On September 28, 2012, Google rolled out an algorithmic update into their search results that was targeted primarily at low quality exact-match domains (EMDs). In the view of Google, “low quality” is a rather broad, nebulous term as millions of websites were affected, even some small business websites that had quality content, social media followers, and broad link profiles.
The typical “low quality” EMD website that may come to mind would be a domain like cheaplaptopsforsale.com, which would be aimed at ranking largely on the basis of its domain name for related targeted keywords and monetized by advertising affiliate links on the site.
Many affiliate websites have really been hit hard by Google over the past few years, perhaps rightly so in many cases. Google is looking to rank companies providing real value to customers, not websites built for the purposes of their search algorithm, which is constantly being refined to deliver what Google believes are better results for the user (or for Google). But sometimes, even real companies get caught up in Google’s crosshairs.
Takeaways for Small Business
One clear takeaway from the EMD update is for businesses to build their websites based on their brand, not the search keywords they target for their customers. Prior to the EMD update, Google used to give exact-match and partial-match domains a rankings benefit by having the keywords of the phrase they were attempting to rank for in their domains.
This part of Google search algorithm was a relic of the infancy of the Web when having the keyword terms in your domain helped search engines and users identify what the site was about.
The Domain Name Dilemma
Not too long ago, companies debated whether to use their company name or have their domain be the keyword they were seeking due to the rankings boost. For example, a Las Vegas personal injury law firm may have sought a domain such as lasvegasinjurylawyers.com instead of their firm name in their domain largely due to the search ranking benefits.
The EMD update has really squashed any argument on whether to go company name vs. keyword domain. For some businesses, having their keyword in their domain could be inevitable. For example, if you had a company named St. George plumbing, it would be logical to have your domain be something like stgeorgeplumbing.com. Thus, Google can’t penalize all websites that have an exact-match domain. Instead Google penalized web sites that had clearer symbols of over-optimization for their algorithm.
In lieu of the EMD update and Panda and Penguin updates, Google may penalize a business’ Website (not just affiliate sites) for attempting to manipulate their search algorithm and drop its place in the rankings. Techniques that can lead to Google algorithmic penalties can include:
- Over-Optimized Title Tags. Use the keywords sparingly for the Websites page titles. For example, if you were a Boise account firm, you would not want title tags that looks like this: Boise Accountants | Boise Accounting | Boise CPA
- Overly dense usage of keywords on pages and in external links
- Keyword usage in header tags
The Changing Face of SEO
The techniques referenced above are a near total reversal from what worked quite successfully in SEO just a few years ago, which can be frustrating for webmasters looking to institute best practices to allow for a better opportunity to rank in the search results.
While SEO practices, both on-site and off-site, will continue to play an important role in a website’s ability to rank in the search engines, SEO should not be a website’s sole focus. A more comprehensive online marketing approach, in many ways similar to the practices that work in offline marketing, is advisable for more long-lasting, sustained results.
You want your website to stand out on its merits and have compelling reasons (and a significant marketing initiative) for customers to use your product or service. It may require a significant marketing initiative. This can come at a cost that many small businesses find difficult to afford. That being said, there are still opportunities in local SEO for many small businesses.
What these updates continue to show is that while small business should continue to implement smart practices and techniques that advance their website’s organic search rankings, it is important to diversify, be forward thinking, and look for streams of traffic outside of Google. This makes engaging in social media, email marketing, blogging, video, images, graphics, and other forms of content marketing increasingly important.