL ‘looks’ Vital, it’s not.”
Once again, if your domain name is the same as a common word or phrase it is impossible for a quality rater to give you a “vital” rating for that query.
So think twice next time before choosing between the EMD or something brandable. I work on a site that is dealing with this right now, and in a search landscape where branded queries are suspected of being an increasingly important factor in how much your site is trusted – a good question to ask is whether you get more benefit from words in your domain or from the quantity of queries for which your domain is considered “vital”.
With a few exceptions (e.g. buy.com, drugstore.com, bodybuilding.com…), most of the truly big brands out there haven’t gone with EMDs. It’s Amazon.com, not “we-sell-books-and-a-bunch-of-other-stuff.com” and it’s Google.com not “hypocritical-search-engine.com”. Even shoes.com isn’t #1 right now for “shoes”. DSW has them beat.
You can pour millions of dollars into marketing and brand-building, but your EMD is never going to be a “vital” search result for that query. Relevant, yes. Useful, yes. A super high quality site with a ton of links and great content that ranks #1 – perhaps. But “vital”? Unfortunately, no. If you ever lose that boost you get from having the EMD (for instance if Google applies a dampening factor on external links pointing to EMDs so the exact-match anchor text doesn’t count as much) you may find that all of the money you spent on PR, display units and magazine ads to be first in peoples’ minds ends up benefiting one of your competitors. I may have read about BlueWidgets.com in a widget trade magazine and Googled “blue widgets” only to get a SERP that has AwesomeWidgets.com at #1 and BlueWidgets.com at #2. Guess who else benefits from the BlueWidget.com advertising budget?
I’d like to get a conversation going here. Does anyone know of ways in which an EMD can build strong brand signals for the exact-match query without being able to trademark the phrase, and without being able to get “vital” assigned to their URL on that query by quality raters? Here are some starter ideas:
- Use “exactmatchquery.com” in the title tags, meta descriptions, footer, about page, contact page, business address, etc…
- Use “exactmatchquery.com” as the official business name, including for citation sources like Google Places, BBB, high quality directories and Internet Yellow Pages (IYPs).
- Use “exactmatchquery.com” in PR and advertising. If you can’t be “vital” for “exact match query” at least boost your brand signals for “exactmatchquery.com”.
- Trademark “exactmatchquery.com” if you can. Chances are you’re not going to be able to trademark “exact match query” in most cases.
- Build external links with “exactmatchquery.com” if your link profile leans too heavily on “exact match query”. This has the benefit of being a more natural-looking profile anyway.
- Use “exactmatchquery.com” in all official off-site pages (e.g. business listings, social media…)
This all benefits your brand signals for “exactmatchquery.com” but I still see no way of you becoming a “vital” result for “exact match query” according to Google’s quality rater guidelines. Nevertheless, sites like buy.com, drugstore.com and bodybuilding.com will continue to be seen as exact-match brands in both the eyes of searchers and the Google SERPs because they didn’t rely on the power of an EMD for rankings, but took brand building just as seriously as if they didn’t have an EMD.
If your goal is traffic, and not brand building, then maybe an EMD is right for you. It seems to work for the website in the screenshot below.
Being #3 for that search is going to be hugely profitable, and chances are the site owners wouldn’t have gotten there without the EMD. But if you don’t plan on building a “brand” despite recent statements and evidence from Google that ‘it’s all about the brands‘ then you have to ask yourself how long of a shelf-life do you think your domain has? How long before Google figures out a way to tell between EMDs and EMD Brands? And for those of us with EMD brands, will it ever be possible to be seen as a “vital” result for the query? I’d love your input on this subject…