Why do Exact Match Domains still perform well in some Google searches?
This is the type of question I would ask a potential employee if I was hiring a new SEO for my company or agency. The answer and explanation you get will separate the experienced pros from the wannabes, and the real SEOs from the guesSEOs.
The special magical powers of an EMD are one of the great pervading SEO myths and many people still believe they get preferential treatment because they see the evidence of EMDs doing well in some SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), especially in local SERPs where the competition is weaker and the Google algorithm is a little softer or more forgiving.
So what is the answer ?
Well here’s the wrong answer (and the one often rolled out by some SEOs)
“EMDs are so effective because having keywords in the URL is a ranking factor.”
Now the last part of that statement is actually correct – having keywords in the URL has always been a ranking factor, albeit a small one, and certainly less of a factor now than years ago when there were less signals for Google to look at.
So, yes, having keywords in the URL can help a little, but that’s not why EMDs are still working well in some SERPs. The effect is too small to have that kind of impact.
So what is the right answer and best explanation?
In short, EMDs rank well in some cases because of anchor text.
Pure and simple. But let’s delve into that a bit more.
Keywords in anchor text is one of the stronger ranking signals Google uses. It’s a relevancy signal, an easy way to figure out what topic a page is discussing. If someone links to another website from their own site, they’ll often use a descriptive word or phrase in the link text (anchor text) to help the reader decide if they want to click the link/visit the site/page.
It’s good for the user, and that helps Google figure out what the topic of the linked site is. Therefore, anchor text has long been used by Google in determining the value of a link, from a relevancy viewpoint. It remains one of the most important on-page signals and can boost rankings for the site or page receiving the link.
Now what happens when someone typically links to another website ? Quite often they will simply use the website address or the URL as the link – the anchor text. If the URL is an EMD that means they get the benefit of their target keywords, right there in the link. And that is why some EMDs get a boost in their rankings, for their target keywords.
But why do some EMDs benefit while others never rank ?
Going back a few years EMD sites were ranking like crazy in all kinds of niches and many were taking advantage of this to rank above better or more established sites. So Google tried to tackle this issue algorithmically with their EMD Update back in 2012.
But that was aimed at low quality EMD sites with thin content and spammy link profiles, so while it got rid of some of the weakest and spammiest sites, it still doesn’t change the main reason why EMDs tend to rank better – i.e the benefits of exact match anchor text.
But hang on, isn’t having keywords in anchor text a bit dangerous now ?
Anchor text has been abused by spammers ever since Google started its search engine and as a result Google has evolved and adapted to deal with anchor text abuse or over-optimization. The Penguin algorithm largely targets anchor text abuse and has become very efficient at spotting this. The result is that it’s now become more dangerous to use your keywords in anchor text, in external backlinks (internal links are not subject to the same level of scrutiny, as of yet). Especially if you get more than a few of them all the same (as you might expect if it was an EMD).
However, EMDs are sometimes treated differently – and the reason is branding.
A domain name is often the company name, the brand name – the URL itself is sometimes the brand name. We see this everywhere – Hotels.com and CheapFlights.com are well known examples.
Google expects to see the brand name used in anchor text links, it’s perfectly natural. But it just so happens that some brand names (and URLs) contain keywords that the company is targeting – an Exact Match Domain can also be a brand.
This is how some EMDs escape the scrutiny that other domains receive from Google and manage to secure good rankings in some SERPs.
It has nothing to do with any mystical powers, and has very little to do with keywords being present in the URL – it is simply down to the cumulative effects of anchor text and the relevancy boost it can provide.