By Michael Bonfils, Managing Director – SEM International
Back in 2004, when I started taking the best practices in search from the U.S. and implementing them in China, Baidu was only a few years old.
There was no such thing as tracking and performance. Even ads were purchased as a flat monthly rate.
Add to that, the great Chinese firewall, governmental advertising restrictions, difficulty in the language characters and dialects, and a ton of other red tape made the barriers in many cases seemingly impossible to overcome.
I remember wiring advertising funds for a major brand to our colleague in China and they physically would cash the money out of the bank, put it the equivalent of $10,000 in their backpack, and ride their bicycle over to Baidu’s office to make the advertising deposit.
Times have obviously changed.
Baidu is no longer the only player in search in China. “Middlemen,” still in place, no longer run Baidu sales as they were before.
Mobile is nearly almost all of how things are searched. More than 95 percent of internet users in China use mobile devices to go online.
Tracking, albeit still in Chinese, is now implemented and analyzed. Paid search ads no longer dominate all the results.
Programmatic display ads, mobile messenger programs, ads within “feeds,” forums and apps now integrate within the search ecosystem.
According to China Internet Statistics, as of July 2017, there were 751 millioninternet users in China. Of which I am assuming a bit over 50 million actually use a desktop to access the internet.
With all those people, you’d think it would be impossible to fail even if you were to tap into 1 percent of that market.
While some aspects of search marketing in China have improved over the years, many other things have not.
This article will break down different products for search and digital advertising in China and how they are leveraged and optimized for this amazing market.
One of the barriers to entry into the Chinese market that has not changed is registering a domain name and getting a license to host and publish your website.
If you have presence in China, these are both fairly easy to obtain. Typically, it takes about a month.
However, if you do not have a physical presence in China, the government will require your Chinese agency or someone you know in China who can represent your domain name and ICP licensing to register with the government.
Keep in mind, this is how the government is able to hold people accountable for what is on their website, so be careful.
Make sure you have a trusted agency and partner on the ground in China. It’s not uncommon for strangers to go rogue after you’ve sent them your money.
It usually takes about two or three months for the licensing to take place. These licenses aren’t optional – you must have them in order to advertise.
Google Analytics will work in China, but I don’t recommend it because the data may not be accurate.
With the huge firewall in China, it’s pretty easy for them to randomly cut off access to the rest of the world.
When this happens – and it does happen – Google Analytics’ tags won’t fire, and you’ll get inaccurate traffic data.
Baidu has pretty good free web analytics called Baidu Tongji (Baidu Statistics) for anyone who can read Chinese.
If you don’t read Chinese, well, you might have a struggle trying to figure out what’s what and confuse your bounce rate with your conversion rate.
Another option is using Russia’s Yandex Metrica. Metrica is free, valuable, in English, and it hasn’t been firewall blocked.
It might even be worthwhile putting Google Analytics on with Metrica and evaluating the discrepancy rate between the two.
This is my usual reaction every time someone brags about their global super powerful servers that they think will have no problem penetrating into the Chinese mainland.
Here’s the thing.
The firewall isn’t the only thing you have to somehow get through.
You also have to realize that the internet connectivity speed in China is pretty darn slow.
If your site lags, it’s not going to get a satisfying arrival rate. In that case, your ads may function and take the users to a never-ending loading website.
The best way to get site speed in China is to host in mainland China.
When it comes to search in China, we are going to need to break things down by platform between desktop and mobile.
This isn’t necessarily because of the algorithm differentiation or about how many people use desktop versus mobile.
It’s because we have a few different dominant players in each platform.
For example, Baidu and 360 both dominate the desktop while Baidu, Shenma, and Sogou dominate mobile search.
It’s still king in China but it did gain some competitors along the road.
Baidu works pretty much like Google, so there’s no need to talk about how to optimize for Google.
Instead, let’s look at the key differentiators.
Baidu Paid Search
In order to set up an account on Baidu, you need to provide ID, business registration documentation, and necessary hosting licenses if required.
