China has been on the news a lot in the last years. The growth of its economy is leaving people in disbelief. It seems like not even a month goes by without some superlative-spouting news about the People’s Republic. Not just since Alibaba, the China-based e-commerce giant, landed the biggest IPO in history is the world looking toward Asia’s powerhouse and its growing industry and service sector.
Yet with all the news and commotion, China’s online market is still a bit of a Pandora’s box for most internet marketers. Very few people dare to venture there for lack of available information. However, as the numbers below will prove, nobody can claim that it doesn’t hold a lot of potential. To remedy this situation, in this article we will take a closer look at the PRC’s online environment and how to get your website ready for it.
Some facts and figures about China’s online market
- Between 2000 and 2011 the number of internet users in China has grown by 1500%.
- There are more than 600 million Chinese internet users. That means that roughly 50% of the population is online. It also means the Chinese provide almost a quarter of the world’s internet users. And yes, there is another 600 million waiting to access the web.
- By sheer numbers, Chinese is now the most-spoken native language on the internet. Let that sink in for a minute.
- More than 400 million people in China shop online. The e-commerce market is estimated to reach more than $300 billion in revenue this year. With these numbers, China has officially surpassed the US as the world’s largest e-commerce market. On top of that, purchases from online retailers overseas have doubled annually in the last three years.
Exploring the Chinese search engine landscape
In the US and most other western countries, everyone is optimizing their site for Google. On a global scale that makes sense. The giant from California is the undefeated champion of search engines in the world, boasting a market share of around 70%. The search engine landscape in the People’s Republic, however, is a whole different one.
One of the biggest surprises to many is that in China the almighty Google only owns a measly few percent share of the search engine market (compared to 67.6% in the US). The big players in the local environment are called Baidu, Sogou, and the recent upstart Qihoo 360. Of them, Baidu pretty much holds the position that Google has in the rest of the world. The company claims to handle 1 billion search requests per day.
While the market share of China’s biggest search engine has declined by 20% in the last few years (from nearly 80% to 63.16%), it still holds the pole position in the PRC. As a consequence, if you are looking to rank your website in China, it is best to optimize for this service. The competitors Sogou and Qihoo are relatively new and their SEO guidelines are not yet well-known. Therefore, while it is important to keep those two in mind, in the following we will go over which measures you can take to appear on the radar of the PRC’s search engine giant.
On-site optimization for Baidu
Like Google, Baidu takes website load speed into consideration. Consequently, websites from servers within the People’s Republic have an edge over those located outside the country. They load faster and rank better. It is therefore recommended to find a Chinese host and get a .cn or .com.cn top-level domain. Going through Hong Kong is said to be easier than searching for a host in mainland China.
Likewise, a legitimate physical address in the People’s Republic should be included somewhere on the website. This will establish that it is China-based and help your organic search rankings.
Recently the Chinese government also requires websites to have a so-called Internet Content Publishing License. For any chance of achieving high rankings in Baidu, you will need to obtain an ICP License through the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Translate your site to Chinese
Baidu literally speaks a different language (as do the other Chinese search engines). It is therefore paramount to properly translate your website. When converting the language it’s important to keep the following in mind:
- Never machine-translate: The Chinese language is full of ambiguity, synonyms, and wide fields of word meanings that are highly dependent on context. Even literal translations are often insufficient. It is therefore advised to employ a native speaker who can interpret context as well as word usage.
- Use pinyin and simplified Chinese: Dialects in China are numerous and pronunciation differs vastly. For transliteration, Baidu prefers the pinyin phonetic system. Most of its searches are also performed in simplified Chinese as opposed to traditional characters which are mainly used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. If possible, also use pinyin in your domain name.
Place important information on top
China’s internet infrastructure is less sophisticated than in many Western countries and Baidu’s site crawlers are not as powerful as those of other search engines (though both are catching up quickly). Baidu will therefore try to grab as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time. That means it will sometimes only load the top of the content and the top-level pages, consequently:
- Keep the important information on top: The bulk of important content, including target keywords, should be at the beginning of of each page. This practice makes correct indexing more likely.
- Include keywords in the url: Remember to stick to Pinyin and simplified Chinese.
- Avoid deep url structures: If possible, only go one or two levels deep.
In contrast to other search engines, which have started to fade them out, meta tags are still important for Baidu. Again, make sure everything is written in simplified characters and translated by a native. The most important meta tags are:
- Page title: Titles are of the same importance in Baidu as they are in Google. Some actually suggest that the Chinese search engine emphasizes them even more strongly. Keep in mind that a simplified Chinese character is equal to two Roman characters and that consequently the limit for title length is 35 characters. For page titles use a keyword-rich phrase that describes the page’s content and include the site name on each page.
