Google Exact Match Domain (EMD) Penalty or Update – First Look

October 1, 2012 // Internet News, Search Engines, seo

I guess the latest Google update penalty shouldn’t have been a surprise for many of us, we’ve all known that exact match domains have had extra punching weight when it comes to rankings in Google for some time now. For those that were not aware, on Friday 28th September Matt Cutt’s announced the following algorithm update:

Like many other SEO’s I run a number of affiliate or adsense site, these help pay for my server and for content development – so I checked out what impact this update has had. For the data below I have used 10 of my exact match domain websites as an example to see what aspects if any contribute to the algorithm change – out of the 10, 9 are domains and 1 is a .org.

Change in Rankings since update

The graph above illustrates ranking changes over the weekend for the keyword that is targeted in the EMD – you can see that the results are quite dramatic, with only 2 of the 10 sites not dropping rankings. The largest drop in rankings came in at minus 191 positions but the overall average in ranking drop came in at  minus 81.

Ranking Change Versus Age of EMD

What’s interesting in this graph is that certainly looks like there is a correlation of the EMD site age and what effect this latest has update has had on them. The 3 youngest EMD sites in Medical, Insurance and Beauty  are all over 1 year old but have sustained the most drops and the 4 eldest sites have had the least amount of drops in rankings.

Ranking Change Versus Number of Links

Now I realise that number of links is not really a very useful metric as it’s always quality over quantity and unsurprisingly there is no correlation against the ranking drops.

Ranking Change Versus EMD Search Volume

So search volume is one metric I guessed would play some part in the update and this really does play a big part in the EMD strategy – it’s historically been the higher the search volume the more expensive the EMD is worth. Although you can see that the domains with the least amount of search volume are generally the least effected it’s not clear cut – there are some sites with low EMD search volume that have had big drops in rankings (beauty niche) and other sites with a low number of drops with higher search volume (film niche 1) – so there must be other factors that are taken into consideration.

Ranking Change Versus Content Quality

Ok, so this is probably the least scientific metric as I’ve personally graded my own website content quality. I like to think that none of the sites in this study would be considered spammy, I’ve either written the content myself or paid someone a decent wage to write content for me. What I’ll also admit is that within these 10 websites there are some which I believe have very good content and some that are probably now out of date or towards the lower end of the quality scale. What I find interesting is that 2 of the top 3 sites (in order of website content quality) have had the least impact – but what I find more frustrating is that the site I work on the most/consider the most valuable is one of the EMDs that has suffered the biggest drop (Medical Niche). As well as that Insurance Niche 1 site has low and certainly out of date content but has not really been impacted at all (but this is one of the sites with the lowest EMD search volume).

Ranking Change Versus MozRank and MozTrust

Now this graph above surprised me the most – you can see that there very clearly seems to be some correlation between Moz Trust and drops in the rankings (besides Film Niche 1) but it doesn’t make any sense – surely websites with good MR and MT would have good links and therefore be treated well by Google, but for EMD this really doesn’t seem to be the case.

Takeaways from this study

  • The age of your exact match domain does seem to play a part and anything under 1 years old will most likely have received a drop during this recent update
  • If your EMD is targeting keywords with fairly low search volume you may be ok, those with higher search volume appear to be further impacted (although at a very high 50k+ searches a month I am not sure)
  • Google seems to be counteracting the negative value of EMD’s with the sites true content value. My Medical Niche website has the best content (text, video and images), the most valuable links and the highest MR and MT but has dropped 143 positions

This update from Google has certainly reduced the value of EMD which was needed in many areas of the web, that being said not all EMD’s are spammy and some are certainly more valuable than a user generated Wikipedia page (which seem to have prospered from this update). Will Google release a second update? Maybe – for the sake of some of my websites I certainly hope so.

Matt Ridout

About the author

My name is Matt Ridout, I've been working in digital marketing for 9 years; worked for agencies and currently Head of SEO at fashion startup called Farfetch. Try to test my own theories.


  1. Glad someone took the tedious task of examining that for us. Thank you. I can’t wait until more EMD’s drop rankings. So tired of terrible low quality domains ranking over good ones.

  2. hmm a very interesting approach to find out the reason of this problem. I think that in the next few weeks you can recover some positions in SERP.

    Each new algorithm update generate a colateral effect that is reduced in next weeks.


  3. I was really confused to this update but now i have got some exact points which would be helpful for me. Thanks for expressing it quickly.

  4. Thank you for this! This is the most comprehensive study of this algo change I’ve seen so far. I think the one about younger sites getting hit is interesting, as I read (and I wish I could remember where!) that sites less than a year old haven’t seen a hit as a possible good-faith move on Google’s part (which I think is suspicious).

    It’ll be interesting to see how this algo works in the long-term.

  5. Great data. Best write up on the EMD update I’ve seen so far. I only have access to two EMD domains analytics, but one was affected and the other wasn’t and the stats fall in line with what you have above, so I think you are on to something.

    I also think that when a site or backlink profile are over-optimized for the specific keyword in the domain, that it triggered the penalty. Can’t prove this of course, but it falls in line with what I’m seeing. That is going to be where I start to try and regain rankings. Removing the optimization for that EMD keyword set (on page and in backlinks).

