State of Yandex SEO May 2015: An Interview with Alexander Sadovsky

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Last month, Alexander Sadovsky, head of Yandex natural search, announced the details of the latest changes to the Yandex algorithm with an update nicknamed “Minusinsk.” Minusinsk, named after a Russian city like the rest of the Yandex search algorithm updates, sparked quite the stir in the search world because of the interpretation that the announcement would mean a strong change in the way links are factored in the Yandex ranking algorithm.

In March 2014, Yandex announced the removal of links as a ranking factor for commercial queries in many top verticals for searches conducted in the Moscow region.  When Minusinsk was announced in April 2015 much of the coverage on the topic interpreted the update as Yandex “returning links to the algorithm.” In fact, Minusinsk means that while links are returned to commercial queries in the Moscow region Yandex is continuing its effort to eradicate black hat SEO, not simply returning to the previous link weighting algorithm.  The Minusinsk update punished paid link buying by creating negative equity for these types of links.

In order to better clarify the details of Minusinsk, I sat down with Yandex’s Head of Search Services Alexander Sadovsky to interview him on the state of Yandex SEO.

How does Yandex classify links?

Yandex classifies natural links as positive and paid links as negative.  74% of links we see in the Russian market are paid links, purchased with the intent of improving SEO rankings and not for improve the user experience.

How do you identify the difference between the two?

Our machine learning algorithm establishes which links are natural and which links are paid.  We take examples of links that are considered natural and links that are considered paid and use them as samples from which our algorithm can learn.  The algorithm then builds a model for categorizing links as either natural or paid.

When sifting through links, the learning algorithm filters through a large number of factors that ultimately establish if a link is natural or a paid link.  Since we have a large set of sample links that our algorithm pulls from, the precision of our algorithm is quite strong.  In our experience more than 99% of links are classified correctly.

How is Yandex addressing paid links? In what verticals and regions?

Those who purchase paid links will be penalized in Minusinsk.  Among other elements, two main factors contribute to a website being penalized: the percent of paid links going to a site and the absolute number of inbound links to the site.  The combination of these two factors will decide how strongly websites are impacted.

This will be applied to all websites, in all regions, for all search queries.  Yandex will not only index the websites with paid links but will also create a comprehensive database of paid link activity as well.

How is Yandex addressing natural links?

Natural links do not necessarily act as a positive factor for ranking but rather a balancing factor for websites with paid links.  A website without natural links will be punished based on the amount and percentage of paid links compared to natural links.  A high percentage of natural links could prevent a given site from being demoted in the SERP.

For example, when a small website with very few links has 66% paid links and 33% natural links, it will not be affected due to the low absolute number of paid links.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, when there is a well established authoritative site with 10,000 paid links but 100,000 natural links, it wouldn’t be punished either because the percentage of paid links is low.

The first round of punishments addresses paid links that webmasters purchased or rented for a few years.  Natural links and links being directed from other webmasters do not carry as much significant weight.

Why did Yandex make these adjustments to their algorithm?

Ten months ago, it was decided that links would no longer be a ranking factor for a large portion of Moscow commercial queries.  The goal of this decision was to incentivize webmasters to put greater emphasis on improving the user experience of their websites and to reduce link buying.

In this time period, link buying decreased by 14%, which was a much slower reduction than we had anticipated. Due to webmasters maintaining paid links for other search engine rankings and generally just keeping up with their link buying habits, black hat SEO in Russia persisted.

In order to further address this issue, it made sense to again introduce links as a ranking factor for commercial queries.  By penalizing websites with paid links, the amount of paid links should be dramatically reduced and webmasters will focus on improved content, user interfaces, etc.

What percentage of sites do you anticipate will be affected?

Every website is susceptible to being penalized. Without knowing which websites will adjust accordingly, we can’t accurately know how many.  I can say with certainty that thousands of websites will initially be impacted and we are prepared to increase the amount of penalized sites as this goes on.

How is Yandex rolling out these changes?

The changes will be rolled out gradually. May 15, 2015 marked the first round of websites that were penalized.  The first round impacted hundreds of websites that are most egregious in not having cleaned up the majority of their paid links. A second round of 1,000 websites will later be affected and so on.

What is the time frame for the crawlers to index the changes?

