The Rewards and Perils of Using an Exact Match Domain

the pros and cons of exact match domains emd
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Press 2007 into the keypad on your time machine and hit the start button. When the stomach-churning journey ends (always bring a barf bag when you time travel), you’ll open the door and be faced with a world where selfies were taken by aiming your camera at a mirror, and GIFs were full of sparkly bling.


Take a peek into an 2007 SEO firm and they might be discussing why you should use… exact match domains.What is an Exact Match Domain (EMD)?An exact match domain (EMD) is a domain name that exactly matches the keyword you want to rank for. If you’re trying to rank for the keyword “alabama SEO firm,” your EMD would be

EMDs in the past

10 years ago. Google would give a big rankings boost to domains that exactly matched keywords. If was taken, companies might go for or, just to get the coveted domain match and try to show up on the first page of search results for that keyword.

Hyphens were often saviors of a lost cause, enabling domain names like and… ad nauseum.

If there was no way to get an exact match domain for their keyword (or if there were other factors involved), businesses would try and get some of the benefits by using a partial match domain.

What is a Partial Match Domain (PMD)?

A partial match domain (PMD) is a domain name that contains part of the keyword phrase you’re aiming to rank for. If you’re trying to rank for the keyword “Alabama SEO firm,” any domain with “Alabama” or “seo firm” in it would be a partial match domain. That would include domains like “” or “”.

A partial match domain didn’t have the same ranking power as an exact match domain, but it was better than a domain without any target keyword in it.

The 2012 EMD algorithm update

Jump back in your time machine and zoom forward (barf bag, please) to 2012. Friday, September 28, 2012, to be precise.

matt cutts tweet about the 2012 google emd update

(Yep, there’s another SEO time relic: Matt Cutts, former Google chief of webspam.)

Matt announced that the free ride Google had been giving to exact match domains was about to come to an end. And in fact the influence of exact match domains looked like it was waning almost immediately, according to Moz’s data.

picture of a graph showing mozcast data regarding the influence of exact match domains in seo

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EMD/PMD recovery?

In December 2012, the Search Marketing Standard asked whether Google had changed its mind about lowering the value of PMDs. They brought data from Moz that suggested a PMD recovery, and possibly an EMD one.

mozcast chart showing emd/pmd recovery

Photo credit:

Even in Backlinko’s complete list of SEO ranking factors (last updated in November 2016), exact and partial match domains are included:

Partial match domains:

  1. Keyword Appears in Top Level Domain: Doesn’t give the boost that it used to, but having your keyword in the domain still acts as a relevancy signal. After all, they still bold keywords that appear in a domain name.

And if it’s at the beginning of the domain name, that’s even better:

  1. Keyword As First Word in Domain: A domain that starts with their target keyword has an edge over sites that either don’t have the keyword in their domain or have the keyword in the middle or end of their domain.

Exact match domains:

  1. Exact Match Domain: EMDs may still give you an edge…if it’s a quality site. But if the EMD happens to be a low-quality site, it’s vulnerable to the EMD update.


Why do EMDs help in ranking?

Exact match domains (and partial match domains) have two ways they might help ranking.

  1. Keywords in domain

This is a direct benefit provided by the EMD/PMD.

  1. Keywords in anchor text

We all know that the words used to link to your site (the anchor text) is a factor when it comes to SEO. So much of a factor, in fact, that Google had to introduce the Penguin Update just to try and eliminate the abuse of that factor.

When people link to your site, they often do so using your URL. If your URL has your keywords, the links will naturally contain your keywords. (And not in the spammy sense than Penguin cracked down on.)

Lots of natural links containing your keyword can lead to better rankings for that keyword… as Mark Preston found out when his site ranked locally for Preston SEO (even when he didn’t live in Preston).

So do EMDs help or hurt?

Let’s be clear on why Google would have given less weight to exact match domains.

It’s not the domain – it’s the spam.

As we saw in our 2007 search results filled with and and – those sites that were exact match for the sake of being exact match were often low quality sites. They were spammy sites thrown up for the purpose of ranking, generating heaps of traffic and making quick money. They didn’t have high quality content or provide lasting value to the visitor.

That’s exactly what Matt Cutts specified in his announcement: “Google algo change will reduce low quality “exact-match” domains in search results.”

And Gary Illyes mentioned that again a few months ago:

a twee from seo gary illyes regarding the influence of emd's

A penalty for spam and low quality doesn’t mean that there’s no benefit from the EMD. That would be like saying that when Google penalizes spammy links, links don’t benefit your site any more.

That’s clearly not the case. Links help, and EMDs help, when they’re used to support high quality sites. Google’s out to hit the spam.

Downsides to using an exact match domain for SEO

You might start thinking you can coast on it

As we just saw above, even in 2016, Gary Illyes is on the lookout for spammy EMDs. Google’s not going to give up on the spam, and so if your EMD is just a low quality shortcut tactic, you’re likely going to experience disappointment, sooner or later.

No branding

Amazon is Amazon is Amazon. If they had started with the domain, there’s more than a chance that would have hurt their memorability, marketing and long-term success in a changing industry.

Using a branded domain gives the impression that you’re serious, big-time and here to stay. It’s easier to remember and find online.

“Why is branding so powerful? Because it differentiates your products and services from your competitors’. A compelling brand creates emotional connections to make it easier for people to relate what they do. The same goes for branded domain names: They don’t appear spammy and are far more memorable than generic keyword-based names.” –Wordstream

What’s the exact match for your SEO goals in 2017?

Exact and partial match domains clearly do provide some advantage, whether through the domain itself or through the keywords that will occur naturally in links using the URL as anchor text.

Don’t rest on your laurels with an exact match domain, though. Build it – its quality, content and optimization – the same way you would any domain, even a branded one.

If that sounds good to you – go forth with your EMD!

But if you find yourself thinking, “Why would I invest all that effort into a non-branded EMD?” – well, you just got your answer.

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