Should we not leave the final Antarctic frontier alone?

Lake Vostok has yet to gain popularity as a travel destination. Blame it on the truly intolerable average temperatures -80°C or on the savage polar winds, or even on the fact that most of us have never heard of it, Lake Vostok remains possibly one of the only unexplored places on earth.

In fact, it was only in 1993, after decades’ worth of seismic studies, radar surveys and satellite imaging, that a team of Russian and British scientists confirmed the existence of this 30 million year old lake. Sitting under a 4000 metre layer of icy Antarctic surface, Lake Vostok has proven to be almost impenetrable until last week, when a team of Russian scientists obtained the first sample of water from the depths of the  evasive lake.

Scientists are ecstatic – they rarely get their hands in microbes that have been in evolutionary isolation. The pristine waters of Lake Vostok harbour extreme organisms unchanged since prehistory that could very well parallel some of those thought to exist in other parts of our solar system,  A truly unique test tube of life from a primordial era.

Lake Vostok, © M. Studinger, 2001

So, what´s the problem?

Namely, contamination of the most pristine water on earth as a result of the application of Russian anti-freezing substances used to prevent the bore hole from refreezing during the drilling process.

The United States National Research Council takes the position that it can be and should be assumed that microbial life exists in Lake Vostok and that after such a long period of isolation, any life forms in the lake require strict protection. But Russian scientists wanted to reach the lake at all costs and started employing Freon and kerosene in their initial drilling techniques to lubricate the borehole and prevent it from collapsing and freezing over.  Approximately 54 tones of these chemicals have already been used on the ice above Lake Vostok.

No one seems to be able to convince Russia to stop drilling until such time when cleaner technologies like hot-water drilling are available. Though the Russians claim to have improved their operations, they continue to use the same borehole, which has already been contaminated. Environmentalist groups argue that this manner of drilling endangers Lake Vostok itself and also other sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica believed to be inter-linked with Lake Vostok.

On the 14th of April 2008, the Antarctic Southern and Ocean Coalition, a global coalition of environmental NGOs, wrote the following petition to the Russian authorities:

In this International Polar Year 2007-08, where so much important research is being done that will help humankind understand the risks posed by human-induced climate change to the whole earth, ASOC urges Russia, through the Duma, to re-consider its present plan to penetrate sub-glacial Lake Vostok. It would be far preferable to join with other countries to penetrate a smaller and more isolated lake, before re-examining whether penetration of Lake Vostok is environmentally defensible. If we are wise, the Lake
will be allowed to reveal its secrets in due course.

Granted – scientific advancement needs to be supported and encouraged as much as possible, but should we not learn to be patient and respect what´s been hidden from us for millions of years? Should we not learn our place in this planet once and for all and stop subjectting the environment to our whims constantly?

My impressions, you might differ…

If you want to find out more or donate, visit the Antarctic Southern and Ocean Coalition and for more details on Lake Vostok, this is an extremely informative video:

Want to join Russia´s (virtual) space project? – Now could be the right time

Last year was quite an eventful time for our happy little office. Amongst many light-hearted events and team-building exercises involving fancy-dressed bowling, trivia quizzes and soccer competitions, every now and then, we sat down and did some serious work (I hope my boss is not reading this :)). A major project in particular, one that involved the revision, translation and localisation of 38 different countries, kept us focused for great part of the year.

Many lessons were learnt – and documented –  on a variety of topics relating to languages and website readability and localisation. But if I was asked to highlight something from that year-long project it would be the amount of research, detail and ¨digital empathy¨required to achieve a website that accommodates to the expectations of audiences in countries like China, Japan. Korea and Russia.

I have previously written about some of the areas that need particular attention when creating a website for JapaneseChinese and Korean audiences. Russia, though, stood out for me because my lack of previous contact with the country and its language. So,here are some of our findings:

To start with, a caveat. Although Russia tends to conjure thoughts of vast territories and a large population in most people´s minds, this does not immediately translate into widespread Internet usage. Out of nearly 140 million people, approximately 60 million were  using the Internet in 2010, a percentage unlike Korea´s, for instance, where the number of web users is more than 81%.

