A trip to China gave me the opportunity to look at how the “Great Firewall of China” works in practice and to try it for myself. My particular interest is how this affects web marketing in general and SEO in particular. I hope that others working in the digital marketing field will find my brief findings useful.
As an SEO agency based in Western Europe we live with the knowledge that some of the world’s largest emerging markets are just on the periphery of our vision, slightly outside our daily visibility, but tantalisingly out there to be exploited for our clients.
In particular, the seismic economic shift from Europe and the US towards the BRIC nations, and most of all China.
Not only is China the world’s most populous country, it’s now also the most prolific manufacturer. But for the most part, until recently China has avoided too much attention from the western SEO community.
My particular interest in China’s involvement in SEO is this: as an EU based SEO, what do we need to know about the country in order to help market our clients there?
In particular, what effect would the Great Firewall of China have on my day-to-day SEO activity if I were looking to market a product or service to the Chinese market?
So, what is it like?
As I write this, I am in a hotel in Guangzhou with good quality wireless broadband. As with anywhere else, I can attempt access via either the wireless broadband or the phone network, but as most sensible users would I leave Data Roaming OFF on the phone while overseas to avoid being pinged with punitive download charges.
Firstly I want to know what channels the Chinese are using. Starting with a search on Google.com is revealing. I am instantly redirected to Google.com.hk (Hong Kong) every time. So that is the first feature of the Firewall.
If this is the case for the whole of China then it may be that Google.hk.com is currently the 5th most used Google engine.
Yahoo.com is fine however, with no redirects in place, while bing.com instantly redirects me to cn.bing.com, with a fairly obviously Chinese-focused offering.
The lion’s share of search activity in China actually goes through Baidu, very much the official local offering, and with Google cut off at the knees it clearly has a fairly easy run at the local market.
This list of Google domains is interesting, it tells us that the most used domains are:
US / World
Honk Kong & all of China
Now take a look at the major social channels and how I can (or can’t) access these:
Access to social media in China
I can’t access the Facebook website at all. However, I can get around this by using remote access back to a UK based-network and then browsing from there. If that is considered cheating I can also use the Facebook email to status updates service to make posts of text and photos.
I can also see Facebook status updates on my iPhone App. However, I certainly can’t fully interact with the platform as I would normally.
But despite the fact that I can update and check my status from here, these options would clearly not be available to the regular local market. A social network thrives on its own momentum and referrals, and with the mass of the population effectively blocked from it you can see why Facebook would never gain any genuine market penetration here.
Twitter is also blocked, as are Myspace and Orkut, but then Google own that as well. YouTube (also Google owned) works fine however, as do Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram and Flickr which today all work just as well in China as they would in the west.
I’m sure this picture can change rapidly, but from where I am today, it appears that only the biggest, plus one or two other networks are actively blocked. Other large sites such as Wikipedia, Alexa, Blogger and WordPress all appear to function as normal.
But the real heavyweights here are the homespun sites, which primarily means Baidu for search, China’s own 60,000lb gorilla in the domestic search market.
Baidu: the search giant
So if we accept that the search giant here is Baidu rather than Google, just how different are the Baidu search results from Google ones that we know? Let’s start with a fairly typical search of a Chinese (English language) search to purchase a UK service:
So these are:
Note there is no limit of 10 results on Baidu. If some of these on the left hand side of the page are paid listings then it is certainly not made clear here, which is an interesting situation given the speculation in recent news about paid manipulation of the supposedly “organic” results in Baidu.
It appears that Baidu does have a rather simplistic relevance algorithm compared to Google, with “London Hotel” in Athens making it on to its results page, but not in the Google domains. Clearly something in their localisation algorithm is not functioning as well as Google’s algorithm yet.
Qihoo: China’s second search engine
China’s number two search engine is supposed to be Qihoo, which has apparently up to 10% of the market and is aggressively developing its product (including a deal with Google to use Adwords technology).
Here are its results:
Now this is apparently China’s number two search engine. I don’t know how it delivers results in Chinese, but in English it looks like the worst of the bad old days or poor relevance pre-Google.
I’m sure this warrants further investigation, but at first inspection the results look fairly random and as though you would struggle to identify any sort of pattern that might make your site rank.
You can also see that Qihoo has a strong preference for Chinese based or Chinese language sites, whilst the sites we are more used to not featuring at all.
It may be that any Chinese-based site using the words “London hotel” would feature in these search results without too much effort, potentially meaning that there is significant opportunity for manipulation of these results.
What about Google?
By comparison the result from Google.hk.com is:
The same search on Google.co.uk on the same day yields:
- (Local Results)
- Lastminute.com (again)
So in this case seven out of 10 page one results are the same on Google.hk.com as on Google.co.uk, they are just in a different order and without any local search results featuring at all on the Hong Kong version.
Baidu’s organic listings only return two sites that are also returned by Google domains: TripAdvisor and Hotels.com. All the other results come up different to what Google displays.
So SEO specifically for Baidu may well take a slightly different focus than that for Google. My actual suspicion is that some of the onpage techniques and the more blanked type linkbuilding that worked on Google five or six years ago may well still yield results on Baidu, but it would be interesting to get other people’s feedback on this.
