Local Knowledge and Personality Help Yandex’s Alice Virtual Assistant Dominate the Russian Market

With more than 109 million internet users, Russia is the largest internet market in Europe.

While the name of Yandex, a major Russian internet company, is probably not well-known in the west, it’s somewhat like Google in its home country. Equipped with its own search engine, Uber-like taxi service, food delivery app, carsharing, and loads of other country-wide services, the company launched its voice assistant Alice two years ago. As global experts in conversational AI and voice applications, we at Just AI think that Alice by Yandex is an example others can learn from.

What is Alice?

In October 2017, some six years after Apple’s Siri was introduced, Yandex launched its own voice assistant Alice. In many ways similar to both Siri and Google Assistant, that now are also apt in Russian, Alice is intertwined with the ecosystem of the company’s services. A year and a half later, it is used by a whopping 30 million people monthly and has more than 8 million daily users, according to the figures released by Yandex.

Alice now comes with an ecosystem of its own: in May of 2018, Yandex launched Yandex.Dialogs, an open platform allowing for third-party access to its virtual assistant. Then the first smart speaker on the Russian market appeared – Yandex. Station – which now is also rapidly gaining market share. However, with about 40 thousand speakers delivered in 2018, the bulk of the Alice audience comes from smartphone users. So, what makes Alice stand out and what’s the key to its growing popularity?


Personality trap

Smart assistants, when such a concept first came into a notion, were expected to briefly and accurately respond to functional requests. And that’s the vision Google and Apple had in mind when created virtual assistants of their own, so neither Siri nor Google Assistant turned out being particularly conversational.

This is perfectly understandable, but doing so they set a trap for themselves: Alexa, which in our opinion has more personality than others, is reduced to its shopping function and other basic things smart speakers do. As for Google Assistant, which for a long time had been viewed as a nondescript smartphone extension, starting April 2019 it can talk in the voice of the Grammy-winning singer John Legend. At its last year’s I/O developer conference, the company made the announcement that six new celebrity voices would be coming to the Google Assistant.

As sophisticated new skills appeared, companies ended up struggling to reach the right audience. It was particularly hard for Amazon Alexa and Amazon Echo: with no visual interface whatsoever,  it’s hard for them to introduce new features to users. That’s why Amazon heavily invested in developing skills discovery mechanisms. However, according to an analysis published by in October 2018, 61% of Alexa skills have no user ratings. Which means that thousands of skills remain obscure today, despite all the efforts.

So Yandex, which took its time to learn from the experience of others, opted for an assistant with a feature called “chit-chat”. Based on a neural network, the “chit-chat” engine makes it possible for Alice to have “conversations about anything”. Apparently, that was what all smart assistants were missing and Alice really took off. Developers created Alice with a very distinctive character – bold and cheeky to the point of audaciousness, a really quirky sense of humour, that Russians, apparently, liked a lot. Immediately after the launch of Alice, Russian social media exploded with screenshots of funny dialogues. Videos of people talking to Alice and trying to uncover her hidden skills went viral on Russian Youtube.

The advantage Yandex gained, creating a more conversational smart assistant goes beyond the growing market share – people truly enjoy talking to Alice. All that makes people get used to communicating with a digital assistant and results in higher retention. So, the future of skill discovery looks very promising for Alice.


Games people play

Another growth driver for virtual assistants is their ability to reach the younger crowd, who are usually the first ones to pick up new technologies.

Here, it is important to understand that the younger audience hardly needs news or a weather forecast – they come for games and entertainment. Recent data proves this point: according to Adobe, 20% of smart speaker users played games, and 64% of them did it regularly. Besides, the most popular categories for Amazon are “Games and Trivia” (10 000 skills), “Education and References” (8 000 skills) and “Lifestyle” (8 000) – the figures are quite impressive.

The gaming industry has always been at the forefront when it came to adopting new technologies and innovation. While the voice-controlled games of today are mainly simple quizzes, most of which will never take off, there are promising cases like “Yes, Sire”, a voice-controlled game with internal monetization and Song Quiz, where users need to guess correct title and artist for points, which both are available for Alexa. Amazon is definitely trying to jump in on the entertainment content bandwagon, collaborating with leading vendors and developers.

Game developer Gal Shenar is a perfect example of how one monetizes engaging Alexa skills. In his two most popular games, Escape the Room and Escapee, he added an in-app for the premium content, which users willingly pay for. According to Shenar, the conversion for Escape the Airplane is 34%, and for the game Escape the Room it is 8%. Yandex recognized the potential of entertainment content from the very beginning. Among the most popular games Alice features (over 100,000 people play it), is similar to “Yes, Sire”, which Just AI created for Yandex, using skill builder Aimylogic.

Sure, Yandex is facing the same issues related to skill discovery and monetization as others. Alice is a very “young” assistant with no monetization or built-in payments to speak of yet, but the company is working on it. Yandex announced the launch of the Yandex.Dialog beta only four months after Alice had been introduced – something that took Amazon and Google much longer to do – so the company’s ecosystem is getting mature at unprecedented speed.

What’s next?

While Yandex’s Alice has neither the extended family of devices behind it nor massive amounts of content, it still managed to snatch leadership from Apple and Google on the Russian market. Learning from the mistakes of its predecessors, Yandex created a truly exceptional use case that changes the way people communicate with smart assistants. Due to the rapid launch of its ecosystem, Yandex encouraged businesses to embrace Conversational AI: companies like Papa Johns, McDonald’s, Nicorette, Skoda, and many others now have their set of skills for Alice.

However, to keep its leadership, Yandex needs to continue creating exclusive content and services: with Yandex.Taxi, Yandex.Eda (food delivery service), Yandex.Music and other services by Yandex dominating the Russian market, other companies will have to struggle to gain their share. It is extremely hard to snatch the dominance from a “one-stop-shop” virtual assistant existing not only in Yandex.Station and Yandex browser, but also on smartphones, headphones and children’s watches.

A fundamental thing Yandex needs to work on is Alice’s proactiveness. Once the voice assistant starts educating users about skills it has today, many of its functions will emerge from obscurity.


Note: Sometimes Alice is referred to in English translation as Alisa due to a phonetic translation.

Another trend Yandex is likely willing to jump in on is smart displays. The company’s smart speaker Yandex. Station is equipped with the HDMI port and the ability to connect to the TV – neither Apple nor Amazon went that way.

While Yandex doesn’t seem to be willing to send its assistant abroad, the Russian market is not reduced to Alice: Google has come here, Chinese manufacturers are eyeing the scene, and many local corporations, like banks or telecom companies, are considering whether to develop virtual assistants of their own. This super-fast race is sure to bring new discoveries and players, so the Russian voice assistant market is going to be an exciting place to watch.

Kirill Petrov, Just AI’s founder and Managing Director. Before Just AI, as a co-founder and managing director of i-Free, Kirill grew the startup to the top six Russian Internet business according to Forbes. Today i-Free holds 17 successful companies in fin tech, video gaming, AI and media content. Previous experience includes leading analytics in MTS (Russian leading mobile operator) and strategic consulting management in Labrium.

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