Google is a fearsome animal, hungry to eat up all search engine market share in its path. It’s global too, and with huge resources behind it. Imagine then, that you’re the leading search engine in your own domestic market and some nearby neighbors and Google arrives. You wouldn’t exactly be thrilled right?
Then, after a long battle, your market share starts gradually to ebb away, by now you’d also be pretty worried. Do you honestly think that, against all odds, you’d really be able to pick yourself up and make a forceful comeback?
Champions make comebacks. They’re called champions because even when the going gets tough, they still keep fighting back and winning. But it’s not easy and it takes a really thick skin and immense courage.
Yandex – The Comeback Kid
Yandex has made this kind of comeback and last week released revenue figures for 2010 which were truly remarkable. They managed to generate revenue of $410 million last year giving them a annual growth rate over 2009 of 43%. The growth of the advertising market in Russia during that period, according to the Russian Association of Communication Agencies, online advertising growth in 2010 ran at approximately 37% — suggesting that Yandex outperformed the industry average substantially and gained share.
The Russian statistics organization LiveInternet, reported that Yandex’s share of the search market grew by 5.2% to 64.1% just in December 2010, whilst its share of the Ukrainian market rose by 6.2% to 27%.
Comscore also gave Yandex the success thumbs up with significant growth in audience share between November 2009 and November 2010, reaching over 54 million users. So despite starting 2009 a little bruised, Yandex is definitely back and fighting fit.
So how did they do it? How does a relatively small national search engine comeback against Google and what do they have to do? Might there be some lessons that other local and regional search engines might want to consider?
Leveraging The National & Language Advantage
Before we look at more recent developments, we need to recap why Yandex made its way to the top in Russia in the first place. One of the main reasons is Yandex’s focus on the Russian language. Western search engines and algorithms are generally built from English language structures which are then adapted.
This was never the case for Yandex which is descended from a Russian-language indexing project built developed within a company called CompTek — the success of the project led to the formation of the search engine.
Russian is a slavic language which has a particular shape and structure which makes it very different than English — it is definitely not the alphabet itself which causes the issues. Russian verbs also come in pairs and the regularly used ones often don’t even look very much alike — so a search engine would need to understand that “I buy” could be interpreted with different verbs and the meaning behind the phrases would be different but potentially still relevant to the searcher.
In the early days, Google did not do a good job of handling these language differences whilst Yandex did — leading it to grab the preeminent position.
Technology Developments & Partnerships More Important Now
Today, it would be correct to say that Google has worked to correct its early mistakes with handling Russian and has engineers based in Russia who fully understand the challenges of the Russian language. So that means that Yandex can no longer rely on simply “being Russian” to succeed. So what steps have they take to defend themselves?
In fact, when you look into the detail, and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and discuss these issues with Yandex partly thanks to their regular attendance at the International Search Summit, Yandex has been aggressively and consistently been adding and developing new technologies:
- Launches “Matrixnet” machine learning technology which significantly improved its search results and boosted its market share in both Russia and the Ukraine by creating algorithms which “learn” are they are used and have much more complex ranking factors.
- Launches a proprietary website virus and detection system for its users.
- Enables Russian users to limit their searches to foreign websites as evidenced by its experimental site Yandex.com.
- Yandex becomes the first Russian search engine to do deals with both Facebook and vKontakte.
- Opens new sales offices for regional development in Novosibirsk and Kazan.
- Launches “Orange” — its real-time search solution.
- Acquires GIS Technologies and becomes a mapping company. By November 2010, more than 1.5 million people used Yandex’s mobile maps service each month.
- Launches a comparison search engine for banking and finance deals for consumers known as “Amenities”.
- Launches a job site.
- Introduces “Spectrum” which is a method of “guessing” much more accurately the user’s search intent.
- Launches a real estate search service.
Demonstrating Commitment To Russia
There are a number of aspects of the above activity which are probably more important than the rest — the team at Yandex, for instance, believe that “Matrixnet” has had a very significant impact on their success. But probably more important is that the company is fighting on all key strategic fronts and with both many small and large developments.
What the performance figures show as much as the investment program is that Yandex is demonstrating a very clear commitment not to be beaten in Russia. You could argue that the company is also demonstrating the path that “alternate” search engines need to take in order to survive and thrive and it doesn’t involve resting on your laurels.
There are a number of search engines out there, ones that I’m aware of, who would be well advised to study this level of commitment and to consider what they need to add to their business plans to stay in the game. I won’t be naming names but as we say in the UK, “if the cap fits, wear it!”