Leading Russian search engine Yandex is to cease attributing any ranking factor value to links for commercial queries in its Moscow regional results, it announced yesterday to an audience in Moscow thus opening the door to a world after links. Alexander Sadovsky, who is the Head of Web Search at Yandex, announced the change at the Internet Business Conference in Moscow.
Speaking to Alexander this morning he explained that this change applies only to commercial queries representing some 10% of the queries Yandex sees. “There is a lot of noise around the links signal particularly for commercial queries and especially in Russia. We see a lot of paid links and even automated paid links where there is no human actually involved. The problem with these links is they’re frequently off-topic and are effectively cheating users.”
This change will come into effect during 2014 in Moscow and potentially other regions in Russia thereafter. There are currently no plans to make any changes to Yandex search in other countries including Turkey. According to Alexander, “There is a bigger problem of spam links in Russia than elsewhere because Russia has a lot of programmers who have been turning link building into a new profession.”
Alexander added that they’d observed a significant reduction in the value of the signal derived from links, “Three years ago the influence of links was still significant, two years ago we noticed a significant reduction and last year it became clear that links for commercial queries had dropped out of the top ten most important factors. This change is a natural continuation of that trend.”
Alexander also confirmed that Yandex has undertaken experiments with social shares and links, noting that Yandex has access to Facebook and to Twitter’s firehose, “We haven’t seen any meaningful signals for ranking from social links. So, our new algorithm will omit those too – but again don’t forget we are talking only about commercial queries.”
As links have been such a crucial factor in search, how do you replace them when they go? The answer is user behavior and interaction with the site. Alexander again, “We’re looking at over 800 factors, but you can say that user interaction with a site has become much more important and is a much clearer and natural signal. So, for instance, we’re looking at the ease of making a purchase, ease of using the site and even how wide the range of goods on offer is from the site owners.”
Alexander wouldn’t be more precise but like Google, Yandex has its own analytics system “Metrika” which gives webmasters and Yandex a large amount of information about how users are interacting with sites and might give us a clue as to factors. In the Webvisor section of Metrika, users can record videos of individual site visits. Its promotional website says that Webvisor, “Lets you look through the eyes of your users at mouse movements, clicks, scrolling, keystrokes and completing forms as well as text selection and copying.”
But if links are no longer involved and human interaction with your site is the key, how do you generate enough user visits to a new site before it’s even begun to rank in Yandex results? Alexander believes this is easier than it might appear, “There are two important strategies to consider; firstly for major sites targeting high volume important queries – for instance in Russia this might be [buying windows for houses], the key is to generate a lot of traffic to your site using all of the marketing and normal traffic generating methods open to you – which of course also includes links from high profile blogs or relevant sites.”
“In the second case, for sites targeting long tail queries, they don’t need to worry as their content will bring users to their site and enable it to perform well in Yandex’s ranked results!”
Yandex launched machine learning algorithms in 2009 called Spectrum and Matrixnet. Spectrum analyses the type of query and Matrixnet is the algorithm itself and this depends on website assessors pre-defining what a quality site looks like for a typical user – then matches the algorithm factors automatically to deliver that result. Alexander confirmed that link penalties are query independent so even though this new algorithm will only apply to the commercial queries and will be neutral to links, the rankings may still be affected right now by a general link penalty.
So it seems that a future search marketing world after links will be much more focused on attractive usability and ease of transaction for users as well as ensuring the site has traffic going to it in the first place. Link building may not die after all, but the metrics will be very different and only links which drive real user traffic will have any value at all.