Of the over 900 million internet users in China, 83% of those used search engines (as of March 2020) – that’s a whopping 750 million people. Just as in the West, Chinese internet users frequently turn to search engines to gauge trends and research products, which is why it’s so important for brands wanting to break into the Chinese market to have a strong presence on Chinese search engines.
The first thing to be aware of is that Chinese search engine marketing is quite different to Western search engine marketing. For one thing, Google is not accessible within China’s Great Firewall. Instead, China has its own unique landscape of search engines.
In this blog post, we take a closer look at the top search engines in China, and give you our top tips for succeeding in search engine marketing in China.
Top search engines in China
With a market share of around 70% (as of July 2020), Baidu is the most popular search engine for both advertisers and consumers. While it has held the number-one spot for quite some time, other smaller players have closed the gap over the years, so Baidu’s lead is not quite as convincing as it once was. That being said, it’s still undeniably the most dominant search engine, so it makes sense to direct most of your Chinese search engine marketing efforts towards Baidu primarily. That being said, Chinese internet users aren’t as loyal to search engines as Western internet users, and will often use different search engines depending on their need.
One thing to note about Baidu is that unlike Google, where PPC ads are clearly demarcated at the top of the page, Baidu PPC ads are much harder to distinguish from organic results. Chinese internet users also tend to be more receptive to ads (unlike Western users, who tend to skip straight to the organic results). It can therefore be worthwhile investing into paid tactics, particularly in the early days while you’re improving your ranking, in order to drive traffic and boost leads and conversions.
The other thing worth being aware of is that Baidu favours results from their own products, including Baike, an encyclopedia that is comparable to Wikipedia; Zhidao, a question-and-answers website not unlike Quora; and Tieba, a discussion forum platform akin to Reddit. As Baidu will automatically boost pages from these sites to the top of the search engine results page (SERP), it pays to have a presence on these platforms. For example, you may want to build a Baike page for your company.
Baidu is one of the three Chinese internet giants, also known as BAT (i.e. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), and it’s important to note that there is very little crossover between them. For example, articles published on WeChat (owned by Tencent) can’t be searched on Baidu.
Sogou (which means “search dog” in English) has been a rising star in the Chinese search engine market for several years, particularly after being strategically invested in by Tencent (the “T” in BAT), owner of social media behemoth WeChat. Recently, Tencent announced it was offering to buy out Sogou – and with Tencent’s enormous resources fully behind it, there’s no reason why Sogou can’t continue to close the gap between them and Baidu. As of July 2020, Sogou holds around a 17% market share.
Thanks to its backing by Tencent, Sogou has the unique advantage of integrating social content from QQ and WeChat into their search engine results – content not available to other search engine players. This puts Sogou in a unique position to attract social media savvy locals and provide an abundance of search results. All QQ browsers also use Sogou as their default search engine.
Sogou also has the advantage of having the most popular Chinese input software, Sogou Pinyin, which allows people to type Chinese characters using their keyboard’s roman letters. Sogou has leveraged this to allow brands to feature customisable widgets with product images and links where users can type in a brand’s name, offering brands direct visibility.
Sogou has announced that it plans to focus on artificial intelligence and natural language processing in attempts to build the next-generation search engine. It has said it will shift its focus from more traditional keyword-based search to natural language search, no doubt in the hopes of capitalising on the popularity of voice search.
With around 3% market share, Shenma is a joint venture between UC Web and Alibaba (the “A” in BAT), and comes preinstalled with the UC web browser, one of the most popular browsers in China.
Crucially, Shenma is a mobile-only search engine – they call themselves the “experts in mobile search”. Considering China is far and away a mobile-first market, this places them in a good position to grow their market share over the coming years.
Shenma has positioned themselves as the mobile search engine for shopping, apps and books, so it’s certainly worth considering for companies in these industries. Because of its affiliation with Alibaba, the search results can include direct links to product pages on Taobao and Tmall – a distinct advantage over other search engines.
360 Search (previously Haosou)
Once the second-most used search engine in China, 360 Search, also known as Haosou, has since dropped to fourth place, with a market share of around 4% as of July 2020.
360 Search is owned by Qihoo 360, the largest provider of internet and mobile security products in China; its free antivirus software is the most popular and trusted in the country. They also have the advantage that their 360 browser comes preinstalled on most computers in China, which has helped it grow rapidly. Many businesses also recommend that their employees use the 360 browser for its security features, making 360 Search an ideal channel for B2B marketing – indeed Qihoo claims it is the most secure search engine in China, as it relies on advanced cybersecurity technology to block malicious and fraudulent sites. This can have a positive effect on your brand, as appearing in the SERP denotes authenticity and trustworthiness more so than on other browsers.