What is notable is the difference on the advertising side between Baidu and Google, with only 4 ads on Baidu, compared to the Ad-saturated page on Google.hk.com. This is likely to indicate that, subject to the various obstacles associated with advertising on Baidu, it is quite possible that the Cost Per Sale for Chinese searchers will be much lower using Baidu than Google.
This is only an approximation, but I think those obstacles are:
- You have to be a Chinese company.
- You have to have a Chinese address.
- You have to register and be accepted.
So, the message is probably that if you want to benefit from the lower CPC or CPA that Baidu would give, you need to get a local Chinese partner.
So what product and service would I be wanting to market to China? Well, judging form the massive trade deficits in almost every major western country, I’m not the only one looking for an answer to that.
But to simplify it would need to be something uniquely available in a western country that the Chinese are not already making cheaper or better themselves. So that means looking at niche and exclusive products and brands that can’t readily be copied, and tourism products which are also difficult to replicate.
I also have to recognise that my situation isn’t exactly the same as the average Chinese (web enabled) consumer. I mean, I am in a hotel in Guangzou, I have an iPhone and a laptop.
Data roaming is off on the iPhone so I don’t get fleeced for Megabytes of download, but the hotel Wifi is effective and I can get on line at a good speed. I will need to search in English most of the time and this will be an important limitation.
My IP address is: 18.104.22.168. Checking my location infosniper won’t deliver a Google map (first sign of the great Firewall?) but I do get a good location with their Windows Live Map option, which looks accurate to within at least a few streets.
So what are the Chinese looking for? Well let’s go to the SEO staple – keyword research. (This would be the same at home). I can get to the Google Keyword tool although it is on Google.com.
What it tells me is that England’s most effective exports to China are:
- travel (travel, hotels, tour, tourism, trains, tourist, flights, visas)
- football (team, football, shirts)
- London (hotels, attractions, tourist attractions, plus they want to know how bad our weather is)
Some of our cars get a look in:
- Rolls Royce
- and Landover who are advertising heavily here at the moment.
Universities and MBA courses get a look in as well, but interestingly here the Chinese appear very interested in MBA ranking and “top” courses. (This is very hierarchical obviously and the Chinese are not prepared to come all this way for second best.)
Rugby also gets a look in with a good number of searches (so it’s not only football doing a good job of exporting here).
British Fashion gets some traffic with searches in the hundreds, so not really featuring heavily.
- Hugo Boss
- M&S, Dorothy Perkins and Lacoste are all getting china based searchers in more significant numbers.
The queen and royalty get some searches, though in one of the internet’s delightful anomalies, the most searched for phrase relating to Queen Elizabeth is reported as being “wo ist die queen elizabeth”. The thought of all these good Chinese folks diligently searching for information on our queen in German is delightful, particularly considering the historical context.
But back to the point. We have some examples of what is being reported by Google that the Chinese are searching for. We could do some more in the US but this will be enough for now.
Now, all that searching was in English, which is most definitely a minority language here. What is “England” in Chinese? “英国”. I can get a result with this on the Google Adwords Tool, however the page of results stumps me. And as Google Translate won’t translate the Chinese results of the Keyword Tool, we will need a translator to pursue that line of enquiry any further.
One also has to wonder what proportion of these searches are from Hong Kong rather than mainland China – it does, after all, still have a large English speaking population, and we are forced to use Google.com.hk
Flaws and findings
Our searches were in English. While the majority of searches in China would obviously be in Chinese, there remain a number of English products for which you would need to search in English, and some of our evidence shows that the majority of searches for certain products are actually made in English rather than the mother tongue.
What will SEOs draw from this?
- Competition is low so opportunities are high.
- You need a local partner to engage in Baidu PPC
- A local partner would be useful for Social Media as well: how else can you chat without an intimate understanding of the language and culture?
- As a western SEO agency you could make a good job of SEO for English language searchers, particularly on Google.hk.com which returns broadly similar results to the western Google domains, and is the world’s 5th most used Google site.
- Baidu can also be worked on by a western agency providing they make an effort with either Chinese language content or Chinese related links.
I must also apologise for the “Englishman in New York” approach. Clearly I could have consulted Baidu search marketing experts in or working in China, and many of my speculations could have been either confirmed or denied.
In fact I still may and I would welcome any additions from anyone operating in that field. The intention of the article was very much to give the initial impressions of SEO in China to a western eye. I hope in that sense that this article has been useful.”
So, in summary, Pete not only managed to have a decent holiday, but he also made some interesting findings into the internet landscape in China.
It would appear that to take part in wholesale marketing on Baidu at least some sort of local presence in China is required, whether this be through local offices or partnerships. Certainly to manage the paid advertising option, this is the case.
However, there are some SEO activities that Western based businesses can engage in – on site optimisation and some off site linkbuilding can (subject to language capabilities) be managed from outside of China. This is certainly going to be applicable for the Google Hong Kong search engine, but also for Baidu.
One thing is for certain though – the search engine battleground in China is dominated by Baidu and this might be the one global battle that Google is plainly losing.