The Baidu galaxy: a lot more than just the “Google of China”
When we speak of Internet companies, global domination is a rather complicated issue.
Even a giant like Google has hard times in overcoming local competitors, especially in the Eastern side of the world. In Japan Yahoo! is n.1 search engine; in South Korea Naver still represents the biggest fish in the lake; and Russia still has in Yandex the best option when it comes to look up for stuff in cyrillic.
Then, of course, there’s China, the most impenetrable social media landscape, yet the most appealing digital market at the moment, with over 600 million Internet users. And while Google has practically no presence in the country, a good 70% of them use Baidu as the main search engine.
Let’s found out out about how Google’s main competitor works – and what are the main differences between the two – starting from a random search: we looked up for the word “Philippines”, and here’s the outcome.
As you can see there are several different kinds of results:
A breakdown of them may help us understand better:
- 1) Result from Baike Baidu, the Baidu Encyclopedia.
- 2) Most recent news.
- 3) Results from Baidu Images.
- 4) Conversations on the Baidu Tieba (Baidu Post Bar).
- 5) Promoted content (agoda.com is a popular Singapore-based online booking service).
As we can see, Baidu offers more than a simple search tool, including not only images, videos and maps, yet also a series of internal portal and communities, together with a pretty well structured series of marketing channels.
Let’s now dig a bit deeper into the most peculiar features of the Baidu platform, including the advertising system and the opportunities for brands’ visibility and marketing.
Videos, Images, Music, Maps
Over the years Baidu has integrated all the basic modern search-engine and web-portal features, such as sections to look up for images, videos and music, with the possibility to stream MP3 songs – similar to the Music section on Russian SNS Vkontakte, yet available only to users in mainland China.
Baidu also has a well evoluted Map system. If you never happened to use it, here’s a screenshot of beautiful Qingdao Century Square seen with Baidu’s satellite view:
Location based systems turned out to be a serious thing in China. Platforms like Jiepang (known as “the Foursquare of China”) and Dianping (biggest review based service in the country) encountered great success, showing that online-to-offline integration is not just a fad, yet a new way for consumers to choose where to go based on their friends’ experience – and great opportunity for companies to grow their business, as we’ve discussed in our post about marketing best practices on Dianping.
Here’s why Baidu is investing so much on its Maps system development: the app allows users to interact with their friends without leaving the Maps section, with the possibility to share messages and reviews, using their Baidu account or eventually connecting through their Sina Weibo ID.
Speaking of mobile apps, Baidu has a section called Shouji, where all the downloadable applications are available, including of course the several location-based services offered by Baidu.
Zhidao is one of the most popular features inside the Baidu’s galaxy. It’s a query-based service where users can ask and respond to questions, and share their knowledge regarding a variety of topics. It’s similar to Yahoo Answers, especially if we consider the Japanese version of it, called Chiebukuro.
So far over 200 million questions has been solved on Zhidao Baidu:
As reported by China Internet Watch, in 2013 Baidu opened Zhidao to B2B companies, with the possibility to have branded accounts to directly respond to customers on the platform.
Baike Baidu, the free Encyclopedia
Baike Baidu is the user-generated Chinese-language encyclopedia service inside the Baidu platform. The Baike section counts Over 3 million user contributions and more than 6 million total entries (just to give a comparison, Wikipedia counts over 10 million articles).
It has a Wikipedia-alike structure, where users have to log-in in order to modify entries, and are rewarded by an internal system of points. Contents are then moderated by Baidu administrators. It covers a huge variety of knowledge fields, although it can’t be defined a proper Wiki system, since a series of sensitive entries are managed – or deleted – exclusively by the back-end office.
Just to have an idea, here’s a random page dedicated to an animal category: the ”Ruminants“.
Of course brands are present too, and the relative Baike page represents part of the Baidu marketing mix, since it’s generally highly visible among the search results. Here’s the article related to a popular fashion brand, Gucci:
Baidu Tieba, the Chinese 4chan
Baidu Tieba is another very peculiar service Baidu offers, consisting in a series of topic-related forums. Registered users can access Tieba to discuss topics, upload pictures or videos, and eventually create new topics by inserting a keyword that has not been already used. Every bar has internal moderators, and the more discussions happen on the topic, the more multimedia material – such as photo albums – can be added to the section.
Here’s the bulletin board for the bar dedicated to the topic “origami“:
Although discussions cover a huge amount of topics, the most popular bars are usually referred to music, sport, entertainment and videogames.
Another thing worth to mention is the impact of Tieba in Chinese Internet subculture, and the similarities to what bulletin boards like 4chan and Reddit represent in English-speaking countries. Over the years, Tieba’s users gave birth to viral phenomenons, Internet memes and underground cultural movements that in some cased became national and international sensations.
One of the most popular example is the “10 Mythical Creatures” stunt, a series of fictional animals whose names resemble words considered profane in Chinese culture, which have been added as Baidu Baike’s articles as a form of protest against Internet censorship. The creatures then became a viral hit among Chinese Netizens, and loads of related multimedia materials have been generated inside Tieba bars (for further info, you can read the “Baidu 10 Mythical Creatures story” on KnowYourMemes).
The most popular of these creatures is the Grass Mud Horse (Cǎonímǎ, which sounds similar to “motherfucker” in Chinese language), that eventually became one of the most important mascots of freedom of speech in China – also used by controversial anti-regime artist Ai Weiwei in one of his most famous performances.
When search meets ecommerce: Gouwu Baidu
In early 2013 Baidu launched a service to index a number of Chinese ecommerce stores such as 360buy, Yihaodian, Vancl and Tencent’s 51.com, together with international portals such as Amzon and Tesco. It can be browsed by using the searchbox or through the selection of different product categories:
Gouwu doesn’t include results from websites belonging to the direct competitors Alibaba group; on the other hand, the Baidu search engine gathers contents from pinboard-websites like Mogujie and Meilishuo, that now represent a very important trend in Chinese Internet, with millions of active users.
Advertising Platform & Baidu Brand Zones
Baidu offers a lot of opportunities for brands to boost their visibility inside the search system. The most traditional one is the advertising platform, based on CPC bids and quite similar to the Google adwords system (more on the Baidu products section, in Chinese) .
More interestingly, Baidu allows companies to create a “brand zone” inside the results page, visible to those users that type-in the name of the company – using search engines to a quite common behavior among Chinese Internet users.
If you’re wondering what a brand zone looks like, here’s Chanel’s one:
As you can see, the first result is a well-structured series of links including the official website, the official Weibo page (with the blue verification icon) and a series of products and sections of the website, visible on the blue boxes. Brand zones can have an even deeper customization, and include rich media too. Here’s the result after looking for Nike:
The outcome is a well-integrated pattern fitting the website, a video, a series of links to specific product lines and the official account on Sina Weibo. Multimedia contents such as pics and videos must be uploaded directly on the Baidu Images and Video section.
How about future trends in the online-to-offline integration?
It looks like they’re on top of that too; as Baidu’s extravagant director of international communication Kaiser Kuo confirmed to Mashable in April 2013, the Beijing-based company is working on a Google Glass-alike project called Baidu Eye, defined by Kuo as a “ocular wearable interface.”
It may happen or it may not, yet one thing is sure: in the every-day-more-complex Chinese Internet, offering a huge variety of products and services is crucial in order to survive and to not lose market share.
If we want to look at companies that clearly understood this paradigm – and acted accordingly – Baidu is probably one of the brightest examples at the global level.