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After ‘One Year In Orbit,’ Russian Search Engine Sputnik Finds Few Users

  • Tom Balmforth

The original Sputnik.

The original Sputnik.

MOSCOW -- Russia's new search engine hasn't found many users.

Created a year ago as part of a Kremlin effort to exert more control over the Internet, the search engine was given the high-flying name of the Soviet satellite that beat the United States into space in 1957: Sputnik.

Sputnik's home page shows happy Russians releasing balloons into the sky and celebrates "One year in Orbit!"

But after an initial surge shortly following its debut, visits plummeted and have hovered close to ground level as the anniversary came and went.

Sputnik clocked over 400,000 referred page views in May 2014, but that figure tumbled below 100,000 by July.

Since then, the state-controlled search engine has continued to post stably low page view and visitor ratings.

This month, the search engine has clocked just 58,200 referred page views, according to website tracker Liveinternet.

By comparison, popular Russian search engine Yandex received 2.7 billion in the same period.

Sputnik Says It's No Failure

Despite the home page's suggestion that the search engine is firmly "in orbit" after launch, Sputnik information director Dmitry Chistov said it has been in a testing phase for the past year for the purpose of ironing out problems and developing the website with a low visitor flow.

"The people declaring that the search engine has somehow been unsuccessful this last year are trying to manipulate reality because in actual fact, the project is only in its Beta version,” Chistov said.

There is little visible marketing or advertising of Sputnik, online or off.

“Its goal is to complete work on technology and services, and to come out of Beta by the end of this year with all the completed products. There is no target to secure visitors and we have no budget for marketing this project," he said.

Unlike the satellite Sputnik, the search engine is hardly a pioneer.

Experts have warned it would have a hard time muscling its way into a highly competitive Russian market dominated by giants Yandex, Google, and Mail.Ru.

Sputnik, however, is designed to be different.

Created by state-controlled telecommunications firm Rostelecom, it is one element of a broader campaign by President Vladimir Putin's government to harness the Internet -- a powerful platform for opposition in a country where broadcast media largely serve the state -- in ways that cannot threaten the Kremlin.

On May 29, State Duma lawmakers tabled a bill for discussion that would create a mechanism to force search engines to delete information about citizens that is “incorrect,” out-of-date, or contravenes the law, Ekho Moskvy reported.

Plans for the search engine were made public in 2013 as Putin looked for ways to rein in the Internet alongside what critics say has been a growing crackdown on dissent and civil society.

'CIA Project'

A month before Sputnik went online, Putin called the Internet a "CIA project," suggesting he sees it as a U.S.-engineered threat to Russian security.

During its launch Sputnik cast itself as a “safe search” -- a search engine that would only provide access to reliable links that had been checked by its staff.

Pavel Rassudov, an activist whose Russian Pirate Party opposes restrictions on the Internet, believes this approach means that Sputnik was doomed from the start.

"It's first of all difficult to enter the search engine market,” said Rassudov. “Secondly, it is difficult to enter the search engine market with the idea that the search engine is not going to publish everything that can be found."

Chistov argued that Sputnik does not intend to take on giants like Yandex or Google.

"We have a specific understanding of our niche,” he said. “This niche is working with official state information, social-oriented information and services. We think that an entire segment is being borne with a range of state and social services that publish information. There are thousands of websites of state institutes that publish information that is important for people."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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