With over 720 million internet users and climbing, China is a fast-maturing and increasingly valuable online market.
Unlike most of the world, Google has never had a significant presence in China – even before it was blocked in 2010 for failing to comply with the Chinese government’s censorship requirements.
In China, despite increased local competition, Baidu remains the dominant player, with around 70% of the overall search market. Its main rivals are 360 Search and Sogou, each attracting between 10-15% of total internet searches in the country.
The picture is a little different for mobile devices. When removing desktop searches, Baidu’s share (through its dedicated mobile domain m.baidu.com) goes up to almost 90% and Shenma, a new mobile-focused search engine released by e-commerce giant Alibaba, has nearly 10% market share.
Baidu has largely modelled itself on Google since its launch in 2010, so much so that it’s often called the Chinese Google in the West.
The look and feel of the search results have closely followed Google, as have the related services they offer: there are Baidu equivalents of Google Maps, Images, News, Search Console, Analytics and more.
Baidu has also filled the niches that sites like Wikipedia fill in the rest of the world, with their own Baidu Baike encyclopaedia, and their iTunes/Apple Music equivalent, Baidu Music.
The result of all of this is that Baidu dominates its own search engine results pages (SERPs). Most popular keyword searches will return several Baidu-owned properties on the first page, limiting the organic search real estate available for other websites.
Local focus – Baidu only has a Simplified Chinese version (having pulled out of Japan in 2015) and is exclusively focused on the Chinese market.
Its results show a strong preference for Chinese websites rather than displaying sites around the world as is often the case of Google. Baidu do this for several reasons, but mainly to improve user experience – local sites that are inside the Great Firewall tend to be faster and more relevant content-wise than websites targeting Chinese users that are produced and hosted in other countries.
Baidu is also fully compliant with the Chinese government’s content rules; if anything is censored in China do not expect it to be visible on Baidu.
Advert Separation – There is very little distinction between adverts and natural listings, often leading to confusion between what is or isn’t a paid listing.
Meta Keywords Tags – Unlike Google, Baidu takes into account keywords entered in the meta keywords tag when ranking websites. It isn’t a huge ranking factor, but it remains a worthwhile tactic.
Domain Age – New domains tend to take a long time to rank in Baidu, and must age before they gain sufficient trust to rank for anything competitive. There is a similar effect on Google, but it is more pronounced for Baidu.
Text Content – Baidu is strongly geared towards sites with a significant level of content; morsel than Google, where quite thin websites can rank well on the basis of backlinks.
The freshness of content is also important for Baidu – a site that regularly updates its content will gain more of a boost than would be the case for Google.
Backlinks – Although it has made improvements, notably with its Money Plant algorithm update, Baidu’s ability to evaluate the quality of backlinks still lags behind Google. Categories of backlinks that would be considered link spam on Google are often still effective on Baidu and so remain in popular use.
Baidu Trust Verification – Baidu offers a domain verification system, with badges available in Baidu’s results for verified sites. It works in a similar way to verification on Twitter – a signal to users that the site is genuine and has been subject to manual review by Baidu’s staff. A verified site is seen as a more trustworthy site, which can help clickthrough rates.
Like Google, Baidu offers a pay-per-click (PPC) service to allow sites to run ads in the search results. As Baidu is typically slower to respond to newly-built websites than Google, pay-per-click is a great way to access the Chinese market whilst waiting for any SEO efforts to take effect.
The Baidu PPC service, which is very similar in operation to Google AdWords – offering a wide range of targeting options and campaign management tools – can be accessed by Western companies, which is not always the case for online services in China.
More typically for a Chinese business, there are strict regulatory and bureaucratic requirements when setting up an account – you will need to provide ID and business registration documentation, and it will take a while to authorise, so allow for this when planning your first campaign.
A Baidu pay-per-click account also needs funds to be deposited before it can be used – a minimum of RMB5000, which can then be used to purchase ad views, plus a RMB600 fee.
Baidu Tongji (Analytics) is very much like Google Analytics and in a few ways is arguably superior, particularly with regard to localised Chinese data.
The insight from a service like Baidu Tongji is an essential feature of any campaign for China, as it gives you an overview of which marketing efforts are being effective and how users are behaving on the site, e.g. if visitors are being converted into enquiries.
It is possible to use Google Analytics in China, but we recommend Tongji as its data is more reliable for Chinese sites due to the effects of the Great Firewall.