How to Do SEO in Russia? First, You Get to Know the Russian Soul

How to Do SEO in Russia? First, You Get to Know the Russian Soul

Understanding SEO in Russia means stepping into the minds of 143 million people spread across 17.1 million km2 (6.6 million miles), who are fully emerged in their culture. Though the presence of Western trends penetrates all the way from St. Petersburg to the Kamchatka Peninsula, they are transformed accordingly and adapted to fit the local spirit and soul. This is the true “Russian way”.

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Digital marketing in Russia is a world of its own, dominated by local players and customer habits unknown to the West. I stayed in the country for one month summer school, meanwhile interviewing digital marketing specialist and locals to create a post on SEO in Russia.

The first two parts of the article focus on basic facts about the country and will help you deepen the understanding of Russian people and culture. The last two parts are about Russia’s social media and search engine habits. “давайте, пойдём!” [Davayte, poydom] – “Let’s go!” as they say in Russia. 

stalin tower terminal

One of Stalin’s Seven Sisters towers at Leningradsky Station, now a Hilton hotel. Coming to Moscow via train for the first time, this neo-gothic tower makes a powerful impression. Source: Personal archive

A Short Introduction to the Basics

Russia is the world’s biggest country with 17.1 million km2 (6.6 million miles) of land inhabited by 143 million people. Though isolated in its own way, it remains one of the most important economic and political players in the world. Last year it ranked 7th by e-commerce sales revenue, while this year it’s expected that online sales will reach $ 781.30 billion, causing the country to jump on 6th place. The native Russian language dominates both the private and business spheres of communication. The English proficiency rate is low, 34% according to EF English Proficiency Index.

In the past few years the country has experienced rapid internet penetration. Right now the rate is at 71.3 %, counting 102 million people. The reason also lies with the parallel increased usage of smartphones and tablets. In remote places, where internet cables are more difficult to install people will use the internet mostly from their mobile operators. The country is a world of its own also in digital terms. The local search engine Yandex covers 55.4 % of all queries leaving Google on second place. Native social media platforms like VKontakte (VK) and OK (before know as Odnaklassniki.ru) are preferred over Facebook, especially the more east you travel.

A Long Introduction to Russian People and Culture

Entering the Russian digital market means adjusting to a new set of rules, both cultural and legal wise. Do not go in without a proper geographic strategy – which parts of the country are you going to target, Central Russia or the Siberian area? Also, doing business and marketing in Russian is more or less the only way to go. Explain your copywriters which boundaries their creativity should not cross – the internet and marketing censorship rules are one of most meticulous in the world.

What Does it Mean to Be the Biggest Country in the World?

The size of the country is the nation’s biggest blessing and curse at the same time. With its vast landscape and geographical distance from most of Central Europe and Southeast Asia Russia has always functioned as a world of its own. Though such a system does wonders for the progression of national identity and culture, it also fosters a less sympathetic climate for cross-border influences.

I attended an international summer school near Moscow which was all taught in Russian. Fifty percent of the people were from Russia. I thought it a bit ridiculous, but after getting to know the people, I realized that for many of them it was a rare chance to meet a fellow compatriot from the other side of the country. I had friends from Khabarovsk, which borders on China just across the river Amur, there was a guy from Yakutsk, the “ass of Russia” as a friend informed me, and people from the metropolis of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

All this explains why the most powerful internet and social media players are of local origin. Google has become a serious threat to Yandex only a few years ago and most of the country still prefers VK over Facebook. There are also huge differences between people who live in Moscow and St. Petersburg versus Russians who live in other major cities in the country. A general marketing research on Russian consumer behavior won’t help much. After you’ve defined your target group, make sure you cover social media and websites channels which are most popularly used in each of the specific regions.

Just How Important is the Russian Language?

