The Wild Wild East: Report on Search Engine Marketing in Russia

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The Russian Internet is one of the most active developing sectors of the global network, with the number of Internet-users and resources spent on Internet advertising growing dramatically. By the end of 2006, the number of Internet-users in Russia had risen to 26 million; by the end of 2007, analytics have predicted more than 30 million users. Annual growth is between 13% and 20%.

Numbers such as these are often quoted in keynote addresses of a number of annual SEM conferences that take place in Moscow, the largest of which include:

  • Russian Internet Forum – 2,200 members
  • Search Engine Optimization and Site Promotion on the Internet – 1,200 members
  • Internet and Business – 1,500 members
  • E-Target (on Internet-advertising) – 500 members

While visiting these events, it is clear a lot of money is making its way into this marketplace, but not in a very “civilized” manner. In fact, SEO in the Runet* strongly reminds us of the era of the Wild West in the US, where cowboys roamed the range and bad guys counted on their “quick draw” techniques. How are these two disparate situations similar?

  • high risks,
  • high profits,
  • high “death rate” and regeneration of new competitors (at least 2 newbies appear in the place of an SEO who has left the business),
  • little or no scrutiny of work methods,
  • many other factors that could be good or bad, depending on your point of view.

(*The Runet – the Russian-speaking sector of the Internet, where people from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and other countries work.)

The market for such events are the professionals involved in SEM, who ultimately determine the path it will take. Others – optimizers, copywriters, and other specialists – follow the trends, coming to Moscow each year to learn what the latest techniques are. Clients of SEOs attend as well.

From November 15-16, the sixth annual “SEO and Site Promotion on the Internet” conference took place in the Radisson SAS Hotel (Moscow). Over the last six years, the conference has grown from 200 people in the year 2000 to 1,200 in 2007 – a six-fold increase in attendees. It is significant that at some point the conference evolved into a learning environment for clients, as well as SEOs themselves. In 2007, attendance was roughly equal between SEOs and clients of SEOs.

The conference is a rather academic event. For the past six years, the themes for the discussions have evolved into a number of areas that cover the Russian SEM market neatly from different positions:

  • Runet SEO in Numbers (Market Research)
  • Who Do We Work For (Search Engines and Pay-Per-Click Advertisement)
  • Strategies and Services
  • Attitudes Towards Clients
  • The Market in the Future (Trends)

Let’s look at the discussion that has taken place surrounding each of these themes.

Runet SEO in Numbers (Market Research)

Search engine optimization experts began to track data on SEO about four years ago, thanks to the work of Ivan Sevostyanov (director-general of Webprojects.ru). Trends in the market are determined by relatively few companies, but (as Sevostyanov’s research has shown), numerical superiority belongs to freelancers and amateurs. According to his estimates, nearly 200 companies and 2,000 freelancers work in the market today. Three years ago, there were only 300-400 people involved. It is significant to note that each year the increase in new companies and freelancers in the SEM market is nearly 30%-40%.

According to what we currently know, the average freelance SEO is a young male (up to 35 years old), with SEO experience of less than one year, a technical education, and $750-$1,000 in monthly revenue. (For comparison purposes, the average monthly salary in Russia is about $550.)

Money spent in the Russian SEO market from 2006 until September 2007 was about $100 million. Spending on media and PPC advertising was about $210 million in 2006. Link purchasing expenditures were between $30-$60 million (depending upon which statistical analysis you rely upon).

The average cost of an SEO project is $500-$800, although some cost up to $2,500 or more.

Researcher Ivan Sevostyanov’s forecast for Russian SEO in 2008 includes:

  1. A relatively stable increase in the number of competitors until 2010.
  2. The Google audience in Russia will grow at the expense of the Yandex audience.
  3. Search engines algorithms will become more complicated, and promotion methods will improve and become more standardized in response.

PPC advertising requires its own discussion. According to the MindShare Interaction estimations, the Russian market for Internet-advertising will be 2.2 times larger in comparison with last year and will reach $260 million. The Runet leaders in this market are also Russian – Yandex Direct (from the leading search engine in Russia – Yandex – and also shows data from the search engines Gogo.ru, Mail.ru, Aport.ru) and the independent system Begun (controlling shares held by Rambler).

