Critical Mass on the Russian Internet

The Internet holding Rambler Media is known to every Russian-speaking user of the World Wide Web. It’s the first and the oldest Russian search engine. Search, news, an introductions service, mail on rambler.ru, the famous Lenta.ru, the goods catalogue on price.ru – for many years all these maintained Rambler as the market leader on the net. However, in the last few years, the company has been losing turnover. Certainly, the company has remained in the top three companies on the Russian net – Yandex, Rambler and Mail.ru – but reliance on old projects has become harder and harder to sustain, and fireworks from new ones – except the purchase of a block of shares in the contextual advertising company Begun – have not been remarkable. Their TV channel brought a series of losses, and was consequently sold. Mobile content initially generated decent profits, but then also began to stagnate. This spring, the company witnessed a change of all its top management. We invited one of the new team, Artur Akop’yan, Financial Director for the Rambler Media Group, to an online interview.

1. Can Rambler at last become competitive and marketable? Will it at last be possible to be proud of the company? Why does Rambler, unlike Yandex, not sell a full range of contextual advertising? How are you going to position Rambler?

– Rambler is a multi-service information Internet-portal offering a wide range of opportunities for work, information searching, communication and entertainment in the modern world. Rambler should be a portal that’s convenient and interesting to use every day. As for marketability, the company’s core business, its Internet division, has been profitable for several years already. In the future, we hope to bring you a number of pleasant surprises, so that you can be genuinely proud of us. We see our task as being to retain Rambler’s market position. Our priority is to increase traffic and the number of users, and also to improve the quality of our services.

2. How successful do you consider the existence of the Rambler-TV television channel? Has the investment justified expectations?

– From a purely financial perspective, Rambler-TV was very successful. We sold it at a significant profit (in January 2007 a deal was finalized for the sale of the channel to Prof-Media Holding for $23 million, the initial investment was considerably less). The question of expectations in terms of audience ratings is not so relevant for us now. In 2006, Rambler’s board of directors took the decision to focus exclusively on Internet development and, in that context, the sale of non-core business has been very successful.

3. Right now, hundreds of new companies are trying to “catch the spirit of Web2.0”, to “create a social network”, and are generally full of hope that a start-up in this field is going to garner then success. As a financial expert, and as a representative of one of the leading Internet companies in Russia, could you give your considered opinion on the prospects of such start-ups?

– As far as source of income goes, in a market like Russia’s, the preference for business models connected with profit from advertising is going to be with us for a long time. For Rambler, and for other major players, it will be a long time before other means of attracting income (including direct provision of services), play more than an utterly insignificant role in our financial results. As a financier, when I hear of yet another plan to “create a social network”, the main question that I want to ask is: how deep are the investors’ pockets for this project?

4. I’ve got an idea for an Internet project, but surely if I take it to web-development specialists there’s a good chance that they’ll develop my idea without me, or work with me, but then create a clone, a perfected version, already knowing all the plusses and minuses of my project. How can I protect myself from outcomes like this? What is the minimal sum needed to create an Internet portal from nothing, and are there financial structures that might actually be interested in start-ups?

– As I see it, at the current stage of market evolution, to create an Internet portal from nothing, especially a portal for a large public with a horizontal line of services, is practically impossible, or at least demands the investment of tens of millions of dollars. On the hand, it’s possible to develop a specialized service with the outlay of only a few tens of thousands of dollars. There are investors of that type right now, but, as far as I can tell, there are far more people interested in investing than there are realistic projects. As to your question about the protections of ideas: certainly there is that type of risk, and it all depends of the choice of partner. I should add, however, that it’s very rare to find a project that is genuinely unique, and that offers something that can’t be found anywhere else or can’t be realized by other people.

5. It’s often said today that there’s more money in the Internet than there are interesting ideas, and that all more or less interesting projects are snapped up. If that’s true, then what types of buyer are there around? What kinds of site generate buyer interest? Do the current profits of a project have decisive significance, or are the idea itself and the prospects for development more important?

