The Story Of An Exact Match Domain, Penguin and Anchor Text

In January of 2013, I was hired to do a quick review of a site that had been suffering badly from Penguin 1. I won’t disclose the site here. But it was a one word exact match domain (this word receives 60,500 searches a month).

Let’s say the site was (just an example). Every top backlink had some form of “shoes” in it. Whether is was the brand name, domain name, longer phrases with the work “shoe”.

shoes anchor text

So if all you have is “shoes, shoes, shoes” for anchor text – and your site is a bit too optimized for “shoes, shoes shoes” – what do you get? 

gif of penguin slapping a penguin

What can you do if your domain/brand is the commercial keyword? Your top anchor text is going to be the commercial keyword.

I had a theory.

I thought, if your brand/domain is an exact match commercial keyword, you need something for unique anchor text. You need to diversify  stand out, be unique. But the answer isn’t just other commercial keywords.

And so I made this video: The Anchor Text Missing From Your Backlink Profile urging people to attract backlinks of people’s names to their site. Cyrus Shepard went on to embed the video in his post on Moz: Stop Clicking Here! 7 Superior SEO Alternatives To Generic Links and presents a few more ideas for anchor text diversity.

But let’s tie all of this together.

Meet Propwords

Proprietary Keywords = Propwords.

Proprietary means “of or relating to ownership”. That’s what these are. That ties this all together. Keywords a site or brand “claims ownership” of. This doesn’t have to be in an official way like a trademark.

These are essentially words, once “claimed”, that form a deep association with your brand. And it’s hard for any other brand or company to claim them.

Let’s check out a little cheat sheet, and I will elaborate below;

propword cheat sheat

Criteria Of Being A Propword

The key is that these are NOT commercial keywords. They are unique and I believe fulfill the following criteria;

  • It is a word/phrase that does/did not exist yet or very minimally used

    • Check existence by running search volume.

    • Check existence by running intitle searches in Google or the word/phrase in quotes.
  • They should acquire search volume over time.

  • They should naturally acquire anchor text backlinks over time.

The Value Of Propwords

All branding, trust and unique selling propositions aside (which no doubt, those benefits are enormous) – these words can send super high value signals to Google that your site has got something special going on because;

  • you now have unique anchor text
  • you’ll show search volume as a popularity indicator / “brand” signal
  • you’ll have mentions as another popularity signal

I believe search engine benefits may be;

  • these will protect you from penguin-like algorithm update
  • improve your overall quality score
  • increase your perception of being a “brand”

For those of you interested, I found two patent related articles on SEO By The Sea which could slightly relate to these concepts;

And obvious brand benefits;

  • increased unique selling proposition
  • you stand out
  • trust
  • memorability

Search Volume Examples

Here’s some examples of how SEOmoz (now Moz) has claimed many Propwords;

moz propwords search volume screenshot

What I believe happens is;

  1. The words are created.
  2. They are promoted by the site.
  3. Google starts to see people linking to the site with that anchor text, and starts to see search volume around the word.
  4. Google may associate the propword with your site based upon anchor text as well as what people click in the SERP when they search for your propword.
  5. This word then becomes like an extra brand signal, showing that your site is in demand.

Here’s another example (albeit a little loose). D’you know what company this is?

screenshot of 37 signals propwords

The Inherent Problem With Exact Match Domains

Getting back to our EMD’s, they have a challenge. Their brand name is their keyword. Their domain name is their keyword. Just look at top anchor text keywords;

nuts nuts nut nut nuts

The lack of a real propword though, I believe is well made up for by the amount of exact match searches for the domain;

screenshot of search volume for 12,100 a month

This is why, if you have an EMD, promoting it with the dot com at minimum is essential to standing out.

A More Complete Anchor Text Profile

Most ratios we see nowadays look like this – but the reality is, they are incomplete;

common anchor text ratio recommendations pie chart

THIS I believe would be a more complete way to think of anchor text distribution;

anchor text ratios with propwords

Creating Propwords – Two Options

There’s really two options here;

Option 1: Leverage An Existing Asset – This is obviously the easiest way. If you’re already doing something unique, but it just doesn’t have a unique name. Give it one.

Option 2: Create Something & Give It A Unique Name – Obviously harder because you have to start from scratch. But this can be an incredibly transformative process as well. This has actually got two separate lead gen clients I am working with excited and passionate about creating something of real value, a things that a “real” company would do.

11 Propword Types & Examples

This is where the possibilities are almost endless, when you really start thinking about all of the types of things that can have unique names.  One thing I want to note, is that you can skim through all of the schema types for ideas.

1. Brand Names

This goes without saying. If your site is branded with a unique name, you’re already one step ahead. If your brand is a commercial keyword / EMD – promote your brand with the dot com. This is the best way to not just be seen as an EMD.

