Search in China: An Introduction to Baidu

While Google made headlines last year over Dragonfly, the search engine prototype said to be in development for Chinese markets, it should come as no surprise that the tech giant would be testing the ground for doing what they do best in this emergent market. But one company has already established itself as the search solution for China.

The Chinese digital landscape functions independently within its ecosystem, separate from the rest of the world. Mainland China doesn’t use Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Youtube, but it does have equivalents that are distinguished but similar to its Western counterparts. In China, WeChat replaces Facebook and WhatsApp combined, Weibo replaces Twitter and Instagram, and the newest social media kid on the block, Xiahongshu, replaces Pinterest.

And of course, Baidu replaces Google.

Examining Chinese SEO can lend an interesting perspective to the optimization standards you’re likely more familiar with. Baidu functions with algorithms similar but different from Google’s. Exploring the basics of optimization for Chinese search, you will discover a plethora of new search terms, keywords, and techniques with parallels to the ones you may already understand. Let’s take a look at some of the fundamentals of optimizing for this unique search market.

Understanding Chinese Search Habits

Whether discussing Chinese or Western SEO, the process and principles of optimizing a site are similar. Understanding search behaviors, audience intent, and device usage trends provides context that can help you better optimize to the needs of users and for search visibility.

Chinese users generally prefer using their personal mobile phones, and seldom use laptops or desktops. Like their Western counterparts, it makes most sense for Chinese digital marketers to optimize for mobile usage and focus on mobile indexing to drive traffic to their site. Western users are a bit slower to make the switch to being fully mobile, but rising rates of mobile usage lead to Google’s mobile-first index launching in 2018.

The Chinese are more inclined to use their phones over desktops and are open to any sort of automation within their digital ecosystem. Chinese users are likely to embrace new search technologies with an open mind. For example, almost all (97 percent) of the search users use the search "auto-completion" function, and the number of users using image or voice search has reached 68 percent. Because of the simplicity and convenience of image and voice search, older consumers may tend to use these functions more often than younger ones.

Website Optimizations for Baidu

Provided you aren’t fluent in the language, one of the best resources for anyone entering the Chinese market is a partner who is a native speaker. Google Translate won’t cut it — often, English inputs will be translated inaccurately in Chinese, which can lead to foundational missteps during key stages of SEO execution, like keyword planning, content development, and reporting. Additionally, the majority of Baidu’s platforms are only available in Chinese. Having a partner who is a native speaker is essential when undertaking any kind of digital marketing in the Chinese market.

As you begin digital marketing and SEO planning, keep in mind that while there are similarities between SEO for Western or Chinese markets, you can’t rely entirely on the standards you might already be accustomed to. Methods of optimization are a bit different than those Western digital marketers might recognize as current best practices — for example, heavy usage of meta tags can be valuable when optimizing for Baidu.

However, some things are the same between the two markets. In general, avoiding reliance on Flash, images, JavaScript, or iFrame to display important content or links is still a good call: the Baidu spider can’t recognize or will ignore these formats while crawling your site.

Search Engine Tools, Support, & Products

Search engine users and site managers alike are familiar with the variety of products, services, and solutions Google offers: Google Ads, Google Maps, Google Search Console, and Google Analytics, just to name a few. Like its Western counterpart, Baidu has similarly developed a variety of complementary solutions integrated with its search engine.

Baidu Webmaster Resource Platform is the world's largest official platform for Chinese webmasters, mobile developers, and marketers to learn about SEO for Biadu. It provides tools, SEO suggestions, API interfaces, multi-terminal service adaptation capabilities to help site managers develop search-friendly sites. The platform provides many useful SEO features like site crawl issue notifications, the opportunity to submit content to Biadu for indexing or notify Baidu of broken links, and tracking for rankings, click, and impressions.

Like Google, Baidu also periodically adjusts the algorithm powering the engine to improve the quality of the search experience. Baidu prioritizes user experience and content quality above everything else. On the Webmaster Resource Platform, Baidu will publish the main direction of adjustment, giving webmasters insight on how to best adjust their practices.

