Is there any benefit to having an exact match domain? We explore the history of this practice and why businesses are better off building an online brand instead.
An exact match domain is a website domain that is purchased to target specific keywords or a search query on Google. SEO practitioners have historically used this method as a way of gaming the system and effectively increasing their rankings on Google. Examples include:
Why did exact match domains work?
In the early days of Google, matching your domain name with the keyword you were seeking was seen as a viable and successful method of getting to the top of search engine results. If Google is trying to give the user the most relevant search result, it seemed logical to secure a URL with the exact name. So for buying a domain from GoDaddy or 123 Reg for a year, adding a bit of content and getting some links, presto, you would be on page 1 of Google.
Also, it meant that any links you had pointing to your website would typically be exact match anchor text, and this is something that would boost your search rankings as well, until the Penguin algorithm ended this in April 2012.
An interesting observation is how some of the best exact match domains are rarely seen in Google's search engine results pages (SERPs), such as food.com, cars.com, loans.com and insurance.com. If you visit some of these sites, they tend to be older companies or businesses that do not exist, with the domain owner hoping to sell the name for a huge fee. (Customers of 123 Reg will regularly see domains for sales, as the company acts as a broker for those looking for a killer name.)
A change in algorithm
An algorithm change by Google in 2012 aimed to penalize exact match domains. SEO guru Matt Cutts stated that this would affect 0.6 percent of English-U.S. queries and would significantly reduce the rankings of those exact match domain sites with low quality. Further, the impact of the algorithm change would potentially cause domains with long names to fall several pages behind on Google's SERPs or even disappear altogether.
In 2017, it is now rare to see domains with long names featured on page 1 of Google. Instead, there is a huge demand for short URLs, and SEO practitioners are encouraged to keep URLs short for best practice.
How to use exact match domains today
There is still a place for exact match domains, provided that you market them the right way. If you can turn that exact match into a real brand and company, you will be able to stand the test of time.
Some great examples of this include startuploans.co.uk and cashconverters.co.uk. Both of these domains explain exactly what they offer, but as established brands, they maintain top search results.
These brands also benefit from being early adopters in their field, so if you see potential growth in an industry, it is worth trying to grab the domain name early on. If you can, keep the name short and pick two strong keywords (and probably no more).
If the strongest keyword is not available, e.g. ,carinsurance.com or propertyloans.com, consider using a partial match that includes two main keywords and adding things like hub, online, ltd, US or UK at the end of it. There is still value in having one or more main keywords in the domain name, and some great examples include moneysavingexpert.com, amigoloans.com and moneyadviceservice.org.uk.
The role of brand SEO
The reason is that these domains are successful is because they have evolved into brands – and this is what Google is looking for.
If you can take your domain name and practice good brand SEO, you will be in business. Using bridgingloanhub.co.uk as an example, you can see the following brand techniques on their websites:
Content. There is clear site architecture, including landing pages and useful content. The company also links to reputable websites, including news and government sites, and to other pages on the website.
Links. A real brand is featured in the news and on websites in the same industry, hence their listings on Mortgage Introducer and Bridging and Commercial. If you are being recommended as a real company, your rankings on Google will reflect this.
In fact, if you type in the most competitive SEO keywords like "life insurance" and "car insurance," you only see big brands, because Google is more likely to trust these businesses than an individual who set up a website with a long domain name from their home. In conclusion, while having an exact match domain name can help you with SEO in 2017, creating a brand online is far more important.