High authority websites can be indexed multiple times a day.  Lower authority websites, and ones that tend to have lots of paid links, are more likely to be indexed somewhere around once a week.  Its therefore encouraged to clean paid links as soon as possible.

What can publishers do to protect their websites?

Yandex.Webmaster sent out notifications to websites that were identified as sites that would likely be negatively impacted with the rollout of Minusinsk.  These sites have had a month to make the appropriate adjustments to their websites.

Generally, webmasters need to negotiate to get paid links off their sites.  Most links in Russia are bought through a few specific link brokers.  If webmasters stop renting or purchasing, then a good portion of the link problems will stop.

RuNet After Minusinsk

My interview with Sadovsky helped clarify the extent to which paid links can significantly impact a website’s ranking in the Yandex search results in all verticals and in all regions.  After last week’s first round of Minusinsk penalizing websites, many webmasters learned that the updated algorithm did in fact impact a number of websites in various verticals across Russia, irregardless of their domain strength.  Both domains and subdomains were impacted and resulted in noteworthy drops in rankings.  Several websites, which got rid of paid links, were not aggressive enough with their approach and still felt the impacts of Minusinsk.

Yandex.Webmaster announced the results late on the 21st of May, Moscow time. One month ago, when Minusinsk was announced, Yandex.Webmaster sent out 8,890 notifications to webmasters that they should address paid links on their websites.  According to Yandex data, 37% of these identified websites responded accordingly and were not affected by the new algorithm.  The first batch of Minusinsk “winners” were selected from the remaining 63% of websites which did not address their paid links at all or aggressively enough. 488 websites were penalized.  Impacted sites lost an average of 20 positions in the SERP.

To better show how the algorithm is impacting website’s traffic, Yandex.Webmaster provided screenshots from two different site’s statistics on Yandex.Metrica, Yandex’s free web analysics tool.  The first screenshots below show the traffic over a three and half week period and the traffic sources from both Google and Yandex.

WEBSITE CLEANED PAID LINKS

minusinsk metrica II

On the other hand, a website that did not clean their paid links saw a drop in their Yandex traffic and an overall reduction in their website visits.

minusinsk metrica III

minusinsk metrica IV

Yandex considers the first round of Minusinsk to be a success in ultimately achieving a goal of eradicating black hat SEO. The portion of the top paid link purchasers decreased by 12.5%.  Overall, the share of paid links in the Yandex database fell by 21.7%  The next round of penalties will be done without warning.  Webmasters who have already been advised to clean paid links should take action to prevent their website from facing penalties in the next roll out of Minusinsk.

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Melissa McDonald is the International Marketing Manager at Yandex, Russia’s leading search engine, which offers free English to Russian translation and optimization for advertisers. Melissa also regularly blogs for RussianSearchMarketing.com, a news and information resource for digital advertising in Russia.

State of Digital

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What 5 Years in Russia Taught TripAdvisor About Russian Optimization and Yandex SEO

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TripAdvisor first launched a Russian optimized site almost five years ago in October of 2010.   As the Russian travel industry grows and the rapid growth of the Russian online market provides significant potential upside in 2015 and beyond, Russia continues to be a priority for the world’s largest travel site.

On one hand, Russia offers the largest European Internet population with 83 millions users and people who love to travel. On the other hand, Russia and RuNet (Russian Internet) also have important differences and a unique set of challenges for both local and international businesses.

Quite obviously, most foreign markets will require businesses to optimize their websites for the local language and audience. Russia’s complex language forces even more attention to the localization aspect of a business.  Unlike most places in the world, Google is not the dominant search engine.  Russians heavily rely on their local search engine Yandex, which maintains approximately 60% of the search market share.  Search engine marketers and SEO specialists need to familiarize themselves with Yandex.Direct, Yandex’s auction based ad platform, and Yandex SEO.

As you all well know, preparing and adjusting to such challenges takes well thought out planning and practice.  To better understand how companies tackle such challenges, I interviewed TripAdvisor’s VP of SEO, Luc Levesque, who shared his knowledge and advice on optimizing for the Russian market.

Why did TripAdvisor prioritize Russia over other locations?

It was a combination of language and the growing Russian travel market. In 2010, Russian was the 9th biggest language on the internet and our research showed that there were 60 million internet users at the time. TripAdvisor already had sites covering the other top 10 internet languages, except Arabic, which was planned for 2011, and so Russia was the obvious next choice.

