Why don’t you Baidu it?

An article looking at why native search engine Baidu beats Google in China, and what the larger lessons of this are; first published in Prospect, July 2009

How many internets are there? Pampered by Google, most of us have got used to thinking of the online world as one seamlessly interconnected whole: 30bn pages all instantly accessible via the right search term and the click of a mouse. Yet with the number of people online (1.6bn) likely to double by 2020, we need to start thinking about internets rather than the internet: about a world in which regional idiosyncrasies are as important as global trends and where no single website, no matter how good, can be the key that unlocks every door. And, as with so many other 21st-century trends, to understand this future we must begin by looking at China.

China is already home to the world’s largest online community, with 298m users to America’s 227m. And the most visited website in China is not Google, but a home-grown company still relatively unknown in the west: Baidu. Founded in Beijing in 2000, Baidu today commands over 70 per cent of Chinese search requests, with Google trailing at under 25 per cent. The fact that Google isn’t top is not in itself unprecedented—outside countries that use the Roman alphabet, Google is often smaller than regional rivals. Baidu is especially interesting, however, both because the Chinese-language internet is so large, and because Baidu’s particular package of tools and features has proved so resilient to Google’s considerable efforts to catch up. It’s a resilience that suggests both the limited ability of any one company to dominate an increasingly divergent internet—and some of the ways in which other companies might carve out similar niches elsewhere.

Google’s latest Chinese gambit, announced earlier this year, was to offer hundreds of thousands of free downloadable songs within China—a canny attempt to boost its status in a country where 99 per cent of music distribution occurs illegally. (The Chinese government’s laissez-faire attitude towards copyright borders on the supine.) Yet Baidu has largely held its own. Its music search and social messaging features are better than Google’s and have been around for longer—Baidu began its life as a search tool for mp3s. The company also enjoys a cosy relationship with China’s notorious censors as well as with many of the country’s biggest online businesses. Then there’s the fact that it simply feels more Chinese. The brand identity is aggressively patriotic—its name is from an 800-year-old Song dynasty poem and means “hundreds of times”—while its latest viral advert features a western interloper being vanquished by a Chinese hero.

China’s internet is at once a more fraught and a more intimate arena than the west’s. Censorship has bred many secret codes and evasions that allow off-limits topics to be discussed. These codes in turn have formed a satirical online subculture of their own—most famously in the form of the “ten mythical beasts of Baidu”: animal names that look innocent enough in written characters, but when spoken are recognisable as profanities. (These include the elusive cao ni ma, or “grass mud horse,” allegedly a species of alpaca, but actually a way of smuggling into discussions a phrase that when spoken sounds exactly like the Mandarin for “fuck your mother.”)

As a character-based language, web pages in Chinese need only half as much text as western equivalents to say something—and are read in a different manner on screen, with the eye leaping far more easily from location to location than it does with an alphabet-based language. Then there’s the immense popularity of low-tech bulletin-board style forums. These suit the patchy internet access in many areas, but are also easy to set up in a country with the ever-present threat that sites will suddenly be shut down on a censor’s whim. Limited access to websites outside China has also helped to spur the growth of homegrown forums; and there’s a dearth of quality international journalism, although local discussions are often expert and heated.

How much does all this matter? Those waiting for Baidu to take over the world will have to be patient. Although the company recently launched a service in Japan, its two operations seem insignificant next to Google, which supports over 100 languages and has sites based in almost 200 different territories. Yet even in the face of Google’s sheer scale, Baidu shows how local, specific services can command both loyalty and profits—and shape the future direction of the web. For, as more of the world’s citizens arrive online, the internet will become not just increasingly polyglot, but increasingly poly-platform. Growth in access via mobile phones, for instance, is far outstripping that via computers in Africa and parts of Asia. Google and other giants like Yahoo! are investing heavily in mobiles and in extending their international services. But no matter how good their products, their current level of global dominance will be hard to maintain in a larger, more diverse internet.

Baidu is likely to hold the top spot in China for some time. And, more importantly, there’s every indication that similar services will be able to rule regional markets elsewhere. None of which means you should start shedding Google stock yet: given its record and resources, it’s likely to remain the best worldwide search service, even in the face of competition from new arrivals like Microsoft’s Bing. But global search is no longer the only game in town—and, while the last decade saw Google’s growth match the rapid and seemingly effortless expansion of an open internet, we are now entering an era requiring more effort; a world of blocked and unreliable pipes, multiple platforms, and a wider divide between the types and qualities of internet connection. For all the technical marvels set to bring us closer together over the 21st century, the biggest online story may be one about our growing differences.

Thanks to Anthony House of Google and Sam Geall of chinadialogue.net for their help in researching this piece