How does Russia's State Search Engine Stack Up Against the Competition?
Published: June 2, 2014 (Issue # 1813)
On May 22, state-owned telecoms company Rostelecom rolled out the first version of its new search engine, Sputnik. A week later, the engine, which some analysts see as the latest move in the Kremlin's ongoing crusade against the uncontrolled and subversive Internet, has fallen flat.
On the day that Sputnik launched at www.sputnik.ru, it clocked 141,800 searches, according to data from Internet tracking service LiveInternet.ru cited by business daily Kommersant. Not bad for the early version of a government-sponsored service that hopes to compete with Google and local rival Yandex — the two largest search engines in Russia. However, on Thursday that number was down to 16,500. To put this number in perspective, at the end of its first week, Sputnik enjoys .01 percent of Russia's search engine market, according to LiveInternet.ru. By contrast, Yandex has 62 percent and Google 28 percent. Mail.ru, another big Russian Internet company, is distant third with 7 percent.
To be fair, Sputnik is not yet a finished product. It is currently in its "open beta" phase of development, the point at which the service is useable but not yet 100-percent finished. The idea of an open beta is that you allow the intended user to interact with the service to help you identify flaws in the system prior to its official launch.
And Sputnik is not aiming to compete directly with its rivals. Instead, the engine hopes to differentiate itself from Yandex and Google by tailoring its results toward "social services," such as locating medication at the local pharmacy, or comparing gasoline prices at nearby gas stations.
The St. Petersburg Times reviewed Sputnik to get a better idea of how the engine stacks up to its competitors. In an attempt to be as fair as possible, we ran identical Russian-language searches through all three search engines — Sputnik, Yandex and Google — ensuring that the cache was cleared before each query was submitted and that we were logged out of Google and Yandex's services. By doing so, we avoided tailored search results from their advanced algorithms and were able to compare the results as objectively as possible.
Flashpoints and Drug Stores
On Sputnik's launch day, screenshots circulated on Twitter of an obvious bug in the system. Crimea — which became ground zero in a standoff between Russia and the West when Moscow annexed the region from Ukraine in March — was described as "a peninsula in southern Ukraine" in a drop-down menu on the website's main page when users entered its name. This made "Krym," the Russian word for Crimea, a natural launch pad for our Sputnik adventure. On Friday, a full week after the service's launch, Crimea is still described as a part of Ukraine on the drop-down menu on the main page's search bar.
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