Search Engine Optimization for China
By Saurav Bhattacharyya for China Brain.
When you are looking at optimizing your online presence in China, there’s really only one search engine to worry about; Baidu, which until recently claimed almost 80% of the search share. Last year it took a small dip when Qihoo, a local security vendor and internet provider, launched its own search engine, 360 Search and gained around 15% market share but it still handles 60-70% of all web searches in China.
In the same way that Google dominates the search space in the United States, Baidu dominate the mainland China search market. A combination of government restrictions, local knowledge, language skills, and more than a little skill has seen Baidu emerge as the search engine of choice for the half a billion Chinese who use the internet regularly.
As a result, Baidu’s search engine is the cornerstone for companies looking to expand their businesses in China. But even if a company has a handle on how to negotiate and optimize their website for foreign search engines attempting to do the same for Baidu is not possible: Baidu is not Google, and optimizing your site for Baidu is a different process than optimizing for Google.
- Domain Name. Baidu prefers domains that use a .cn top level domain (TLD). While there will be .com and .net sites ranked by Baidu, and especially as the search engine expands its reach, Baidu continues to favor .cn domains and they consistently rank higher
- Hosting. Whereas other search engines don’t particularly care where your site is hosted (save for any impact on site speed, of course) Baidu wants your site hosted in China. While Hong Kong counts for this purpose and has the bandwidth to serve the mainland, Taiwan definitely does not.
- Physical Address. Baidu favors sites that have a physical presence in China, or at least the semblance of a physical presence. This doesn’t mean that you need to open and staff a Beijing office or rent space in Shanghai. But you should make sure that you have local Chinese contact details on your site.
- Censorship. The Chinese government enforces a strict censorship regime for all online activities in China. Baidu indexes sites in line with this policy so anything that violates the censorship regime will see a site either refused listing or de-indexed from Baidu’s database.
- ICP License. Typical of China’s bureaucratic governance all websites should apply for an Internet Content Publishing (ICP) license. It is not difficult to obtain but generally takes around a month to secure when documents are all in order. Without an ICP license, ranking high on a Baidu is difficult.
- Language. Your site should present its content in Chinese, but be warned: not all Chinese is Chinese to Baidu. Baidu has a strong preference for Simplified Chinese (otherwise know as Mandarin) and while it will also index Traditional Chinese, it doesn’t rank dialects, Cantonese, or other foreign language sites (English, French, Spanish, or German) highly.
Meta-Tags. According to Search Engine Land Baidu’s ranking algorithm pays close attention to the meta-tags that Western search engines place less importance upon. These include:
- Title Tags. These should include your keyword and be written in the same style as per Google or another search engine. However, Baidu also encourages sites to put their brand or company name in every title, too, preferably at the end of the title.
- Meta-Descriptions. While a minor ranking factor for Google, Baidu ranks sites with relevant meta-descriptions that include the page or post’s keyword higher than those that ignore this meta-element. Make sure your meta-descriptions are well written to rank higher.
- Alt-Tags. Baidu prefers all images include an alt-tag that is relevant to the post and page it is published on. For businesses building a local Chinese site based on an existing English language site, these tags are so easily overlooked. Make it part of your initial site build to add these.
- H-Tags. Baidu treats h-tags similarly to other search engines. Every page should have at least a H1 tag, and H2 and H3 tags should be used to break up content without skipping any heading levels. Make sure your keywords are repeated in your H-Tags.
- New Content. Baidu favors newer content over older content and so a useful optimization strategy is the regular creation and publication of new, fresh content. For business this could include hosting a blog, regularly adding press releases and media releases, and ensuring that content is engaging and is published on a regular schedule.
- Unique Content. All search engine penalize duplicate content but Baidu is particularly harsh. Your content should be unique, not only on your site but also online. This means being aware of ‘scrapers’ and bots that take your content and republish it elsewhere on the web. Acting quickly to address instances of plagiarism will help avoid penalties from Baidu for duplicate content.
- Anchor Text. Baidu pays close attention to your anchor text so for internal links (those directing users to another part of your site instead of an external URL) you should make sure you are aligning the anchor text with the nominated keyword for that page or blog post. This is good SEO practice for other search engines, too, but especially important for Baidu and in China more generally.
- To the Top. Numerous China-based SEOs report that the Baidu crawlers are not as powerful as Google’s bots, and recommend placing important keywords near the top of the page. While this is a good strategy for Western search engines, too, it is especially important if Baidu’s crawler does not manage to make it to the bottom of your content before moving on.
- Load Time/Speed. Speed is a ranking signal for most search engines, but for Baidu it is a very important signal. As a result you should aim to keep your page load times as low as possible. Having a local host and stripping the site of extraneous code (in particular anything that uses the Google API), heavy images, and unnecessary code will help here
- Multiple Domains. Baidu penalizes sites that include multiple domains and sub-domains. Your Chinese site (.cn) should be only your Chinese site. Do not host your Taiwanese, Mongolian, or Vietnamese site on a sub-domain, or even on the same server. Stick to a single Chinese language or bi-lingual site with a single domain hosted in China.
- Flash. While Google has had the ability to crawl and index Flash-based sites and Flash elements since 2008, Baidu does not crawl Flash and will not index Flash elements in its database. Avoid Flash altogether for your Chinese.
- Baidu Webmaster Tools. Like other search engines, Baidu has its own Webmaster Tools package. It i worth registering with Baidu’s Webmaster Tools for, even if they remain less advanced than Google or Bing, they allow website owners to gather basic statistics, check sitemaps are correct, and check robots.txt films are in order. Find the (Chinese language only) Webmaster Tools here.
- Quantity Counts. Baidu is a little different to other search engines in that it considers the number of backlinks pointing to your site an important ranking factor in determining your site ranking. This, of course, opens the door to link farming and all sorts of black-hat SEO techniques that fail on Google but still work – to a certain extent – on Baidu. However, engaging in these sorts of practices is something you’ll do at your own risk: Baidu is constantly improving and while the end is not yet nigh for this sort of thing, it is growing closer every day.
- Quality Counts. The quality of the backlinks pointing to your site continues to grow in importance on Baidu. As the search engine evolves, this is expected to only become more important, too. Hence, building quality backlinks to your website is going to be a key to achieving and maintaining a ranking for the keywords that you’ve identified as important for your Chinese language business activities.
Search engine optimization (SEO) should be seen and a progressive thing done over months, not a one time fix: its all about making small changes and refinements over time. Expect your site to progressively gain viewers and site search position for your main keywords.
Saurav Bhattacharyya is Managing Director of China Web Designers, a Beijing based website localization and development company. Having lived and workied in China since 1997, he has an excellent understading of the China internet landscape and issues foreign companies, in particular, face when considering their on-line presence.