- Meta Keywords: Yes, meta keywords are still a ranking factor on Baidu. Use 3-5 keywords phrases, make sure they are optimized but avoid stuffing.
- Meta Description: The description should be a well-written text with a strong call-to-action. Make sure to include target keywords. Do not exceed crawl length to avoid cropping, the limit for simplified Chinese characters is 78.
- Header and alt tags: Baidu places much more importance on header tags in its ranking algorithm. Make sure each page has an h1 tag that appears before any other heading and that your tags follow a hierarchy. Be sure to incorporate keywords inside H1, H2, and H3 titles but, again, no stuffing.
- Image alt tags: Baidu’s image-crawling algorithm is relatively basic and the ALT attribute the most important ranking factor. Therefore, make sure you use it for every image.
Guidelines for content creation targeted at Baidu rankings do not differ too much from other search engines:
- Provide high quality, original content: Baidu has been catching up with Google and places high value on user experience. Therefore it is a good idea to follow the same unique content rules as you would when optimizing for Google. Avoid duplicate and low-quality content, make sure every piece is unique. Make use of canonical links and taxonomies. Also check for content scrapers and request the removal of scraped content.
- Keyword density and content length: Keep a keyword density of around 6-10% and make sure the content consists of at least 300 words.
- Keep you content fresh: Like other search engines, Baidu rewards fresh content. Make sure to refresh your site on a regular basis.
- Robots.txt: Baidu does not like websites that have a robots.txt file and it should therefore be removed. Any important rules that would normally go into that file should be set in .htaccess or inside IIS server settings.
It is no secret that the Chinese government censors its citizens’ internet access. It is said that there are about 40,000 banned keywords, however, an official list does not exist. Banned topics include: Democracy, Falun Gong, Human rights, Corruption, Prostitution, Pornography, Taiwan independence, the Tiananmen massacre, and others.
Using keywords concerning these topics can get websites banned from search results. The below resources give a good overview over blacklisted keywords, albeit are far from complete.
- BlockedonWeibo Tumblr site (note: this blog is about blocked keywords on one of China’s biggest social media sites, not in the general internet access)
- Blacklisted keywords in China on Wikipedia
Off-site optimization for Baidu
Submit sites directly
As a consequence of the limited abilities of Baidu’s crawlers, submitting sites and sitemaps directly to the search engine is a good way to make certain they get indexed (see resource section for the respective links). Before submitting:
- Make sure you use a simple navigation structure that any web crawler can figure out.
- Adhere to clean usability to make the best use of the limited crawl time.
- An XML sitemap still helps, but not as much as direct submission.
- Re-submit every time major changes are made to your website.
A general consensus exists that Baidu cares more about the quantity of inbound links than the quality. Building lower-quality links is still an acceptable practice. That being said, Baidu is quickly catching up on best practices of other search engines. What works today may not work a year from now or work for other Chinese search engines. Efforts should therefore always concentrate on “white hat” link building.
- Inbound links: Higher value is placed on links from Chinese websites, which is not surprising given the priority to local hosting. For backlinks, target websites with a .cn domain that use simplified Chinese characters.
- Internal links: Baidu takes the volume of internal links into consideration and appears to use it in order to rank the authority of pages on a domain.
- Anchor text: Baidu places considerable weight on keyword usage in anchor text. All internal links should therefore be equipped with a keyword-optimized anchor text. When building incoming links, try to optimize the anchor text if possible.
- Outbound links: Baidu does consider the amount of quality outbound links on websites. How much, however, is hard to quantify. It is recommended that you link to what is going to be useful to your reader.
Tools for Baidu
- Baidu’s website submission tool: Submit your website here for faster indexing
- Baidu’s keyword research tool: Research keywords for your site
- Baidu Top: Top-ranking keywords on Baidu similar to Google Trends
- Baidu Index: Compare search volumes and trends, similar to Google Insights
- Baidu Webmaster Center: Baidu’s very own webmaster tools
- Baidu Tongji: Free and paid web analytics from Baidu
- Baidu Share: Baidu’s social sharing tools
Social media in China
When attempting a social media strategy, be aware that Facebook and Twitter are blocked in the PRC and that China has its own social platforms. It is also important to note that social media usage is relatively low. How to optimize your social media strategy for the Chinese online market is beyond this article, however, the most important platforms are:
- Qzone – China’s largest online social network
- WeChat (Weixin) – China’s second-largest messaging app
- Sina Weibo – A Twitter-like microblogging platform
Nick Schäferhoff is an entrepreneur and writer/blogger from Germany. He learned WordPress when he needed a website for his first business venture and instantly fell in love. He is passionate about health, productivity, and continuous learning, which he writes about on his lifestyle blog. When not building websites, he likes to travel the world, experience other cultures, and learn new languages.