Some people consider an exact-match domain (EMD) a thing of the past.
Others think EMDs are still going strong.
As for me, I always look at the data to the find the answers.
In this comprehensive resource on EMDs, I show you that data and reveal everything you need to know about exact-match domain names.
This guide is based on more than two years of guest interviews on DomainSherpa, as well as many other sources, and covers these topics:
What Is an Exact-Match Domain?
An exact-match domain is a domain name that exactly matches the searched keyword phrase of a user, and contains no dashes. For example, if you search Google for the keyword phrase “diapers,” then Diapers.com would be the exact-match domain name.
And EMD is either a single word like Insurance.com, a phrase like ReputationRepair.com, or a geographic location like LasVegas.com. Reputation-Repair.com and Las-Vegas.com would not be considered EMDs.
If the domain is a real word but one that few people are searching for and few advertisers are interested in buying search advertising against, it is merely a generic domain name. Some examples of generic domain names are Piled.com, Gripped.com or Smoothest.com.
The top level domain (e.g., .com, .net, .org) doesn’t matter in determining if a domain name is an exact-match domain, although it does play a role in the value of the domain name and the user’s perception of the website.
Examples of Exact-Match Domains
The most pristine example of an exact-match domain name is a single generic word that defines a product, service or industry, but exact-match domain names extend to multiple words – often called long-tail search phrases.
Thousands of examples exist for both single and multiple words, and they are owned by small and large companies alike.
(Full list of large companies that own generic Domain names.)
Interesting side note: While Amazon.com may seem like an exact-match domain, it is merely a generic word domain name. The word “amazon” does not match any of the products or services it sells except maybe books about the Amazon rain forest or river. However, “amazon” does a great job describing the quantity of products and services it sells.
Three Main Benefits of Exact-Match Domains
There are many benefits associated with buying an exact-match domain name, but the top three reasons for owning an exact-match domain are:
- They are in limited supply
- They receive type-in traffic
- They have immediate recognition by users as being authoritative
1. EMDs are in limited supply, so they’re worth more.
All exact-match domain names have been registered, and anything in limited supply always carries a premium in valuation.
To own an exact-match domain name in the .com top level domain takes either the foresight to have acquired it over a decade ago, extreme luck in acquiring it from the registrant who doesn’t understand the full value of the asset, or deep pockets to buy it from the registered owner.
Take CordBlood.com, for example. You would need to have registered CordBlood.com prior to June 6, 1996, or purchase it from the current owner today for high six- or seven-figures (if they would even sell it). Two exact-match domains related to cord blood you can purchase today are CordBlood.us for $2,600 on Sedo, or CordBlood.fr for a hand-registration fee, but neither are as good as a .com top level domain, which is recognized worldwide by consumers.
In contrast to exact-match domains, brandable domain names like BestCordBlood.com, FreshCordBlood.com or MyCordBlood.com are much easier and less expensive to acquire. However, you are likely to lose traffic to the exact-match domain name by users who cannot remember your brand.
Consider these two instances where established companies paid to acquire a brandable domain name that was easier to spell or simpler to remember than their original brand.
The online service marketplace Fiverr.com purchased the domain Fiver.com (one “r”) for $70,000 in April 2011. They found users did not remember the double “r” in their brand name and were instead visiting a parked website. Similarly, social networking website TheFacebook.com upgraded to Facebook.com in 2005 for a reported $200,000.
Having a brand that is memorable to customers is important for any company, but particularly for one in which customers must type that name into a web browser in order to visit the business.
2. EMDs receive type-in traffic.
Type-in traffic, also called direct navigation traffic, happens when a person types a keyword or phrase (without spaces) into the address bar of their web browser and appends a .com (or other top level domain, such as .org or .dk). This is in contrast to users who arrive at a website through search engine results or other referral links.
For example, a customer who knows they want to buy an ebook for their Kindle ereader might type “Amazon.com” directly into their web browser. The more interesting instance of type-in traffic is when someone who is looking for, say, bicycles, simply types “Bicycles.com” into their browser not knowing if a website exists, but just hoping to find something useful. It happens more than you might think.
Although there are no citable reports of how much type-in traffic various domain names receive, confidential industry sources peg type-in traffic at anywhere from tens to tens of thousands of unique visitors per month, depending on the word. Insurance.com is estimated to receive 2,500 type-in visitors per day (see Estibot.com tutorial to learn how to find this information). PalmSprings.com receives 25 percent to 30 percent of their traffic through direct navigation.
Even a very niche exact-match domain name like SEOBlog.com, which was undeveloped and parked prior to launch in May 2013, received 65 visitors in January 2013 – more than two visitors per day on average. And the traffic increased to 95 in February and 92 in March (data supplied from Web X.0 Media, and gathered via DomainNameSales.com parking platform).
