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Ranking without Links | Interview with Yandex Head of Web Search Alexander Sadovsky

Marcus Tandler and Alexander Sadovsky at the Yandex HQ in Moscow

Me and Alexander Sadovsky at the Yandex HQ in Moscow


Russia´s favorite search engine Yandex surprised the Search & SEO community at the end of last year with its announcement to stop counting links as a ranking factor for commercial queries in the Moscow region. Since we at OnPage.org are all about sustainable OnPage SEO these days, we took great pleasure in this move by Yandex. Although linkspam seems to be a way bigger problem in Russia, then in most other countries, it´s still a trend, which I expect to catch on. Google is annoyed by linkspam as well and has finally taken measures to tackle the problem. Google is still not confindent enough to ditch links overall, but I expect OnPage SEO will become more and more important in the years to come. In the end it is all about what´s the best result for the users and a perfectly OnPage optimized website is a great start to accomplish exactly this.

I wanted to know more about how Yandex is ditching links as a ranking signal, so a couple of weeks ago I went to Moscow to chat with Yandex Head of Web Search Alexander Sadovsky about the state of linkspam in Russia, their move to stop relying on links as a ranking factor and their efforts to provide better search results then ever before. Here´s what I learned:

Yandex stirred quite some buzz around the search world with the announcement that links have been removed from your ranking algorithm for commercial queries in the Moscow region. Which verticals are affected at the moment?

As of now, several commercial topics (let’s call it verticals – ok) are affected, including electronic and home appliance, cloths and accessories, real estate, beauty and health, tourism and recreation, legal services (such as advocates), website development and SEO. But we suppose to extend this practice on other commercial topics and we’re going to remove paid links from algorithm for other regions later.

Do you plan to remove links as a ranking factor overall, or just for commercial queries?

We are not going to remove ranking factors based on links for non-commercial queries – no. But it doesn’t mean that there are no limits from our side when we count PAID links to non-commercial websites. 

How do you assess the importance / authority of a website without the help of links?

We’re looking at over 800 factors, including those which are internal (content of the website and its structure) and external. I can say that we collect all data about the website we are able to collect while we are complying with users’ privacy policy.

How do you see the importance of (preferably impeccable) OnPage SEO in regards to a good ranking within Yandex?

The structure of queries any search engine gets consists of core queries (which users asks most often) and so called ‘long tail’ (a massive range of rare queries). Long tail is bigger than core and may have even more value for commercial website’s owner from conversion perspective. Queries from long tail are typically longer (users use more words to describe what they are looking for), so text on website and its content plays quite significant role for a website counting that.

What´s your estimate on how many links are actually link spam in commercial verticals?

The absolute majority, according to our research in Russian-speaking segment of the internet (we call it Runet).

What´s the state of link spam in russia?

We’re not experts in this area – we are the search :) Talking about perspectives we think serious businesses don’t and won’t promote their commercial websites using link spam – it’s very risky both in terms of traffic and reputation. As of now we see websites starts to pay more attention to SEM, content, usability, instead of paid links.

In a 2012 interview, the CEO of one of the largest SEO companies in Russia estimated the value of the market of SEO services in Russia at about 16 billion Russian rubles (approx. 350 million euros), of which 9 billion russian rubles were being spent on buying links. Do you think that´s a fair assessment of the market size? What´s your estimate on how much money is being spent on buying links in Russia?

We are not a player on SEO field, so we would avoid any estimation from Yandex side. But here is industrial research from Russian Assosiation of Electronic Communications (we can’t evaluate how correct is it). According to RAEC, search optimization market grew to 10.24 bln RUB (+20% to 2011), and they expect at least +19% as of 2013.

Do you think this will change in the near future with your announcement of ditching links for commercial queries?

Our primary target is to provide the best search service for end-users. So, when we decide about change in ranking we follow exactly this target: it has to bring improvements for end-users first of all. The trend of re-focusing, when websites’ owners spend less resources on paid links and more on SEM is interesting for us completely from the point of end-users – it’s good if websites starts to spend more on usability, content, quality, user-friendly design, but not on cheating search engine. The better are websites – the better Yandex can solve a user’s task :)

Behavioral factors were being introduced as a part of Yandex ranking formula back in 2011. Do you see a lot of artificial manipulations of behavioral factors these days?

Yandex’s search security system can successfully detect and fight with artificial manipulations of behavioral factors, among other frauds. I can’t tell there are many attempts of that kind to cheat search engine, but we see them time to time. Some people are experimenting and trying to find vulnerablities in our algorithms. But all websites of such ‘experimentators’ are getting infinitely far from a user in our SERP very fast :)  

How do you see the role of social signals as a ranking factor? Do you think social signals might one day be a viable alternative to links?

Unfortunately we are not ready to comment on ranking factors’ role and ‘weight’. But we are trying to count all data we can get about a website.

A website’s usability seems to be very important for Yandex. During my visit at the Yandex HQ you mentioned, that you can predict the quality of a newly discovered website by its usability to determine wether this newfound website might be a good result for searchers. Can you elaborate a bit on this?

The problem is that the more we say about our algorithms – the more attempts we get from those who are trying to cheat, instead of just making a good website for end-users. So, i’ld avoid talking about it publicly :)

On a different note – Yandex created quite some buzz with the implementation of so called Yandex "Islands". Yandex Islands are interactive SERPs / interactive rich snippets webmasters can implement with the help of certain extensions of the Open Graph Protocol. You even offer real-data streaming via API so users can really interact via the snippet in the search results. How is the adoption among webmasters? Do you see a significant uplift in users being satisfied with search results, due to the fact, that users can interact with certain sites right within the search results and are therefore getting a desired information much quicker then before?

A good webmaster is interested in more traffic and higher conversion, and if he can get it with Yandex – of course he will use a chance. In fact, the number of webmasters who has made at least one interactive snippet is much higher than the range of islands which we are ready to accept. There are many types of websites whose islands does not actually provide any value for end-users, so we work with webmasters’ community quite close to avoid irrelevance and to develop rules and terms on how to make interactive snippets really useful for a user.
Talking about a user, his target is to get answer or problem solved as fast as possible. If the search engine is able to provide answer right on SERP, just in one tap, or to start solving his problem while he is typing a query – then he would obviousely more than happy. This state is very hot especially for mobile searchers who are not eager to surf too many while they are on a weak mobile internet line or crowded public wi-fi. But again, we need to make it smart and not to overload SERP with interactive snippets and islands. Sometimes it confuses a user. That’s why we are in experimental mode right now, will implement the new features very smooth.

Thank you very much for the interview Alexander!

Die deutsche Version dieses Interviews findest Du im OnPage.org Blog.

8 Comments on "Ranking without Links | Interview with Yandex Head of Web Search Alexander Sadovsky"

  1. Den sagt:

    Wow. the SEO apocalyptic begins

  2. I liked old good Yandex with links as a ranking factor.

  3. Frank sagt:

    Cooles Interview, aber die Frage:

    How do see the importance of (preferably impeccable) OnPage SEO in regards to a good ranking within Yandex?

    beantwortet er jetzt aber nicht :)

  4. Eugene sagt:

    Den, in Russia we hear about SEO-death every day :-D

  5. Seoshnic sagt:

    SEO-apocalypse is here, isnt it? Content marketing is a new SEO. And we are seeing the content marketing boom here in Russia.

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