Examples: Zappos, Reebok, Skype, Lego, CDBaby

2. People

If your company has someone like the CEO or thought leader who gains recognition online, their name can be a propword. You don’t have to be a huge celebrity or giant company with a CEO like Jeff Bezos. Even if you’re name receives 50 searches a month, that’s enough in my mind to establish your name as relevant. (Again, that was the point in this video).

If this person does any amount of blogging, speaking, gets press or is active online, they are likely to acquire some links and search volume.

Example: Katrina Markoff (Vosges Chocolate)

katrina markoff search volume screenshot

3. Products

This can be a “real” product – or it can be something like … The Easy Button. Check out some of the metrics for Staples’ Easy Button;

east button inbound links

Lots of links with that anchor text, including ones from Zillow and MIT.

easy button search volume

Plenty of search volume, and it’s clear Staples “owns” this keyword;

search results for easy button

Example: The Easy Button

4. Places

I’ve most seen companies naming their place of work. But you could even have a unique name for your brick and mortar location. Instead of calling it “store” or “shop” why not create something unique?

Examples: Mozplex, Googleplex, SearchChurch

5. Mascots & Characters

Recently, this post on Moz highlighted a great case study about Grumpy Grandpa, a character created by Bay Alarm Medical. I thought this was a very clever on a variety of levels. But in particular, it’s going to give them a unique propword which will strengthen their site way beyond just keywords.

Examples: Roger Mozbot, Grumpy Grandpa

6. Blog

If appropriate in your niche, name your blog. I think this stems from a spirit of creativity as well as “thinking like a publisher”. Most companies probably already have a blog. Bring it to the next level by naming it and making it something you really care about – and that much more official.

Example: Signal Vs. Noise or “svn” for short (37 Signals)

7. Content Series

Not to mention the benefit of publishing content on a schedule, but here’s another opportunity to give it a unique name, make it memorable and stand out. The series doesn’t have to be on a regular schedule, although that’s ideal. When I was doing NoBoard SEO twice a week, that’s certainly when it was most successful.

Example: MaxImpact

8. Tools

Moz could have named Fresh Web Explorer “mentions tool” – but they gave it a unique name, and it works well alongside “Open Site Explorer”.

Example: Fresh Web Explorer or Coverage Counselor (Esurance)

esurance coverage counselor

I love the Coverage Counselor example. All it is, is your usual insurance finder tool.

screenshot of esurance coverage counselor

Except Esurance gave it a name. And actually Registered it is a trademark apparently. I also like it because it’s in a normally spammy industry, and shows you can do something more “real”. Coverage Counselor is something a little extra that’s going to separate them from the rest.

9. Coin A New Term

Is there a topic or turning point in your industry with a gap to be filled? Wil Reynolds filled a gap in SEO industry with “RCS” (Real Company Shit). Is there a concept or something new that does not yet have an elegant way to refer to it?

Examples: Widgetbait (circa 2008, Matt Inman), Inbound Marketing (although I would argue this has expanded beyond being “proprietary” at this point) (HubSpot)

10. Events

This is a perfect opportunity to leverage a propword. This is because events are very likely to be mentioned a lot online, linked to and shared socially.

Examples: MozCon, SearchLove

distilled propwords in anchor text

I love Distilled’s backlink profile in general. Lots of diversity, and you can really tell they value people, because of you look at their complete profile, tons of employee names are in there.

11. Give Your Self A Pen Name, Alias or “Stage Name”

This works especially well if you have a common name, and want to stand out as being unique. It reminds me of writers, actors, or hip hop artists – giving themselves a unique name.

Examples: The Everywhereist, iPullRank, Content Muse

12. More…

There’s lots more possibilities here – I’m not going to outline every single one but in short they could be;

  • documents
  • whitepapers
  • ebooks
  • charities
  • online courses

Anything I miss?

You Have To Promote Them

It’s certainly great to have these at your disposal. But they need to be promoted.

  1. You need a clear landing page for whatever the subject is. If it’s a person, you need a page about them. If it’s an event, you need an event page. This is obviously important for acquiring links with the propword anchor text.
  2. Work the word into your company culture and dialect. Use it as “normal” language when writing, speaking etc. Incorporate it into your overall content strategy plan as part of the company “voice”.
  3. Use it as hashtag.
  4. Make sure you always rank #1 for your propwords. In theory, if you really are claiming a unique word not used anywhere else, this should not be an issue. But you may want to track rankings for them to be safe.
  5. Check ubersuggest for other long tail versions of your propword, and make sure you’re ranking for those as well – and that the content exists people are looking for.
  6. Buy the domain name, even if it’s just to save for later or protect.
  7. Brand the propword just as you would a brand name. Could it have a logo? A color scheme? Offline promotional materials like tee-shirts?