Your agency on the ground should help with this. You will also need to pay a setup fee and a deposit for your ad campaign which is at least ￥5,000 RMB.
Baidu doesn’t invoice you or chip away from your credit card, so you typically need to prepay your media funds if you want to run.
Baidu Paid does operate similar to Google, however, the ads are even harder to differentiate from organic listings.
The advertising-based keywords that are very competitive can dominate the page so you can’t really tell when organic starts unless you pay attention to the marking indicating that it is a paid ad.
Baidu does look at CTR, CPC bidding, and relevancy to assume ranking. You can also add sitelinks, as well as a picture or logo next to your ad creative.
Baidu also has a fantastic brand zone product that allows a brand to basically buy the entire page of Baidu above the fold when a user searches for their brand.
Baidu Organic Search
Baidu operates similarly to Google with organic, but they are still just behind a bit.
Baidu cannot crawl non-HTML content, so do yourself a favor and do not have a site that is not HTML-based.
Baidu’s rich snippets can be much more dynamic and interactive compared to Google. Baidu has their own platform for submitting structured data (Baidu Open or Webmaster Tools) and backlinks, too.
Even though it is getting better at finding more relevancy from the keyword to the site that is providing the backlinks, especially after its “Green Radish” update (similar to Penguin), it’s still behind and can be gamed with link spam – although I don’t recommend that.
Where Baidu excels in comparison to Google, is that it values fresh content more than content based on a bunch of backlinks. So regular content updates is a great idea to show Baidu you are constantly improving your website quality.
New domains must age before they can get ranking, so be patient if you have a new one.
Meta keyword tags and descriptions are also looked at as a ranking factor on Baidu.
If you are relatively new in search and don’t know what meta keyword tags are, find an SEO veteran and ask, you will make his or her day with just the question in itself!
360 Search is equivalent to Bing for Google. 360 Search holds about 25-30 percent of the desktop paid market share.
One big difference, however, is that 360 Search bidding prices are about 50 percent less than Baidu and their conversion rate is slightly better.
It is also much much easier for a non-Chinese company to register (even though there are the same governmental requirements).
360 Search offers no setup fee. However their deposit is much higher at 30,000 RMB. Campaign management tools are available as well, but are only in Chinese.
Mobile Search Engines
Baidu Organic Search on Mobile
Baidu’s Organic Search on Mobile is similar to Google’s mobile ranking, but even more evolved in some ways.
Most people have smartphones, not laptops and desktops in China, so the search engine is focusing mostly on mobile.
For example, Baidu has its own version of AMP, called MIP (Mobile Instant Page).
Load speed is a major factor for mobile as well as mobile-friendly websites.
Baidu dominates the mobile search space with 83 percent of the mobile search market share.
What makes it unique is that the company is behind Sogou Pinyin. Pinyin is how you can take Chinese characters and Romanize them for browsers.
Because of Pinyin, Sogou’s search engine provides a lot more abilities to analyze and categorize the most popular words and phrases.
Sogou is also building artificial intelligence and natural language search technologies, far ahead of its competitors.
Another huge opportunity that Sogou leverages, is its exclusive access to WeChat – China’s largest social media platform.
Sogou Weixin and WeChat search have a special algorithm that is based on four major factors:
In other words, forget backlinks, try to get influencers to read your stuff!
Shenma is the “mobile-first” search engine by Alibaba.
It is noteworthy that in Q4 2017, Shenma mounted a major marketing campaign which saw the search engine’s market share shoot up by an estimated 230 percent, stealing shares from 360 and Sogou.
Although there isn’t a lot of western press on Shenma, this is certainly the search engine to watch out for. Think of it as if Amazon were to create a new search company.
Clearly, the state of search marketing in China is complex. There’s a heck of a lot to think about and plan for.
Webmaster tools, analytics, ad consoles are not in English.
Beyond that, there are regional language dialects that can completely change what you thought were the perfect keywords.
You would be crazy not to have a native speaker or a team on the ground in the mainland.