Type-in traffic varies based on the number of words in the EMD (e.g., single-word domains will generally receive more type-in traffic than three-word domains) and the search popularity of the keyword or phrase. In other words, shorter domains with a name that reflects a highly searched keyword receive more type-in traffic.
3. EMDs Have Immediate Brand Recognition and Authority.
This is probably the most important benefit of an exact-match domain name.
Imagine you are wanting to send flowers to your mother for Mother’s Day and you search on the keyword “flowers.” You are more likely going to click on a website called “Flowers.com” than “PattysFloralShop.com.” That instinctual preference you have for the exact-match domain name reflects the authoritative power an EMD enjoys.
When Michael Castello of PalmSprings.com calls on customers, they immediately know what he represents and likely knows what he is calling about – or at least they want to pickup the phone and have a conversation with Michael because he controls one of the most valuable tourism assets in the community.
That’s the power of an exact-match domain name, which Michael Castello, Marty Metro and Jesse Stein all attest to in their DomainSherpa interviews.
Michael Castello, PalmSprings.com: Our success is based on the trust factor people place in our domain.
Michael Cyger: In your opinion, is the domain name one of the most critical foundations to build a business on?
Michael Castello: Well for us it is. And I believe it should be for anyone that has a global approach in their business. And again even a local approach in your business. That one name could define a lot of future revenue and also cut down your competitive state later on. For us it is always – let’s say daycare.com, people who actually come and scrape our database. Now our database is at people who actually came in and signed up since back in ’97. They will come and they will scrape the information off. In the long run – when you think about it – they can’t get the brand and the brand is what brings in the traffic every day, new traffic every day. So for us that name is premium.
When you think about, when you were talking about PalmSprings.com – the kind of revenue that it does make – you know day after day, week after week, year after year that revenue comes in. And I truly believe it is because the trust factor that people place in a name. I mean if you are going to go to Ford – Ford.com, Mattel – Mattel.com, Palm Springs – PalmSprings.com, Nashville – Nashville.com, it just has that trustability. And when you go to a grocery store and you see the shelves are piled with 25, 30, 50 different cereals brands and more than likely I mean you are going to look at a brand you have seen on TV, something you trust. And in a lot of ways that is really what we get inherently in those domain names – is that trust factor. Now what is that worth especially on a global scale? That is worth so much. It all starts and ends with us with the domain name. Hopefully it is a name that it is something that you have a passion in. Something that you would enjoy doing every day and I would really believe it all revolves around the premium domain name…The category killer name.
Marty Metro, UsedCardboardBoxes.com: For a business to succeed, they need every advantage they can get.
Marty Metro: If you were moving and you saw the domain name that said UsedCardboardBoxes.com and you knew you were moving, it is worth checking out. And we learned that powerful, powerful lesson that companies like Amazon and companies like Michael Dell…it is his last name, Dell. He probably was not being very creative. He was just like whatever; I just need a name to put on this form. And they were brilliant people, very lucky also in their timing, and they were brilliant enough to work that luck and time it right and build on it. Most people aren’t.
So you really need every advantage you can possibly get. And for us, I did not care about making a cool name like Zazzu or whatever that I had to then go out and, every time I wrote that name, I had to explain it. UsedCardboardBoxes.com – didn’t have to explain it.
Jesse Stein, SportsMemorabilia.com: EMDs open up doors to suppliers, partners, investors and customers.
Michael Cyger: Could you have bought SportsMem.com, so it is not even SportsMemorabilia[.com]? How much more difficult do you think it would have been to build it off of a brandable domain name versus a generic keyword domain name?
Jesse Stein: Right, that is a great question. And I think it is in the eye of the beholder. So, there is a lot of beautiful brands out there. Obviously, with Zappos and Amazon, and Ebay, and the like that are not generic names. But I always believed in the power of a generic name, especially when you are self-funded and smaller, and you are trying to open-up doors to suppliers and partners and, later on, investors and customers. And I think that there is tremendous value that is conferred by a category-killing domain name that really has no real synonym. I think that is the key; is you cannot buy a name where then there could be twenty other words that would be similar to that name. With sports memorabilia, there is really nothing that completely defines the industry; and it happens to be a really important facet of our model because sports memorabilia is all about authenticity, and we live and die by authenticity, and just our name alone confers that authority. And so, I think, in this specific case, it was huge, just owning the name. And once you own the name, no one else case. So that is what is beautiful about it.
How Much Do Exact-Match Domains Cost?
Exact-match domain names can cost as little as four figures (i.e., $1,000 to $9,999) and as much as eight figures (e.g., $10,000,000). The highest known sales price of a domain name without an operating business included in the sale, Insure.com, is $16 million. Jesse Stein of SportsMemorabilia.com paid $12,500 for his domain name back in 2006.
