Yandex Linkless Ranking Algorithm Decyphered

Back in December last year Alexander Sadovsky, Head of Web Search at Yandex announced they would stop using backlink signals to rank websites for commercial search terms in the Moscow region. It instantly plunged the SEO communities both in Russia and in the West into if not panic then definitely into a state of wonderment.

Ever since the announcement, we’ve continued to speculate as to what this really means for the future of SEO. If the Yandex experiment succeeds, is it going to encourage Google and Bing to adopt a similar practice?

Although the changes in Yandex SERPs were supposed to go live in January, it didn’t happen until 12th March. I’ve been watching the sites bouncing up and down but at the moment it seems they’ve entered some sort of stability, so we can actually look at the “Before” and “After” and try to decipher the new ranking algorithm of Yandex.

I’ve been watching two dozen of niches on Yandex. Really glad I learned Russian. I always knew it would come in handy at some point! For this overview, I’ve picked three terms:

  • купить квартиру в москве (buy an apartment in Moscow)
  • поисковая оптимизация (search engine optimisation)
  • сбросить вес быстро (quick weight loss)

The biggest and most obvious changes have happened in the real estate sector, so we’ll be concentrating on that one. Download the spreadsheet if you want to look at all 3 niches I researched. Any questions about the spreadsheet or this article, please get in touch.

Don’t get Fooled – Links Still Count

Actually, since Yandex made the announcement that they’d stop counting links, it has become a bit of a hype. What happens is that the hype-artists hack off the beginning and the end of a sentence and then present it as a sensation. What happened on 12th March was that Yandex silenced 50 out of 150 link-related signals.

They won’t tell you which ones but according to the gossip on Russian webmaster forums, and even some reliable sources, the silenced signals are related to contextual proximity and anchor text. The fact that you have lots of links still counts and still helps you rank high on Yandex.

At first it seems counter-intuitive: so if you run a property website, you can buy 10,000 anchor-free links from an origami blog and they would help you rank because Yandex has stopped reading the anchor and stopped considering the relevance of linked sites? Check the Other Ranking Factors section for an answer.

Nevertheless, the biggest Russian link networks have already reported loss of business. Some even suggest that Sape network should change their logo to incorporate a facepalm.

Sape Link Network Logo
Sape Logo Before and After

Winners and Losers

Let’s just go through them one by one and see if we can find any footprints. But before we do, there are two region-specific brand names that I mention a lot: Metrika and Direkt – both are developed and owned by Yandex. The first one is an alternative of Google Analytics – quite a neat little web stats system that is very popular in Russia. Some Russian SEOs believe that Yandex uses some of the data it gathers via Metrika to determine the user satisfaction. Direkt is a local alternative to Google Adsense. Webmasters place Direkt ad blocks on their sites to earn extra dosh.

Yandex Rankings Before and After
Yandex Rankings Before and After

First the six real estate websites that took a significant hit:

kupit-kvartiru.egsnk.ru

This site has lost 20 positions. It uses Metrika and doesn’t take part in Direkt. So, what about usability? As a property sales page it sucks big time. There’s text everywhere. Lots of it. Is this what you expect when you’re looking for an apartment? Of course not, you want listings.

The search form is horrible, I doubt they get much interaction on it. More likely, the visitors just fiddle with it for a while, give up and… bounce! Although there are 110 internal links, the navigation looks decent and there are the “brick-and-mortar business signals” in the form of address and phone number.

kupit-kvartiru.ndv.ru

Lost 13 positions. 111 internal links, 3 ads (incidentally none of them served by Yandex Direkt), an annoying chat window that pops out uninvited, poor listings with tiny text, 80 tiny images scattered around. The site uses Metrika. So, what else is wrong with it? Oh yeah, that huge cluster of optimised text. It doesn’t belong there. The overall user satisfaction: extremely low, let’s bounce.

gdeetotdom.ru

Lost 12 positions. A rather cumbersome navigation with 60 nofollowed internal links, a huge footer stuffed with useless junk. 10 adverts displayed, none of them Direkt. The site uses Metrika stats. There are no brick and mortar signals, no clear call to action, a very weak enquiry form AND text overload.

If you want to spam the hell out of search engines, here’s what you do – create a 1769-word long thesis on benefits of buying an apartment in Moscow and make sure you use the word “apartment” at least 66 times in various combinations.

How to do keyword stuffing
How to do keyword stuffing

This is what SEO used to be before Panda came along. You simply create SEO landing pages with huge text, stuff keywords and then pay a link broker to point anchored backlinks to it. Magic. It always worked. Smarter SEOs made sure they added plenty of CTAs (buttons, links or email submission forms). The person who SEOed gdeetotdom.ru, forgot to do that. Anyway, it doesn’t work in Google any more. Now (at least in Moscow) it no longer works in Yandex.

incom.ru

Minus 10 positions. 158 internal links, the entire navigation bar is nofollowed just like the previous site. Have you ever heard about link juice flow and page hierarchy? No? I thought so. Is this some sort of a deja vous or something but the site uses Metriak and isn’t a Direkt ads publisher. On the first inspection it doesn’t look bad – there’s a clear call to action, a decent search form but wait, what’s that? Oh, another case of text overload.

