When it comes to search engine marketing in the west, companies are on familiar ground. They know that Google dominates the landscape, and they know precisely which approaches yield great results.
Unfortunately, those approaches don’t translate well in China. Google left the country in 2010 over censorship issues, which means that Chinese companies have developed their own alternatives. They have done so successfully. It was an essential effort considering that China boasts over 700 million Internet users. That number is likely to grow in the future. This means that it is critical for western advertisers to make as much use as possible of search engine marketing in China.
The rate of Internet user growth in China surpasses the rate of growth in any other country. With search engine marketing, it’s possible for western companies to reach an incredibly vast audience that might not otherwise ever hear of their brand.
In December of 2015, the Chinese Internet Network Information Center, or CNNIC, released a number of interesting statistics. One of the most important of these numbers was the fact that 566 million people in China regularly use a search engine. This means that a full 82 percent of China’s Internet users are seeing search results on a near daily basis.
Another critical statistic cited by the CNNIC tracks growth of approximately 44 million users on a year-over-year basis. Compare that with numbers in the U.S., where there are 219 million users of search engine services in 2016, representing growth of just four million over the previous year’s estimate.
Google’s 2010 exit from China left something of a vacuum, but Chinese search engines have been quick to fill the void. Three contenders have emerged at the top of the heap. Baidu boasts a 54.3 percent share of the market, but Qihoo 360 is coming on strong with an estimated 29.24 percent share. Sogou, with its special focus on content marketing, currently holds an approximate 14.71 percent share.
In line with its dominant share of the market, Baidu also leads the way in advertising revenue with Qihoo 360 and Sogou trailing it. Statistics say that 2015 search engine advertising revenue reached 68.26 billion RMB, which is the equivalent of 10.55 billion in U.S. dollars. That number is expected to rise significantly in the coming years.
Understanding more about the strengths and capabilities of each of the three most successful search engines in China is key for companies that are hoping to gain a foothold in the country. A brief description of each follows. However, it is generally considered inadvisable for western companies to try to go it alone when it comes to starting a search engine marketing campaign in China. Instead, it makes a great deal of sense to forge a partnership with a company that has long-term expertise in the area.
1. Baidu （百度）
While Google has become noun, verb and a favorite search engine for Americans, Baidu has done the same for the Chinese. People in China who wonder aloud about anything are often told by others to “Ask Mother Du.”
Baidu was created in the year 2000, and it quickly became China’s leading search engine, a status it continues to hold today. Alexa.com has named it the fourth most visited website in the world. With an average six million searches being performed every day on the platform, it’s easy to see how it attained that rank. Baidu is also the revenue leader by a large margin over the other most used search engines in China. With an 54 percent share, Baidu plainly dominates the field.
It does so by offering some unique features that can’t be found on other Chinese search engines. For instance, the company claims to have a unique understanding of both the Chinese language and people that allows them to offer superior services. They use an example of the word “I,” which they say the Chinese people have nearly 40 different ways of saying. The software’s ability to distinguish between each of these uses makes it more capable of delivering relevant results.
Baidu also features a full menu of products that are designed to enhance the user’s experience. Ranging from articles and encylopedia-like entries to more informal options, these products often appear in the first several search results. That’s because Baidu places more weight on search result hits for its own products.
Baidu is an excellent platform for search engine marketing by western firms. With free analytics tools and a multitude of free products, any company may be able to thrive with Baidu as a partner. This search engine’s ongoing popularity makes it the standard of comparison against the other main competitors in the market. Baidu is also ahead of the curve when it comes to fraud protection and security.
2. Qihoo 360 （奇虎 360）
Although it only launched in 2012, Qihoo 360 quickly became Baidu’s closest competition. It has managed to do this by claiming to be the Internet’s most secure search engine. With the powerful security features of the parent company at its disposal, the search engine is easily able to block malicious or fake websites. This promises a much more reliable experience for users. Qihoo 360 has also managed to grab a larger share of advertisers by targeting its efforts to smaller and medium-sized firms that may not be able to afford Baidu’s advertising fees.
Western firms may appreciate that Qihoo 360’s search results pages don’t contain as much advertising as Baidu’s. This means less competition and more visibility all at a lower price point. Still, Qihoo 360’s share of the market is much smaller than Baidu’s, making it important for companies to consider using it as a secondary advertising channel while reserving larger efforts for the dominant search engine.
3. Sougou （搜狗)
This search engine is much smaller than the other two. Nonetheless, there may be important opportunities to explore here for an increasing number of western firms. First established in 2004, Sougou did not see widespread use in China until far more recently. That is due in part to the company’s development of an extremely popular input software, but mostly because of a substantial investment by Chinese Internet giant Tencent. Tencent is the world’s fourth largest Internet company in addition to being the proprietors of China’s incredibly popular WeChat social media platform.
Tencent’s investment came in 2013, with the result that Sougou became considerably more high profile. The search engine became the sole source of results from WeChat content, which means that WeChat fans, of which there are millions, may be more likely to use this search engine. This integration with WeChat worked so well for Tencent that the company forged another partnership with a well-known question and answer website called Zhihu. Continued growth for Sougou is expected, especially since the announcement of an upcoming partnership with Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Sogou has also launched English and Scholar search tools to broaden its appeal to niche markets.
Sougou is busily establishing itself as a content search provider. As such, it can prove to be a valuable partner for content marketing efforts.
With millions of Chinese using at least one of these search engines on a daily basis, western firms that hope to establish themselves in the country can’t afford to ignore this marketing channel. However, it’s also important to understand that search engine advertising in China requires a different approach than what may be useful and effective on western search engines like Google. Intimate, high-level knowledge of the peculiarities of Chinese search engines is required to succeed.
By Anna Khegay