Is the Exact Match Domain Penalty to Blame for my Traffic Drop?

We’ve had some worried clients ask us about the Google Exact Match Domain algorithm update, which started around 9/29/2012. Either they are concerned that their website was “penalized” by this change, or their SEO consultants told them that they’d been hit by it. Here's a summary of the analysis we did to tell if each site had been affected.

Unfortunately, both sites appear to have engaged in some questionable link building tactics. It is likely that the questionable link building tactics plus their exact match domain may have contributed to their drop in traffic. Let’s take a closer look.

What is the Exact Match Domain (EMD) update?

Basically, at the end of September Google announced that they were starting a new search algorithm filter, and it was going to be used periodically to "scrub" the search results to remove sites that were ranking unnaturally well based solely on their keyword-rich domain name. It was not intended to affect sites that had a keyword-rich domain, but also had good quality content or great brand recognition.

I won’t rehash what has been said so well elsewhere about the EMD update; please visit these sites for a more comprehensive overview (and tips for recovery):

Case Study #1 of an EMD Related Drop

In the first case, the client contacted us wondering why their traffic had dropped so drastically. We suspected the EMD update due to the timing, but since we have other clients with keyword-rich domains we did a little more digging.

What would an EMD penalty look like?

Here is what this site looks like in Google Analytics. You can see that the drop here happened on 9/29/2012, which was right around the time that the EMD update hit.

Google Analytics image for website affected by EMD

The traffic drop in this case is significant.  Look at the 3 weeks since the drop, compared to 3 weeks prior – visits are down 47.44%.

Again, is the EMD update 100% to blame for this drop? Since our other sites with keyword-rich domain names were not affected we kept looking for potential issues.

First link clue: majority of backlinks from one domain, to one page

First, we noticed in Google Webmaster Tools that over 2,000 links were coming in from a blog run by another person in the same business. And all the links – every single one – went to one page on the affected site. Ouch. That is not a natural link signal.

Second clue: blog link network responsible for majority of links

The next 2 top domains sending links to this affected sites are also blogs run by other individuals in the same industry – that all linked to each other. In fact, further investigation using Site Explorer in our MajesticSEO Platinum account found that 88% of all backlinks discovered so far in 2012 for the affected site were from one of these 3 blogs. Another issue is that these blogs are on topics that are not related to the affected site's main focus.

Again, having so many links from 3 unrelated sites all run by peers – all linking together – may be perceived as these folks trading links for mutual benefit. This could be considered a “link scheme” by Google, which is defined by them as “excessive link exchanging ("Link to me and I'll link to you").”

Third clue: “spammy” keyword density

The top 6 keywords by backlink anchor text are all keyword phrases – there are no “natural” link indicators until position 7 (a more natural indicator would be the actual business name or the domain name – both which are commonly used in natural linking). In addition, two of these three blog sites use the same anchor text each time they link to the affected site. Only one of the sites varies the anchor text with some regularity.

Summary: EMD plus unnatural link signals may explain the site’s traffic drop

These clues all taken together – the date that the drop in traffic started, plus the overwhelming number of links coming from unrelated blogs that appear to link a group of people in the same industry together – suggest that the addition of the EMD filter may have been enough to cause the site to drop in Google’s rankings.

In this case, all is not lost. Other websites in our network have successfully removed excessive links from single blogs or blog networks like this and have seen their rankings improve. The lesson here is to make sure that you, your SEO company and your marketing team are not trying to game the system. This is also a good time to review your past marketing and SEO efforts to make sure that schemes you set in motion years ago (and that may have once helped) aren't now causing problems for your site.


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