What´s most remarkable about Russia though, is that in 2007 the number of persons using the Internet was less than 30 million. In a very short span, and  even though most Internet users still concentrate in major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, this growth rate could well place this nation within the next three to five years in the top five worldwide Internet markets  side by side Germany, Brazil, India, Japan, the US and China.

Even in the area of e-commerce and despite having quite a lot of catching up to do in terms of consumer credit – an expected consequence of decades of government-controlled availability of goods and disposable income – development has been fast and steady. According to com-Score Russia showed the highest growth in online retail penetration in Europe in 2011, a rate nearly twice as fast as that of Europe as a whole.

Search engines  

Yet ANother inDEX, or Yandex, is the dominant search media in Russia, with 61% market share traffic in 2011 shared with Google 25%, 7.1%, Rambler and Bing both with 1%. A full-service portal providing a variety of additional services to users (real-time search, email, mapping, comparison shopping, etc), Yandex generated nearly 11 billion page views per month already in 2010 for Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus.

But Yandex is crossing borders fast and it opened a US office in Boston, creating to allow searchers to query for sites in other Latin characters, mainly English.

And yet, when you approach Yandex for the first time, as is the case with many other local search engines, you need to take your Google hat off and begin taking into account the local specifics and the structural elements of the Russian language. So, I´m going to reiterate what I´ve already insisted on before:

Do NOT merely translate from English using an automatic translator. It does not work. Whether you simply want to put an ad in Yandex or whether your intentions are to establish a more in-depth presence, you need to get a native Russian speaker, preferably one with copywriting and SEO local knowledge.

And another thing. As silly as this reminder may sound to you: do NOT attempt to make your way into Russia by writing  your copy in English. As you can imagine, that does not work either as only about 5% of Russians speak English.

A good place to start is by recognising Moscow and St Petersburg as major civic, cultural and financial centres and realise the preferential treatment they receive from Russian search engines because of their prominence. So, you are more likely to get it right by geotargetting those two cities because the Internet service providers have more accurate data for them than for other parts of Russia.

Remember that Yandex rates sites using a system similar to Google´s page rank called a ¨citation index¨, which ranges information found from 0 to 150,000. The higher a website´s citation index, the more authority it has. Organic ranking in Yandex favours good-quality, rich content. So, if your aim is to reach Russian audiences, you need to remember that despite its expansion into other languages, Yandex needs to satisfy its native speaker searchers first and foremost. Have your content written in Russian and use a Russian country code top-level domain (.ru) in cyrillic characters and Yandex will recognise your site as relevant to its customers.

Unlike China, getting a Russian domain is simple. If you produce some form of  ID, almost any registrar will allow you to register .ru domains (both in latin and/or cyrillic characters). Getting your site indexed is not complex either. The Yandex webmaster tools can help you with that process as well as connect you to Yandex´s API and assist you with keyword search to gain more visibility in their index.

Russian language and cyrillic script

Regional linguistic and cultural differences compound to the already inherent difficulty of the Russian language for outsiders (for instance, the perplexing use of six grammatical cases). This means that search queries will likely be phrased differently in different regions. So, in order to get your keywords right, you need to have someone who understands regional vernacular, idiom and even spelling variations in different parts of Russia.

Because of the language barrier, getting visibility online is not easy. A good way is to associate yourself with online press release  services that include translations and distribution to major consumer, business and trade presses: Sovanet and specialise in online copywriting, translating and public relations for the Russian market and they are worth your initial investment.

For those interested in crossing virtual borders, the Russian online market presents loads of opportunities. As crucial as it is to have a firm understanding of the role that cultural, linguistic and regional differences will play when establishing an online presence in Russia, don´t let the grammatical impossibility of the language and its alphabet discourage you. It might be a race well worth joining.