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?
- Examples of exact-match domains
- Three main benefits of exact match domains
- How much do exact-match domains cost?
- Why exact match-domains should rank higher
- Why Google had to adjust their algorithm
- The details of Google’s EMD update
- What the extent of Google’s change was
- Why some domain owners are upset
- The future value of exact-match domains
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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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