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Research: Russian Citizens’ Online Search Behaviour on Yandex during Ukraine invasion

by | May 2, 2022

Wars have never been only about brute force, strategy, or conquests in the physical world. They’re just as much about the information that flows through the masses that influence people’s understanding of what the “truth” is supposed to be. What we see today though is at an unprecedented level: a war in Europe in a time when we have 1.2 million terabytes of data (“information”) on the Internet, readily accessible for anyone with a mobile phone.

That amount of information changes things. Dictators like Putin can impose rules and arrest you for protesting against a war, or imprison journalists that use terms like “war in Ukraine” but they can’t force a nation on their devices to type different things in their search engines than what the people really want to look up. What we search on our Internet Search Engines can tell a lot about us – our state of mind, our frustrations, our beliefs. That’s the basis for the idea behind research.

My goal with this research: So, I’ve created this data resource especially to support journalists and provide them with yet additional data points that can help them peek perhaps a little further behind the walls of Russia, and into the minds of everyday Russians through analysing search trends on Yandex, the largest search engine in Russia.

I’m no politics expert, and nor do I want to pretend to be. I’m someone that looks at Google Analytics dashboards and optimizes marketing funnels for a living: meaning, I’m not qualified to write about global politics. But I have some experience when it comes to studying online behaviour of people. So, I hope better fitting men and women can take the data I’ve assembled in this post and put it to good use in their pursuits of facts-based storytelling.

Methodology of research: All of the data in this research was obtained using Yandex search engine’s analytics tools. Therefore, the search volumes you see below are only on the Yandex Search Engine. These analytical tools within a Search Engine exist for digital marketers that want to access search volume data for Search Engine Advertising (something that virtually every Search Engine offers). Keep in mind the possible limitations of the research, such as the fact that Yandex’s market share in Russia is 50% only and isn’t representative for the whole population with access to Internet, and the obvious limitations behind how search and such a statistical analysis works (e.g. missing sentiment information, causation by correlation bias etc.).

1. Social media platforms popularity in Yandex Search (RU)

Search terms researched:

(RU) Search term(EN) TranslationWhat the data behind the search term’s popularity trend may help answer
ТелеграммаTelegramThere are several reports about Telegram usage rising within Russia because of western platforms getting a ban. How has that influenced Telegram’s popularity in search?
ИнстаграмInstagramInstagram was banned in Russia on 21 March under ‘extremism law’. How many people in Russia have still been looking up about it?
ТИКТакTikTokTikTok has been known to start serving Russian-only content to its Russian users. How has that impacted its popularity in Yandex search?

Social Media Platforms Search Terms Data:

Noteworthy findings:

  • The search terms for all 3 of the platforms are at their highest they’ve been
  • Before the war, Telegram searches used to be around 50% of Tik Tok, but after the war, Telegram has become more popular in search than Tik Tok by ~1 million searches in March 2022
  • Telegram’s search popularity has seen a 200% increase from Jan 2022 to March 2022

2. “Emigration” related search trends in RU

Search terms researched:

Search term
(EN) TranslationWhat the data behind the search term’s popularity trend may help answer
эмиграцияEmigrationHas the Russian invasion of Ukraine motivated some of its citizens to want to emigrate out of Russia, thus increasing the search for information around emigration? And if so, by how much?
переехать за границуMove abroadHow many Russians have been searching for general information about “moving abroad”, during the escalation of the Ukraine invasion vs. before?
переехать в европуMove to EuropeIs there a greater interest amongst Russians to move specifically to Europe since the invasion?
переехать в СШАMove to USAIs there a greater interest amongst Russians to move specifically to the US since the invasion?

Emigration-related Search Terms Data (RU):

Noteworthy findings

  • Emigration search queries on Yandex have increased by 170% from January 2022 to March 2022.
  • Search queries on moving to US increased from January to February this year but went down from February 2022 to March 2022 by 14%.
  • There is a small increasing search trend on both ‘moving abroad’ and ‘moving to Europe’.
  • Although absolute number of searches is low for these terms, we see moving abroad has reached its 1+ year high .

3. Russian state of economy driven search terms

Search terms researched:

Search term
(EN) TranslationWhat the data behind the search term’s popularity trend may help answer
Найти работуFind a jobHas the economic sanctions from the conflict increased unemployment? In context of this research, how is the number of people searching for jobs online affected by the conflict?
Социальное обеспечениеSocial welfareHas the current state of Russian economy left more people needing to turn to and look up social welfare than before the Ukrainian invasion?
занимать деньгиBorrow moneyHow has the current state of Russian economy during the war (including higher interest rates) affected people’s need and interest to borrow money?
Продать долларыSell dollarsRussia’s central banks has stopped its citizens from exchanging currencies. How many Russians are still looking for ways to sell the dollars they have?

Economy-Driven Search Terms Data:

Noteworthy findings:

  • We see that both search terms on find a job and social welfare seem to follow similar pattern in the past 1 year of data.
  • Both terms find a job and social welfare have shown increases from Jan to Feb to March but searches on social welfare have had a steeper increase: 13.6% and 40% respectively. Current volumes for both are comparable to last year peaks.
  • Search term on borrow money has increased by 13% from Jan 2022 to March 2022 but is still a lot below than the high seen in July 2021.
  • Search term on sell dollars has shot up dramatically: 710% increase from Jan 2022 to March 2022

4. Specific Russian search terms impacted by the war

Search terms researched:

(RU) Search term(EN) TranslationQuestions behind the search term
Война на УкраинеWar in UkrainePutin has banned the term “war in ukraine”, how many people are still using this term vs. the supposed “military operation in Ukraine”?
военная операция на украинеMilitary operation in UkraineHow many people are searching with the official ‘military operation in ukraine’ phrase as a search term?
Алексей НавальныйAlexei NavalnyAlexei Navalny is the most widely known opponent of Putin. How has Putin’s war in Ukraine affected his popularity in search?
Мянниковаарина ОвсянниковаMyannikovaarina OvsyannikovaMyannikovaarina Ovsyannikova is the journalist that held up anti-war sign on national television in Russia, reaching millions of people. How many people did she influence enough to look up her name on the Internet within Russia?

Data on Other Search Terms on Topics Impacted by War

Noteworthy findings:

  • Although the term “war in Ukraine” has been banned, the searches for this term are 1045% higher than for the term “military operation in Russia”
  • The search term popularity for Alexei Navalny, the leading opposition of Putin, has seen a 109% increase in popularity from Jan 2022 to March 2022 but it is still 77% lesser than its 1+ year high in Jan 2022.
  • There were 742K searches on Myannikovaarina Ovsyannikova within Russia after she held the “anti-war” sign in Russian media

The end!

Do you have any ideas on what other terms or topics I should include? Don’t hesitate to contact me and offer suggestions. I plan to update and enrich this study over time and make it more extensive if it helps the cause. Or, would you like to have the source data in CSVs & screenshots of how the data was extracted from Yandex? Again, don’t hesitate to reach out, introduce yourself and I’ll happily oblige.