Despite the utter dominance of one company in much of the world, online search continues to be a field that throws up lots of interesting developments. Sure, many of those are coming out of Google itself – it feels like many people still haven’t realized how grand the firm’s Knowledge Graph ambitions are – but Mountain View isn’t the only source of search innovation.
Take Russia’s Yandex, for example. The company, which has serious data-wrangling chops and a majority share of the Russian search market, just launched a new feature that it calls “islands.” You know Google’s rich snippets – those chunks of information that webmasters can have show up as part of their listings in results pages? Islands are like those, only dynamic and interactive instead of static and purely informational.
Here’s how these islands work. Let’s say the user searches for “Moscow Berlin air tickets.” A normal search result will link to an airline’s website. A rich snippet will also present direct links to the airline’s booking or special offers pages, perhaps along with the airline’s telephone booking number and its opening times. An island, or interactive snippet, could present a form through which the user can check into their flight online or begin the booking process based on real-time data – right from within Yandex’s search results.
How about booking a doctor’s appointment from a results page?
Fighting apps with functionality
“We are in a world where search engines are evolving and need to compete with mobile applications,” Yandex CTO and co-founder Ilya Segalovich explained to me. “Mobile apps have a very focused way for the user to get what they really need, to buy a ticket or find a hotel … With this interface, we believe our web search will become more interactive and closer to the end-point of the user destination.”
Using this mechanism, webmasters could in theory allow entire transactions to be conducted within Yandex’s search results page. That said, there are numerous data protection considerations to be taken into account here, and Segalovich said Yandex didn’t expect many sites to dive in quite so drastically, at least not at this early stage. If they opt to have Yandex send users to their sites, the information gathered up until that point can be used to prefill sections on an on-site booking form.
“What we are going to do is we will provide for an open – which means indefinite – spectrum of queries, classes of queries,” Segalovich said. “What we do in our islands, basically we support Schema.org actions as part of our framework… it’s just a natural way of moving into the future.”
As for which future Yandex is targeting, a heavy presence in Turkey is definitely top of the list. These new dynamic snippets are rolling out there first, before targeting Yandex’s other strongholds of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The reason Yandex has such a heavy presence in Russia and neighboring countries is of course its focus on the local language – Russian is a complex tongue and specializing in interpreting its inflections has clearly paid dividends. But what about English-speaking countries?
“Talking about the English-speaking world, we do have a significant database and rather good search quality, primarily because part of our audience in all the countries we serve need English-language information and need English-language queries answered,” Segalovich said. “But we understand also that, with a company like us, if we want to go to some other market we have to be very focused on a particular market. If we go somewhere we go one country at a time.”
In device terms, incidentally, the new feature is rolling out on Yandex’s desktop search first, with mobile lined up.
It will be very interesting to see how many webmasters take up this offer and how they use it – Yandex is stressing that it’s totally up to them to decide what information shows up in these islands. If sites do bite, though, thanks to Yandex’s use of industry standards there’s also every chance that we will see similar functionality show up in rival search engines.