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…