Hi guys, how's it going?
A question we at Affilorama have been receiving a lot lately is "Is Google now penalizing Exact Match Domains (EMDs)?"
The answer is yes, in fact, I've noticed this myself; one of my favorite "pet project" websites has completely disappeared from the first hundred or so pages on Google for all its search terms. This site had been ranking in the top five for just about any keyword I fancied in my niche. Frustrating huh?
So if you're hurting from Google's recent updates, I feel your pain! If the Panda and Penguin updates weren't enough, us poor affiliate marketers now have further woes to deal with. In this blog post we're going to examine the evidence to see what's happened, who the EMD update has affected, and what you can do in order to recover your business.
A picture paints a thousands words, so to begin let us get the news straight from the horse's mouth:
Check out the Tweet date - September 28th. Now, let's take a look at the Google Analytics stats for my "pet project" site at howtoinvestingold.org:
What date did my site's traffic take a dive? On September 30! Coincidence, I think not. How To Invest In Gold has an exact-match domain, and was therefore penalized by Google.
Basically, what appears to have happened is that Google has come along and taken the hatchet to websites that use long-tail keywords. This has been designed to weed out "low quality" sites that use EMDs to artificially inflate the rankings of the site for a particular keyword.
EMDs have always been a popular method of ranking for long-tail keyword phrases: You research a profitable keyword phrase, register a domain name that matches this phrase, and then build content until you hit the first page of Google (maybe throw some backlinks in there for good measure).
According to some early data over at Seomoz, the importance of exact matching in a domain name for high Google rankings has dropped a sizable amount:
It seems clear - Google has taken a real dislike to the use of EMDs as a method of "gaming" the search engines. Some experts have postulated that this isn't really a "penalty" per se, but instead the value of exact matching domains has decreased. So basically, if an EMD was the only thing keeping your site high up in the search engines, then it stands to reason that your site's rankings may have fallen quite badly.
However, if your site also has a lot of links keeping it in traction, or a big social presence, then you might well have seen steady rankings and traffic, or even an increase in site performance.
Who has been affected?
Well, apart from yours truly, there appear to be many people who have been heavily penalized in terms of search ranking and natural search engine traffic because of this update. A quick search in the PPC/SEO Warrior Forum will yield dozens of results for EMD questions, complaints, and observations.
As with the Google Panda and Penguin updates, it seems as if honest affiliate marketers are being hit with the sharp part of the hammer once again. Because of the very nature of affiliate marketing (i.e. we are trying to drive traffic to our own sites for our own profit using free Google traffic, and we use SEO to achieve this in many cases) we are always going to be on the defensive when it comes to Google algorithm changes and updates.
Unfortunately, there always tends to be a lot of "collateral damage" when Google algorithm changes and updates are rolled out. For example, my own How To Invest In Gold site has disappeared from the search rankings, even though it features hundreds of posts of quality, unique content and almost no affiliate links. In the comments section of this WebProNews blog post, you will see dozens of similar complaints about quality sites being penalized for using EMD domains.
Of course this is all very frustrating for these main reasons:
- There is no sense of consistency with Google algorithm changes. To use my own sites as an example, How To Invest In Gold was really hammered. Fair cop, it's an EMD - however, it is also the only domain name that was available at the time that also made sense for the site. Conversely, my Internet Marketing Training For Newbies website (check it out to see AffiloTheme kicking ass) has not lost its rankings, even though it is an EMD. Strange how an aged site with massive content disappears, whereas a newer site in a niche much more prone to spamming survives. As with Panda and Penguin, there appears to be little consistency with how algorithm updates are actually applied.
- It is difficult to plan for the future/future-proof your sites. After all, I could have purchased the domain name "qwertyuiop12345.org" and then built the site there, but that crazy domain name doesn't make sense. Imagine if bricks and mortar businesses were unable to name their stores in an appropriate manner ("Steve's Motorbike Spares" has to call itself "Random Collection of Stuff Not Related to Motorcycling" in order to continue in business). Should we stop purchasing domain names with strong keyword-correlation in the future? Who knows?! As any high school economics student will tell you, being able to plan for the future is essential for business confidence and success.
- There is too much collateral damage. Google appears to have taken the "carpet bombing" approach to EMDs; very effective, but guaranteed to injure innocent bystanders. I can understand that Google wants to deliver what it sees as the best possible search results, but it is unfortunate to see that so many people are being caught up in the crossfire for no apparent reason (other than following what was SEO best practice at the time they built their site). This brings me on to my next point:
- Search engine result quality is not improving. As far as I can tell, the quality of search engine results is not improving markedly. Before the Penguin update, search terms were dominated by entries from article directories and Web 2.0 sites; these were wiped, and then we saw "cheap and cheerful" EMDs with just as thin content dominating the show. Skip forward to October 2012, and many search terms (epecially niche long-tail terms) are dominated by endless pages of low quality YouTube videos, shopping websites, and large commercial sites; diversity seems at a premium. I'm sure you will agree that it is difficult to argue that search results are improving in quality, especially when pages are being dominated by the same sites. Check out this blog post for evidence that Google search results are becoming less diverse. When searching for an honest review of an affiliate product, the last thing you want to see is 20 pages of 30 second YouTube videos crammed full of affiliate links! You might also like this post about Penguin reducing the quality of search results.
