As you may have noticed, Google has been announcing a lot of algorithm changes lately. This big round of "weather reports" kicked off a couple weeks ago, when Matt Cutts announced the EMD update. He described it as a "minor" weather report, indicating that that it was a "small" change designed to reduce low-quality exact-match domains in search results. He said it would affect 0.6% of English-US queries to a noticeable degree, noting that it was unrelated to Panda/Penguin.
Do you consider any of Google's recent updates to be minor? Let us know in the comments.
The update may have been small as far as Cutts was concerned, but the flood of complaints from webmasters claiming to have been hit suggested otherwise. However, Cutts later revealed that a Panda update had also launched around the same time, and even since then, he has announced a Penguin data refresh and a new update to the Page Layout algorithm. There is plenty going on in Google land that webmasters are finding they need to pay attention to (not to mention those 65 changes Google announced last week that took place in August and September).
So in light of all of this, how big was the EMD update really? Well, if your site was hit and you do not operate any exact-match domains, it's probably safe to assume that you were not hit by that update. For the many who do operate EMDs, however, it's not so simple. Remember, the update is not necessarily going after sites with EMDs. It's going after low quality sites with EMDs. Much like Panda, it's really about quality.
We had a discussion with Todd Malicoat (aka: Stuntdubl), SEO Faculty at MarketMotive.com, who has a fair amount of experience with EMDs and even wrote The Exact Match Domain Playbook: A Guide and Best Practices For EMDs for SEOmoz after the update hit.
"It's important to remember that Google does at least a couple changes per day on average," he says. "A lot of times, they will save up several updates, and release them simultaneously. Exact match domains have been on Matt and his team's radar for well over 2 years. I think it's a very difficult thing to 'draw the line' of which domains are okay and which aren't. Google continues to find relevant sites based on page quality, offsite value, domain authority, and keyword relevance. The EMD update is just one in a lot of changes Google has done in the last few weeks, but it is obviously significant."
As Malicoat pointed out in his playbook, Cutts actually hinted at this update early last year in one of his Webmaster Help videos. "We have looked at the rankings and weights that we give to keyword domains and some people have complained that we’re giving a little too much weight for keywords in domains," Cutts said at the time. "And so we have been thinking about adjusting that mix a little bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm so that given two different domains, it wouldn’t necessarily help you as much to have a domain with a bunch of keywords in it."
"Anytime an 'update' is named it will be a filter or factor that plays a role in how the algo works," continues Malicoat. "How wide of an impact is not quite as important in trying to determine what changed. Unfortunately, I think even the best of SEO folks are still struggling with exactly what happend in the 'animal updates'. I try not to make too many assumptions about an update before there's some time to really experience how it changes a handful of sites and the search results experience. I think as a consultant you can only react to best practices after you understand what they are."
"People have been using EMD's and anchor text for the last few years as a best practice, and I believe it was," he says. "Those practices have definitely changed, and I think those who move quickly are trying to figure out just HOW MUCH these things have changed. It's very difficult to tell with a very limited release where only a small percentage of queries are originally effected. Sometimes even seemingly small changes have lasting effects. The bigger issue at play is how significant the changes to keyword anchor text will be."
All of these updates are designed to increase the quality of Google's search results. Beyond the EMD update, Google has recently made other changes to how it handles domains in different cases. Before the EMD update, Google announced the Domain Diversity update, for example. In its recently announced list of 65 changes from the past two months, Google revealed another domain-related tweak related to freshness to help users find the latest content from a given site when two or more documents from the same domain are relevant for a given query. Is Google getting better at delivering relevant results thanks to such changes?
“I don’t think anyone can argue that Google results are becoming LESS relevant in most verticals - Google's results have always shown consistent improvements overall," says Malicoat. "Relevance is rather subjective depending on who you ask though. Unfortunately, there's always issues for someone. There's only so many results, and organic search has become an important part of the marketing mix. It's hard to support a business without Google sending at least some relevant users to your website."
"I don't always agree with relevance changes, but I come at it from a much different perspective than most," he notes. "It's important to embrace the changes and be able to change your strategy with them if you're going to be an SEO practitioner."
When asked if he believes Google's results have improved in general, in light of recent updates, he says, "I really don't think I'm the 'average user' to ask that sort of question unfortunately. I would come to the conclusion of what makes 'relevant' search results with a much different bias than most after being a search user for well over a decade. I’m also the co-owner of Marauder Sport Fishing which uses MiamiFishing.com as our domain, so my opinion is certainly biased."
"In my opinion, there are plenty of conflicting interests under the G umbrella these days," he adds. "That means relevance alone can't really ALWAYS be the main priority. The one thing they are not lacking is data. They have data and intelligence to make relevance decisions like no other company or entity on earth."
"Panda and penguin are both upgrades that raised the bar on the quality a website needs to demonstrate to receive organic search traffic," he says. "That can be good or bad depending on perspective. It means more authoritative sites are ranking, and websites that don't display all the quality signals necessary will not attract the traffic. The barrier to entry for new sites is higher, but the occurrence of spam is lower. There's always some tradeoff in those two things I think."
And really, regardless of all of these updates and their various functions and names, they tend to have one main thing in common. They're designed to improve search results' quality. Panda is flat out about quality content. Penguin is about getting rid of spam (which makes for a low quality experience). The EMD update goes after EMDs with low quality content. Google's main message is that you should just produce quality content, and you'll be fine. Still, quality is subjective, and there are plenty of webmasters getting hit by algorithm updates who would argue that it's not that simple - webmasters who really believe they do provide quality content.
"Google is forcing sites to EARN traffic rather than just get it," says Malicoat. "I think we've seen this before, and we'll see it again. As an optimizer, I don't look at many of the changes as good or bad - only a change that requires a change in strategy to keep relevant traffic flowing to a website."
Businesses and sites need to decide how important Google traffic is. For instance, do Google referrals outweigh the benefits of other potential benefits that could be received by not going the "please Google" route? Since the Penguin update, we've seen a lot of sites frantically asking for other sites to stop linking to them. In some cases, the sites asking for the removals admit that they would like to have these links out there, but are having them removed for fear of Google not liking them (even when there is no direct evidence that these links in particular are hurting their Google rankings). In other words, they have become so desperate to combat the negative Penguin experience that they're overreacting and removing genuine, natural links.
As Malicoat points out, there are benefits to having EMDs.
"EMD's definitely have lots of benefits - though you have to take my opinion with some bias - I own more than a few of them," he tells us. "In the current Google climate, EMD's are the symptom of a problem, and therefore an easy target. Link anchor text was a very large part of the Google algo, and is being slowly dialed down. EMD's were where anchor text problems were MOST apparent. Most competitors were amazed how easily EMD's ranked in the last few years, and complaints started."
"There's still lots of benefits in EMD's," he reiterates. "They are great for: attracting keyword anchor text, attracting social mentions with targeted keywords, better for dominating a small niche, saying what you do in a geo vertical (DenverLawyers.com, DuluthDentists.net, etc.), targeting long tail variations in a small keyword set, and making brand mentions and keyword mentions the same."
Not to beat a dead horse, but the key seems to be making sure the quality of your site and its content are as good as they can be. You can have a domain like DenverLawyers.com. Just don't treat it like a useless piece of crap, and perhaps Google will not either.
If you want to review the things Google is thinking about when it comes to quality, I'd suggest running through these bullet points Google put out after the Panda update last year.
Out of Google's recently announced updates, which do you believe has had the greatest impact on webmasters? On search results? Which has had the greatest impact on you? Share your thoughts in the comments.