Exact Match vs Phrase Match vs Branded Domains: How To Pick?

mushfiq sarker

There is a lot of confusion about what to look for when picking a domain name. It isn’t hard to see why. There are so many opinions about which is the best option. Changes to SEO and online marketing over time have also led to changes in best practices that further muddies the water.

Strategies that worked in 2016 often stop working by 2018 and might even be the opposite of best practices by 2020. SEO and online marketing are constantly changing worlds, so when it comes to a domain name, what advice holds up?

Should an investor look at an exact match domain, a phrase match domain, or a branded domain?

I’ll break down each option and the pros/cons of each so you can know which option is the best in 2022 and beyond.

Let’s dive in and get started!

What Are Exact Match Domains (EMDs)? 

Exact Match Domains (EMD) refer to domains that are the exact keyword that a website wants to rank for. So for someone wanting to build an outdoor hiking site that ranked #1 for the keyword “best desert hikes” they would want bestdeserthikes.com or for “shiny new red widgets” would want a domain name like shinynewredwidgets.com.

These were extremely popular with affiliate site builders in the mid-2010s because at the time having the exact search term as the domain name seemed to be a strong ranking factor for that keyword as well as closely related keywords.

These are domain names that aren’t looking at building a long-term brand but focus on a very specific keyword.

Do exact match domains still work?

Search Engine Journal is one of several major sites that agree that EMDs still have a place when it comes to ranking in Google. However, many experienced point out that EMDs and SEO are 

A good exact match domain has some benefits. A link to the URL has the keywords in it, which does make a difference in SEO. An EMD whose content matches the domain name can be good branding.

Shorter EMD domains can be very brandable in some cases, as well.

While there are benefits, many SEO specialists will point out that since EMDs were popular with affiliate site builders, many of these domains have a history and have domains built to them in the past. 

This can give them a boost that isn’t related to actually being an EMD but comes from being a used domain with a backlink history, which applies to non-EMD domain names, too.  

Does Google like exact-match domains? 

If the domain is quality content and in line with search intent, then Google can like exact match domains. The biggest knock on EMDs is that many of them were used by niche site builders who made very low-quality sites with questionable backlinking methods.

This is why so many previous EMDs that might look good as a used domain pickup at first glance ended up not providing value, or even hurting the domain owner because Google had that name marked with having a shady SEO history.

When it comes to an EMD that doesn’t have any history there’s no reason that the domain can’t do well as long as the name is easy to remember and the site is well made.

Why did exact match domains work well in the past? 

At one point having keywords in the domain was a major ranking factor in SEO. A domain name that had Keyword A in it had a huge advantage in ranking in Google for Keyword A versus domains that did not have that keyword in the name.

This was likely a direct ranking factor in addition to the fact that any URL backlink would have the keyword in the link because of the domain name. Since keyword anchored links have a major effect on SEO, that would be an added SEO boost.

Later Google updates nerfed this, especially when an explosion of thin-content affiliate sites took advantage of this to rank.

What Are Phrase Match Domains?

Phrase match domains are pretty much the same as an exact match domain, but a longer variation might be used in the hope of getting more related “longtails” in the title or a focus on synonyms to the main keyword phrase.

An example of this might be “quality Alaska hotels” instead of “best Alaska hotels,” especially if the second domain is taken.

The idea with a phrase match domain is that it matches a longtail keyword related to the main topic of the site or that by ranking strongly for a less searched for synonym the site can rank for that keyword and build authority to the main one.

What Are Branded Domains? 

Focusing on branded domains means looking for a name that you can build a brand around over the long term. 

This doesn’t focus on specific keywords or phrases but is looking for a memorable name that is distinct, easy to remember, and will be the name or face of that website business.

This is done by sites of all sizes and can be an especially good strategy when looking to build beyond a narrow niche site. A branded domain or site can be an acronym (ESPN.com) or a brand name that is marketable (think big brands like Best Buy or Amazon.com, or even a meme site like thechive.com).

These aren’t looking to rank for their name – but they want to create a site that makes the domain name memorable as an authority site. This is often a long-term play but if successful it can pay off in a big way.

How To Pick Between These Three Options?

There are five main factors to look at when deciding between these three different types of domains. 

Your Goals

What are the short and long-term goals? If this is a niche site for passive income or flipping, finding an EMD or phrase match domain might be a good strategy, especially if you can find one with a history and a good backlink profile.

Even with a new EMD, there is some SEO benefit to having a URL with the keywords in it.

On the other hand, if your dream is to ramp up a long-term business, a brand name makes much more sense. A name like “City Coolers” might be a better brand for long-term expansion versus “Portland Air Conditioning HVAC Specialists,” as an example.

What your goals are can make a difference in which types of domain names make sense for the current project being worked on.

SEO Factors

While the SEO benefit of EMDs aren’t nearly what they used to be, there are still some SEO benefits to going with an EMD domain. Is this more important than building a brand whose name is independent of any specific keyword?

Looking at the SEO benefits vs branding matters when determining what type of domain is best for your specific needs.


Does an EMD or phrase match domain pigeonhole what your website can be about, or is the name broad enough that it allows you to expand or scale? 

The brandability matters when picking a domain name, even if the goal is short-term building and flipping. EMDs that are too long or wordy should generally be skipped.


What is your budget and what are the costs of available domain names? In some situations paying a grand for a premium domain name or expired domain might be worth the price.

At other times it makes sense to scan all the available $10 options and find the one that fits. Keep budget and costs in mind while looking at readily available options.

Potential Flip

While average monthly revenue is the overwhelming driving factor when it comes to selling an online business, the brandability of the domain name can make a major difference.

This goes both for the number of interested buyers (a brandable domain will bring in more interest) and the multiplier.

Keep these in mind if the end game is to flip the site for profit.

Switching From One Option to Another

Smart use of 301 redirects can allow an investor to take an EMD with good authority but bad name for branding and pass that juice on to a new domain. This is the best way to switch from an EMD or phrase match domain to a branded domain.

Or vice-versa if the brand doesn’t take off and the investor wants a name more directly on-topic or on-point.

While it’s generally not ideal to make that switch, and there is always some risk in SEO of a major change disrupting rankings, this is a viable option if the investor decides it’s the best choice.

Make sure to have a very capable and experienced tech person overseeing the process.

Takeaway – How To Make The Right Choice?

Making the right choice is important and there is no single right answer. Each situation is different and depends on the needs, budget, and final goals of the investor. EMD and phrase match domains have their place, and the right one can be effective, but they aren’t the huge SEO boost they used to be.

Finding a good brandable domain is almost always a good idea, and if that can be done with an EMD or something close to it, that is an excellent combination.

mushfiq sarker

Analyzed by Mushfiq Sarker

Mushfiq has been buying, growing, and selling website assets since 2008. His first exit was in 2010. Since then, he has done 218+ website flips with multiple 6-figure exits. He is the founder of The Website Flip. Check out all Mushfiq's articles, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

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