Percentage of PPC Ad Market by Search Engine

Yandex.Direct – 50%
Begun – 28%
Google AdWords – 22%

Source: MindShare Interaction

For more details, see the article in the Fall 2007 issue of Search Marketing Standard, “Russian Online Search Market,” Alexey Iakovlev (the Director of Russian Distance SEM/SEO Courseportal SEO-Study.ru).

Who Do We Work For (What Search Engines Do We Optimize Sites For)

What search engines should we optimize a client’s for? In the Runet, this question has been irrelevant for the past six years, since the Russian search engine Yandex has been the clear leader in search traffic since 2001.

The basis of most Russian commercial traffic is Yandex. There are almost no SEO companies providing separate optimization for other search engines such as Rambler or Google.ru. It`s a bonus if you have a good position in the SERPs of these engines, but if not, no one is overly concerned.

This is understandable since the combined market share of Rambler and Google for the last three years has scarcely reached half of the Yandex search traffic. Nevertheless, the representative of MSN-Russia declared at the conference that in three years MSN.ru will take third place among search engines. For now, however, its share is less than 1% of the total.

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Figure 1. The dynamics of the changing proportion of the Yandex, Rambler, and Google share of the overall Runet search traffic (according to Liveinternet statistics).

The opinion exists that Yandex users are rather young and inexperienced, while Google is a search engine for more sophisticated users. Over the last two years, one of the big questions troubling SEOs has been when Google will begin to influence the Runet – it happened this year.

Vladimir Dolgov, the head of Google-Russia, said in an interview for “Business” journal: “Google has come to Russia not without purpose – now it`s one of the most dynamically developing markets, growing by 20%-30% per year. It is clear that Google in Russia will mainly sell PPC-advertisements. Besides that, we need to popularize Google and increase its share and the share of Google products: Gmail (email provider), GTalk (messenger), and others. Moreover, the Russian location will differ from most local Google offices, because it will have its own development center.”

The Google audience has already increased by 70%. Among the three leading search engines, only Google has increased its audience, rather than losing numbers. Google has increased the number of “Russified” products it offers, such as Gmail and “Questions and Answers.” A powerful move was – for the first time in Google history – the use of ad campaigns in the media. The search engine ordered banner ads for its search engine and paid to run them on large Runet sites.

banner.JPG

Figure 2. Example of banner ad on www.menu.ru.

Google also spread the word offline, becoming a sponsor of MAKS-2007 (8th International Aviation and Space Salon).

Besides these advertisements, the increase of the use of Google results from many online newbies who have just been linked to the Internet and a significant number of users who typically search in more than one engine.

The situation with SEM for Google in the Runet has been stable for some time. When speaking of optimization and marketing for Google, it goes without saying that we speak of English-speaking sites. At this time, there is little to no promotion of Russian-speaking sites especially for Google.ru.

The considerable difference between the working algorithms of Yandex and Google algorithms provides a relative differentiation of results for commercial searches in Russian, such as “air conditioners,” “immovable property,” or “tourism.” Overall, however, Russian SEOs who have skills in SEO for Google prefer to work for foreign clients, because of financial reasons. The situation is unlikely to change in the near future.

Strategies and Services

Today the structure of the services provided by Russian SEOs shows how weak the organization of the industry is. Russian SEOs portray themselves as a “many-handed octopus” or a “wide-profile specialist,” but in a bad sense of the term. He or she provides copywriting, optimizes sites, makes sites usable, sells banner ads, and may also be involved in PPC advertising.

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Figure 3. Services provided by freelance SEOs and SEO-companies (according to “The Runet SEO Market in 2007 Research,” Webprojects.ru)

A rather large part of consulting services are provided because of a potential client’s lack of awareness of the question of effective products and services promotions via the Internet. Corporate SEO basic training is provided, but usually as a one-day seminar for 10-20 people. There are also distance SEM courses, such as SEO-Study.ru, but even so, there is not enough training for the tremendous inflow of new users.

Speaking of strategies, due to link ranking taking priority over text relevance in Yandex algorithms, most SEO strategies revolve around inventing new ways to get backlinks which are indexed by search engines.

These methods include direct link purchase from a site’s owner or by using exchanges, creating your own mini-network, registration in catalogs (usually free), and purchase of pages for placing links. Purchasing links through exchanges leads in terms of effectiveness, speed of getting results, cost, and required work.