Most exact-match domain names run in the five figures, from $10,000 to $99,999. Yes, this is a big range, but keywords and phrases vary greatly in search frequency and advertising competition, which accounts for the large range in value.
Most domain name brokers will tell you that an exact-match domain is worth what a buyer and seller will agree to. While that can be the case, an agreed-upon sales price doesn’t always reflect the true value of a domain name. Sometimes you just get a good deal.
Consider the process of selling a home. I may think that my house is worth $350,000, but to determine a reasonable listing price, as well as to decide upon any offers received, I need to compare my home to the three or more similar homes that have recently sold.
Unlike in physical real estate, however, in Internet real estate, it is not easy to find comparison data points of exact-match domain name sales. In lieu of sales comparisons, I recommend getting as many valuation opinions as you can when buying or selling an exact-match domain name.
Three or more data points you can easily gather include:
- Estibot.com valuation
- The Rosener Equation valuation
- Talking to domain name brokers and asking for their opinion
Additional benefits for owning an exact-match domain include defensive domain purchasing (i.e., preventing competitors from owning it) and increasing asset value.
Why Exact-Match Domains Should Rank Higher
The top three reasons discussed in the previous section – limited supply, type-in traffic, and brand recognition and authority – are compelling enough for most EMD registrants. A fourth potential benefit is better positioning in search results. All things being equal, an exact-match domain can help your website rank higher.
Assuming two websites both have equally great content, beautiful design, strong marketing and social media tactics, regular publishing schedules, strict editorial standards and similar budgets, the website that has the exact-match domain will likely win over a non-keyword domain name for the desired keyword or phrase.
Danny Sullivan, SearchEngineLand.com: Good content with a good domain name is “very, very golden.”
Michael Cyger: I did some research prior to our show. I went on Google and I searched “cord blood” which – you may be aware of – it’s an enormously high cost per click on Google. And what I found is, the #1 organic result on Google is cordblood.com. The exact-match. I went and searched for “car insurance quote.” The #1 result is carinsurancequote.net. I went and searched for “immigration lawyer.” The #1 search result is immigrationlawyersnow.org. I didn’t see immigrationlawyers.com but maybe because that website’s in Spanish and Google knows that I only speak English and eat yogurt for breakfast and have a dentist’s appointment after this interview and everything else that Google knows about me. It seems to me that good businesses coupled with great generic keyword domain names gets a website to the top of the listings. Is my logic sound or flawed? Is it happenstance?
Danny Sullivan: It can help. I’m assuming that the sites that you went to were all substantial in some way…that there was substantial content.
Michael: They are, from what I can see.
Danny: That can definitely couple with it, especially when you kind of get into these generics, but perhaps lesser-known types of areas. So there’s no issue at all with that. That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about; the idea that if you can come up with the good content to back up the good domain name, that’s very, very golden.)
Danny Sullivan, SearchEngineLand.com: Good content with a good domain name is “very, very golden.”
It makes sense that a great website with a great exact-match domain name should rank higher in search results – and that search engines algorithms should be designed to rank those sites higher. In most cases, an exact-match domain name will answer the question that a user is asking through their search. EMDs speak directly to user intent.
For example, when a person is searching Bing.com for “insurance,” they are most likely looking for insurance information for, say, their home or car. Finding the website Insurance.com, which provides the very information a user is looking for, at the top of the search results is a useful response to the user’s query and thus should be the objective of search engine algorithms.
Andrew Rosener, MediaOptions.com: EMDs unquestionably have an advantage because it shows user intent.
Michael Cyger: Let’s talk about Google and exact-match domains. There has been a lot of hype around Google changing their algorithm to give less of a benefit to exact-match domains like SearchEngine.com, when people are going to a search engine and typing ‘Search Engine’.
Andrew Rosener: Come on, you can think of a better example.
Michael: That was a terrible example, wasn’t it? Give me a better example.
Andrew: How about baby strollers?
Michael: Baby strollers. You want to find out reviews of baby strollers…you are buying some stuff. Which baby strollers are the best? You type in ‘baby strollers’ and then BabyStrollers.com shows up on top, even though it may not be the “best” – from your determination – content site for learning about baby strollers. So Google says, “We are going to not give as much benefit.” Some people called it a penalty – whatever it is. What is your take on the exact-match domains?
Andrew: So, I think that update to Google’s algorithm has been grossly overestimated and misunderstood. Essentially, what they’ve done – and I do not claim to be the expert on search engine optimization in any way – but I deal a lot with some of the top SEO companies, and it is my understanding that what has been done is that whereas if you owned BabyStrollers.com and you had a one-page website on there with some brief content before, you could still – not in some of the most competitive verticals but in, let’s say, second tier and third tier verticals – you could probably rank on page one for that term if you had the exact-match .COM, .NET, or .ORG domain name.
