There’s recently been a lot of pubsubhubbub about Google’s overuse of exact match domains in the SERPs. They rank too highly, they say. They’re spam riddled pumpernickel, they say. They’re SPAM (sites placed above mine) period, they say. And mostly, they’re right. There’s more to the debate, of course, but even if a little extra oomph should be applied to these domains, it might be universally agreed that, at best (or worst, depending on what webmaster you ask), they pass a little too much weight. So, Google and Co. need to do something about it.
Definitely, the talk has been loud and impactful, but there hasn’t been much in the way of hypothesis as to how Google might go about devaluing the domains. It’s harder to talk about than it is to implement, of course. Is solving the exact match problem the same kind of feat that solving world peace or world hunger would be? Probably not, but the point remains – the job we have, as SEOs, webmasters and concerned parties – is doing some strict analysis to see where this thing is going, how Google might adapt, and adapt back.
So, I bring you – my hypothesis on how Google might be – could – or is – solving the exact match domain problem.
Sophisticated vs. Unsophisticated Linking
Webmasters take on two identities – sophisticated linkers, and unsophisticated linkers. Sophisticated linkers are aware that an exact match domain such as cheapflights.com also doubles as an extremely competitive, commercial text, so they don’t want to link to it in a way that makes it appear as just that – commercial anchor text – which is a sight for sore eyes to their readers. Their equal consideration is whether or not this choice might be confusing to those who can’t identify it as a brand, and think the writer is talking about cheap flights, and not Cheap Flights.
As such, they frequently use “cheapflights.com” as the preferred anchor text of choice, because it makes it clear they are talking about the web company Cheap Flights, and not cheap flights.
For those linkers who have this level of sophistication, or otherwise, aren’t too concerned about what their users think – they simply capitalize the anchor text – because they are still conscious of Cheap Flights as a brand, and because of that, won’t ever link to the website as “cheap flights” without the capital words if they identify it as such. After all, even the dumbest, most inane person won’t ever call Pepsi pepsi or Coke coke – if they have any grasp on the English language – or proper formatting – at all.
Exact Match Preference and Google’s Rationale
Exact match domains are given preferential weight because Google knows that many times, people are attempting navigational queries, so when people input “cheap flights” looking for cheapflights.com, they need to return that result, or they’ve failed at their job. The biggest difficulty, though, is differentiating between those times that these domains are domains people are actually looking for – and throwaway domains that just want to rank for a monetizable keyword.
On those less competitive SERPs, these things aren’t a problem, and most exact match domains will be returned rather easily (and correctly). On the more competitive SERPs, it becomes more of an issue sorting out the proper alignment, and Google clearly has had problems sorting through the mud and knowing when a domain needs to be returned on the first page for a navigational query – and when it does not.
Exact Match Domains – A “Proper” Solution
When spam domains do link building for their properties, they’re often completely ignoring any brand their domain might project, and as such, they choose anchor texts like “cheap flights” instead of “Cheap Flights”, and do this en masse. When webmasters choose to link to them or otherwise are manipulatively summoned to do so, they come to the same conclusion, and use rather plain, uncapitalized anchor text to describe a product or a service, cheap flights or business insurance, rather than a brand, Cheap Flights or Business Insurance. As such, they are giving no indication that cheapflights.com or businessinsurance.com is a brand at all – and, in reality, not worthy of a navigational query. They’re simply giving a nod that these anchors were frequently obtained in a manipulative fashion – and nothing more.
If we put 2 and 2 together, this means that Google would be apt to devalue, or otherwise, completely ignore these uncapitalized anchor texts, and only give a worthy, navigational boost to domain matches when they appear frequently in the following, example fashions:
- Cheap Flights
NO/LITTLE NAVIGATIONAL BOOST:
- cheap flights
MODERATE NAVIGATIONAL BOOST:
- Cheap flights
This would return those results that have been clearly identified as some kind of brand. The less competitive the SERP, the less it would matter. But on the decent sized ones, an indicative volume of Proper Noun, capitalized anchor text would be a best indicator of whether a domain was worthy of being returned sooner rather than later. Exactly how you would attribute value to each indicator would be hard to say, but surely, the one that would offer up the least indication a domain is a brand is the spaced, uncapitalized version (cheap flights). And the largest indication a domain is a brand would be the capitalized, spaced version (Cheap Flights), followed closely by the “domain.com” version (CheapFlights.com).
It’s also possible that Google could pick up how the domain is used in a sentence, such as with “I love going to Travelstart for cheap flights” being a positive brand boost as opposed to “I need business insurance”. It seems like this would be an even better indicator of brand significance than the anchor text signals, but the level of sophistication the Google machine would require to pick up the idiosyncrasies of language therein make it difficult for me to currently rationalize as a powerful ranking signal.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, an intense volume of anchor text not capitalized would be a pretty good indicator that an exact match domain was manipulatively obtaining their links – so, all it would take would be to apply some weight to this, and once it hit a certain threshold, ding and/or devalue these domains. These uncapitalized anchors, of course, will still happen, so it doesn’t make sense to give them no weight and/or penalize immediately – but if they match exactly with the domain described, it makes sense that they should be used in a capitalized or “domain.com” fashion – or there’s some indicator that manipulation was involved, especially over a large enough sample of links – a large enough sample that would be needed to require ranking on competitive, and important, SERPs.
Brand Mapping and Competitive Research
SEOMOz’s Open Site Explorer webapp view doesn’t currently show anchor text broken down by capitalized or non-capitalized, but if you export to CSV, it shows how the anchors differentiate. Non-surprisingly, when I did this for links to Cheap Flights’ homepage (and only got a small sample of 10k links, they have hundreds of thousands of links) – they had a disproportionate amount of “Cheap flights”, “Cheap Flights”, http://www.cheapflights.com, and etc in comparison to “cheap flights” – because they are a brand.
If you do this analysis on the spam domains, I would say, pretty confidently in fact, that this would not be the case.
Moving forward, if this appears to be a factor that’s become reality, it might be worth it for Rand Fishkin and co to implement this in the “Anchor Text Distribution” view of their webapp. There might be other webapps, too, that already do this – but I don’t use them. If they do, it might be a worthy reason to switch app usage.
Present, Past, Future – And A Warning
I have no indicative data sample to say if something like this is being used. Or, if it’s going to be used. But it makes sense, to me. Strong sense. But, again, and I warn – I am no algorithmic expert. I do not shine in the intricacies of information retrieval, so I am not one to say whether Google picking up something like sentence structure is even happening, or how, exactly, Google might pick up or interpret things as small as whether the anchor text is capitalized.
But I do excel in common sense, and these things pop as clear indicators of manipulative, spammy domains – so even if it’s beyond Google’s reach of implementation, at least short term, it’s something to worry about in the long term. Of course, you should be building a brand, anyways – but we know that’s hard, and takes resources. Either way, brood deeply on this, look at how it applies to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, and adjust. Because it’s one of those awesome things – that even if you end up being wrong – it almost certainly doesn’t hurt you anyways.
But if you end up being right.. well.. hello #1.