- Livelihoods are being destroyed. I love seeing people succeed online and generate the lifestyle they have always wanted; that's one of the biggest reasons I enjoy working at Affilorama so much! It's disheartening to see people work so hard and put in real effort, only to have their income source wiped out overnight for something that is beyond their control. Fair enough, you deserve to be penalized if you are spamming or engaging in dubious practices - but if you're just building a helpful site that does a little bit of promotion, then you shouldn't have to worry that your livelihood might disappear overnight. Turns on a sixpence, as they say.
What can you do?
If your site(s) have been hit by this most recent of changes to Google's search algorithm, then what can you do?
My first recommendation is to continue adding quality content to your website, even if it might seem like this is in vain. Remember that Google is unlikely to ever punish you for having too much content, as long as it is unique, well-written, and offers lots of value to your readers. So keep writing those articles and adding them to your sites.
Next, you should look to build your social presence. If you haven't got Twitter, Facebook, and Google + set up already, then it is time to get cracking! Building up a strong social presence will show Google that you are serious about community, and serious about getting REAL people involved in your website experience. I would advise spending as much time as possible building up your social presence!
Finally, you should start looking to move your business away from Google as much as possible. Now I don't want to come across as a prophet of doom (believe it or not, I'm actually a nice enough guy :P ) but I truly think that attaining high search engine rankings and relying on them as your main source of traffic and income is a risky strategy. Unless you are truly dedicated to building a massive authority site with a BRANDED domain name, then you might want to start incorporating some alternative traffic strategies:
- Build your list, now. I cannot stress enough the importance of list-building. Once you've built up a big list, you can stop worrying about your business disappearing overnight. In fact, if you want to stop worrying about Google and SEO altogether then focus on building up your list with a simple squeeze page, kickass opt-in content and a profitable newsletter sequence - just send direct traffic from solo ads, ad swaps, article marketing, forum marketing, and guest posting and watch yourself build a REAL business. At the very least, sign up to MailPush and start building your list today. Remember to build up that relationship with awesome content and interactivity, and you can't go far wrong.
- Experiment with PPC. Although the word PPC conjures up nightmares of expensive campaigns, failed profit models, and big credit card bills, PPC can be a real traffic goldmine that is independent of organic Google SEO traffic. The more cynical among us (myself included) might even be inclined to argue that Google's constant algorithm updates and penalization of those trying to profit from free search traffic are designed to herd us towards Google Adwords. After all, sites that drop big coin on PPC never seem to be punished when algorithm updates occur. Check out AffiloBlueprint for some cutting edge PPC training.
- Look for external traffic sources. Find relevant forums in your niche, set up a signature that redirects to your squeeze page, and then post like crazy (if you find this tedious you could even hire an outsourcer to do the work for you). Comment on relevant blogs and add value, then watch the traffic roll in. Create high-quality YouTube videos and link these to your site. Guest blog on sites with big readerships. Own up with Web 2.0 sites like Squidoo; the possibilities for generating traffic that doesn't rely on Google (or any search engine for that matter) are virtually limitless.
So it seems pretty clear that Google has been jabbing at sites which rely on EMDs to boost their rankings. Unfortunately, this means that many affiliates, like the community here at Affilorama, wind up taking a pounding as well.
There's not a lot you can do about the updates and algorithm changes themselves - Google have built a successful business model, and nobody should be suggesting that they be forced to act in an altruistic manner that might not be in the best interests of their business. If Google decides it doesn't like EMDs, then they are perfectly at liberty to penalize them. If Google decides it doesn't like sites about cats, then it should be free to act as it sees fit!
However, affiliate marketers need to wake up to the harsh reality that relying on one source of traffic (organic search traffic) simply isn't a safe business model. The wise man built his house upon the rocks, and the wise affiliate should build his (or her) income stream on as many different rocks as possible!
Seeing as this is quite a contentious issue I've discussed today, I would love to hear your opinion. Were your sites punished by the latest Google update? Maybe you've come out on top; just leave a comment below and get the ball rolling!
Update - 10/19/2012
Matt Cutts from Google suggested that the EMD update was only going to affect about 0.6% of global searches. The data from the following graph confirms this, as we can see that around 3% (down from approximately 3.6%) of search results are EMDs:
Now Google's goal isn't to remove all exact match domains! Instead, they are just trying to cull those "lower quality" EMDs that were deemed to add little value to the webspace. Unfortunately, some innocent sites got caught up in the crossfire too. However, if you have good content that gives value to your readers, you should see a recovery.
You'll also see that the presence of authority sites in the search engine rankings has gone up:
The meaning of all this? Google wants you to start building a branded authority site. They are continually showing a preference towards authority websites.
Looks like it could be time to start writing more content!