  6. Hi Mate, Very nice analysis

    I feel any site which is below 1 year old and has a high number of adsense units above the fold has really been targeted heavily in this update, Aged sites with a high amount of quality links, quality content and aged overall domain seem to be fairing better from my analysis.

  7. What really hurts though is when you have a good EMD that gets dropped 🙁

    Thanks for doing the research. Hopefully we can figure out how to work with this info.

  8. Great post and you had me laugh with this surprising correlation between bad rankings and high moz rank/trust! 🙂

    On a serious note, it would be interesting to take it one step further though. Maybe the reason for the high moz rank/trust is that those are more competitive niches where you have done more work to get your rankings.

    So it would be interesting to see what your mozrank/trust is on those sites compared to the average mozrank/trust of the sites on the first page of the serps for that keyword. Makes sense?

  9. Thanks for the feedback guys.

    @Anders – I see what you mean, that’s a good idea I will have a look. The competitiveness of each niche should be apparent through the search volume and that does actually have a similar data as the MR and MT – good spot.

  10. Looking forward to seeing what you find out 🙂

    Even though search volume and competion(how much trust you need to rank) is not always the same. Depends on the money involved in each keyword etc.

  11. Very good case study. One of my EMDs, one I have been working on almost exclusively during the past 6 months, got a drop on some of its inner pages (money terms), but not on its EMD, as well as not on all inner pages (some still rank #1). I will have to compare the ranking inner pages to the ones that don’t to find out what could be the cause, but I am pretty sure its the incoming links. If you would like to have a look, please email me to let me know, so I can send you the URL.

  12. Watching this update with interest. I have been doing some searches and all that seems to be ranking now are the EMD sites that are spammy and have duplicate content. Sometimes I really wonder if Google have any idea what these changes actually mean to their users. If most cases spammy sites have retained rankings yet my other sites that are high quality have dropped 100+ positions.

  13. In my markets I see EMD sites ranking high. They are not huge markets but lucrative enough.

  14. A couple of newish sites of mine have been completely penalised. One site has merely 2 natural links with 140x 800 word pages of excellent content (written by certified financial advisor).

    The other site is around 4 months old (, has excellent content and user metrics (3:30 minutes on site average), around 7 high quality natural links and was completely penalised too.

    Overall it seems this update has targeted newish EMD sites regardless of quality. I’ve also got a few low quality EMD affiliate sites which havn’t been updated in over a year that are still ranking no.1.

    In general it seems even white hat sites are going to get penalised by this update just because of their choice of domain.

  15. I don’t think it’s necessarily low quality sites that are getting hit… My site got slammed. And I challenge anyone to find a richer site or a site with more unique content about S corporations.

    It appears to me that the problem is the niche. If you get too narrow, the limiting effect of that focus causes trouble

    Just my two cents…

  16. Adam – sorry to hear that, that sounds very similar to the medical niche site I used in my study, the penalty completely outweighs the actual value the sites provide – meaning lower quality non EMD’s now rank above what use to exist.

  17. Well it was rolled outon weekend eve. Lets wait for few week days and hear impact. Some webmasters start reporting huge drop in search traffic

  18. I have few sites sill are on top of SERP for keyword rich domain. As Google mentioned only .6% websites affected due to its EMD update. Rest of the sites will be degrade in next EMD algo. update

  19. My EMD site got hit hard with this penalty although it fills its purpose 100%. It’s a micro niche coupon site that fills a void that many related sites don’t keep up with because of the tedious research required to keep the subject up to date. If I increase the “content” I will just be re-hashing what several related sites have covered since my site is a quick reference tool. So now my Google rankings are replaced with sites with a lot of text fluff visitors will have to sift through to get probably outdated information.
    Probably not related but ironically when I searched for this subject a site with only about 5 sentences about the subject ranked #1 and #3 was a black hat SEO forum! Get it together Google!

  20. Thanks Matt for the extensive work and insight into recent Google changes and SEO effectiveness of Keyword Domain Names. I have long noticed that all major websites have domain names that are Brand names and not constrictive Keywords.

  21. It is not about quality but it is all about size. Basically by destroying the value of EMD is destroying the niche targeting strategies.

    First pages is dominated by Youtube, Yahoo answers, wikipedia about etc. These giants most of the time don’t get the niche right.

    The result of the serp now is low quality big size websites. If I am for example researching about scientific data then yahoo answers or wikipedia are the last places I will be searching for. Wikipedia and youtube are in your face from serp 1 to 100

    Google has been taken to court for unfair business practises.

    Why penalising sites for being affiliates while stuffing google SERP pages with sponsored adverts “ad-words” !. Meaning by the standard google has set for spam adwords is a spam in google search pages.

  22. I cannot wait to find out more on the EMD update. I lost mad rankings and traffic. My sites have good content and good links (varied anchor text)

    So I wonder about bounce rate, being under a year old, ads above the fold, or not enough content on home page?

    So how do we figure this out…..

  23. Not cool google..
    i hope they’ll fix some of their algorithm next time

  24. Not good and not easy to recover from – as already said on this thread not all EMD’s are spammy and some of these are hit hard. Any tips on whats working to help recovery?

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