Like water to the ocean, like sand to the dessert. Online or offline, Russian is the main and most important language of communication. In business and marketing circles you’ll achieve little progress, or honestly none, by only using English. If you or your team isn’t fluent in Russia and you don’t plan to master the language, hire a translator or outsource the work to experts who do.

moscow metro

The Moscow metro is a scary place for newcomers. The tunnels are a massive maze and if you don’t read Cyrillic you can get easily lost. Source (picture above): personal archive; Source (picture bellow): Kremlintour.com

And where there’s Russian, there’s also Cyrillic. For my “Latin” mind adapting to the Cyrillic alphabet was one of the biggest challenges. Even when you get a hang of it, there are a handful of phonetic rules, causing certain letters to change their original pronunciation. For example, when the letter O is in unstressed position, it will be pronounced as A. A few years ago it was popular among the younger generations to learn how to read and write Russian in the Latin alphabet. If you’re short on time or still not certain about your Cyrillic keyboard skills, you can communicate via social media in Russian writing in Latin. But only for private or small-scale purposes, not for proper marketing content.

You Might Be Targeting More Than You Think

The dominance of Russian language may slow down incoming business and influences from the West, but Russian is widely spoken in many neighbouring countries. I wrote before that fifty percent of participants in my summer school were Russians, the other vast majority came from former Soviet Republics of the Asian region: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Most of these countries also belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), also known as the Russian Commonwealth. The organization strengthens cooperation in trade, finance and security between member states. This creates an economic zone where Russian serves as the lingua franca.

When you’re establishing online presence in Russia you’ll also attract traffic from former Soviet Republics. People from the above listed countries often use Yandex for searching, especially for online queries in Russian. If you’re in the e-commerce business, it would be worth thinking about offering postage to these countries or keep the fact in mind when planning for future brand development and business expansions.

Any Business Opportunities from Using English?

It’s a bit of a shock when you realize how many people don’t speak or understand English. Russia’s tendency for self-isolation and dominance of the native language creates an environment where English is not in demand. Many people explained that they learned English in school, but it somehow didn’t stick and now they wish it would have. In average people from neighbouring countries would understand and speak better. My fellow Russians students who did know English told me they self-teach through films and language textbooks.

But everyone from the organization staff of the summer school spoke very well. It depends from what kind-of educational and work background people come from. Naturally better the education and qualification, better the knowledge. Also, whether the person is coming from Moscow or St. Petersburg, as the English proficiency rate is higher than in other parts of the country (heck, even the metro declares the stops in English).

Russia map of English proficiency

Regional map of English proficiency in Russia; Source: Ef.com

Having only an English language website version with a .ru domain and all the proper geo-targeting makes no sense. But English speaking Russians might be your window in to the market. If you notice website traffic coming from the country and if you as an e-commerce sites ship to Russia, this is a good chance to observe consumer behaviour. Such customers and visitors carry extremely valuable information such as: type of goods, location, method of payment and shipping. Did you know that most Russian prefer postage by courier as they distrust the national Russian mail service? Packages often get lost and are non-delivered. My friend from Khabarovsk told me her 10-year old son is fluent in English due to internet and social media, times are definitely changing and if you plan ahead you can catch the demands of new generations.

Something For the More Conservative

After getting to know people at the summer school I estimated that forty-five percent were already married or were married at least once. About thirty percent have children. To satisfy minimum statistical needs: there were eighty-five participants coming from various parts of Russia and former Soviet republics, aged from twenty to thirty-five years.

istra monastery

Around 70% of Russians are Russian Orthodox and monasteries are a popular tourist attraction for locals. The church and state are heavily investing in restorations of religious monuments across Russia, such as this one – the New Jerusalem Monastery (Novoiyerusalimsky Monastery) in Istra. Source: Personal archive

Observing social patterns and structures I realized that Russian society is more traditional than what I am used to. As woman I noticed that though Russian women are smart and have strong characters, higher positions in companies and organizations are more or less occupied and reserved for men. This is not surprising as Russia scores very high in masculinity on the Geert Hofstede research scale. While talking with people I noticed homosexuality is spoken about with an unsympathetic connotation. Again, it depends in which circles you’re moving. In St. Petersburg I noticed gay people and couples walking freely around and the atmosphere was generally more open to sexual diversity in comparison to Moscow.

Russia hofstede analysis

Geert Hofstede analysis of Russian society; Source: Geert-hofstede.com

Copywriters Beware – You Won’t Be Able to Pull-off Just Anything

Knowing Russia’s law the above described situation can’t be a surprise. Russia has laws restricting the distribution of material among children which would present homosexuality as being a norm in society, also know as the gay propaganda law. The government’s and legislator’s main motivation behind the creation and acceptance of the law was to protect traditional family values. We already wrote that Russia belongs to countries with high internet censorship rates and that there’s a blacklist of sites, which don’t comply with the Russian Internet Restriction Bill.

