A recent update from Google has just closed down a loophole used by many businesses (and unfortunately many spammers!) to take advantage of how much prominence is given to poor quality sites which have keyword-heavy URLs, in order to improve relevance - it's worth bearing in mind when talking with your clients about which URLs they might want to use for their business, and consider the implications of having multiple URLs purely for SEO purposes which don't contain good quality content.
What is the Exact Match Domain update and why should I worry?
The Exact Match Domain (EMD) Update has been rumoured for quite some time, in fact the patent for the algorithm was filed in 2003 and approved in 2011, shortly before which Matt Cutts (the head of the web spam team at Google) alluded to the fact that they were going to focus on the use of exact match domains at a PubCon event, so it's been on the cards for some time!
The Exact Match Domain or EMD Update focused on the fact that for a long time it has been quite easy to rank in the top three listings for search results pages if you used the exact words that a user searched for - regardless of whether your site was authoritative or contained useful, trusted content. This was used by many companies, who purchased a multitude of domains, filled them with thin content which wasn't particularly helpful or useful, and simply pushed the traffic to their other domains.
Other ways in which this technique has been used is by spammers who simply looked at what terms were being searched for the most, purchased domains with those terms in the URL, and filled them with poor quality articles and advertising with the aim of making money through passing traffic.
This doesn't mean that if your main company website could be considered to be an exact match domain that you are doomed - far from it - as it targets poor quality sites which don't provide any useful information and often don't change from one month to the next. Ultimately, we need to build websites for people, not for search engines!
How can I tell if I have been affected by the Exact Match Domain update?
The most obvious way to identify if you have been affected by this it to ask yourself whether you have multiple domains which exist purely to bring traffic from search engines, rather than provide meaningful content. Secondly, if you check your analytics you might expect to see a decline in traffic across your domains since 27th September 2012 - as this was the date on which the update was rolled out.
Often more tricky to establish is whether any of the other updates (such as Panda and Penguin) might have had any impact, because it is highly likely that organisations who have tried to exploit the EMD loophole may well have other dubious SEO practices going on, which could attract further penalties - such as poor link building practices and duplicated content issues.
What can I do about it?
If you think you've been affected by the EMD update, your first port of call is to re-visit your marketing strategy. Why did you set up the domains in the first place, and do they still serve a purpose? How much has the traffic been affected, and is it showing any signs of recovery?
If the EMD sites do not provide any useful content for the visitor and are not updated regularly, my recommendation would be to work on optimising your main website for the keywords you were trying to optimise your penalised sites for, and then 301 (permanent redirect) the traffic from the old site into well optimised content on your main website. You can then decommission the ones sites were EMDs (although you may wish to hang on to the domains in case you want to use them in the future).
Review any sites which do need to stay and make sure that they are providing unique, meaningful and trustworthy information. If you can, try to make sure that some areas of the site are updated regularly, including new content - and try to get that content shared out amongst social networks. Try not to use websites simply as a means to funnel traffic to another site - get them to your initial site in the first instance! Make sure that if you do have duplicated content (for example some affiliate programmes have many copies of the same website, one for each affiliate) be sure to either make sure they are not indexed by search engines, or mark them as canonical copies of the original site.
Is recovery from the EMD update possible?
Absolutely, but it might well require you to put quite a bit of time and energy into addressing the root cause of the problems, re-writing content, and sorting out your strategy. Unfortunately it's not always a quick fix, and can sometimes take several weeks before you start to see a recovery in organic search traffic, so it is a good idea to review your general marketing strategy and consider whether you need to implement other approaches while your natural ranking recovers.