As SEOs, we live and die by Google. So what do we do when we need to improve a site’s performance in China – one of the most powerful global economic markets, but where Google isn’t operational?
Baidu dominates the Chinese search landscape, albeit not to quite the same degree as Google in the Western World – Baidu has a 66% Chinese market share compared to Google’s 88.5% in the US. Baidu-owned platforms Baike and Paw, as well as third-party ones such as Shihu, WeChat and Weibo, have a significant influence in SERPs and you may well find that those sites naturally outrank your own content.
Unless you speak Chinese (or are lucky enough to work with someone who does), the language barrier is often the biggest hurdle. Partner this with the unique Chinese culture, market trends (plus the speed at which they change) and the dominance of mobile technology, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with where to begin.
This article will cover five things to bear in mind when doing SEO in China, with the aim of sending you on your way to organic success in a tricky market.
So, let’s start with an obvious one:
1. Baidu is definitely not Google
Whilst the fundamentals are broadly the same, there are a number of key differences between the two search juggernauts that should affect the way you approach SEO in China:
a) Baidu is only available in Simplified Chinese, so your content should be too
b) SERPs are image heavy, containing more extensive and varied rich snippets than Google
Give your page a fighting chance at being featured as a rich snippet and submit your own structured data via Baidu Webmaster Tools, as traditional Schema markup isn’t recognised by Baidu.
c) Baidu won’t tolerate badly optimised domains as well as Google does
It tends to ignore and not rank them altogether.
d) Non-mobile-friendly pages can be transcoded by Baidu into a ‘mobile friendly’ version, without the owner’s permission, resulting in significant modifications to (or complete removal of) entire sections of your page
These modifications can have a significant impact on the way a user navigates and interacts with your site, the end result being a reduction in engagement or conversion rates.
It’s therefore imperative that your site is already mobile friendly. Baidu has Mobile Instant Pages (MIP) – its own version of Google’s Accerlated Mobile Pages (AMP), but the technical aspects of both are nearly the same.
You should also take advantage of Baidu’s device tag, which signals whether a page is designed for mobile or desktop, uses a responsive design or serves content dynamically.
e) Baidu upweights pages that are close to a user’s location – or the location they are searching for
So, give your local rankings a boost by taking advantage of Baidu’s geolocation metatag. This allows you to optimise to a deeper level than standard metadata when you provide the province, city and even the coordinates of your business.
f) The Chinese firewall follows Chinese nationals around, meaning they will still use Baidu abroad
This is less about Baidu itself but is also an important point. Don’t assume you need to optimise the content that is relevant for people in actual China, instead optimise for Chinese people. If your Chinese site hosts the same content and pages as the Western versions, make sure that content is still available in Chinese. The same goes for local SEO – make sure any locations outside of China are on Baidu Maps.
2. Localisation, localisation, localisation
Before you do anything in China, find yourself a local partner. Baidu and its platforms, tools and competitors are only available in Chinese. If you don’t speak or read Chinese, it’s highly recommended that you find yourself someone who does.
You can understand your business and its needs all you like, but you probably won’t be able to fully grasp every nuance of the market or follow the changes in regulations, trends and technologies like a national.
For example, here at Croud we have an in-house APAC team who, along with a number of market experts on our network, service our clients operating in China and work closely with the SEO team to drive organic growth.
As for language – Baidu is known to prefer sites with content in Simplified Chinese over those in other Chinese dialects or foreign language and is, in fact, more able to parse Chinese that its peers. But it’s a different story when it comes to URLs; where sticking to ‘Pinyin’, or ‘English only’ is preferred, and they should always be kept as short as possible.
A word of caution: be mindful of what topics you cover with your content. Baidu censors anything that it considers to be anti-government or culturally/politically sensitive, but sometimes, to a Westerner at least, there’s no obvious reason behind what gets blocked.
3. Make sure your site and its resources are hosted in China
A ‘.cn‘ domain is one of the most basic requirements for ranking in China. In addition to Baidu’s clear preference for them, users are more likely to trust a site that looks authentically Chinese.
If you’re going to take Chinese SEO seriously, you should actually host your website directly in China. Baidu is widely understood to upweight your site by virtue of the fact the Chinese firewalls can slow down or completely block those hosted abroad.
However, you’ll need an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license in order to secure local hosting, which, in turn, requires a China Business Registration – and THAT requires approval from the Chinese government in the province your business is located, complete with a local address, phone number and photo of the applicant. Sounds easy right? To ease your pain you may wish to use a third party such as Alibaba, who offer a support service to simplify the ICP process.
In addition to hosting within China, you should also ensure that your site and all its resources are on a secure server. This will not only get around any firewall issues but HTTPS provides a minor ranking boost.
Which leads nicely onto my next point…
4. Page speed matters
Another point that states the obvious, but this is especially important to China.
In recent years mobile technology has become a crucial part of day-to-day life in the country. As of 2017, there are over 800m internet users in China, and a massive 98% of them (788m) are accessing the web on a mobile device. And what is crucial to a good mobile internet experience? Page speed.
Whilst there are many things you can do to improve page load speed as standard, there are a couple of extra things to consider when working in China:
- Improve download times by using a Chinese CDN to host images and on-page resources. You may need to be a fluent Chinese speaker to use the majority of services, but ChinaCache and ChinaNetCenter are a couple of popular options for non-Chinese speakers.
5. Take third-party platforms seriously
In Chinese SERPs (especially Baidu) it’s not uncommon to find external websites ranking above your own for branded terms. These sites appear in customer rich snippets and typically occupy 40% of results on the first page, making them very difficult to outrank.
The common culprits will be Baidu’s own content-focused site, including Wikipedia-style Baike, content distribution platform Xiongzhang Hao (or ‘Paw’), and Q&A site Zhidao. If you’ve got a solid SEO strategy already in place, even if it’s not China-specific, it’s more likely that these sites will be your competitors in organic rankings, rather than your usual industry competitors.
Chinese users put a lot of stock in peer-to-peer reviews and user-generated content. It is, therefore, crucial to have a presence on these sites. However, it’s also equally important to appear natural and personable, not sales-ey, as advertising is strictly monitored, if not prohibited altogether.
For some platforms, you will be required to submit your content for approval, which can take some time. Nevertheless, you should keep your profile up-to-date, comprehensive and informative, and make sure you are able to answer user questions when they arise.
Some brands will want to try and streamline their global organic strategies and apply a one size fits all approach. While this is sensible across in some markets and certainly efficient, it is unlikely to perform well in markets with remarkably different conditions and sensibilities. This is no better exemplified than in China, a market with unsurpassed opportunity, but due to its unique cultural, historical and political context must have bespoke modus operandi.
To find out more about our SEO services or about Croud, get in touch.