search engine optimisationExact-match keyword domains are still ranking higher than unmatched , according to recent study. Research from SEO software firm CanIRank shows keyword optimised domains continue to rank higher and need less links than simple branded domains.

This is despite Google algorithm updates designed to remove the emphasis on exact-match domains, as part of its anti-spam policy. In 2012 Google counteracted the EMD loophole that allowed optimised domains to climb the rankings with ease – but things may not be as equal as we were led to believe.

Keywords still count

The study shows keyword domains still rank around 11% higher (about one place) than non-optimised domain names. This is a massive reduction on the old days and may not seem like such a big deal, but the handicap is clear when you weigh up the SEO workload involved.

Simple branded domains have to work much harder to achieve the same results as exact-match rivals. And the study by CanIRank suggests branded domains have to publish twice the content and use the same keyword twice as often. While an additional 35,000 links may be required to break the top 10 listings and 40,000 to grab the number one spot.

A question of relevance

Justification for the gulf that still remains between the two types of domain name probably comes down to relevance. Exact-match domains are more likely to have a specific brand message and focus more tightly on keyword themes – both in terms of topic and specific keywords. While they’ll also naturally attract more links with keyword-relevant anchor text, helping them gain rank with fewer links.

Which means this natural accumulation and generation of focused content could skew the findings to some extent. Domains that routinely produce quality content, that searchers want to find, and build a profile of quality links may be able to close the gap. But branded domains clearly have their work cut out for them if they want to get ahead of keyword optimised rivals – especially those with a solid content strategy and link profile themselves.

Double standards

The news won’t be welcome to business owners and brands who thought the playing field had been levelled out on domain names. The whole point of Google’s new stance was to combat the overuse of optimised domain names to climb the search rankings. If the advantage is still there to be taken, new ventures will revert to forcing keywords into domains and we take a step backwards in terms of web spam.

With branded domains at a distinct advantage terms like quality content, high authority and trusted links begin to lose their meaning. While a searcher may prefer to click on a listing that includes one of their keywords in the domain, this bares no representation on the quality of its content or anything else. And it’s a dangerous game for Google to play when it preaches about SEO best practices when not all domains, quality content or trusted links are equal.