RealtyPress.ru

Minus 6 positions. At a risk of sounding like a popinjay, I’ll announce that the site has the Metrika code and despite having put 13 ads on the page, none of those are Direkt ads.

Is this even a property sales page? I can see no listings there, I’m disappointed. 96 internal links, most of which are useless and invisible tucked away in a ghastly-looking footer section. No call to action, no phone numbers. What we do have there is another chunk of SEO-friendly text and a list of SEO-friendly anchor-heavy internal links.

kvartira.miel.ru

It used to be the darling of Yandex – ranked #1 for various apartment-related terms and it was quite difficult to establish why it ranked. The subdomain’s CY is just 110. The only explanation is that Yandex ranked it based on the strength of the domain, which is CY 4600, but even then, there used to be three more powerful sites in the Top10.

Also, Miel’s links are not overly spammy and considering they’ve got a huge provenance, they’ve managed to acquire links from sources that were unavailable to other realtors – national newspapers and large mortgage brokers. Alas, it has all become irrelevant. And if you assume the number of links still count as a ranking signal, Miel just doesn’t have a high enough number – that’s why they rank in position #6.

There are more issues. Just like the other examples, this page is based on a large chunk of text that no human will ever read. Yes, the page has got CTAs, there’s a phone number, callback function, a reasonable search box but it’s that big text that’s killing it. And it uses Metrika feeding back the evidence that visitors hate this page. Did I mention that Miel is not a publisher of Direkt ads?

And the Winner is

realty.dmir.ru

New entry. It came out of nowhere. I really like the page – it’s got exactly what a visitor expects after searching for “купить квартиру в москве” – well-formatted property listings and much to interact with. There’s not much in the way of text, apart from that cheeky section on the right-hand panel.

Wait a minute, do I see some Yandex Direkt ads? Also, it doesn’t use Metrike, so if we assume Yandex uses some data to determine user interactions, they wouldn’t know how happy the visitors are. Well, of course there are other ways to estimate the quality of user experience but these signals wouldn’t be as clear as having a set bounce rate to play with.

irr.ru

Weathered the storm and retained it’s #2 position. This SEO person has to pat himself on the back. If there’s anything I admire it’s SEOs who manage to retain positions during huge search engine updates. Bouncing up and down and being all over the place on the SERPs can often be down to pure luck.

When you kept your position, you pretty much know you’re good at executing long term strategy. This site does have Metrika installed but looking at the quality of their listings, I’d say they’ve got nothing to hide. The visitors are likely to stick around. The navigation bar is ok and there’s no silly text blocks anywhere. Oh, Yandex Direkt adds are there.

realestate.ru

Jumped 4 positions. This is in my opinion the poorest of the winners. There’s nothing useable above the fold, the search form is rather badly designed. But the listings are good and they’ve made it clear you can also post your own listings. You’ll find some text on the page but it’s not too optimised and size-wise… well, it’s borderline. Could it be something to do with those Direkt ads again? The site does use Metrika.

sob.ru

New entry. Once you’ve stopped laughing at the site name (by the way it’s not an abbreviation) check out the clever little search box. I think it’s really neat. Again, there’s virtually no text, just listings and Yandex ads. The Metrika code is present.

domex.ru

New entry. There are 184 internal links which may sound a lot but it’s mainly listings. The navigation is rather concise and well-designed. The whole page is just endless property ads – quite well formatted too. There’s plenty of CTAs everywhere – post an ad, log in, register. No SEO text anywhere and no Metrika code. Yandex ads? You bet!

MirKvartir.ru

New entry. Another slightly problematic page with not enough going on above the fold. It’s an ad overload but since most of them are served by Yandex Direkt, I guess it’s ok. The heading tags and page formatting is all over the place so I assume cleanliness of code is not one of the ranking factors.

The bad things are outweighed by a nice search form, good listings and some interactive elements. No Metrika code.

bn.ru

New entry. It’s a good page. They’ve tried to place as much important stuff above fold as possible. Clear call to action, facility to post personal ads, 6 ads including a couple served by Yandex. Metrika code is present.

There is no optimised text on the page whatsoever but we can’t say the site lacks content. If you look at the articles and guides section, there’s plenty of text. However, they’ve understood the difference between an informative page and a sales page. Every page on this site serves a purpose. It’s a well-optimised site and if layout now is one of the decisive factors, I think it deserves to outrank MirKvartir.ru and realestate.ru.

