Using exact match domains to build traffic

…or why it’s no longer OK to call a spade

Talking about exact match domains (EMD) takes us back into the territory of going after free search engine traffic.

A whole industry has grown up based on the premise that if you’re wanting to gain from SE traffic, then you have to give them what they want. For a long time, EMDs were seen as an easy and very effective way to do it. After all, what could be more sensible than having a domain name that tells you right up front what the website’s about? If you’ve got a website selling spades, why not call it

As with anything, there are plenty of arguments for and against whether EMDs are still useful. Let’s have a closer look at those arguments.

Why did EMDs become popular?

When the World Wide Web took off in the early 1990s, there were plenty of domain names available, and it was relatively easy to register a name that described exactly what your website did or who it was for. For instance, my own site is an EMD, but I’d never even heard of EMDs when I bought the domain more than 12 years ago. I bought it because it seemed like a good domain for the purpose of the site I was creating for British expats.

In those circumstances it was no surprise that the first embryonic search engines took account of that phenomenon in drawing up their algorithms. However, as search engines grew increasingly powerful in driving traffic to websites, so it became more and more important to obtain high positions in the SERPs – and, inevitably, people started looking for ways to game the system. EMDs offered a way to do that.

So why aren’t EMDs so popular now?

There are two aspects to this.

First, finding sensible EMDs has become very difficult – and well nigh impossible in the most lucrative online business niches.

Second, the search engines don’t like being gamed. Why should they? Their business model depends upon them serving up search results that their users find useful. If their algorithms produce results that consist largely of dross rather than sites with meaningful and useful content, then they take steps to improve their results – they refine their algorithms.

Feathered Fiend

In April 2012 Google implemented their webspam algorithm update, codenamed Penguin. Google described it as “another step to reward high-quality sites”, whilst many webmasters refer to it as an over-optimisation update. In a nutshell, Google are killing off sites that use spammy techniques to game their system (ie “over-optimisation”) – keyword stuffing, unnatural links, etc. (Hey! This isn’t new. Some of us have been aware for years that they don’t like this kind of stuff. What the heck took the Penguin so long to make its appearance?)

When talking about spammy over-optimisation techniques, most commentators seem to concentrate on Penguin’s attack on unnatural linking using rich anchor text, but some also say that use of EMDs is also being penalised. The problem is that some people used EMDs to boost the rankings of low-quality sites. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to build a site on their EMD – they just used them as doorway pages to push another site up the SERPs.

Obviously Google would like to get rid of these. But it’s a tough job for them because some older sites, many of which were made before people started trying to game the system, are in fact the most relevant sites for their keywords. The worry is that they may nuke them all in a broad-brush approach to kill off the abuses.

How big a worry is that? Perhaps not quite as big as all that. Now that the blue-chip key phrases have all been taken (to all intents and purposes, anyway), the people trying to game the system have been forced to use more and more convoluted phrases in an attempt to get their sites to the top of the pile. And while these EMDs may look OK to Joe Public, they stand out a mile to the seasoned webmaster.

So it may well be that Google’s algo update is sophisticated enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. But is it really worth the risk? Who’s to say when the next Google P-redator will come along?

Incurable optimists apply here

If you’re determined to have a go at the EMD approach, then what you need to do is find a keyword-rich domain where the keywords get a lot of searches. That may at least get you an initial boost in the rankings. But you’ll still need to follow up with decent content.

Remember too that having an EMD in itself will not guarantee success for you. It could only work out as a profitable venture if you’re able to monetise that niche. Not every EMD will be valuable, so look at how you can leverage some value out of the EMD’s ability to rank well in the search engines. What you’re really looking for is to find an EMD that will bring in traffic, that is traffic which converts. Unfortunately, you’ll probably find that all the good prospects for monetising are already gone.

Besides, is it really worth the increasingly time-consuming hunt for a phrase which doesn’t just look like a desperate attempt to attract buyers? Building your site just to suit a particular search engine quirk is like building it on shifting sands.

And what about your brand? Consider how many of the big websites rely on brands rather than key phrases for their domains – including Google itself. Your domain-hunting efforts may well be better spent coming up with a decent brand and sticking with that, instead of pursuing fleeting SERP benefits and winding up stuck with an ugly domain name.

You’ll probably already have guessed, but I won’t be banking any money on EMDs in the future. I’d rather get a good domain, and take it from there.


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