– It’s almost impossible to give a clear classification of the types of investor. Individual investors can be swayed by current profitability or by future prospects. To answer that question would require separate research. I’d like to warn against following general trends. There has been a lot of talk recently about social networks, about blogs, about instant-messaging systems and Internet messengers. In fact, the market for such resources is already saturated. The pioneers in that market have already had the chance to take the pickings, or to sell out to the biggest players, and further new investment in that type of project is pointless.

6. What do you think about SEO (search engine optimization)? How long will it take for search engines to come up with a personalized information search on the Internet, which will take into account individual requirements, search history, etc. And will that not spell the end for SEO?

– There have been several estimates given recently for the size of the market in search-result optimization. According to some of them, it has reached $50 million dollars per year in Russia and the CIS. It’s a big industry. The battle between the human intellect and search engines reminds somewhat of the chess games with artificial intelligence (the battles between Kasparov or Kramnik and Deep Fritz or Deep Blue). Obviously, search engines are going to get more intelligent and more relevant through personalization (through narrower settings around users’ interests), through more intelligent setting of parameters, through better quality filtration of spam (doorways), and through a host of other algorithms. But it’s a little too optimistic to predict the end for search optimization. It’ll get harder for them, but there will still be opportunities for flashes of human intellect.

7. What do you think of advertising on blogs, and how good are the prospects for this sector?

– It is possible to make money from your own blog, but not much. I would point to three basic means: contextual advertising, hidden marketing and sponsorship. For personal blogs in Russia, as a rule we’re talking about tens or, in the best case, hundreds of dollars per year. As an example, take the recent noisy announcement of a contract between Soup Fabrik and Alfa-Bank ($50,000). Obviously, the commercial potential for that type of project can’t be compared with the opportunities or budgets for media, banner or contextual advertising. There is only really potential for projects that have existed for more than a few years and have a strong original concept with specific content. Good examples are Alex Eksler’s original project, where there are always numerous commercial advertisements. Also, Internet Things, the authors of which are looking for “favorite sponsors”. Secret marketing is, of course, secret, so it’s impossible to point to definite examples of its successful use. Although you could use the example of the recent post on the Norwegian Woodsman’s blog about the Macdonald’s factory. Most bloggers think of him as a hippy. There is an enormous public living in the blogosphere and, undoubtedly, that public is interesting to advertisers. But it’s still questionable whether or not there exist the tools or even the spaces to meet the requirements of those advertisers.

8. How much longer are the prices for banner advertising going to continue rising?

– The Internet in Russia is only just beginning to develop, growth for Internet access penetration is forecast for the next five to six years, but it’s already realistic to talk about the Internet having reached a critical mass to be of interest to advertisers. For now it is only 1.6% of general advertising budgets, while in developed countries that figure is closer to 5-6%. That suggests great potential for growth. Rambler is trying to unbalance the market by unnecessarily increasing prices for advertising. Nonetheless, thanks to the growth in our audience and the increase in interest in our advertising users, we have been able gradually and slowly to increase the price for a thousand displays.

9. What is the growth potential for regional and highly specialized segments on the Internet? Will they be able to escape from the shadow of big-budget projects like yours? As far as I can tell, they have two possible paths of expansion – to stop being targeted or to come under the umbrella of the strongest players on the Russian Internet.

– Highly specialized projects can live very well in their niche, if their concept is in demand. If the project is a copy of some competitor’s and there is a strong desire to beat them, then the deciding factor is really the support of the portal. Regional projects are a different matter. In many respects, they exist in a different world. In fact, it’s less that they need the portals, and more that the portals need them to increase their penetration in the provinces. From an economic point of view, access to regional and to national traffic in the regions is slowly leveling out, although nothing is going to change the fact that local resources know their area better, and that makes them more interesting to local users. The local listings business (a good American example would be Craigslist), undoubtedly has a definite potential. Neither Rambler, nor Microsoft, nor Yahoo! are capable of, or interested in, providing an information resource for the timetable of turning off the hot-water supply in Ussuriysk. And there are users who want not only to take pride in Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, but also to find suburban train timetables for their local station, and cinema listings for their neighborhood. A resource like Rambler should consolidate those resources – through searches, through special projects, and through promotion. But we don’t want to swallow up all regional resources and, what’s more, we can’t.