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Google is searching for users in China

The U.S. giant is far from a household name in the Asian nation, lagging behind domestic rival Baidu. It's taking steps to change that.

September 21, 2009|David Pierson

BEIJING — Google Inc. has endured the ire of the Chinese censorship machine. In its nine years in China, it has been slowed down, shut down and accused of peddling smut.

The Mountain View, Calif., search engine also has been humbled by its main Chinese rival, the home-grown Baidu Inc., which enjoys double the market share and has long been suspected of receiving preferential treatment from the government.

Now, with the resignation of its popular chief of China operations, Kai-Fu Lee, Google appears to have taken another punch to the chin in its quest to win over the world's largest and fastest-growing Internet market.

Lee stepped down from his post early this month to launch a $115-million fund to finance Chinese tech start-ups.

On the surface, Google's squabbles with Chinese authorities appear to be the company's primary challenge. Over the years, service has been intermittently stopped and delayed by the government. This despite Google's agreement to block politically sensitive sites, a move criticized by free-speech advocates.

But some analysts say Google's shortcomings in China can be directed to its most glaring weakness: lack of brand awareness.

Google, a leader in innovation, may be the search engine of choice for China's elite. But two-thirds of the country's 340 million Internet users are young and not college-educated. Many of them are drawn to Baidu's easy access on its home page to pirated songs and online message forums, neither of which are quite so easy to find with Google.

"It's not that Baidu is doing a better job than Google with products; some are actually worse," said Edward Yu, chief executive of Analysys International, a Beijing tech consulting firm. "The problem is brand awareness. People don't know Google. They don't even know how to pronounce it."

Google renamed its Chinese site GuGe three years ago because people here struggled to speak and spell its name. But even that has failed to fully resonate; many Chinese choose instead to call the search engine GoGo. Internet users have only to type G.cn in the URL to access Google's Chinese site today.

Analysts say one of the reasons Lee was resolved to leave his post at Google was because of disagreements with the U.S. headquarters over marketing strategies in China. They say it was hard for officials in the West to comprehend the complexities of the Chinese market, coming as they do from an area of the world where Google already is so dominant.

"Google never seemed to drive brand awareness," said David Wolf, president of the Beijing tech and media advisory firm Wolf Group Asia Ltd. "Let's face it -- it grew most places by word of mouth. It's never had to build a marketing operation. Here it's entirely different."

John Pinette, a Google spokesman in Hong Kong, said promoting the company's products was one of the biggest challenges in China but hinted that more aggressive marketing was on the way. And although the company regretted Lee's departure, Pinette said, Google would still distinguish itself by creating cutting-edge features.

"People associate us with foreign searches and English-language searches," Pinette said. "It's up to us to present Google to university students or other people [in China] as a relevant and interesting place to go."

Google got a head start in China, introducing a Chinese-language version of its search engine in 2000, a year before Baidu launched its site. But Google ran its site from the U.S. for several years, waiting until 2005 to open an operation in China. That gave Baidu time to build its organization, ramp up its sales force and snatch advertising from Google.

Baidu is a "faster and more nimble competitor," Pinette said. Google said this month that it would double the size of its sales team in China, though Pinette declined to say to what level. Google marketing teams are currently traveling to 25 cities in China trying to promote its services to small firms.

Despite accusations that Baidu blurs the line between its search results and paid advertisers, the domestic search engine has dominated the marketing and public relations front.

"Baidu has played the local card very well," Wolf said. "The perception is it services Chinese needs better."

Baidu representatives did not respond to several requests for an interview.

Several years ago, a Baidu video advertisement circulated online depicted a Chinese man in Ming Dynasty garb using wordplay to batter a Western man speaking poor Mandarin. The message: Google doesn't speak Chinese. Baidu does.

"I only use GoGo to find foreign websites," said Ye Zhihui, a 28-year-old computer programmer in central Henan province. "If I need anything in Chinese, I use Baidu."

As in the United States, search engine names have become a verb in China. But when Ye needs to search something, he doesn't say "Google it." Instead, he says, "Baidu yixia" ("Baidu a little").

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