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Anyone who has worked with a Chinese company or had to run a campaign in China knows that their design sense is different.

One thing that jumps out the most though, is that their websites look very 'busy'. Why is that?  

You don't have to look far. If you work for a multinational brand in China or make a product that is sold in China, have a look for your brand on a Chinese website through Baidu or QQ.

What you will probably see is something which looks very busy. Lots of texts, links, and even animations which seem to be designed to make the page impossible to read.

But our eyes are deceiving us. It may look like digital chaos, but there are some good reasons why Chinese websites look the way they do.  

And before we, as marketers, can work effectively in the country there are a few things we should know about the Chinese web experience.

1. The Chinese language is different

Seems an obvious point, but bear with me. There are few facts about the language that we need to know:

  • There is no capital letter in Chinese. As readers of Western scripts, we are trained mentally to look for larger letters to find where a sentence begins and ends. As Chinese has no equivalent, their sites can look full of very similar, and busy, characters.
  • There are no spaces between characters. Western languages use space to delineate words and this, too, has no equivalent in Chinese language. So, again, to them it looks normal to have a long string of uninterrupted characters, whereas it looks confusing to Western eyes.
  • Every character is important. Hvae you raed sneetnces lkie tihs bferoe?  Fairly readable, no?  Well it seems that we can read jumbled words as long as the first and last letter are in place (and the spelling isn't totally reversed). Because of this, it seems that we skim text rather than read every word. But as we can't skim Chinese language (assuming we don't understand characters), it seems particularly chaotic.
  • Chinese characters are far more dense than our letters, with 10 'strokes' on average against our one or two per letter which, again, makes the writing look busy to the Western eye.

2. There are a lot of links on Chinese web pages

Another characteristic which Westerners find confusing about Chinese sites is that everything seems to be a link.  

On this website, sohu.com, literally every character is part of a link to another page.

There are two theories as to why this is so.

One is that it is difficult to type Chinese characters on an alphabet-based keyboard, so instead of using search they prefer to click links.

This seems reasonable, as typing in Chinese characters involves either drawing characters with your finger on a blank 'canvas', or typing them out using Western letters for sounds.

Then as you write or type, the characters appear and you select the right one. It would seem that doing this over and over for searches would be quite tough.

But there's another idea. And with the massive popularity of Baidu, which hosts the Chinese equivalent of Google search, I'm inclined to believe it.

The other theory is that many Chinese still have slow internet speeds. And the data, courtesy of the Akamai content delivery network, backs this up.

As you can see, two-thirds of Chinese have internet connection speeds below 4MB/s which is almost unheard of in Western countries and well below the global average.

So, with such relatively slow internet speeds, it's sensible to load one page with a lot of links and then open each link in a new tab. This allows the user to browse in 'parallel' instead of a painstakingly slow serial process.

Those of us old enough to remember dial-up will certainly sympathize!

3. Chinese sites use a lot of animation

And finally, Chinese websites seem to have a lot of flashing text and banners.

The reason for this, apparently, is it's much harder to grab attention using fonts in Chinese than it is with Western languages.

And there are a number of reasons for this including

  • There are few fonts for Chinese characters
  • Italics don't exist and bold is not commonly used
  • And the minimum font size is 12 pixels

But more than this, and I'm stepping into cultural territory here, it seems that Chinese are simply less bothered by flashing graphics than Westerners are, so what seems busy to us seems normal to them. 

And besides, with pop-ups becoming routine in the West now, Chinese sites do not look nearly as different to Western ones as they used to.

But...

And, of course, some Chinese sites clearly do buck the trend. Baidu, for example, has a landing page which has a very simple, Google-esque design.

And Taobao's site for foreign visitors is noticeably less busy.

So, perhaps the distinction won't last long as it seems like they are moving in our direction and we, to some extent, are adopting theirs...

Jeff Rajeck

Published 4 February, 2016 by Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck is the APAC Research Analyst for Econsultancy . You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.  

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Jon Nicholas, Digital Producer at IBM Interactive Experience/GBS/MobileEnterprise

I recently managed a global web migration, and the differences between cultures - which you need to account for, but which you may not be aware of - are both interesting and pose a challenge for digital marketeers.

During our research we found that the use of large fonts - such as the title of this blog page - is considered extremely crude in many asian markets. We had to fundamentally rethink our page templates. The lesson of our project, and this blog, is that a 'one template fits all' strategy, while attractive to global brands and their content editors, needs to be more nuanced to engage with local users in the manner they expect ... Appearing crude (or even rude) to your consumers is probably not a good marketing approach!

7 months ago

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Alistair Williams, Managing Director at Coffee Marketing Consulting

It strikes me from the language used you haven't asked a Chinese person why this is? Indian websites are akin to the Chinese in 'busyness' and may be due to Sanskrit writing also... but I'll ask some friends

7 months ago

Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck, Research Analyst at EconsultancySmall Business

@Jon - great points - and it might explain why Taobao's international page seems to have larger fonts in graphics, whereas the China page is small.

@Allstair - I heard all of these points from Chinese-speaking - and reading - people, but because they are just speculations and open to debate I decided not to attribute.