Of note is that the Yandex search engine still does not pay any attention to the NoFollow attribute.

In general, during the year 2007, paid promotion methods in Russia were led by the selling and purchasing of links from minor site pages though link exchanges. People in the Runet spend $5 million monthly on sponsored links.

The selling and purchasing of links from larger sites is also practiced, but is less prevalent due to the limited number of sites that sell such links.

Overall, the methods that guarantee success and top positions in search results are automated as much as possible, even including the automatic placing of articles.

Text optimization has receded into the background. Social media optimization, peaking in other markets, is hardly used in practice.

Attitudes Towards Clients

We mentioned that nearly 50% of conference attendees were consumers, i.e., clients of SEM. A representative of that group presented a report.

Inga Skvortsova, Director of Marketing in the Kliff legal company, presented the report titled “Is It Worth It To Buy A “Pig in a Poke?” As a client of SEM, in her opinion of the situation Inga mentioned four factors that help her to choose companies to work with. She believes these criteria are followed by the majority of SEO consumers in the Runet.

  1. Reputation of the contracted company;
  2. Attitude towards client (speed of response to business requests, willingness to visit client’s office, etc.);
  3. Guarantee of results;
  4. Agreed-upon budget.

Moreover, Inga mentioned the pitfalls she faced when choosing SEO companies:

During the negotiations:

  • standard presentation of own company and absolute lack of interest in client`s company
  • use of complicated and unintelligible terminology
  • pattern proposals – “we know better,” “we have worked with this industry, and they`ve reached excellent results, so we`ll do everything in the same way,” etc.
  • slight degree of price blackmail – “we know you’ll come back, but the price will be 20% higher.”
  • guarantees for perfect results without mentioning timelines (after three months or six months?

In the contract:

  • refusal to include main body of keywords in the contract
  • absence of description of results or a very complicated description in the contract
  • absence of the SEO company`s liability (accounting periods, time constraints, etc.), but very clearly described client liability (e.g., payment and penalty fees)
  • special terms if contract is rescinded by client’s initiative (e.g., six months payment after the cancellation)

During the work:

  • after the client signs the contract with the individuals who were there during the negotiations and promised so much, those individuals are no longer within your reach. Instead, you receive an email stating that “Now Manager X will work with you.” But this “Manager X” is not someone you know and it’s unlikely you will become acquainted with him
  • you can expect to be able to connect with them only just before a payment is due
  • you get reports about your site positions or about traffic without any accompanying comments or consultations

Inga also presented the following table, which shows the difference between the client’s plans and the goals the SEO has for optimization.

Client Plans

Optimizers Promise

Increase in calls from the site

Top 10 position in Yandex, Rambler, Google for the search terms

Increase in requests from the site

Increase in search traffic

Increase in sales

Isn’t mentioned

Lower cost per client

Isn’t mentioned

In my opinion, it is a good idea for clients to clearly tell SEOs what they are expected to provide. This trend should be analyzed in other conferences.

The Market in the Future (Trends)

The tendency of increasing use of PPC advertisements has been noted. In 2006, it outpaced media advertisement. Many companies are also beginning to think of offering web-analytics as an extra service for clients.

PPA (Pay Per Action) models are taking root in PPC advertising, as well as in media ads through viral marketing and video ads. A lot of attention is being paid to User-Generated Content (UGC) models, where the user generates site content on his own on social networks and the like.

The mobile search market still has not been integrated, but the quick increase in the popularity of wireless handsets makes it a lucrative area with significant prospects.

From our point of view, we see companies stepping back from direct service selling and moving more to the consulting model. The role of analytics (consulting in SEM) should increase.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we would like to say that Russian conferences have surely become more interesting and useful with each passing year, both for competitors and clients. Foreign SEO players who want to extend their business to the Russian market visit these conferences too. Unfortunately, there are not many foreign participants as yet, but we think their numbers will increase. Representatives of foreign SEM companies will attend, bringing with them reports and sharing their experiences, while collecting the information they need about working in the Russian sector of the Internet.

About the Author

Andrey Milyan was the first editor-in-chief of Search Marketing Standard, the leading print publication covering the search marketing industry. He has been following and reporting on industry developments for over 10 years. Andrey now works in the paid search sector of a prominent search marketing agency.