So in this niche alone, there were 7 winners, and wait a minute, all of them happen to be Yandex Direkt ads publishers? In the meantime, out of the six loser sites – not even a single Yandex Direkt publisher. Surely just a coincidence!!!

To Sum it up…

…to rank high on Yandex for commercial queries, here are some speculative tips.

  • If you’re concerned about your bounce rates and user interaction, either turn off your Metrika stats to stop feeding Yandex negative signals about your site or better yet try to improve user experience.
  • Sign up to become a Yandex Direkt ads publisher.
  • Rework your landing pages with the visitor in mind. If in your particular niche a potential customer visits your landing page and expects to find a lot of text there, it’s fine, however, in this particular niche, having lots of text on a page is ridiculous and outrageous.
  • Devise some interactive elements so that people stick around. If you’re a real business, act as a real business – give the customer extra confidence by providing phone numbers, addresses, callbacks etc.
  • Make sure you get the call to action right. The page design depends on what you want the visitor to do: make a phone call, buy stuff, submit an email address, click through to another page… It’s what defines positive customer experience and search engines these days are pretty good at spotting badly designed sites.
  • Keep the navigation bars as light as possible. Think about the way link authority flows through various sections and subsections. Yandex seems to like good internal linking structure.

Other Possible Ranking Factors

Yandex uses around 800 ranking factors. As it stands now, in Moscow region for commercial search terms only 100 of them are link-related. They’ve definitely amplified the on-site and usability signals but there must be something else. I also looked at following potential factors:

Social Shares

Although Yandex has revealed they have experimented with social factors and decided to scrap it as no clear signal was obtained (I don’t get it to be honest!), some people in Russia speculate that social metrics might be a small factor.

If you look at my 3 keywords, you begin to think, yeah, the sites at the #1 spot have the highest number of Twitter and Facebook mentions but then as you explore the remaining 9 positions, the social shares are all over the place. This is unusual considering Yandex now has access to Facebook’s data.

Site Size

This might be a factor in ranking commercial results. Before the changes the Top10 results for “buy an apartment in Moscow” contained 5 small sites (page number under 1 million is considered small for a property website). Now, only one small site ranks within Top10. The remaining 9 boast a page number of well over million

Citation

The Yandex CY index is similar to Majestic SEO’s Citation Flow. It’s a method of evaluating the number and quality of citations. Looks like this metric is now totally irrelevant as the #1 site has a CY of 1800 and the #9 site has a CY of 12000.

Bare number of links

Although it might seem that disregarding the relevancy and context of links was a crazy idea, they definitely have some sort of a filter in place. If you look at my spreadsheet, you’ll see that two websites in the real estate sector that have taken the biggest hit had 334,000 links from 9000 IPs and 669,000 links from 4700 IPs. Now in the Top 10 two websites have just a fraction of the number: 78,000/5,400 and 84,000/1,300 respectively. Make sure you check my article on search engine history to see how search engines have evolved.

Page Load Times

It didn’t produce conclusive results, so I assume it’s not a major ranking factor.

Big Chunk of Text Works in Non-Commercial Searches

One of the best examples is this one – it used to rank #5 for “website optimisation” before the changes took place. Now it’s been relegated to #65 and I bet the guy is gutted. He’s spent weeks or maybe even months putting together a 3000-word SEO guide, and a useful guide indeed. So why was he relegated? Again – if you look at the page, it’s not something you expect to see when you type in “website optimisation.”

There is no CTA, no contact details, you can’t order any services, tools or request a callback. So, is this particular piece of content dead? No, it’s just pegged into the more appropriate category.

If you do a search for “для чего нужна сео-оптимизация сайта” (why do you need to optimise websites) – the article ranks #2. So you see, this content is still highly-rated when it comes to non-commercial queries.

So, here’s something for the small guys to consider. Yes, the big money terms are owned by the big brands but they are too lazy to explore the longtail keywords. This is true for both Yandex and Google. SEO is not dead!

What will Yandex do next?

First, it will expand the link-free ranking across more terms in Moscow. Then if the experiment is deemed successful, it might expand nationwide. Next on the line are automotive and financial terms.

Officially, these niches are still ranked with the backlinks considered. Although, to be honest, I just saw some movement in “автострахование в москве” (car insurance in Moscow). Some sites jumped by 4 positions while this work of genius plummeted 48 places from a stable #9 – it does make sense. Would you want to purchase your insurance through this sales page? Oh, did I just call it a sales page?

Conclusion

So, what exactly is this? Is it a failed battle against link spammers? Or is it simply an intricate way of favouring Yandex Direkt ads publishers under the pretext of trying to improve user experience? Whichever it is, I prefer the new search results to the old ones. There is less junk kicking about and that can only be a good thing.

buzzkeeper

Arvid Linde is an independent SEO consultant, award-winning journalist, MSc in engineering, published author and a technology addict. More info on the about page.