It’s easy to forget that search engines other than Google exist, but if your target audience lives in countries like China, South Korea, or Russia, you’re missing most of your audience if you’re not showing up in their preferred search engines.
In Russia, Yandex is by far the biggest search engine. More than 57% of Russian internet users rely on Yandex as their main search engine and it’s currently ranked as the number one Russian internet property. There’s also significant Yandex usage in neighboring countries, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Turkey.
And while most of the fundamental rules for promoting sites on Google apply to Yandex, I’ve compiled this list of nine specific differences between these platforms. If you’re aiming to master Yandex SEO and appeal to a whole new market, keep these tips in mind.
One of the key differences between Google and Yandex is the high priority Yandex places on geo-targeting. While Local SEO and user customization certainly plays a role in Google search engine result pages (SERPs), most users will see the same results as other users from their country. Not so with Yandex.
In Yandex, all queries are divided into geo-dependent and geo-independent searches. For geo-dependent searches, only websites from a particular region are shown, which means that people from different cities will see completely different search results.
The upside of this intense focus on regionality is that it’s very easy to promote local business. The downside is that it’s more difficult to promote the websites of businesses that span multiple regions.
To make sure your website can still be found, Yandex Webmaster blog offers the following tips:
- Publish your business’s name, address, postal code, telephone number, and area code on your website.
- Publish the same information for every regional branch of your business.
- Make every page of your website available to Yandex’s robot regardless of its IP address.
When doing Yandex SEO, it’s extremely important that you know your region before entering any keywords, and that you win backlinks from businesses in each region.
When you know your target region, here’s how you can promote your website:
- Specify the region in Yandex Webmaster Tools.
- Submit your site to Yandex Sprav.
- Include your region in the H1 tag, body, and (if possible) URL of your content.
- Include your region in your content’s meta tag and snippet.
2. Optimizing for Yandex Takes More Time
SEO specialists optimizing for both Google and Yandex I talked to unanimously find Yandex optimization slower.
Googlebot is constantly crawling and indexing new pages. This means when you publish new URLs, add a significant piece of indexable content with its own URL to your website, or ping major ping services, you might see increased traffic within 24 hours after making the change.
Meanwhile, Yandex’s index seems to be re-calculated at a much slower pace. When optimizing for Yandex, make sure you (and your employer) allow for more time to see results on particular optimization activities—both on-page and off-page.
Of course, when it comes to both Yandex and Google, it takes time before you can start measuring the true impact your SEO campaign is having. Make sure you don’t stop too soon.
3. Manipulating User Behavior
SEO experts have argued back and forth for years on whether or not user behavior is an important ranking factor. It certainly seems to be—real-life experiments have been shown to affect SERP results, and Google has blatantly stated that “User reactions to particular search results or search result lists may be gauged so that results on which users often click will receive a higher ranking.”
However, with Yandex, there’s no debate—user behavior is a HUGE ranking factor and plays a much bigger role than other signals, such as link building. Websites that encourage users to stay on-site for as long as possible will always rank better than their competitors.
As a result, some Yandex SEO specialists have taken to manipulating user behavior metrics with black hat tactics, especially comment spamming. Back in 2011, Yandex published two articles (here and here) on their Webmaster blog warning webmasters about the dangers of manipulating user behavior for SEO, but it continues to be a widespread technique despite the risk of severe penalties.
If you want to appeal to your users with Yandex, the safest strategy is the same one you’d use for Google—creating quality content that appeals to your audience. As Yandex’s about page states, “how useful and user-friendly a product is matters more than how much money we can make from it.”
To measure user behavior on your website, Yandex recommends you regularly analyze your web server logs. Pay special attention to:
- Traffic sources: Understand which sources bring the most visitors to your website.
- Search queries – Analyze which queries bring visitors to your site.
- Target pages – Measure conversions on pages like shopping carts and forms.
- Platform specs – Figure out what platforms users use to find you and optimize for a better on-site experience.
4. Backlink Traffic
In 2013, Alexander Sadovsky, the Head of Web Search at Yandex, announced that links would no longer be a ranking factor for commercial queries. Instead, Yandex redoubled its emphasis on user behavior.
While this change, implemented in 2014, didn’t kill link building, it certainly changed the game. Now, there’s a common belief in Yandex SEO that links which demonstrate actual traffic are more beneficial than thousands of links that never get clicked, because they showcase user interest.
According to Dmitry Sevalnev, head of SEO at a Moscow-based digital marketing agency pixelplus.ru, Yandex takes into account multiple factors related to user behaviour, including:
- The volume, shares, and behavior of non-organic-search traffic.
- The presence and the number of backlinks that actually bring traffic.
However, Dmitry cautions these numbers are secondary factors that simply contribute to the more important user behavior metrics. Increased traffic from backlinks doesn’t necessarily equal quality backlinks.