Russian user interest in hotel booking online

If you were to do it again, would you do anything differently in launching a Russian website? Explain.

There were 3 big challenges with the Russian website: Display/Spacing, Russian grammar, and local listings. We were extremely happy with the site when it launched, but we could have launched a better site if we’d appreciated the level of these challenges earlier and built extra time into our schedule to address them more fully before launch instead of continuing to address them after launch.

TripAdvisor Russian page

Display Space: Russian tends to be a lengthy language. If English takes half a screen width for a heading, Russian can often need the full screen width. This gave us many challenges where headings were taking up two lines, buttons were breaking because the text was too long and single word tabs in other languages needed three words in Russian. Much of the recent site redesigns have now resolved these display issues but the design at time of launch meant that some pages looked very cluttered and busy due to the many words in Russian.

Russian Grammar: Russian was the first site where we really had to address declension issues. We were especially keen to do this because Yandex rewards sites with good grammar. TripAdvisor has many headings like “1 of 50 hotels in Moscow” or “See all Moscow Hotels.” In Russian, nouns change their last letters depending on their usage in a sentence (case and case functions) and we had to adapt translations, databases and variable strings to suit the Russian grammar rules.

Local Listings:  Much of the content we already had for Russia was from foreign tourists visiting Russia. As a result, the restaurants and attractions with reviews tended to be the ones which foreign tourists visit. This meant that we had a lot of hotels, restaurants and attractions missing, particularly ones which locals would visit. We’d have liked to go live with more local listings, but many of these were not added until after launch.

What are the three biggest differences you find optimizing for Yandex as opposed to Google? How does that dictate your SEO priorities in Russia?

Yandex is significantly slower at crawling new pages and has a much smaller index compared to Google. As such, be weary of wasting Yandexbot’s time crawling pages that aren’t important. This can be accomplished by adding less important pages to your robots.txt, which will focus attention on the more important pages, allowing them to get indexed and rank more quickly.

With little written in English on Yandex SEO, what were the biggest surprises you faced?

Other than what has already been mentioned, there were several technical surprises:

Yandex limits size of robots.txt to 32kb, which is smaller than what Google supports. Going over that limit will cause Yandex to ignore it completely, so be careful.

Unlike Google, Yandex will not follow redirects to XML sitemaps, and requires that they be hosted on the same subdomain as the site.

What are the three most important first steps to follow for newcomers optimizing on Yandex?

Work closely with native speakers to get the language correct, as ranking well in Yandex with poor grammar or machine translations will be very difficult.

Register for Yandex.Webmaster, which is available in English. Much like Google Webmaster tools, it provides valuable insights into many aspects of the site, such as search queries and indexing.

Yandex.Webmaster

Read through the Yandex “Tips for webmaster,” which outlines their guidelines of what they consider a quality site, as well as advice about tactics to avoid.

What are the top three things you do to further your own SEO knowledge of Yandex?

1. As with any search engine, the best way to further SEO knowledge is to always be testing.

2.Reading blogs from local experts, such as RussianSearchTips.

3. Analyze top competitors.

RussianSearchMarketing

As said by Levesque, like anywhere else, testing and staying current on the state of the industry and competitors proves crucial to success,  just with a more specific lens for the Russian market.  Knowing what your competitors are doing and analyzing their strategies can be useful for forming your own strategies.

The development of the Russian Internet, the introduction and updates of tools, and SEO changes are important to consistently pay close attention to.  Often news in the Russian world takes a bit of time to reach English speakers making local experts and linguists invaluable for any foreign business entering the Russian market.   Local blogs contain a lot of useful information for executing the Russian search strategy.

Conclusions

Much of TripAdvisor’s success in Russia can be attributed to their high standards for on page optimization and general SEO while simultaneously really appreciating the complexities of the Russian market.  After five years in Russia, TripAdvisor has learned a great deal about the amount of detail that goes into Russian optimization and Yandex SEO.  Still, as clearly indicated by Levesque, this is not a static process with a single recipe for instant success.

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Melissa McDonald is the International Marketing Manager at Yandex, Russia’s leading search engine, which offers free English to Russian translation and optimization for advertisers. Melissa also regularly blogs for RussianSearchMarketing.com, a news and information resource for digital advertising in Russia.

State of Digital

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