A Word About Creativity

What’s at the core of this? Creativity. That’s why this could be a HUGE competitive advantage. And I want to emphasize that, if you try to just boil this down into a “tactic” or a “trick” everyone’s going to be able to tell that’s what you’re doing. Including Google.

Anyone who’s created something unique probably did NOT sit down and go “well, gotta get me some propwords now”. No. They or their company likely has a spirit of creativity and adding value at its core.

You have to be real about this. You have to be genuine. Otherwise you may as well just go back to your commercial keywords.

Final Takeaways (TL;DR)

I’m definitely going to be exploring this subject more. I have a few clients putting this into action now (one client is naming their company blog, the other will be creating a character), which I will share the results of once finished. To sum up;

  • Propwords are unique, non-commercial keywords that are strongly associate with your brand/site.
  • They should accumulate search volume, backlinks and mentions.
  • They can be names of people, places, events, mascots and more.
  • They can protect sites from Penguin 1 like penalties.
  • They can improve the popularity/quality score of your site.
  • You can either name an existing asset or create a new one to name.
  • They should be actively promoted.
  • Be genuine!
About Dan Shure

Hi! I'm Dan Shure. I write all of the posts and host all of the podcast episodes you'll find on the Evolving SEO blog. Say hello on Twitter @dan_shure!


  • June 11, 2013 Reply

    Anthony Pensabene

    i’m glad you wrote all these thoughts down for us. yep, i really hope marketers, inhouse people peruse these lines, and start thinking.

    mascots, events, philosophies (RCS), oh my! – there’s a lot to conjure. Immediately, the events angle makes me think of Vans ‘Triple Crown’ event.

    very smart for the brand to associate itself with a bisexual, major sporting event on a yearly basis.

    also, i think mascots are widely underrated-been meaning to do a playful write up of what i’d do with Roger bot.. 🙂

    • June 12, 2013 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Thanks dude, for reading and commenting. I’m waiting for the ‘muser mascot. Tee’s, apparel, mugs, dollar bills – and ‘muser meetup 😉

  • June 13, 2013 Reply

    BJ Cook

    I saw this in Wil Reynold’s LinkedIn feed and have to say this is some of the “freshest” thinking I’ve seen in awhile. As someone who’s been involved in the SEO field since 2001; you’ve documented what a lot of the good SEOs are actually trying to do and looking at. The fact you shared it is noble of you so thanks for that. This really connects SEO yet again to the Branding area for both companies and their agencies. Whether you call these things “Propwords” or “Sub-brands,” you’ll also be sure to garner some of your own quality anchor text. Good work.

  • June 26, 2013 Reply

    Alan Bleiweiss

    Outstanding article Dan! This is one of the cornerstones of many successful brands. Unfortunately I’ve seen the other extreme as well – sites that have no significant mix of commercial keywords and only use words they want to become known for. The effect there is nobody who knows the commercial words but who isn’t thinking of that specific brand is going to find them either, and none of the off-site signals are going to reflect/reinforce or support those commercial identifiers either.

    The ecosystem demands this kind of diversity and a brand’s ability to become known in a unique way over the long-term in a sustainable way can hinge on how successful they are in creating and driving the vision of their “propwords”.

    • June 27, 2013 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Balance! Absolutely right! That’s what I hope people realize. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing!

  • July 3, 2013 Reply

    Mark Spratley

    Great article Dan. I’ve been implementing this strategy (author diversity and branding) for the last few months and it’s really paying off. It’s always nice to have fresh ideas and tips on how to diversify your anchor text portfolio to prevent alerting the “Big G”.

    • July 3, 2013 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Awesome! Definitely chime in with any more updates or success.

  • February 16, 2015 Reply

    Danny Brown (@DannyBrown)

    Damn, Dan, your articles always leave my head sore – and I mean that in a good way, mate!

    So much to take away here. I don’t really use SEO in any major way on my blog (I used to, back in the day, and did fairly well for the areas I wanted to be known in). Now, as the focus of my content shifts, I’m using SEO less.

    However, you’ve given me a ton to think about as I help my wife and her two friends start to attract more search traffic and really place their indie book publisher site on the map.

    So thanks for that, as always – cheers!

    • February 18, 2015 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Hey Danny

      Yep I agree with you. For someone writing / blogging – you can ignore SEO in many ways. WordPress etc take care of a lot of the technical issues so you can focus on connecting with an audience. In fact, most people do more harm than good if they don’t know what they’re doing (kind of like me trying to do handy work around the house haha).

      Glad the post gave you some ideas! And thanks for stopping by!

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