Baidu Tongji (Baidu Analytics) is a free tool that derives insights for site managers from Baidu’s traffic data. It provides solutions for performance analysis, marketing, development, and user management. Featuring versions for webmasters, PPC advertisers, and mobile app developers, reporting is tailored to the needs of the user. Useful reports include acquisition reporting, audience insights reporting for demographic, device, and behavior data, and SEO suggestion reporting.

With so much of the Chinese market accessing the web from mobile devices, it’s no surprise that there is a Chinese equivalent of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). Mobile Instant Pages (MIP) is a set of open technical standards applied to mobile web pages. Through MIP, the content of a page will reach the user nearly instantaneously, without wait time to load.

User-side, Baidu has released a variety of consumer services integrated with Baidu’s search engine. Baidu Baike, a collaborative encyclopedia, Baidu Zhidao, which functions similarly to Quora, and a forum-based platform called Baidu Tieba are some of the most popular of these platforms.

Keyword Research and Planning

Keep in mind that, though we’ve touched on the importance of solid translations already, during the process of keyword research and planning, it really is vital and cannot be overlooked. A native Chinese speaker will be able to provide the best insight and context about keyword usage and concepts like intent. This will ensure accuracy during such a foundational step of campaign planning.

There are a variety of resources and tools available for keyword research and planning for Chinese sites. One great way to start is with with a review of the SERPs for your target keywords. Review search suggestions and related searches — two Baidu SERP features that will look familiar to anyone who has utilized Google’s equivalents.

The Baidu Index, which is similar to Google Trends, also provides insight on relevance and semantic relationships of keywords, popularity in search trends, and data about rises and falls in trends for specific keywords. Additionally, Baidu Index provides insight into users and their behavior, such as which keywords a user searched before and after searching for target keywords, and demographic trends.

Baidu’s keyword planner is aimed at PPC marketers, but is a great resource for SEO as well. While limited in volume functionality — you can only input one keyword at a time — this tool provides insight on search volume and competing keywords. However, there are significant limitations to using this tool: you must have a Baidu PPC account to access it, which also requires your business to have official registration with the Chinese government.

Baidu Webmaster Tools also provides a great deal of keyword data where Baidu Tongji (Analytics) sometimes leaves gaps. Using Baidu Webmaster Tools, you can determine which keywords are currently driving your organic traffic and identify pages with high clicks but lower rankings, indicating there’s opportunity for the page if rankings are improved. However, the availability of data in Webmaster Tools is tied to existing rankings and traffic, and if a site isn’t ranking well already or is lacking in traffic, data won’t be available.

External Linking, Online Reputation, & Brand Exposure

Like Western sites, rankings of Chinese websites are influenced by external backlinks and link neighborhoods, but different rules apply: site managers of China's websites can’t publish content with obsolete external links.

In practice, the link building process doesn’t differ much — brand mentions are one popular link building tactic for Chinese sites. For sustainable link building, a site still needs to provide real value and linkable assets to secure a link on third-party sites, no matter if it serves the Chinese or Western market.

If the quality of external links is poor, it may also lead to negative effects on rankings. A 2016 update to Biadu’s algorithm that heavily targeted spammy link building tactics would look familiar to any SEO who weathered the impact of Google’s own Penguin update in 2012. Baidu’s approach to handling link spam has been to suggest link building is an ineffective way to influence rankings — though Chinese SEOs tend to take Baidu’s statements with a grain of salt. Sound familiar?

Optimizing for Baidu, there are best practices that parallel SEO techniques you may already practice, and others that diverge from the familiar.

As the Chinese market continues to grow, so does the opportunity. Understanding the fundamentals of SEO for Baidu is just one of the first steps in developing a plan to capture success through digital marketing. As with any international marketing, research and planning will ultimately lay a foundation for successful business.

Tania Lobo
Tania Lobo
Tania Lobo writes content for Digital Crew on topics around Chinese, Indian, Japanese digital marketing and technological advances in the APAC region. She doles out strategic information on global expansion to investors through her blogs on the website.