License to Rank: Google's Silly Love Affair with Exact Match Domain Names


Google loves exact match domain names. It's true!

Love is blind. And that's no more evident than when it comes to Google's undying affection for exact match domains.

Yes, Google hearts exact match domain names "4-eva." It's true. I see it every day: sites with no links, no content, no authority top the SERPs because they have query-perfect domain names. These darlings of the Web get a free ride, and don't have to play by the same set of SEO rules as the rest of us with "regular" domain names.

Basically, an exact match domain is a license to rank.

Why is Google Ga Ga Over Exact Match Domain Names?

Google's infatuation with exact match domain names has been going on for years, which is pretty frustrating. Because despite their countless "quality" updates to the search algo and pledge to clean up the cesspool, Google is still weak in the knees with exact match love, giving flimsy sites great visibility.

Heck, even Matt Cutts is on record that Google gives more ranking weight to sites with keywords in the domain.

So why is Google playing favorites? Here are my thoughts.

  • Branded search - Google's big on branding as a sign of quality (or so they say). And I assume that in their eyes exact match = branding signal.
  • Superior relevancy - Google probably views a match between query and domain as offering a very high degree of relevancy.
  • Scarcity - Exact match domain names are a rare commodity. There are only a handful of sites for each query with an exact match domain name. So Google puts more value on this factor.
  • Early bird special - If you've got an exact match domain name, Google must see you as a leader. Either you were first with that domain or you likely paid a ton of cash for it. Either way, you're a big winner.

In any case, this favoritism amounts to Google giving sites that are poorly optimized the benefit of the doubt, and a free pass to outrank sites that are far more relevant to a related query.

Poorly-Optimized, Exact Match Domains and the Engine that Loves Them

The SERPs are littered with flimsy sites benefiting from Google's soft spot for exact match domains. For example, ranks #9 on page one Google for the query "conversion rate optimization."

Most exact match domain names don't deserve the love Google gives them

But does this site really warrant a page one ranking? A close look at some conventional ranking factors should give us a better idea. For starters, let's use SEO for Firefox to check out inbound links.

Does this exact match domain name really warrant a page one ranking on Google?

The site has zero site links, zero page links, and a zero PageRank too boot (yes, i know...toolbar pr means nothing). Zeros across the board!

Okay, maybe links aren't's strong suit. Maybe this site is doing a great job with producing relevant and informative content. Let's take a look.

Okay, so not much in the way of relevant content either (or any content for that matter). Yet the page does have two instances of the exact match keywords (that's somewhat encouraging from an SEO perspective). And, look, both are internal anchor links, which link back to teh domain. Hey, nice ranking signals!

So basically the entire site is an ad feed portal for Other than that, there's no intrinsic value on this page for searchers, nothing that justifies page one visibility. And certainly nothing that justifies outranking sites with better ranking signals (more links, more authority, quality content).

So what's really going on here? Is this site an example of:

  • A) a truly relevant source of topical content that deserves page one exposure, or
  • B) is it just benefiting from Google's inherent trust of exact match domains?

To me, the answer's pretty clear.

Moral of the Story: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

Now, my intention here is not to bash Kudos to them. They know the algo can be gamed, and were smart to buy the domain. This post is more about the flawed logic that Google still clings to that exacts deserve more trust. So much so that Aaron Wall feels that the new Caffeine update puts even more weight on exact match domain names.

So the million dollar question for many SEOs is how do you compete with Google's growing affinity for exact match domains?

You don't, per say, at least not in the standard SEO best practices fashion of writing quality content, which attracts links and trust.

Instead, my advice is to just pony up the cash and buy exact match domain names.

Why waste your time and energy struggling to meet Google's guideline for site optimization when it's easier and likely more economical to just purchase an exact match .com, .org or .net for your target keywords and move to the front of line? Sure, in some instances, it may cost a company tens of thousands of dollars. But isn't a guaranteed page one listing worth that much and more?

Because Google is making it pretty clear that rankings (like domains) can be bought for the right price.

Just ask how well you can rank with a flimsy portal page strapped to an $8 domain.


Brett Bumeter
Aug 19, 2009

I would think that looking at this from an arbitrage perspective, if you own a company that really has the goods, the quality content, the right services, what ever it is, and you want to be in those top slots, this makes a good case for buying up a lot of domain names either as a defensive position (if you already have a primary domain) or buying one of these domains at the top already from the current owner (a domainers dream come true).

Having built and optimized sites for clients, when they are starting from scratch or when they are trying to migrate to a more effective web strategy, I always look for domain name opportunities to leap frog them to the top.

Ken Lyons
Aug 20, 2009

Hey, Brett.
I agree 100%. Buy the exact match. In fact, but every TLD while you're at it to, so you can crowd the SERPs.

Dana Lookadoo
Aug 19, 2009

Excellent explanation! I especially like the Early-Bird Special opinion!

The biggest challenge is Scarcity! To help with one's domain search, check out: You need to agree to the terms of service first, but once in the site, you can search for domains coming up for renewal, including their age, PR, DMOZ listing, etc.

Ken Lyons
Aug 20, 2009

Dana, Thanks for commenting and thanks for the link. Haven't used this service yet, but I'm always looking for new domains. Again, let us know when goes live. Can't wait! Thanks! Ken

Paula Allen
Aug 19, 2009

I understand the angst of seeing lightweight competitors sprint ahead of your heavyweight sites. However, I question the underlying assumption of this article, which is that searchers are only interested in finding sites with authority, links, etc., on the first page of results. Sometimes a searcher simply wants to navigate to a particular site by name. Google wants to serve its customers the most relevant results, and lots of searchers use a search engine for navigational queries. Those searchers don't necessarily care how rich a Web site is ... they just want to find it. So putting ourselves into Google's shoes for a minute, including an exact-match listing at the top of the results makes good sense.

Ken Lyons
Aug 20, 2009

Paula, I think fundamentally we're on the same page.
I'm not against branded search, just branded crap.
Thanks for commenting!

Alan Mitchell
Aug 19, 2009

What I've noticed in my experience is an increase in business models which rely on multiple different domains for each of their niches, especially in the travel industry, which tends to be dependent on location and brand names. Obviously there are drawbacks to this portfolio approach, such as issues of duplication, especially if templates are used, but it's a option that seems to be working very well for a number of businesses. I guess it's similar to a long-tail keyword strategy - if you have hundreds of domains, surely a handful will be very profitable?

Ken Lyons
Aug 20, 2009

Never thought of domaining as akin to long tail marketing, but I really like the analogy. But sure, you're playing the odds.
Either way, it would make for a compelling post. You should write about it.

Aug 20, 2009

I only learned from your post that it is better to buy an exact match domain names. Thanks for the guidelines. This will really help me a lot.

Ken Lyons
Aug 20, 2009

If you can learn only one thing from my ranting, then you've made my day.
Thanks for commenting!

Jun 24, 2010

Have just started using for that purpose, will be interested to see how it works as it seems to have some super awesome exact match domains available.

Krishna Vamsi
Jul 25, 2010

Yeah, what you said is exactly right. Keywords=Domain Names=Better Ranking