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The Russian search engine algorithm, Yandex leak shows that SEO is way more than just content
But content does still matter
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Q: I saw that Yandex had a version of its search ranking algorithm leaked; what does that mean, and what can I learn from it?
Recently Russian Google (Yandex) had a version of their search engine’s ranking algorithm get leaked. This provides some really valuable and exciting insight into what ranking factors Yandex is using to rank their search results.
Yandex is the 5th largest search engine in the world, trailing Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Baidu. Yandex is primarily used by Russian-speaking web searchers.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the leak, so I don’t want to jump on a runaway train and optimize every website in the world to these details, but it certainly does give some fascinating insight into what factors are being considered when a search engine is crawling and ranking web pages on the internet.
Here are a few observations:
Content is table stakes, but it's not everything
Fundamentally your website needs something on it for a search engine to show and rank your web pages. This might include blog content, product pages, landing pages, maps, or whatever.
But what this leak does show is that once you have high quality content, there are several factors that need to be accounted for when optimizing your website, which supports my theory that there are different types of SEO’s with different skill sets. If you want to see more on that, check out my Product-Led SEO vs. Marketing-Led SEO post.
Some SEO’s are great at content and keyword research, and some are more technically inclined. There is a need for both, and having some personal crossover is good, especially at smaller companies where you need to do a bit of everything.
I won’t go into crazy depth about what factors are non-content adjacent, but you can read more about the published ranking factors here:
Yandex focuses on giving users the best results, so that’s how you should focus your SEO efforts
There are plenty of factors for SEO’s to consider when optimizing a website, but one of my major personal takeaways is that everything in the leak is focused on prioritizing the user experience.
In the early days of search engines, Google’s primary tactic (and, in my opinion, the reason it owns the market share that it does today) was to focus on providing an incredible user experience first and then monetize after. Now you could debate if that’s still the case today; though I do believe Google is trying, I think the overall search experience is getting worse.
All this means that Google is most interested in indexing, ranking, and displaying results that best match searcher intent. They spend the largest majority of their time and effort on doing that, though sometimes it inadvertently hurts them or online publishers (I’m looking at you rich results).
So when clients, students, or employers ask me how we can get more organic traffic and rank better in search, the answer is fundamentally this:
Produce high quality content that satisfies user intent.
Everything else is just gravy.
You can certainly get into the weeds about how to paginate multiple blogs or how an hreflang tag works, and I do believe those things matter. But fundamentally, I believe the answer to getting your content to rank better and, therefore, how you can drive more organic traffic, all comes down to providing an incredible user experience.
This leak shows a search algorithm at one point in time, and that’s actually really important.
As we were talking about this leak in my SEO class, a student pointed out that search results changed a lot during COVID times, and that makes sense. The intent behind searches all of the sudden became very different for a lot of different searches.
So while this leak does feel a little like Christmas to an SEO, I wouldn’t over index on the nitty gritty details of how much weight it gives to a particular factor vs. another, because that information is super variable.
I would study the ranking factors in general, and the theory behind the ranking factors.
When the engineers were building this search engine, what were they trying to do? How are they trying to solve the problems they’re seeing?
I think Google operates in much the same way. Google collects a lot of data and can see a lot about searches, it then has a team (or several teams) of people studying that information and trying to draw conclusions. That team runs small scale tests, analyzes data, and solves problems, all in the name of providing value to users.
But the factors they consider and the weight of those factors can change at any time, based on any number of factors.
This is why I chuckle a little when I hear SEO’s are scared of the next algorithm update, because if you’re doing good, not gimmicky, SEO, you shouldn’t be afraid of updates, you should be excited because you’ve been implementing best practices and your site is going to benefit from it.
There’s a lot of good stuff in there
It’s a little tricky to interpret everything yourself, but there are plenty of people who have done deep dives and laid out the ranking factors in plain English.
Any SEO worth their salt should be looking through those factors and asking themselves, “why is Yandex using that?” and then, “is that something I could do better?”
I think the biggest takeaway for me is don’t just write content and expect that it drives quality organic traffic. Focus on high quality content, and then getting that content to the right people in the right ways. You’ll see the efforts pay off over time.