On September 28th, 2012 at exactly 1:43 PM PST, Matt Cutts of Google issued a minor weather report of an upcoming algorithmic change. This change seeks to “devalue”, or place less emphasis and importance on “low quality” exact match domains or EMD’s. As always Cutts was ambiguous, or rather refrained from explaining in further detail what exactly he meant by “low quality”, and how exactly the algorithm goes about determining quality of individual web pages, however if anything, the Panda and the subsequent Penguin updates served as a good example of the types of signals the search engines consider when looking at “quality”. Furthermore Cutts wasn’t exactly clear in explaining whether this was a penalty or simply a filter.
This weather report should come as no surprise to marketers and online business owners. Matt Cutts alluded to this impeding change back in 2010 while attending PubCon, and there has been chatter around the online marketing industry for years around exact match domain names and their uncharacteristic ability to rank highly in some niches. Marketers that have built their online business by exploiting the exact match domain loophole were well aware of the risks, and any thoughts of this being a long term successful model was simply wishful thinking. Business owners who have been convinced in thinking that EMD was a long term strategy were simply mislead.
So is it possible to recover from the exact match domain penalty? Although its too early to say with certainty and we haven’t seen any successful recovery stories just yet, the key to a successful recovery is understanding whether this update is a filter, much like the Panda, or a penalty, from which the only successful way to recover is to clean up your act and submit a reconsideration request.
We have looked at the rankings and weights that we give to keyword domains and some people have complained that we’re giving a little too much weight for keywords in domains. And so we have been thinking about adjusting that mix a little bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm so that given two different domains, it wouldn’t necessarily help you as much to have a domain with a bunch of keywords in it.
From the quote above, it is pretty clear that this update is not a penalty by any stretch of the imagination, but rather an algorithmic adjustment to how much value Google places on keywords in domain name. This is perhaps the biggest step Google has taken to “weed out the cesspool” since the Vince Update, and “trust-building”, with authorship and the like, will play an ever-increasing role.
So how do we go about recovering from the EMD penalty?
- Take a hard look at your content. Remove low quality, thin, or otherwise spun content by letting it 410, adding a non-index meta robots tag, or moving it to a sub-domain.
- Take a look at your homepage and other important pages on your site. Are these pages over-optimized? If the answer is yes, try and vary internal anchor text and keywords on those pages.
- Add unique content to the website.
- Take a look at pages with high bounce rates, what can you do to increase user engagement on these pages?
- Build up your brand equity. Engage experts in your niche. Generate referral traffic from relevant, quality websites in your niche.
- Build up your social presence. Get people talking about and mentioning your website on social channels.
- If all else fails, try and salvage what’s left by moving your content to a different URL, or 301 redirecting your site to a different URL.
Please note, Google may be singling out queries with “commercial” intent and targeting sites in those niches in particular, see Bill Slawski’s excellent write up on this matter, however it’s hard to say at this point what niches have been affected the most.
It is important to note that the industry at large is still somewhat perplexed and cannot agree on whether this was an “update” or a “penalty”. The reason for the confusion is twofold; EMD websites in specific niches were impacted while others were left unscathed, some non-EMD or partial EMD websites were impacted across different verticals. The “niche-specificity” of this update I’ll address below, however if your non-EMD or partial EMD website saw a traffic drop around the same timeframe, it is more likely you were impacted by the Panda Update 20.
An “update” takes place whenever Google decides to make an adjustment to the way their algorithm computes a websites relevancy and/or trust. An update looks at commonalities shared across a number of different “low-quality” or “spammy” websites and factors these characteristics into the algorithm.
A “penalty” occurs when a website is found to be utilizing practices which fall outside Google’s webmaster guidelines. Penalties are usually assessed via an algorithmic or a manual determination and recoveries are usually brisk via a reconsideration request.
The reason why the EMD update is particularly perplexing is because it seems to have affected “thin” affiliate sites in very specific niches such as travel, loans, insurance, gaming, etc. while EMD’s in a number of other segments were left unscathed. The meticulousness with which this update was carried out lead a lot of people to believe it was in fact a penalty, however, what most people do not realize is that Google has many algorithms which it applies to different queries and segments of the web, and each algorithm may differ in how it goes about computing relevancy and trust.
The key to understanding this update and those which will come after, is to understand how Google segments the search universe by query intent, commercial, non-commercial, navigational, informational, etc., and where your website falls within the spectrum. It’s highly plausible that the EMD update specifically targeted “thin” affiliate sites that fell within the “short-circuit keywords” (words and phrases likely to be targeted by advertisers) spectrum.