It’s worth noting that because there is less competition on 360 Search, there is a lower cost-per-click (CPC) for PPC ads, so you tend to get a better ROI from paid campaigns.
In 2017, Tencent released a feature that caused a stir in the search engine market: WeChat Search.
Unlike other search engines, WeChat Search doesn’t access the whole internet; rather, it enables users to search content within WeChat, including WeChat Moments, WeChat Official Accounts and WeChat Mini Programs. WeChat has also struck deals with other platforms to include results from microblogging platform Weibo, question-and-answer site Zhihu and social e-commerce platform Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu).
This may at first seem limiting, but it can in actuality be more far powerful than it looks – on WeChat Search, you can see not just what brands have published recently but also how users engage with that brand and what type of comments they leave. This gives users the kind of social data not available on other search engines.
Top tips for search engine marketing in China
Just as with Western internet users, Chinese internet users look at organic search results as more trustworthy and less commercial. Search engine optimisation (SEO), therefore, is an effective way to build company authority in a cost-effective way.
The good news is that while it’s still important to rank highly on Chinese search engines, it is not quite as important to rank highly on the first page of the SERP as it is with Google. Unlike Western users, who tend to browse only the top three items on the SERP, Chinese users prefer to browse all of the search results from the first couple of pages on offer.
To give your Chinese website the best chance of ranking highly on search engines like Baidu and Sogou, here are some of our top tips for search engine marketing in China.
Local hosting, native domain name and ICP filing
For organic search results, Chinese search engines tend to favour local sites, giving higher rankings to websites that are hosted on servers in China, have a Chinese domain (.cn) and have an Internet Content Publishing (ICP) licence. We’d go so far as to say ranking highly on Chinese search engines is almost impossible without these things. Thanks to the Great Firewall, websites hosted overseas will load incredibly slowly (or they may not load at all), and slow loading speeds are heavily penalised by search engine algorithms.
Applying for an ICP licence can be a complex and time-consuming exercise, but on Sinorbis’s platform, our hosting environment and coding have been optimised to guarantee fast website loading times in mainland China without the need for an ICP licence.
Just as you’re unlikely to see Chinese (or French or German etc) results rank highly on a Google search, you’re not going to see English results rank highly on Chinese search engines. Chinese search engines require websites to be in Mandarin, using simplified Chinese characters – that means all site copy, including SEO resources and meta tags.
Beware of using translation tools as well – Baidu can actually recognise badly translated copy, and will penalised a website’s ranking for it. Make sure to have native speakers at least review all copy to ensure it’s accurate, reads well, and aligns with brand values and target audiences.
China is definitely a mobile-first market – over 99% of Chinese internet users access the internet via mobile devices (compared to 43% who access the internet via desktops and 35% via laptops). That’s why it’s important to have a mobile-responsive website – not only will it rank higher on Chinese search engines, but it will also have a much lower bounce rate from mobile users. Be sure your mobile site is designed for minimal scrolling and clicking to further lower the bounce rate.
As with Western search engines, keywords are important to SERP rankings, though Baidu tends to require a higher keyword density than other Chinese search engines (around 8–12%). But stay clear of “keyword stuffing” – Baidu’s spam-combating algorithm will penalise keywords that don’t seem relevant to the content, or that are placed in unnatural positions. As always, it’s about quality over quantity. Baidu’s Keyword Planner can help you analyse keywords based on metrics like search volume and competition.
It’s also important to make sure that your website content doesn’t contain any blacklisted keywords or sensitive content, as these will be blocked by the Great Firewall.
Localised social media
Outbound links to non-Chinese sites – even those that aren’t explicitly blocked – can lead to loading errors, again worsening a site’s ranking. This includes links to Western social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Instead, link to Chinese social media sites like WeChat, Weibo and Douyin. Incorporate QR codes on your website to help build your social media following. It’s also important to remember that embedded videos on Western sites like YouTube and Vimeo won’t play in China – instead, use Chinese video hosting sites like Youku.
Chinese search engines favour websites where content is updated regularly. That’s why a blog should be a key part of your search engine marketing strategy.
Again, quality is important. Be sure the content is fresh and original, and don’t be tempted to plagiarize – Chinese search engines will penalise websites where they’ve detected duplicate content.
Jump-start your Chinese search engine marketing
By being aware of the key differences between Western and Chinese search engines, and adopting a localised approach to your website, you can set yourself up on the right track towards high SERP rankings.
At Sinorbis, we know how to get the results your website deserves. Our team will develop an SEO 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.