If you can name an aspect of modern SEO, someone can tell you what previous technique was penalize to bring about the current way of thinking. It’s happened with keywords. It’s happened with links. It’s happened with just about everything, including the value of exact match domains.
A Historical Perspective
For most of the life of Google, keywords were a powerful focus. Putting your keyword in the title of your page helped boost your rank. Putting it in your meta description was a benefit. Putting it a handful of times in your content was virtually necessary. Over time, Google decreased the benefit of exact match keywords, in favor of a more semantic and interpretive version of indexing.
One place keywords continued to be powerful was in the domain name itself. A site selling steel kitchen knives would rank better on the steelkitchenknives.com domain than it would on steelknives.com/kitchen, for example. The exact match for the keyword was a powerful force for ranking.
The problem with this was two-fold.
• The limited quantity of exact match domains.
• The increased prevalence of long-tail keywords.
A Problem of Limited Resources
As anyone who has done any keyword research for any amount of time can say, the higher level the keyword, the more competition it has. Short, punchy keywords are what users search for, so it’s what webmasters target. Webmasters would buy up exact match domains for everything they wanted to sell.
As time went on, it became harder and harder to find a useful exact match domain. Webmasters would buy them up to park them or resell them to the people who really wanted them. Spam sites would buy them just because of the boost they gave to SEO. They became, if not an indicator of a low quality site, at least less of a valuable indicator of quality. A site with an exact match domain was likely older, but not necessarily valuable at all.
The Long Tail
The same problem was happening in keywords too, of course. All of the short, easy to use keywords were used by established companies. To get ahead, small businesses would need to target long-tail specific keywords to circumvent the all-encompassing power of the exact match keyword. Adding in adjectives or local indicators to a keyword made it more effective in those areas, and a single site could target many variations.
Exact match domains with long tail keywords, however, become very clunky and difficult to use. A domain name that stretches on too long is less valuable. It becomes very obvious that you’re using it for the benefit that comes with it in search, rather than the benefit to the user.
Starting sometime in 2012 or even earlier, Google began to dial back the utility of exact match domains. They have lost a significant amount of weight over the last few years. Furthermore, partial match domains and long-tail domains have also been dialed back. Google has made the message clear; your URL does not need, nor should it have, a keyword in it.
Multiple case studies have been performed throughout the SEO industry with regards to the power of exact match domains and their siblings in partial match. The results are as clear as Google’s message; they just don’t work anymore.
Now, that’s not to say that an exact match domain is an immediate penalty. Yes, many sites using exact and partial match domains are spam sites. They have low quality content and they park domains more for resale value than for any actual utility. That’s a matter for them, however, and not you. You can build a quality site with an exact match domain just as easily as you can with another domain.
Where do you focus now? At least with an exact match domain, you had an easy choice to make. If you could get it in a .com, you got it in the .com. If not, you’d look for .net or .org versions. If those didn’t work, it was generally better to go for a partial match than it was a .biz or .info or some other domain.
Again, the answer comes from Google; look to brands.
Branding the Internet
Exact match domains are no longer beneficial, but they aren’t detrimental either. You can use one if you want. If not, it’s probably better to come up with a unique brand name and see out that URL. This has a number of benefits;
• You can have a short URL, one or two words rather than the five or more it often took to find a partial match long tail domain.
• You can get a .com domain for your brand, if you come up with a unique name that hasn’t been used, registered or parked already.
• You can tie your brand into the URL, which makes it much easier to remember. Users will also be able to guess your URL based on your brand name, which they might not if your brand and your EMD are different.
• You’re less at risk of accidental keyword spam penalties. It’s easy to forget, when using keywords in your content, that they keywords in your internal links, site title and URL all count. If you used a keyword in your content too many times, it could combine with all of the rest to bring a penalty. You don’t have this issue when your site name and domain are branded rather than keyword matched.
• You don’t have issues with exact match domains working for two different industries, which makes your keyword irrelevant for something it could otherwise be very relevant for.
• You don’t end up with a third-rate domain because the .com, .net and .org variations are taken. You can get a .com and pull in the benefit of the default standard for the web. You’ll never have to look at a .biz again.
Now what? Well, if you already have an exact match domain and you’ve built a quality site around it, you’re fine the way you are. There’s no reason to dump a perfectly good site with an established presence in favor of a new domain just because of the perception of potential spam.
If you’re just getting into websites for a new business, you don’t need to seek out an exact match domain. You can if you want, and if a good one is available, but if it’s not, just go with something you can brand.
Essentially, don’t seek out an exact match domain just for the possible SEO benefits; they are minimal at best. Instead, seek out a domain name you can use to wrap a brand around, regardless of its connection to your keywords. A short, clever domain is way better for SEO than an exact match for your business.