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Chinese avoid Google

Oban Multilingual and EyeforTravel have rounded up the results from their online travel competition survey and found some interesting trends emerging in online Chinese search behaviour.

Results showed that Chinese internet users don’t use Google very often. In fact, none of the Chinese respondents chose Google as their favoured travel search portal.

Google is struggling to win over Chinese internet users. Baidu is China’s most popular search engine. In fact, Baidu's share of the Chinese internet search market rose to 64.4 percent in the second quarter of 2008.

As the internet gains popularity in China, its online market is becoming increasingly competitive. Try as it might, Google can only seem to grasp about a quarter of this market. Yet, search experts say it is not surprising that Chinese people are more drawn to their home-grown site than Western ones.

They give a few reasons for why the Chinese market continues to remain elusive to Google.

First, the millennia-old Chinese language differs immensely from Latin-based languages. Pinpointing queries in the Chinese language is an art rather than a science.

Chinese people type by using a US keyboard layout with Chinese labels printed on the keys. Their system converts typed letters to Chinese symbols by providing several options from which the user chooses the correct one.

Sandra Zerr, an expert on Chinese search behaviour at www.obanmultilingual.com, says that Chinese doesn’t work with letters but meanings. “Knowing how to speak doesn’t mean knowing how to write,” she says. “And seeing something doesn’t mean you know how to pronounce it.” Baidu, she explains, may be better than Google in predicting what is searched for based on symbols typed.

According to Baidu’s company profile, there are 38 ways of saying “I” in Chinese. Since they work only with the Chinese language, Baidu engineers are able to focus on integrating Chinese methods into the Western-based search engine system. Google seems to have trouble with the character-based language.

This leads into the second reason why Chinese people seem to prefer Baidu. According to Enquiro Research, there are technical problems with Google within China. Enquiro’s report on China’s search engine engagement showed that Google’s search algorithm is not adequately matched to Chinese users’ intent. In addition, the report shows that Google’s server is unstable in China. When it isn’t crashing, it is tediously slow. Google is also subjected to governmental restrictions that Baidu is not.

Finally, there is the ‘Chinese’ aspect to Baidu. China has longstanding traditions, and Chinese people are very nationalistic. Baidu can appeal to these preferences. The very name Baidu is a poetic Chinese name dating back 800 years. Baidu frequently advertises in China, representing itself as the strong Chinese warrior, and the silly, clueless westerner obviously symbolising Google.

So why should the travel industry care about Chinese internet search behaviour? Glad you asked.

Web use in China has grown by 500 percent over the past five years. There are now 137 million Chinese internet users, making it a bigger online market than the UK, France, and Germany combined.

This figure still only represents an eighth of China’s internet population. Bear in mind that two-thirds of the UK population are already online.

Over the past year alone, internet usage in China has jumped by a staggering 53 percent.

China’s online consumption hit nearly £30 billion in 2007. This number is predicted to rise by nearly 50 percent this year, according to a survey conducted in Netguide 2008.

Chinese internet users also tend to spend longer online than their Western counterparts. According to a study by major Beijing-based company Sohu.com, Chinese users average nearly 16 hours per week, whereas CNET says Brits only average 11.

China is by far the world’s largest internet market. Of those Chinese on the internet, 90 percent (surveyed in August 2007) said they will shop online in 2008.

Greig Holbrook, managing director of www.obanmultilingual.com, says that because of these factors, it makes more sense than ever for travel companies to make sure that optimisation for China is focused on local search engines.

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