For newcomers to China, it’s important to understand that China’s digital ecosystem has developed in an almost parallel universe to the west. For most Westerners, Google is the ‘front page’ of the internet (Sorry Reddit). More often than not, Google represents the port of call for our queries: transactional, informational and navigational.
Contrast this to China, where it’s estimated that up to 80% of product information searches start on eCommerce platforms like Tmall, Taobao or JD. Tmall product pages are also renowned for containing 30-40 times more product information than equivalent Amazon listings in the west. This might lead one to assume that SEO in China is a game best played on eCommerce platforms. Guess again.
If you’re a SEO expert, it will probably shock you to learn that the information contained in most eCommerce listings is literally hard embedded into page designs. In other words, when you try to copy and paste a line of text, you find yourself dragging an image instead (see screengrab, right).
In fact, the only copy that is ‘searchable’ in Tmall is the product name, as well as the one-line description at the top of each given listing (see image aside).
SEO is essentially a non-existent game on Tmall. In fact, the algorithm that determines your ranking is driven predominantly by sales. As such, keyword ranking on Tmall is a paid game (PPC) conducted largely through the Taobao Express Train.
The short answer is IP issues. China’s ongoing battles with counterfeits, IP theft, trademark squatting and URL squatting are infamous worldwide. Although there is major opportunity in China for brands with the appetite for long-term persistence and localisation, these are certainly risks everyone should be aware of. Here’s a little context:
As you can imagine, Chinese consumers are comparatively more sceptical and un-trusting of any given company. As a result, they tend to undertake deeper and broader product research prior to buying. It’s for these reasons that Weibo ‘verifies’ the authenticity of key accounts and influencers. Similarly, platforms like Tmall, JD, VIP, Kaola engage exclusively with real brands, reassuring customers that items bought on their platform are in fact genuine. In a market where URL-squatting undermines consumer confidence even in branded websites; it’s easy to understand why your Tmall flagship store is essentially your ‘.com’, and why eCommerce is the first port of call for most queries.
In our experience, search engines are still a vital tool for building and developing a brand. This is particularly true in the early growth stages of a new product category. For instance, people looking to buy a new television would likely jump straight to JD.com. By contrast, for an emerging category like wine or craft beer, search engines still play a vital part in the consumer education piece.
For the time being, some of the most effective ways your brand can engage with search platforms include through
Baidu Baike is Baidu’s fully owned online encyclopedia. By contrast to Wikipedia however, it is deemed to be a very reputable and trusted source of information. Once you have satisfied Baidu’s requirements and verified that you are the brand/business owner, you can then create wikis for your brand and product stories. This information is naturally given priority for Boolean searches.
Like any SEO strategy, it’s ideal to build your wiki using much of the same SEO logic that applies in the west. Baidu PPC is the Baidu equivalent of Google AdWords. Similarly, you can use Baidu Index in a similar way to Google trends to identify and compare keywords by popularity (we’ll discuss this further shortly).
For years, the efficacy of SEM in China has been a hotly debated topic. While some news sources and marketing agencies report major growth in the industry, others continue to forecast declines.
In our experience, off-platform SEM can be challenging from an ROI perspective; particularly when contrasted to eCommerce PPC services such as Taobao Express Train (see image aside). The core difference here is that Tmall/Taobao users are ‘already primed to buy’. Conversely, Baidu browsers are more likely to be still in their ‘information search’ phase.
In the past, we’ve engaged with a number of SEO specialist agencies. In some instances, they’ve been effective in driving significant traffic to our sales platforms. In many cases though, it was the wrong traffic, significantly undermining conversion rates. At risk of stating the obvious, there’s no point paying to direct a student towards your infant formula listing.
China’s language barrier, in combination with the ‘Great Firewall’ of China create a notorious ‘smoke-screen’ for learning and understanding the market. However, there are a few tools we regularly use at RooLife Group in our research.
Sogou’s WeChat Search Tool crawls WeChat articles. This is incredibly useful. Here at RooLife, we frequently use this tool to determine (based on the volume of user-generated content) whether a brand already has market traction. Further, If Daigou are selling your products in China, they’re also likely to pop up in the results.
At its core though, Sogou’s WeChat Search Tool is an effective social listening device. Analysing the discussions/posts in here can help you determine the core selling points your Chinese customers value, the messages likely to resonate, as well as any pain points they’re encountering.
Index.baidu.com is another really useful tool that is free for anyone to use (So long as you have a China mainland ID). It allows you to compare the search interest for different keywords such that you can evaluate their relative popularity/interest. Baidu also highlight key news stories associated with major spikes in activity.
Baidu represents the B in the famous BAT acronym; which refers to China’s three major tech companies. They are a major player in a number of fields from big data and AI, to autonomous driving vehicles. Last year, founder Robin Li was famously drenched in water by an attacker whilst giving a speech at Baidu’s annual tech seminar.
Baidu is by far the largest and most broadly used search engine in China. As of August 2020, Baidu comprises 85.45% of mobile search traffic, and 71.13% of searches overall. For a more comprehensive overview of the platform, we recommend the Search Engine Journal. Their tutorial provides a comprehensive overview of the Baidu Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) layout, Baidu Baike, Baidu Space (social media), Baidu Patent search, Baidu’s Qunar2 travel booking platform among others.
According to Statcounter, Baidu only holds 45.68% of searches from desktop computers. Sogou is a close second contender, with a 31.96% market share.
Part of the reason behind Sogou’s recent rise to popularity has been their rollout of Sogou Pinyin; allowing users to type Chinese characters with their roman-numeral keyboards. Another major factor has been their recent partnership with China’s leading Q&A platform Zhihu, which is comparable to Quora in the west. A third, major draw card (as we explored before) is that Sogou is the only search platform that has access to WeChat articles.
Once upon a time, Haosou was China’s second largest search platform. In recent years, their market share has significantly declined. From a commercial perspective though, Haosou shouldn’t be disregarded too quickly. Their lower adoption rate translates to: cheaper CPC rates, more user-friendly PPC processes, free access to a wide variety of market tools, and in many cases, great ROI.
Accessing Google with a VPN is one of the most popular ways Chinese citizens can explore the internet outside of the great firewall. However, VPNs by design redirect your traffic through different cities all across the globe. This makes it insanely difficult, bordering impossible for western businesses to develop a China-oriented Google/SEO strategy.
Microsoft’s answer to Google, Bing, is not blocked by the great firewall. It is thus a seamless, much less clunky tool for the average Chinese citizen (of foreign ‘laowai’) to gain exposure to foreign websites.
A mobile search engine for books and applications, as well as a comprehensive shopping and eCommerce support service. You could probably define the platform as “a hybrid app store and search engine”. Nanjing Marketing Group have provided an amazingly comprehensive overview of the platform here.