Charles Soon of Covario: why Baidu is just the start for online search marketers in China

Unknown-6Most search analysts know of Baidu as “the Google of China” and associate the same importance with Baidu that Google has in the US. This equivocation is understandable since it is easier to relate the unfamiliar to the familiar, but when attempting to construct a holistic China digital marketing strategy, this tunnel vision can hamstring performance if ranking on Baidu is unsuccessful.

Search engine algorithms are built to answer what people are searching for when heavy volume, critical keywords are searched. Search marketing anticipates user interest and ensures relevant information is available to be found through search engines. Search marketers in the West typically focus on Google as the main search channel for digital marketing. However, when the conversation is about a robust and arguably more dynamic market like China, the clever marketer has to keep in mind certain idiosyncrasies.

Learning from Google Results

Answering the question of what people are searching for should not be particularly difficult. We do, after all, spend every day working with search engines. Search engines use the massive amount of data collected to inform their rankings in a statistical attempt to answer the what question. For search marketers, the search engines themselves should be a starting point of reference.

When checking for the keyword “smartphone” on Google, it is obvious that Google attempts to answer this question in a variety of different ways.

In the search results, Wikipedia stands high as might be expected. News, reviews, images, best cell phone lists, smartphone carriers, smartphone brands, and web portals are all sitting elbow-by-elbow in organic search. On its front page, Google has clearly provided half a dozen answers to half a dozen questions. As search marketers, barring divine insights, we can only assume that Google has intentionally constructed this index because these are answers that people are most likely to be seeking when typing in the keyword “smartphone.”

Learning from Baidu Results

When marketing in China, the clever search marketer has to consider the same question, “What are the questions Chinese consumers ask when they perform a search on Baidu?”

Does Baidu really live up to the expectation that it is similar to Google in the way it answers user queries? Finding this answer is simple enough. A quick check on Baidu for ‘????’, which is the localized translation of “smartphone” in simplified Chinese, yields what the paw print of the East considers important.

There are immediately evident differences. Google offers 10 organic placements in addition to leads that keep the user within Google. Of Baidu’s top 10 organic results, four links lead back to Baidu’s ecosystem (Baike, Weigou, Gouwu, and Image). Baidu Gouwu and Weigou are related to ecommerce. (They translate to “buy” and “group buy,” respectively.) Baidu Baike is China’s version of Wikipedia, and Baidu Image is for images.

Zol is an ecommerce site and its interactive card sits in the top position for “smartphone” in Chinese. Zol appears again to rank in the fourth position, occupying valuable shelf space for an extremely high volume keyword that has more than 600,000 searches per month.

The first site to appear that is not related to either ecommerce or Baidu is, a smartphone app platform that ranks sixth. A cluster of news links occupies the seventh space. Rank eight is yet another ecommerce site, and rank 10 is a mobile blog site called Leiphone.

Baidu’s front page is 70 per cent occupied by other Baidu links, ecommerce, or both. From a search marketer’s perspective, these are not favorable odds for a click-through on Baidu. However, if users are most likely to click-through to these non-Baidu sites that are forums, platforms and conversation hubs, then this presents additional opportunities for engagement.

How Marketers Move the Needle

Consumer behavior is highly communal in China. According to studies conducted by McKinsey, as high as 40 per cent of consumers in China will use social media to share reviews for products they have purchased online. More than 40 per cent of consumers in China will use social media before making a purchasing decision.

From a historical context, Baidu was actually not an early player in China as an information gatekeeper. Pre-Baidu, large web portals operated by Sina, Sohu, and TenCent dominated the information landscape in China. They were not true search engines as are Google and Baidu, but they did function as central hubs where users aggregated to share and find information. What is interesting is that these large web portals are still very much alive and active today, and are frequently consulted in addition to TaoBao, TMall, Douban, and many others to assist in information gathering and decision making.

In this context, Baidu’s search results make more sense. The listings provided on the front page are touch points that lead to more information. Social signals are very commonplace on Chinese websites. Ecommerce sites such as Zol are well aware of the communal aspect of Chinese consumer behavior and include features that provide users easy access to this information (as seen in snapshot below):

The text shown in the red rectangle above translates to “Comments” and “Threads” (for forum posts). Word of mouth is a more significant source of information to the Chinese user. Conversion funnels have adapted to this trait by displaying peer authority with every product.

Another powerful signal of trust is the number of times a product has been purchased. The snippet below displays last week’s sales volume for a specific phone model on TaoBao. Rationally, a popular phone model is likely to be a lower risk purchase than models with negligible sales volumes.

Providing easy access to community validation and trust signals is a common feature seen on many Chinese platforms. The Chinese tendency to research extensively before a purchase means search marketers get more opportunities to place relevant messages before potential customers. An appropriate message in the right place is a low cost investment with a high degree of scalability.

As important as Baidu is, attempting to rank on the front page of a search engine where 40 percent of the real estate is taken up by links to itself is a low win proposition. A holistic digital marketing strategy needs to factor in the behavior of target consumers, rather than targeting one medium because it is familiar.

3db3ab9Charles Soon is a China expert at independent search agency Covario.

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