About the author: Denis Savelyev is head of Russian SEM & content marketing agency Texterra, an expert and expositor of content marketing ideas in Russia and a columnist for specialized periodicals including Forbes.ru.
I’ve been into runet SEO marketing for a long time. For quite a long time I’ve been reading publications and blogs on this topic in English, too. And the more I read them, the more I’m surprised at how different our approaches are. In this article I’d like to discuss and compare the distinct features of search engine marketing in Russian- and English-speaking search engine marketing practices.
Search engine diversity
The absolute dominance of Google within the English-speaking Internet is obvious. Runet has Yandex as the main supplier of its organic traffic and even though the contribution of Google to the Runet is constantly growing, small and medium-sized businesses (the main seekers of SEO services) still neglect Google. Everyone wants to get promoted through Yandex.
What are the consequences of Runet based sites preference for Yandex? To answer this question you’ve got to know the difference between Yandex and Google – more specifically, between the way search engine promotion works in each case. In the 2000s search engines had roughly the same attitude to spam link building techniques (that is, buying links from special brokers). WHAT DID THEY HAVE THE SAME ATTITUDE TOWARDS? 2007 was when the Runet saw the appearance of a link broker sape.ru whose profit’s soared really fast. Even today search marketers still spend significant amounts of money on buying links. The reason they do so is mainly because there are no penalties for Page Rank inflation in Yandex. While Google developed and launched its anti-spam algorithm, Penguin, targeted at websites that buy links, Yandex has it the other way round: it punishes those who sell links (the cluster of penalties is referred to as ‘AGS’ and is informally known in Russian as “anti-bullshit site”). So you risk nothing by buying links, only the sellers get punished, the most impudent of them. At worst, the links you bought won’t work (because the sites may be under a penalty), and at best, buying links will lead to success and a higher rank in search engines.
Here’s the interesting part. The advent of Penguin in the Runet wasn’t nearly as dramatic as for the rest of the Internet. Many website owners didn’t bat an eyelid. They only needed to see ranking growth in Yandex. I was astonished: those sites didn’t get traffic from Google at all and no one seemed to care. Unfortunately, this approach is still quite widespread in the Runet.
Link brokers and networks
The leading link broker Sape.ru was growing like a weed. As a result its majority share was acquired by Roman Abramovich (fall 2013). Some experts estimate total value of this link broker as 3–3,5 billion rubles as of the date of sale (currently equivalent to $85–100m). But there is more to come. Right now this link broker service is apparently not the most profitable in the SEO world. The biggest market share holder is Seopult.ru, a kind of super network binding many other link brokers together. A popular Russian business newspaper “Kommersant” recently wrote about this service mentioning its profit for the last fiscal year – $53 mln.
Apparently, there are no link brokers of a similar level for Google as Google simply didn’t give them any chance to grow. Still, this is not the point. No matter what Russian SEO market players themselves could tell you, in reality most agencies and their clients see SEO as nothing but link building. The biggest part of their promotion budgets has continually been spent on buying links from brokers like Seopult. And this is really frustrating.
In December 2013 at the IBC Russia conference Alexander Sadovsky, Head of Web Search at Yandex, announced that in 2014 they will no longer use links in their ranking algorithms specifically for commercial queries in Moscow and the Moscow region. On the 12th of March Sadovsky made a show of removing the links from Yandex ranking algorithms at the Bynet Week conference in Belarus. Actually this didn’t affect every topic. At the same time Yandex still has not announced exactly which link ranking factors have been dropped. Right not the whole SEO market is in limbo. There are talks about working not just with link factors, but the market remains sluggish. Budgets are still being spent on buying links.
Why there isn’t a shift?
So, buying and selling links was taken de facto as being synonymous with the Russian SEO market up to this March. Even today some people still believe it’s true. The important part links played in site ranking made the customer/contractor relationship pattern in Runet very different from what the rest of the SEO world has to date. Most of the reputable British and American agencies work as pay-per-hour consulting services. A Russian SEO agency gets paid when it reaches the desired goal, i.e. to make a site top ranked. This is how most of the agencies work. Though over the last few years the number of contracts of this type has been decreasing. The new trend is to take into account the amount of search traffic and even ROI based on organic traffic. Today, when it’s becoming more and more difficult to predict the amount of time and money for the search promotion of a certain query, the harder it is to get paid per key phrase put to the top of search results. Nevertheless, this scheme is still very popular in the Runet.
Clients just don’t want to take a practical view of the changes. They got used to having top position in search results after not spending very much money buying unnatural link building only few years ago. Today most customers (small and medium-sized businesses) are not ready to pay for complex website promotion or high-quality content. We offer mainly complex website promotion including usability and improvements in behavioural ranking factors. And we constantly have to compete with agencies dealing only with link buying. It’s one thing when you’re working on on-page optimization, but it’s another when you perceive SEO as just link building by means of link networks. On-page SEO requires professional human resources. You have to be good at composing a semantic core, creating inspiring content, promoting and delivering it. Link building is far cheaper. You just have to buy links from a link broker. Moreover, it was very effective in obtaining search engines results for a long time, too! Agencies dealing with both content marketing and on-page SEO had a hard time competing with those Agencies only buying links. Customers don’t want to delve into the details, they can’t grasp why our price is higher. Though we have to admit, the situation is beginning to change for the better, but slower than we would like it to.
Purchased unnatural links have been working less and less effectively in Yandex, and Google puts a site under a Penguin penalty for these practices. Do you think this led to the growth in SEO service price? We did, too, but were wrong. The market is a complete shambles. Whilst some simply buy links and call this “SEO”, others actually work on creating and promoting quality content for a site and call this SEO too. But most customers do not see any difference. The 2000s spoiled them. They want it cheap and fast.
The issue of implementing content marketing in Russia
I am a hot gospeller of content marketing in Russia. Our agency did, in fact, coin this term in Russian. We’ve been doing it since the 2000s — though we didn’t know then what it was called. I know really well that this method works, and that it works very effectively (for example: we don’t buy links at all and have one of the most visited website among Russian Internet marketing agencies. It’s all thanks to content marketing). I keep publishing materials on content marketing in Russian media and communities; I’ve also started to deliver reports on our content marketing cases at different conferences. And here’s what I can tell you. The situation is drastically changing. This year witnessed a great surge in interest in content marketing as a method of attracting clients in Russia. But those who are interested are only market players and international companies that have offices here. Small and medium-sized businesses still do not feel like implementing content marketing. Though they begin to get curious, and that’s something.
Three years ago I gave a speech at a conference on content marketing efficiency. That was a total failure, the audience didn’t get it. Sorry, what? Having your own editors? Creating inspiring content? Spending money on guides and infographics? Who the hell needs that? What we need is higher Yandex and Google ranking!
Since then, I’ve been recalling that report of mine with a smile. It was a good lesson for me. When you’re the head of a Russian content marketing agency, you should have patience. And it seems, our time is coming.