The State of Search Engine Marketing in China

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In 2004, when I started taking search best practices from the US and implementing them in China, Baidu was only a few years old.

There was no such thing as tracking and performance. Even the ads were purchased at a fixed monthly rate.

Add to that the Great Chinese Firewall, government restrictions on advertising, difficulty in language characters and dialects, and a ton of other red tape, making the barriers in many cases seemingly impossible to overcome.

I remember transferring advertising funds for a major brand to our colleague in China and they would physically take the money from the bank, put the equivalent of $10,000 in their backpack and ride their bikes to the office of Baidu to carry out the advertising deposit.

The State of Chinese Search Engine Marketing in 2018

Times have obviously changed.

Baidu is no longer the only search player in China. The “intermediaries”, still in place, no longer manage Baidu’s sales as they used to.

Mobile is almost all of the way things are searched. More than 95% of Internet users in China use mobile devices to connect.

The tracking, although still in Chinese, is now implemented and analyzed. Paid search ads no longer dominate all results.

Programmatic display ads, mobile messaging programs, in-feed ads, forums and apps are now integrating into the search ecosystem.

According to China Internet Statistics, in July 2017, there were 751 million Internet users in China. Of which I guess just over 50 million actually use a desktop computer to access the internet.

With all these people, you would think it would be impossible to fail even if you were to tap into 1% of this market.

While some aspects of search marketing in China have improved over the years, many others 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.

Domain names and ICP licenses

One of the barriers to entering the Chinese market that has not changed is registering a domain name and obtaining a license to host and publish your website.

If you are present in China, these two elements are quite easy to obtain. As a rule, it takes about a month.

However, if you are not physically present in China, the government will require your Chinese agency or someone you know in China who can represent your domain name and ICP license to register with the government.

Keep in mind that this is how the government can 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 send them your money.

It usually takes about two or three months for licensing to take place. These licenses are not optional – you must have them to advertise.

Chinese web analytics

Google Analytics will work in China, but I don’t recommend it as the data may not be accurate.

With the massive 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 – Google Analytics tags won’t fire and you’ll get inaccurate traffic data.

Baidu offers very good free web analytics called Baidu Tongji (Baidu statistics) for anyone who can read Chinese.

If you don’t read Chinese, well, you might struggle to figure out what’s what and confuse your bounce rate with your conversion rate.

Another option is to use Russian Yandex Metrica. Metrica is free, useful, in English and has not been blocked by a firewall.

It could even be interesting to associate Google Analytics with Metrica and to evaluate the rate of difference between the two.

Site Speed

Hahaha, bwahahahahahaha.

This is my usual reaction whenever someone brags about their super powerful global servers which they claim will have no problem penetrating the Chinese mainland.

Here’s the thing.

The firewall isn’t the only thing you have to get through one way or another.

You should also realize that the internet connection speed in China is damn slow.

If your site is lagging, it won’t get a satisfying inbound rate. In this case, your ads may work and lead users to an endlessly loading website.

The best way to get site speed in China is to host in Mainland China.

Chinese research

When it comes to China search, we’re going to have to break things down by platform between desktop and mobile.

It’s not necessarily because of the algorithm differentiation or the number of people using desktop versus mobile.

This is because we have a few different dominant players on each platform.

For example, Baidu and 360 both dominate desktop while Baidu, Shenma, and Sogou dominate mobile search.

Desktop search engines

Baidu

He’s still king in China, but he’s gained a few competitors along the way.

Baidu works pretty much like Google, so there’s no need to talk about optimizing for Google.

Instead, let’s look at the key differentiators.

Baidu Paid Search

In order to create an account on Baidu, you must provide ID, business registration documents and necessary hosting licenses if required.

Your field agency should help you. You will also need to pay a setup fee and a deposit for your advertising campaign of at least ¥5,000 RMB.

Baidu doesn’t charge you or charge your credit card, so you usually have to prepay your media funds if you want to run.

Baidu Paid works similar to Google, however, ads are even harder to differentiate from organic listings.

Ad-based keywords that are very competitive can dominate the page, so you can’t really tell when the organic is starting unless you pay attention to the marking that says it’s a paid ad .

Baidu reviews CTR, CPC bids, and relevance to assume ranking. You can also add sitelinks and an image or logo next to your ad creative.

Baidu also has a fantastic branded area product that allows a brand to essentially buy Baidu’s entire page above the fold when a user searches for their brand.

Baidu Organic Search

Baidu works the same way as Google with bio, but they are still a little behind.

Baidu can’t crawl non-HTML content, so do yourself a favor and don’t have a site that isn’t HTML-based.

Baidu’s rich snippets can be much more dynamic and interactive than Google. Baidu has its own platform to submit structured data (Baidu Open or Webmaster Tools) and backlinks as well.

Even though it is improving to find more keyword relevance to the site providing the backlinks, especially after its “Green Radish” update (similar to Penguin), it still lags behind and can be played with link spam – although I don’t recommend it.

Where Baidu excels over Google is that they value fresh content more than content based on a bunch of backlinks. Regular content updates are therefore a great idea to show Baidu that you are constantly improving the quality of your website.

New domains need to age before they can be ranked, so be patient if you get a new one.

Meta keyword tags and descriptions are also considered a ranking factor on Baidu.

If you’re relatively new to search and don’t know what meta keyword tags are, find an SEO veteran and ask them, you’ll make their day with just the question itself!

360Search (so.com)

360 Search is equivalent to Bing for Google. 360 Search has around 25-30% of the paid desktop market share.

One big difference, however, is that 360 Search auction prices are about 50% lower than Baidu’s and they have a slightly better conversion rate.

It is also much easier for a non-Chinese company to register (even though there are the same government requirements).

360 Search offers no setup fees. However, their deposit is much higher at 30,000 RMB. Campaign management tools are also available, but only in Chinese.

Mobile search engines

Baidu organic search on mobile

Baidu’s mobile organic search is similar to Google’s mobile ranking, but even more advanced in some ways.

Most people have smartphones, not laptops and desktops in China, so the search engine focuses primarily on mobile.

For example, Baidu has its own version of AMP, called MIP (Mobile Instant Page).

Loading speed is a major factor for mobile-friendly and mobile-friendly websites.

Baidu dominates the mobile search space with 83% of the mobile search market share.

Sogo

Also known as Searching Dog, Sogou is the third largest search engine in China.

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.

Thanks to Pinyin, Sogou’s search engine offers much more capabilities to analyze and rank the most popular words and expressions.

Sogou is also developing artificial intelligence and natural language search technologies, far ahead of its competitors.

Another huge opportunity that Sogou is tapping into is its exclusive access to WeChat – China’s largest social media platform.

Sogou Weixin and WeChat search have a special algorithm based on four main factors:

  • Authoritywhich is a barometer of influence.
  • Relevance between searches and summaries of public accounts as well as summaries of WeChat articles.
  • Popularitywhich is the number of WeChat subscribers, plays, forwards and reposts.
  • Frequencyor publishers’ frequency of posting and timeliness of content.

In other words, forget the backlinks, try to get influencers to read your stuff!

Shenma

Shenma is Alibaba’s “mobile-first” search engine.

It should be noted that in the fourth quarter of 2017, Shenma launched a major marketing campaign which saw the search engine’s market share increase by around 230%, stealing shares from 360 and Sogou.

Although there isn’t much Western press on Shenma, it’s definitely the search engine to watch. Think of it as if Amazon were to create a new search company.

Conclusion

Clearly, the state of search marketing in China is complex. There are a lot of things to think about and plan.

Tools for webmasters, analytics, advertising 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 mainland France.

More international research resources:

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