Three weeks have passed since Yandex had released their new ranking algorithm “Minusinsk” – the new algorithm which may turn paid links into a negative ranking signal for all types of queries.
So far just a few hundred sites have been affected by the Minusinsk link penalty, but Yandex promise we will see more. Among the first victims there were several very big Russian sites, such as one of the largest electronic stores Holodilnik.ru and a number of well-known digital marketing agencies. Of course, this news have shaken the Russian SEO society and raised a lot of questions among international SEOs as well.
Last week I had a pleasure to meet Alexander Sadovsky, Head of Search at Yandex, at Yandex HQ in Moscow and had a chat with him about link-related penalties and organic rankings in the new era of Yandex SEO.
Minusinsk has been live for several weeks now. Are you happy with the results?
Alexander: A year ago we did an analysis of all links in Russia and we saw that about 74% of them were paid links. When we removed the links from our ranking formula, we hoped that people would stop buying links and focus on improving their sites, but we didn’t see the effect of it coming fast enough. After one year the amount of paid links only decreased by 14%. With this speed we would have to wait for five or more years until paid links would disappear.
After sending notifications about upcoming penalty, about 37% of selected for the first wave of Minusinsk sites had removed paid links. There were other sites that heard about the penalty and removed links without being notified. Generally we are happy with the first results.
A lot of people worry that if they stop buying links, their positions in organic search will decrease. In reality, removing links is safe. For those, who removed the links before the first wave of Minusinsk, positions did not decrease and in some cases even increased (because other sites went down).
How do you define a paid link? What factors do you look at?
Alexander: We do it in the same manner as ranking – we use machine learning and there are a lot of factors. We have a huge set which we use as a leaning sample, and this learning sample is made based on services that sell links, manually bought links and good natural links. Looking at these two set of links the algorithm determines how powerful the factor is.
There are a lot of factors that define a paid link – from source and destination to the age of the link, anchor text and how it is used etc.
Is the penalty manual or automatic? How are the sites selected to be penalized?
Alexander: The penalty is automatic. We sort all sites that have large amount of paid links and/ or large share of paid links in their backlink profile. The sites that end up high on this list risk being affected by the penalty.
When the penalty is lifted, does the site return to the same positions or not?
Alexander: Not. It is a social process: people should get used to the thought that paid links are evil and the evil is punished not for one day, but for a longer time. The period, when the site will be lowered in the search results is a few months, up to half a year.
Do you foresee an increased risk of negative SEO? How do you protect the innocent from evil competitors?
Alexander: This is quite a popular question. There are a lot of factors that we use. For example, we see the age of links as a very powerful factor. If the link has been live for several years, we can be quite sure that the links are paid by the owner and not by a competitor, who was hoping that one day Yandex will create algorithm Minusinsk.
Is it possible to achieve high rankings for competitive terms without links at all?
Alexander: Yes. The number of factors that are used in the ranking formula is more than 800, and over 700 of them are not connected with links in any way. In most cases these factors are enough to rank correctly, especially in popular topics.
If you were to name top 3 ranking factors in Yandex algorithms, what would they be?
Alexander: In the very early history of Yandex, when we started using machine learning, we were often asked what are the top ranking factors, and that is why during the next few years I looked at the top regularly, and I discovered that the top is changing. Because Internet is changing.
For example, one year there were two content-related factors in the top 3. Another year there were behavioural factors, and so on.
The only trend that we saw is that the amount of powerful link-related factors in the ranking formula became lower and lower. Ten years ago there were seven or eight link-related factors in the top 10, five years ago – only three factors, and now it is zero.