An exact match domain is a website domain that precisely matches a user’s search query. Usually purchased with the sole intention of targeting Google keywords, these domains tend to contain several keywords, obscure names and don’t actually relate to the brand at all.

SEO practitioners have historically used this method as a way of gaming the system – hoping to shoot up the Google rankings as a result! Examples include:

  • carinsurancecompanies.com
  • watchonlinemoviesforfree.com
  • besthostingprovidersuk.com

Why did exact match domains work?

In the early days of Google, the search engine algorithm would look for keywords located within the web page title, main body text and the website URL in order to determine relevant web pages to rank on the search engine results pages (SERPs). So naturally exact match domains were seen as a viable and successful way to climb to the top of the search engine. You could buy a domain from GoDaddy or 123 Reg for £7 a year, add a bit of content, get some links and hey presto – you’d be on the first page of Google!

A change in algorithm

Before you get too excited however, an algorithm change by Google in 2012 aimed to penalise these exact match domains. SEO-guru Matt Cutts stated that this would affect 0.6% of English-US queries and would significantly reduce the rankings of those exact match domain sites and even more so for those long domain name low quality sites with less relevant content – ouch!

The impact? Such domains would fall several pages in the rankings, potentially even disappearing from the face of the search engine altogether.

It’s now pretty rare to see such domains with long names featuring on page 1 of Google. Instead, there’s a huge demand for very short URLs and SEO practitioners are encouraged to keep URLs short for best practice.

How to recover from an exact match domain penalty

So, was your website penalised? If so, don’t worry, there are several ways to recover. Google probably isn’t going to like your super long domain name, but if you have something with 2 to 3 relevant keywords – like ‘carfinance.com’ or ‘bestbettingwebsites.com’ – then there’s still a place for you.

Why? Because domains can be turned into brands – and that’s what Google is really looking for. So if you can take your exact match domain and practice some good brand-SEO, you’ll be back in business. This includes:

Trust signals: Add a real address and phone number to the website and submit this to Google Business. Include links to your social media pages, have about us and contact pages, privacy policy and terms and conditions. Now you look like a real company.

Content: Add useful content to your website such as landing pages and guides. Be sure to link out to reputable websites including news and government sites – and also link to other pages within your website.

Inbound links: Forget the links on directories. A real brand would be featured in the news and on websites in the same industry. If you are being recommended as a real company – and linked to, your rankings on Google will reflect this.

How to use exact match domains today

There is still a real place for exact match domains, provided that you market them in the right way. Start by keeping it short – try to get two strong keywords in there and probably no more.

Then turn that domain into a brand using the ideas set out here. 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 guys than Fred who set up a long domain whilst working from his bedroom.

There’s also the business case of using a partial match domain, taking the main keyword and adding things like hub, online, ltd or UK at the end of it. So if you can’t get bridgingloan.co.uk, you can effectively rank a site using bridgingloanhub.co.uk.

Finally, where possible, stick to the second level TLD (top level domain – the stuff after the full stop) of .com and .co.uk. Whilst other variations like .info and .london sound hip and exciting, you’ll unfortunately very rarely see those sites ranking highly on Google!