Over the past few months Google unleashed their power on legal and other websites with the new exact match domain (EMD) update on September 28. A couple of days later, Google confirmed that it rolled out a major Panda algorithm update the day before the EMD. The tandem updates threw many webmasters for a loop.

Head of Google webspam team Matt Cutts then announced on Twitter that Google was rolling out the latest data refresh for Penguin.

Is all this action coincidental or deliberate? Any guess would be speculation at this point, but many prominent webmaster news sources have already voiced their suspicions. On that note, let’s examine each update to discern what exactly occurred.

The EMD Update

When the EMD announcement came in the last week of September, it came as little surprise to most webmasters. Google alluded to the change repeatedly as far back as 2010. Some niche site builders have ignored the threats entirely, opting instead to continue tempting fate by churning out low-quality websites. These sites often hinged on exact match domains to help secure their position in the SERPs.

The EMD algorithm is actually a filter through which Google sifts every website it has in its index. Now, websites with exact match domain names and low-quality content won’t cruise by Panda undetected any longer. If you are the owner of such a website, prepare yourself. The EMD algorithm will periodically refresh its data just like Panda and Penguin do now, so even if you escape the first go ’round, you may get caught in a follow-up attack down the road.

There are already rumors flying around that every owner of an exact match domain website is doomed. We disagree. The thought is that websites with high-quality content and an eye on good user experience will remain untouched by the algorithm. This remains to be seen, however – we’ll find out for sure when the dust settles after all the changes.

“Are the updates allowing Google to favor itself? I wouldn’t say so. After all, it didn’t wipe out:

  • Cars.com for “cars”
  • Usedcars.com for “used cars”
  • Cheaptickets.com for “cheap tickets”
  • Movies.com for “movies”
  • Skylightbooks.com for “books”

Instead, EMD is more likely hitting domains like www.orangecountyduidefense.com, which is a made-up example but hopefully gets the point across. It’s a fairly generic name with lots of keywords in it but no real brand recognition.

Domains like this are often purchased by someone hoping that just having all the words they want to be found for (“Orange County DUI Defense Lawyers”) will help them rank well. It’s true that there’s a small degree of boost to sites for having search terms in their domains with Google, in general.

One fact is certain, however: Google tends to roll out updates hastily and then tweak and perfect with each refresh. If you have a high-quality site with an EMD and you were hit, don’t despair. You may have a chance to come back in the SERPs as the algorithm refines further over time.

The Panda Update

It is uncertain why Google did not announce the release of the new Panda update until days after it happened.

Some are speculating that the overlapping updates were an attempt to confuse webmasters and SEOs whose rankings would take a nosedive. It would be hard to decipher whether the hit was because of the EMD filter or due to Panda. When it’s hard to pinpoint the cause, it’s tougher to manipulate the rankings for a second time – forcing webmasters to play by the rules instead.

The Panda update is the twentieth refresh of the algorithm, and it was a big one: the change impacted roughly 2.4% of English-language search queries and it’s still baking into the index at the time of this writing. Remember, Panda deals with on-page issues such as keyword density and the overall quality of your content.

The Penguin Update

The Penguin update is different from Panda in that it deals with inbound links to websites.

If a website has a large number of low-quality inbound links, Penguin will likely demote that site in the SERPs when the filter runs. The Penguin algorithm has only had one update so far, before the summer even began.

The latest marks the third update of Penguin, and it’s a major data refresh that will affect websites spanning many different languages. Think of Penguin as a periodic filter that Google runs to catch websites with sketchy backlink profiles.

The Way Forward

This is a lot of information to digest for anyone … let alone those not in the search industry. When things settle, you’ll begin to see a little more clearly where your sites have relocated in the search result pages. That’s when it’s time to break out the stats and analyze site details such as your backlink profile, your content, and your domain name.

Do you have an EMD with thin, mediocre content? Then the EMD update probably hit you.

Don’t have an exact match domain, do have great backlinks but still felt the sting? Then it was likely Panda.

Is everything beautiful onsite but backlinks include some shady websites? Blame Penguin.

Once you know what hit your website, you can take corrective actions to fix the errors. The downside? You’ll have to wait until the refresh of the suspected algorithm attack to see if your website will bounce back. The upside? With a little work and the right analysis, your website’s position in the SERPs can be restored.

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