What Google has done now is they have said, “Okay, look, we are going to evaluate all the exact-match keyword domains for the high competition keywords and we are going to compare them to the other results in that category. And if the content is apples to apples, then the exact-match keyword domain name is still going to have some advantage.” Maybe not as big of an advantage as it did previously, but there is unquestionably still an advantage given to exact-match keyword domain names in the search results in Google. But the content – the user experience – needs to be apples to apples in quality with the other websites that are displayed in the ranks.
Michael: Right. So, why is that fair for Google to do that; to say if the sites are the same content, the same functionality, the same user benefit – why would they give a little benefit to BabyStrollers.com versus AndrewsBabies.com?
Andrew: Well, because I think – at the end of the day – an exact-match domain name shows intent. So, it tells the user what is this about. And if I am BabyStrollers.com, I am probably selling baby strollers. And that might be what you are looking for, mostly likely, if you are searching for baby strollers.
Andrew: So I think it immediately shows intent, which enhances the user experience. It speeds up the user’s search and gets them faster to what they are looking for.
Why Google Had to Adjust Their Algorithm
As with anything, when people notice something good occurring they try to get more of it, many times “gaming the system.” In the case of search engine results, Internet marketers began using exact-match domain names to rank websites with marginal content higher in the results.
When people noticed websites with exact-match domain names were ranking higher in search engine results, they purchased more EMDs and the problem grew.
In 2010, Google noticed two issues:
- Thin-content websites with exact-match domains were ranking high in search results.
- High-value websites without EMDs were being outranked by lesser-value websites with EMDs.
So the company decided to do something about it. Matt Cutts, SEO guru at Google, even commented publicly at a PubCon conference that the search engine giant was investigating the matter. He later made a formal announcement on Twitter.
The Details of Google’s EMD Update
Google rolled out their EMD update on September 27, 2012.
The purpose of Google’s EMD algorithm update was not to devalue exact-match domains. The purpose was to devalue thin-content websites that used exact-match domains to rank well.
The Extent of Google’s Change
The change to Google’s algorithm for ranking web sites and web pages was not as significant as it was made out to be by so many bloggers and pundits. Straight from Matt Cutts himself:
Only 0.6 percent of all search queries were affected.
Dr. Peter J. Meyers, a marketing scientist at Moz.com, measured “a 24-hour drop in EMD influence from 3.58 percent to 3.21 percent. This represents a day-over-day change of 10.3 percent.”
While the graph above looks like EMD correlation value is “dropping” off the chart because of the scale, it is only a decrease from 3.58 percent to 3.21 percent. Exact-match domains still correlate to higher search rankings.
For example, a search on the keyword phrase “Google keyword tool” will yield Google’s official page on the topic in the first position, but a thin-content website with an exact-match domain name (not affiliated with Google) still comes up second out of over 35 million results.
In addition, a study performed by CanIRank.com and published on October 30, 2014, found that keyword-based domain names still help websites rank higher. Specifically, they found:
- Keyword domains rank on average 11% higher than brandable domains
- Brandable domains needed an average of 40,000 more links to hit #1, and 35,000 more links to reach the Top 10
- Brandable domains needed 69% higher Domain Authority and 22% higher Page Authority to rank in the Top 10
- Keyword domains were able to hit #1 with half as much content, and only using the keyword half as frequently
Why Some Domain Owners Are Upset
The change in Google’s algorithm was not welcomed by everyone. Those owners of exact-match domain names who were trying to extract free traffic from Google for their “built for AdSense” website by ranking well as a result of their EMD were upset because their revenue dropped significantly when their rankings, and subsequent traffic, dropped.
Chad Fisher: I will say that, in the overall, as I said, that business has changed quite a bit, and we will get into that a bit with some of the latest updates. So, I do not do that nearly as much as I used to just because Google has done a great job of kind of bifurcating the world into affiliates and real companies. Everything from Panda to Penguin to EMD update – they have segregated the population of, are you just informational-only sites – getting in the eHow, your example from earlier – or only a lead generation site. Are you trying to extract organic traffic from us? And if you are, we are going to make life harder for you, because being a thin affiliate is very difficult where, three or four years ago, you could throw up almost any site and if it had an EMD on it, you could rank, you would get great traffic. It was very easy. Those days are not over one hundred percent, but they are a lot more difficult now.
The Future Value of Exact-Match Domains
Exact-match domains will continue to be in high demand by business owners and website publishers because users implicitly trust them like brands, they receive type-in traffic, they rank more easily in search engine results, and the supply is limited.
But exact-match domains aren’t right for every company or every use. Amazon.com – which started as a book retailer and now sells virtually any product you can think of – would have made a terrible mistake to pigeonhole their business into a specific industry by buying a domain name like Books.com (owned by Barnes & Noble).
As it turns out, however, having a brandable domain like Amazon.com doesn’t preclude the company from also competing in a single industry with an exact-match domain.
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