Censorship spreads over any kind of publicly distributed material such as advertisements, films, theatre plays, books, magazines and other similar forms of content or media. You’ll always see age restriction label. And we are not only talking about 16+, but I’ve seen 3+, 6+, 8+, 12+ and even 0+. This is of top priority when you creating digital marketing content. If you’re target group are minors then pay special attention to how you will tailor the message, what kind-of language you will use. Three years ago, a law was passed prohibiting the usage of certain swear words in theatres, so you can get the idea of just how sensitive people can be. If your marketing content is on the border-line you’ll also have to plan on which internet sites and social media portals you can post without causing problems.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall Who’s The Fairest Social Media of All?

Russia’s Facebook – VKontakte or simply VK, is the number one social media in the country, having 47 million users. Facebook has only 23 million and is lacking behind the other two popular Russian platforms OK (known before as Odnaklassniki) and MoiMir, both owned by Mail.ru. My friend and social media expert told me she doesn’t use OK, because it’s usually used among people that are 35+ or 40+ years old and that it’s more chat than diary based. From other Western known platforms Instagram has a very strong base, but Twitter not that much.

When it comes to political activism and driving awareness to important social issues the blog site LiveJournal is the place to read and write on, especially popular among Russian journalists and social activist. In April 2017, domestic laws prohibiting criticism of the government and pro-LGBT content forced the site to comply with censorship rules. This isn’t the first time freedom of social media in Russia is under attack. The founder of VK, Peter Durov frequently reported that he refused to hand out personal information of users to the Russian government. After several restructurings of company ownership leading VK to come under the control of Mail.ru, Durov was fired as the company’s CEO. With no plans to retire he founded the messaging app Telegram. Within three years it reached 100 million users worldwide and is the fastest growing messaging tool in Russia today.

Advertising on suitable social media channels depending on your target group is one way to drive business, but my friend Inna Afanaseva told me that:

Russians are particularly sensitive about brand awareness and referral.

She works as a social media specialist for The Union of Theatre Workers of The Russian Federation, where often there is nothing “to sell”. It’s important to posts event photos and videos to sustain an active and consistent image of the brand. She continued:

People are not attracted by direct advertising, but by the spirit and story the brand carries. Russian are skeptical towards new things and are not easily convinced.

You need to use social media to establish a real connection with the target audience, not only to satisfy minimum marketing requirements.

Is Geography the Only Reason Behind VK’s Triumph?


People told me very simple and common sense answers when asked about why they do or do not prefer VK over Facebook. Here’s a collection of the most frequently occurring replies that solve the mystery.

VK is easier to use.

“I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but … it’s just easier to use.”

Many people said the exact same thing. If you make a VK account you’ll be surprised by the simplicity of the design reminding you of Facebook a few years back. Another thing you’ll start to appreciate is VK’s filtering and search algorithm. Unlike Facebook, VK does not force like suggestions based on bought advertising or makes decisions on your own behalf.

VK allows me to upload music plus other files and has less censorship.

“You can find everything on VK. I’m a fan of old horror films and all new and interesting stuff about the genre I find in fan groups.”

my friend Dimitriy Obukhovskiy from Krasnoyarsk told me.

He continued that opposed to Facebook, VK allows you to share large media files and to stream music.

“There’s also a lot of porn out there, the level of censorship is quite low, if you ask me.”

was another useful fact I found out.

VK group chair in a bath

One of VK’s many peculiar groups “Chair in a bathroom“; Source: VK.com

More people use VK.

Why choose a social media that few of your friends or acquaintances don’t have? It’s a “viscous circle”, but surely quality of the platforms contributes to its popularity. Continuing with the trend, VK is also regularly used in former Soviet Republics, especially in Ukraine (though recently blocked), Kazakhstan and Belarus.

I have VK, but Facebook suits me better.

Two social media specialists from Moscow gave me this answer. VK is definitely the to-go social media tool among the younger, teenage population. But, according to my friend, people belonging to Russia’s intellectual sphere will have a Facebook account and will use it more actively than VK. The reason is also to connect with people living in other parts of the world.

