With Western search engines such as Google almost non-existent in China, it’s no surprise that SEO and SEM strategies in the country are entirely different. Just as China has its own Chinese social media channels, it also has its own Chinese search engines, meaning that search engine optimisation tactics in the region are much different to those in the west.
Search is the second most popular application used by Chinese internet users.CNNIC’s January 2016 report
Currently there are around 566 million search engine users in the region with that number having increased by 8.4% from 2014 to 2015. 478 million of those users choose to search the web using their mobile devices, an incredible 84.5% of all search users. The growth in the number of mobile users is continuing, with the total number of users increasing by 11.3%, much faster than that of overall search users.
According to research undertaken in the region, most Chinese search users spend their time researching their leisure or entertainment needs. 79.7% of them use the search function when looking for movies, music, books or games and 70% of those users are searching whilst shopping, working or studying. An increase in search traffic has also been linked to what’s happening in the world around these users. When a big news item or hot discussion topic breaks, these individuals head to search engine sites to find out more.
But what are these internet users using to search the web? As we mentioned previously, Google is almost non-existent in China. Three key players dominate the Chinese search engine market: Baidu, 360 (also known as haosou) and Sogou have respectively a 55%, 29% and 14% market share (by search volume in 2015) in the region.
Baidu is the most popular search engine for both advertisers and consumers and has held the number 1 spot for quite some time. For the Q3 2015, Baidu’s revenue was RMB 18.4 billion; representing a 36% yearly increase. Mobile revenue made up 54% of their total income, a 17% increase from 2014. Baidu is one of the three Chinese internet giants, also known as BAT (i.e. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent).
360 Search, also known as Haosou, has quickly become the second most used search engine in China since its launch in 2010. Its group company, 360, holds the top market share position and user base for antivirus/security software and browsers in China with its products such as 360 Safeguard and 360 Mobile Safe.
360 Search was launched after Google relocated its servers from mainland China to Hong Kong. The company quickly built its user base by taking advantage of traffic being redirected from its antivirus software and browser usage, and from Google users. According to CNZZ, 360’s browser is now the most used local browser, holding 32.68% total market share. This market share has increased search engine traffic as the default search engines in its browser and landing page are 360’s own.
Sogou has been a rising star in the Chinese search engine market, particularly after being strategically invested in by Tencent Holdings Limited (the “T” of the BAT mentioned above), the fourth largest internet company in the world. Tencent holds the famous QQ messenger and smartphone app WeChat, dominating the China social market. With strong backup and endorsement from Tencent, Sogou has the unique advantage of integrating social content from QQ and WeChat into their search engine results. This content is not available to other search engine players, putting Sogou in a unique position to attract social media savvy locals and provide an abundance of search results.
In addition to this, Sogou dominates the Chinese smart input market (holding more than 90% market share), allowing them to tackle the search engine market in an innovative way. This innovation includes the abilities: (1) to display the shortcut search result based on character input even when users don’t open a search engine or the search company’s competitors in the search bar; (2) to display high-relevancy search results based on both character input and search keywords instead of purely on the latter. Sogou also provides diversified options for users to decorate and personalise their input boxes with Sogou “skins” – a huge attraction for the millennial generation who represent life-long and core commercial value in the future of any business.
Mobile search is another feature which can potentially set Sogou apart from its competitors. In 2015, Sogou’s mobile search engine traffic had already surpassed that of desktop traffic. Through their work with Tencent (in particular, their work with Wechat), Sogou has brought unique capabilities to their mobile search engines, thereby further enhancing their competitiveness.
Shenma Search (m.sm.cn) is also a rising star in China’s search engine market and is certainly a company to watch. A joint venture between Alibaba and UC Web, Shenma was recorded as the second largest mobile search engine in June 2015 (after Baidu), according to leaked mobile gateway traffic data on Weibo.
The Similarities and Differences between Chinese and Western search engines
Whilst many of their fundamental strategies and algorithms are very similar, Chinese and Western search engines still have some key differences which will significantly impact the effectiveness of a company’s search engine marketing strategy/tactics as they respond to the needs of different audiences.
As with most digital activity in China, the way Chinese netizens use search engines is entirely different from the way their Western peers search for information. Younger users display an ever-increasing enthusiasm for mobile technology (particularly in areas where it may be difficult to access laptops and PCs); this has democratised search use in tier two and three cities.
Unlike Western users who tend to browse only the top three items found through keyword searches, Chinese users have shown that they prefer to browse all of the search results from the first couple of pages on offer rather than going directly to specific sites. This habit is linked to users’ hunger for information, particularly about branded goods and aspirational lifestyles.
Language and Resources
For organic search results, Chinese search engines tend to favour local content when deciding on rankings, giving higher rankings to websites that are hosted in China and written in Chinese as well as local resources (links & social resources) and official Chinese Websites (that is, companies with ICP and local hosting). However, their paid search listings are determined by bid price alone.
The layouts of results pages of Chinese search engines are divided into three parts. In the top left hand corner, you will find paid search results which consist of the “brand zone” followed by keyword ads. The rankings of keyword ads are completely based on biding prices.
The second section of Chinese search results consists of organic search listings. Organic results are displayed under paid search results. Because Chinese users like to browse all the search results on the first couple of pages, and because they look on organic search results as very trustworthy and less commercial, SEO is an effective way to build company authority in a cost effective way.
The third section is the related search area and is found on the right of the page.
A Mobile-device Friendly Site
Unlike in western markets where responsive websites are already the most popular way to address the rising usage of mobile devices to access digital content, a separate mobile website used to be the most popular way to address the different screen sizes of mobile devices in China; this is because, unlike Google, Baidu only recognised parallel mobile sites (rather than responsive sites) until Q1 2015. However, responsive pages now represent a key direction of Baidu. As a result, when building new websites, we now recommend that the site be a responsive one in order to capture the increased opportunities from the trend towards mobile and thereby take advantage of the recent changes to local search engines.
For businesses looking to build awareness in China, it’s essential that they come to understand the differences between these search engines and adopt a localised approach. An integrated SEO/SEM strategy will ensure that the brand is able to secure the recognition it requires in order to drive sales and awareness in the local market.
At Sinorbis, we know how to get the results your website deserves. Our team will develop an SEO and SEM strategy to suit your target market and optimise your site accordingly in order to achieve top rankings. Contact us today to find out more about marketing in China.