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What does Exact Match Domain (EMD) mean in SEO?

So what are exact match domains, when can they help you rank and when can they actually cause your potential rankings damage? How should you choose a domain name and, if you have one, should you change it? That's what we'll cover here.

What is an exact match domain?


Let's say you purchased the domain hotelsinmalaga.com or hotels-in-malaga.com. This is an exact match domain for the search term 'hotels in malaga'. In other words an exact match domain is a domain which exactly matches a search term people are likely to use.

A few years back Google gave this some weight. If you called your website hotelsinmalaga.com then there was a pretty good chance you specialized in content specific to hotels in malaga. Why else would you buy the domain and create a website?

Of course they didn't take that at face value, it would be too easy to game. They wanted to see all the other on-page signals were also in place. That there really were hotels on your website and they were in Malaga.

These are all the sorts of things I talk about in general on-Page SEO. Page titles, h1 tags, text content and so on.

The issue was, however, that it gave a little too much weight to the domain name and when people realized this they started to get very niche. I remember someone created something like kitchenislands.com with some basic listings of kitchen islands for sale. It bounced straight to the top of Google.

An industry immediately flourished - buying and selling domain names to the highest bidder. Domains that matched popular keyword phrases traded for tens of thousands of dollars.

Google saw the errors of its ways and adjusted its algorithms so that the domain name no longer held such importance. Websites like kitchenislands.com sank down the rankings and some people were left with a stack of domains they couldn't sell.

OK, for clarity, Google's change doesn't mean having a keyword in your domain name is pointless. It remains a factor just of much smaller importance.

But exact match domains can damage your rankings. Here's how.

Avoiding exact match domains


Google and other search engines use a variety of factors outside of your website to determine how well it should rank for various search terms. One of those is looking at who links to you but another is brand mentions.

Yes, Google understands brands and even if yours is a small business it will eventually catch on to your brand name if you have one. Then it will begin to notice if it is mentioned around the Internet, regardless of whether or not a link is involved.

The trouble with exact match domains is that they are strings of words in every day use. You call your business 'Hotels in Malaga' and host it under hotelsinmalaga.com. Fine. But when Google sees 'hotels in Malaga' mentioned elsewhere on the web it doesn't know if these are people talking about your business or people simply talking about accommodation in that southern Spanish city.

With no brand mentions your not doing yourself any favors because you remove a possible ranking factor from even being possible.

How to approach domain names


The first method keeps keywords but in a way that, if you are mentioned, the words are always used without spaces. AirBnB is a great example of this.

But always bear in mind that a keyword in your domain name can become a millstone later. AirBnB now also deals in entire apartment and house booking which have nothing to do with BnB - Bed and Breakfast). Someone hearing the name for the first time might discount it because they don't want to book a Bed and Breakfast.

Another of my favorites is stairporn.org. No its not an adult site, just lots of pictures of stairs, some not wearing anything at all! When people reference this site they use the two words - stair and porn - together and that has become a brand name.

But you really want to keep any keyword in the domain super vague unless you are sure you are going to stay in that niche. My website howtoseo.link2light.com is limited to search engine optimization. If I wanted to expand it to cover more online marketing the domain name no longer makes sense but my particular approach would be to create specific domains for different areas in online marketing which would make each one much easier to rank.

Sure, if they ever got so huge and so popular that I began thinking "I need to put this all together under one roof" I would have some costly rebranding to do but by then the revenue of the sites would allow that.

The second method, of course, is just to create a unique brand name like Coca Cola or Pepsi.

Keywords or brand names? There is no right answer here because it depends on your industry. Tech start ups tend to use unique brand names - Uber, Instagram, Whatsapp. eCommerce websites often use a keyword - bedlinendirect.com (sells bed linen), batteryguy.com (sells batteries).

My advice is to see what your competitors are doing because that also gives you some idea on what your potential visitors might expect.

Changing your domain name


If you have already launched a site but think you have got the domain name horribly wrong then changing it doesn't have to be a huge task if you understand how to implement 301 redirects which tell search engines where you have gone and redirect visitors who may have bookmarked you or who follow you via an old link.

301 redirects need to be done on a page by page basis but even if you have thousands of pages it usually doesn't cost much for a programmer to write a piece of code that can generate 301 redirect rules for every single one.

Obviously it will undermine you a little because if you have any brand mentions around the web they will no longer make sense.

Generally speaking though I don't encourage clients to change domain names if they are already up and running. With the end of Exact Match Domains as a strong ranking factor there are many more things you can do to improve your rankings than getting bogged down in a re-brand.

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

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