Are Exact-Match Domains Dead?
There used to be a time when buying an exact-match domain was a shoe-in for the number one spot in Google's search engine. Not anymore. Google has apparently tweaked its algorithm yet again to discount the importance of EMDs.
What's an EMD?
An EMD is a website address that focuses on your keyword, rather than your brand name. An example of an EMD would be "perfectwhiteteeth.com." If you're targeting the keyword "perfect white teeth" because you have an awesome CPA offer, or you just want to build a site around that keyword so that you can monetize it with ads, you used to use an EMD. The EMD would theoretically give you a nice boost in the search engines because your keyword was right in the domain name. It doesn't get much better than that.
What's Happened to EMDs?
According to SEOMoz contributor, Dr. Pete, EMDs are being hit by Google. Late last month (Sept 28th), Matt Cutts sent out the following tweet:
Minor weather report: small upcoming Google algo change will reduce low-quality "exact-match" domains in search results.— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) September 28, 2012
Soon after, there was a 10 percent change in EMD influence. According to SEOMoz, out of 1,000 monitored SERPs, 41 EMDs fell out of the top 10 positions in Google. While SEOMoz can't prove that a particular domain lost its ranking due to the algorithm update, it is a convenience coincidence that this happened. Pete reports that bmicalculatormale.com, charterschools.org, playscrabble.net, purses.org, and teethwhitening.com were all examples of sites that got hit.
Why Should You Care?
Google is going after what it thinks are low-quality sites. The term "low quality" is always up for debate, but there are several tell-tale signs that a site is basically useless to users. The first is its cookie-cutter design and keyword stuffing. Another sign is its backlink profile. Spam sites almost always go after the easiest links on the Internet - often paid links. If you manage this kind of site (you know who you are), you're asking for trouble. You've been warned. Google is actively taking action against EMDs that are "low quality."
What Should You Do?
The first thing to do is take a look at your site. If you can answer "yes" to the question "would I use this site if I didn't own it," then it's probably a decent site. That doesn't mean that Google will agree with you, but it does give you the moral high ground. If you can find 10 or 20 other people, who aren't Internet marketers, who also like your site and are willing to use it, it's a safe bet that your site isn't spam - at least as far as on-site SEO is concerned.
If you're currently using an exact-match domain, it's going to be a tricky call. You could focus on your brand, buy a new domain, and forward everything to that new name. Yes, it's going to wipe out much of your hard work over the years but it might also save you a lot of frustration. You could also purchase a new domain name, keep the old site up, and start transferring data over to the new site.
Start building links (white hat style) to the new site, and make a plan to phase out the old site. While that might take a lot more work than simply forwarding a domain, it might also help you build a better brand. You get to keep your old site for a while (and the traffic), introduce your visitors to your new site, woo potential link partners with your completely legitimate and white hat operation. It's certainly a better proposition than being banned from Google's index.