Russia’s Internet Wonder Child, or Mother?

It would be impossible (not to say downright stupid) to write an article about SEO in Russia without reserving a section for Yandex. Yandex is Russia’s favourite search engine covering 55.4% of all online searches and rightfully deserves to be named Russia’s Google.

Just like in VK’s case, it’s easy to understand why Yandex is the country’s leading search engine – it was designed especially to satisfy the needs of the local market – searches in Russian language focused on local services and products. Throughout the years Yandex has developed in to much more than just a website. But recently it’s experiencing a decrease in popularity as more people are turning to Google.

arbat street

Moscow’s most popular street – Arbat, rich with history and theaters (and shopping stores and fast food chains). Source: Personal archive

They Don’t Call it Russia’s Google for Nothing

When you say “Yandex” in Russia people have a handful of associations. Like Google, Yandex is a multinational internet technology company offering several types of online services, where Yandex Search is only the tip of the iceberg. Everyone told me that even if they do prefer to search via Google.ru they will usually switch to Yandex Maps to find a specific location in Russia. As you’re average search engine you can specialize the search for videos and images, but in recent years the company has successfully expanded to other services.

Yandex Taxi is the number one taxi booking site in the country. It’s dominance is so strong that even Uber had to eventually fold and decide it’s better to work together than against the local taxi provider. There are fewer angry Paypal users in Russia, beacause most of the clientale uses Yandex Money. The popularity of the service rapidly increased after Russia’s national bank Sberbank bought a controlling share of the online payment service. Suddenly, Yandex Money got access to Sberbank’s infrastructure allowing people to top up their online account via ATMs or the online banking system.

yandex seo do's and dont's

Source: GFluence

The Battle of the Engines

Recent figures are showing steady increase in Google.ru taking the online search share away from Yandex. I was surprised how many of the people I interviewed stated that not only they use both search engines, but they prefer Google opposite to Yandex. One of the main reasons was that Google’s SERP displays less spam. Many people also prefer Google’s minimalist page outline in contrast to Yandex, where the front page functions more as a portal showing current news and weather forecast.

If you’re serious about establishing an online presence in the Russian market, then optimizing for Yandex is a must. Yandex has its own search algorithm, where basic international SEO strategies apply, but with a special twist.

      • Like with Google, also with Yandex content is king. It punishes pages with low-quality content and is extremely sensitive to keyword density. Overusing keywords can cause content being registered as spammy. But, Yandex indexing is extremely slow. It recalculates static pages a few times a month and blog posts several times per day, whereas Google constantly crawls and indexes content.
      • Geo-targeting searches is the most unique function of Yandex as it allows the user to search in a particular location. It checks the queries whether they are geo-dependent or not. For example, if you search for “car dealership (location dependent query)” using the IP of Krasnoyarsk, then the results will belong to the Krasnoyarsk region only. This is important to think about when you’re doing Yandex optimization for your website.
      • Yandex prefers older domains and treats them as more trustworthy. But it doesn’t mean that websites with new domains will never rank high. If the right SEO strategy using quality content and long-tail keywords, then a new site can establish a good presence.
      • In September 2015 Yandex enforced penalties for websites that pay for backlinks through black hat SEO agencies. Like Google, Yandex’s algorithm will only consider natural links as a ranking factor.

Like Google, Yandex wishes to display results which are most relevant for the user’s search query. All basic international SEO principles apply, especially quality and keyword rich content. But knowing how to properly phrase what you want to say in Russian and execute the right digital marketing strategy to reach your target audience is something only an experienced international SEO team can do.

four horse fountain

Standing in front of the Four Horse Fountain in Alexander Gardens near Red Square, Moscow. The summer was unusually cold, even for Russia. Source: Personal archive

Ready to conquer the vast lands of Russia’s online market? Maybe just Moscow or St. Petersburg for a start? Great, that’s why we’re here for! Get in touch and let’s devise the right digital marketing strategy. 

Featured image source: Personal archive

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Polona Golob

Polona Golob

Enjoys a good crossword puzzle and matching keywords is her favorite.

Entries by Polona Golob