In the end, optimization practices for Yandex are similar to those you use for Google:
- Focus on quality links over quantity.
- Earn relevant backlinks from sites related to your niche.
- Use links to build your authority and credibility.
Remember, on their own, backlinks are not a decisive ranking factor. They will only start to play a role when the number of sessions from the referrals is truly considerable.
5. Doman Age Equals Authority
Domain age plays a more important role for ranking websites in Yandex than it does in Google. It can be challenging—and time-consuming—for new sites to get rankings. Sites with very few pages have an especially hard time.
Fortunately, you can check on what Yandex believes to be the creation date for a particular page by checking the cache data in Yandex. You can do this with the help of Website Auditor (disclaimer: my tool).
Website Auditor will show you how many pages of your domain have been indexed by Yandex and when they were indexed.
6. On-Page Content Matters More
Google may care about fresh, high-quality content, but Yandex is obsessed. In fact, according to Matthew Woodward, some offenses (such as stuffing too many keywords on a single page) are “more dangerous [in Yandex] than in Google.”
That said, there’s no universal recipe for success and the frequency of content updates depends largely on the nature the business. My general recommendation is to add fresh content as often as it makes sense for your website.
However, be warned that duplicate content is hit with severe penalties—even technical mistakes may result in bigger negative penalties on Yandex rankings than you might suffer on your Google rankings.
For example, e-commerce sites that have separate pages for products with minuscule differences (e.g. size, color, etc.) might risk running afoul of Yandex’s duplicate content filter.
Other common mistakes include:
- Too many auto-redirects – Avoid using redirects whenever possible.
- Page address – Give each page a unique permanent address, free of session identifiers.
- Cloaking – This is black hat SEO, where you show Yandex’s robot one piece of content and your visitors another. This can result in a ranking penalty.
- Images instead of text – Yandex’s robot can’t crawl images, so if you want your content to rank make sure it is available in text.
- Soft 404 – When users try to access a page that doesn’t exist, don’t redirect them to a stub page that returns a code 200 instead of a 404 message.
- Site engine errors – Any errors in your site’s script may affect site indexing and possibly put your website at risk. Make sure all of your site’s software works correctly at all times.
7. Less Emphasis on Certain Ranking Factors
Most of Google’s recent updates have been focusing on a few, specific changes—especially signals like site speed and mobile friendliness. Naturally, SEO experts have refocused their attention on these areas.
Well, when optimizing for Yandex, you don’t need to worry so much about these signals.
According to Mike Shakin, an SEO expert who excels at promoting websites for both Russian- and English-speaking markets,
“Yandex cares less about factors that Google has been anxious about the last couple of years, such as social signals, site speed, mobile friendliness, and schema markup. It won’t hurt to keep those in mind as well—create responsive websites, optimize page load speed, and follow all the latest trends—but it’s important to understand that presently, they don’t seem to play an immediate role in rankings.”
Of course, where these ranking factors influence user behavior, you certainly should optimize your website to accommodate visitor preference.
8. Commercial Ranking Factors
Yandex recently added a new ranking signal called “commercial relevance” to provide more accurate, quality-biased results for queries with commercial intent. So while it is true that Yandex places less emphasis on the ranking factors listed above, those factors tie into other signals:
Relevance, trustability, usability, user experience, design, and quality of service do affect your ranking.
To accommodate these ranking factors, make sure all of your product descriptions are unique, detailed, and accurate. Including relevant regional information, earning backlinks from trusted authorities, and appealing to more users will also play a significant role in your commercial relevance.
9. Fewer Webmaster Tools, but More Responsive Support
To submit your website to Yandex Webmaster Tools:
- Sign in to your Yandex Webmaster Tools or Create a Free Account.
- Click the Add Site
- Enter your domain name and click Add.
- Verify your website using one of three options (I recommend embedding the meta tag).
- Install any plugins you need (I highly recommend WordPress SEO if you’re running WordPress).
- Click Check from your Yandex toolbar.
- Click Indexing Options > Sitemap Files. Add your sitemap file and then click Add.
After adding your sitemap file, check back in a few days to make sure that Yandex is crawling your site correctly. You should now be able to see how many pages you’ve submitted and how many Yandex has indexed.
While Google Webmaster Tools are more sophisticated than Yandex Webmaster Tools, Yandex has the benefit of a small and responsive support team. If your website does fall afoul of a filter or penalty, you’re more likely to get a prompt response.
If you’re looking to start a business and reach a Russian-speaking audience, Yandex—not Google—is the way to go. As you can see, there are some peculiarities to keep in mind, yet overall, the optimization principles seem to be universal.
Companies looking to expand their reach on an international level would do well to optimize their content for search engines outside of Google, especially in countries where other platforms are more popular. As long as you prioritize quality content a great user experience, you’re sure to do well abroad.