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Yandex back links as a core ranking factor; it’s a dirty trick that’s been played for years in the commercial web landscape, especially in Russia.

However, back in December 2013, Yandex’s head of web search Alexander Sadovsky announced a shake-up in its algorithm, confirming that Yandex will no longer use back links as a ranking factor for commercial search queries.

This led to a lot of speculation. How is Yandex going to deal with such a major change? What are the repercussions? Which verticals will be more seriously affected by this change?

With this in mind, this article aims to shed some insight on how the update has affected SERPs and how Russian website owners should really deal with it.

In early March 2014, the 'no back link' update went live and Yandex confirmed it will no longer consider SEO links as a ranking factor for half of the commercial terms in the Moscow region.

The limited scope of the update revealed there are still tests to be run on the overall effects on SERPs, stalling Yandex’s decision to go live with the update universally, for now.

So, what does this impact mean for web owners in Russia?

It's been confirmed the change will only affect search queries related to the following verticals:

  • Real estate.
  • Travel.
  • Home appliances.
  • Clothes and accessories.
  • Health and beauty.
  • Legal services.
  • SEO.

The following verticals are set to follow next in the same algorithm update:

  • Automotive.
  • Car rental, taxi and logistics.
  • Construction services.
  • Industrial machinery.
  • Furniture.
  • Finance.
  • Insurance.

Although Yandex did not provide too much information on what’s replaced links as the main ranking factor, we do know Yandex's algorithm uses more than 800 ranking factors, some with more weight than others.

With the main off-site ranking factor now out of the picture, it is certain that on-page and on-site factors will take a prominent role in how Yandex decides relevancy to user's search queries.

In addition to traditional on-page factors like meta data, the following signals will undoubtedly influence its new ranking algorithm:

Usability factors

Improvements on site/page usability results in better user experience and better on-page metrics such as page dwell time and bounce rates.

Similar to how Google factors in bounce rate in the analysis of a page, Yandex sees pages with better usability and user experience as better pages overall - thus giving more authority and importance to that site.

Yandex could potentially use the data driven from Yandex Metrica, its highly popular web analytics package, to assess on-page metrics.

In addition, there are other assets available to Yandex to collect data around page usability such as its browser toolbar and external ISP data.

User behaviour

User behaviour is another factor Yandex has considered in its new algorithm. This is where functional site design, higher conversion rate and better information architecture becomes prominent, demonstrating that CRO and great site architecture helps with a site’s SEO.

Platforms like Yandex Islands allow users to interact with sites in new ways and in some cases permit users to complete a task without the need for visiting a site.

Social signals

Social signals and their influence on search algorithms is another area where Yandex is trying to adapt a similar strategy to other major search engines.

Indexability of content from homegrown social media platform VK.com is somewhat higher than Facebook, due to the fact that Yandex has a long history of working with VK data and its public community pages.

There has been a recent deal between Yandex and Facebook that will certainly pull in another direction of more social signal influence in the search algorithm.

What about new sites with little history?

An obvious question that comes to mind is what about owners of new sites who want to increase visibility in SERPs on Yandex?

New site owners should always bring non-organic traffic to their site so that usability and on-page metrics can be formed for their site.

Relevant advertising traffic, email marketing and offline advertising that leads towards direct or brand based search visits can be valid traffic sources for a new site to achieve a respectable bounce rate and page dwell time.

Will other search engines remove links as ranking factors?

Although it is impossible to accurately predict the answer, I will mention a few points worth keeping in mind:

  • The fact that links are integral to search algorithms is hard to deny. Hyperlinks are fundamental to the web, but their importance in search algorithms has led to a lot of web spam.

    As search engines continue to innovate and remove spam, so will Yandex’s cautious approach to this update. There is no doubt that the algorithm change would require further refinements. 

  • We know that Google has toyed with the same idea and run similar internal tests to remove links as a ranking factor. Their tests concluded inclusion of relevant high quality links as part of the ranking formula still produces better results.

    So, for the time being Google will continue to count back links as an important ranking factor for SERPs. 

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Published 18 June, 2014 by Mohammad Heidari Far

Mohammad Heidari Far is Search Director at Oban Multilingual and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect on Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn

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