It is indeed possible that just being 'foreign' makes something look busy, but wouldn't explain why every single word on a page is part of a link. I'd be interested to hear whether Indian-language sites have similar layouts - the biggest Indian sites on Alexa all seem to be in English!

7 months ago

Sarah Harradine

Sarah Harradine, SEO at Myprotein

The number of links could also be something to do with Baidu - it still very much relies on numbers of links to determine relevancy of a page for search results.

7 months ago

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V Dai, Marketing at Fly.com

Awesome article! Some points really made me laugh!

I'm a Chinese who works in the UK, got used to the internet environment and website UX here, using Chinese websites gives me a headache! I hate the "busyness" of Chinese websites and the cluttered links. Before I thought it's just because this is a way for the website to generate revenue so they just put in as many things as possible. Never thought about the characters and cultural factors which is so so interesting! Thank you!

I think there's also a historical reason behind this. When the internet just got more popular in China, no one really knew what websites to visit, that's why there were many directory websites like hao123, I think baidu had that sort of style before too. These directory websites were used to be set as default homepage when installing a browser so that's the first website most Chinese see. That's the essence of "Internet Surfing"! lol

7 months ago

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V Dai, Marketing at Fly.com

Another thing about Chinese website is a lot of official websites have there domain name as numbers, looks so dodgy that I can't believe they are actually official websites. Like the national rail website: www.12306.cn .......

7 months ago

Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck, Research Analyst at EconsultancySmall Business

@sarah - very interesting! I never thought of the SEO angle, but it totally makes sense.

@V so glad you liked it. I now see how the 'everything is a link' fits in. When you don't know what's on the web, you need that sort of page.

When surfing in the 90s, we had 'What's New!' and 'What's Cool!' buttons on our Netscape browser to help...

7 months ago

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Bo Z, Personal at Personal

I would like to say, at the early age of Internet, people intend to "list" information in web page so visitor can easily find what they want. Especially portal site, like Yahoo!. People can go into different categories, choose the site they want to view. I think this is the beginning of this kind of "busy style". And when internet go into China, people learnt and adopted.
Now this kind of style is quite "out of date", however there is one benefit from it, it suits for all ages.
Older people, like my mum, don't know how to use search engines, she always make decision from what she can see. So having a lot visible options is much easier for her than search for unlimited hidden information. And you have to say, it works for young people too.
Another reason I think it is the people who can make decision of what a site looks like want to show a lot of information to end user, who actually don't really cares or knows or want to make it "modern", the information flow or flooding is what they prefer.
About the number domains, that is much easier for people to remember, not all Chinese knows English, a lot of them having trouble to write Chinese character to PinYin, so a number sequence that can slip out of lips is much user friendly for all age group end users.

7 months ago

Am Y

Am Y, Creator at somethinghere.com

I am Chinese. And I absolutely cannot stand the way Chinese websites are designed. They are SO strenuous on the eye!!! I am glad someone has finally pointed out how badly they are designed - I wish something would change! But I guess a lot Chinese designers still have a long way to go before they catch up with Western design trends (i.e. clean, minimalist, uncluttered layouts). A lot of them, if you notice, are still using the same Yahoo-type layout that we saw years ago, where as many things as possible are clumped together on the homepage.

The other thing I can't stand is how small the characters are. The first thing I do when I visit a Chinese website is press "Ctrl +" repeatedly until the text is a size that suits my eye.

I hope this is brought up to whoever designs the majority of these websites. It really puts me off browsing websites in my own language, and that is very sad.

(Also, I don't think the clutteredness has anything to do with there being "no capital letters" in our language. The lines of text are just too small and too densely packed.)

7 months ago

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杨 川, wu at wu

I am Chinese.
I really feel a little messy, but should not be too simple.

7 months ago

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Sam Tsang, Director at Ozbobblehead

Those websites you listed here (except Baidu) are designed this way only to put more ads on their site. It is not a cultural thing. It is just greedy. Baidu is also greedy, but it hides the ads in the search results not on their front page. As some comments posted here by the Chinese stated, they think these designs are bad tastes, and I believe a large group of Chinese don't like that too. Sometimes we get annoyed by these irrelevant contents, it is just a waste of time browsing all the ads. TBH, design doesn't get you money in China, so well design website is not popular in China, but you can still find a few if you are interested. I think it is similar in the US when KPI comes into account. If all you can provide on your website is just 2nd hand content but not service or products you need to put a lot of ads and attract more clicks on your site.

5 months ago

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Yuni Kim, Web Designer at Olm, Inc.

This is what happens in an early stage of web industry. I remember web sites in US in early to mid 90's or any other countries had such messy, eye-spinning websites long ago, and until very recently in Korea actually where it gets much simpler eventually.

As far as I can understand, it's because of lack of strategy, which means even those companies don't know what should be emphasised and what should not.

They think every single letters are information, and also think users want to see all kind of information on the page first appears without scrolling which idea leads to the web design all the characters are packed so densely in that small section of the page.

Those animated small images are result of 'GREED' as Sam said, since it catches your eyes very easily, try to get your attention. But as a result it just makes it hard to read, for somebody like me who has dyslexia gives it up finding information what I really need.

At first users see those are much better than very simple looking web sites, and those companies think like 'Oh, That's what users want!!', but they have to realise you should not trust users too much.

4 months ago

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