TechCrunch has learned that Russia search giant Yandex is to switch from using yandex.ru as its main front page for Russian-speaking users to ya.ru -- a less trafficked domain it's owned since 2000 that, historically, has only hosted a basic search engine page.
Imagine if Google decided to de-emphasize google.com in favor of a less popular domain it also owns and you'll get an inkling of how big a shift this looks to be for the Russian internet landscape. (Albeit, a fuller comparison would be if Google News was the main page used to reach its search engine and the company decided to shift to emphasizing the more minimalist google.com search portal instead.)
We understand the shift relates to Yandex's recent announcement that it's selling its flagship media products, news aggregator News and blogging recommender platform Zen -- a divestment that followed hard on the heels of the Kremlin's decision to invade Ukraine.
The war has led to a ramping up of censorship inside Russia that's made media ownership far more politically risky business than it used to be.
Yandex's business hasn't been sanctioned by the West but two of its execs have been hit with EU sanctions in recent months following critical analysis of the role its platform plays in amplifying Kremlin propaganda -- so the company remains under pressure to find ways to de-risk its ops while continuing to operate inside Russia. (Hence, for example, a recent update to its Maps product that simply erased national borders.)
Today a very subtly redesigned version of ya.ru has emerged which adds a weather icon and a button pointing visitors to other Yandex services.
Yandex has owned the ya.ru search engine page in parallel with the richer yandex.ru portal for decades but the former has been left essentially untouched -- while the latter evolved into an eye-assaulting info/propaganda hub for Russian-speaking users via the integration of Yandex's media products.
The updated ya.ru page now features the word 'search' -- albeit inked in grey, meaning it's barely visible -- displayed above the search bar. And while the page still contains yards of white space there are subtle signs of revived interest in an underdeveloped domain. Albeit it still remains a far cry from the information-dense look of yandex.ru where content from the News aggregator saps attention via a bottomless-scroll feed.
The slightly 'new look' ya.ru search page (Screengrab: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch)
Contacted about the changes to ya.ru, a Yandex spokesperson confirmed the update, which they said is the first time the page has been updated in 22 years. They also said more changes are coming -- telling us: "We plan to redesign the ya.ru page and release a new mobile app. The focus will be on search and Yandex virtual assistant Alice. We'll share details later."
The spokesperson declined to answer further questions but sources familiar with the matter confirmed the changes to ya.ru relate to the sale of News and Zen. Our sources also told us that Yandex plans to focus on ya.ru from here on in -- suggesting the search engine page will become its main front page in Russia.
The shift of focus -- and what looks like a return to Yandex emphasizing its technological roots -- aligns with the company's desire to move away from being perceived as a media company in its home market, with all the political and economic risk that now entails.
What this shift of emphasis means for continued development of yandex.ru isn't clear. But since the eponymous portal page hosts media products that Yandex is in the process of selling it could augur a more material shift linked to the deal.
Back in April, the Russian tech giant agreed to sell its two media products, News and Zen, to local social media giant, VK. We understand final sign-off on the deal terms is expected early next month.
As we've reported before, it's not clear how the operational terms of the deal will finally shake out -- given how embedded the media products are on yandex.ru.
Yandex also agreed to a corporate restructuring in 2019 that increased Kremlin control over the business. And given the key role the yandex.ru homepage plays in amplifying Kremlin propaganda domestically -- as a result of the embedded News aggregator which, per state internet rules, is only able to link to licensed media sources, thereby allowing Putin's regime to use legal strictures to shape the domestic online news narrative -- it's possible to envisage the regime applying conditions to the sale.
Speaking to TechCrunch back in April, Grigory Bakunov, a former deputy CTO at Yandex recounted how engineers at the company previously considered shuttering the News product as the Kremlin sought to increase its control over the online news narrative -- but, ultimately, missed their opportunity to kill the product before the state completed a 'virtual takeover' of the algorithmic feed, in 2017, when it passed a law that news aggregators could only use state-approved sites as sources.