“Baidu” is China’s version of Google, and according to its CEO, its browser serves 99% of China’s online population. With revenues of $859 million in the first half of 2012 and privileged access to over 1.3 billion people, its future in its domestic market is assured. But can it challenge Google in the world market? Baidu certainly thinks it can, and its strategy is both ingenious and worrisome.
For those who use Baidu, its capabilities are not a patch on Google. It is clunky, and if you put in the wrong word—one not sanctioned by the communist leadership—then you get either an error message: “Search results may not comply with relevant laws, regulations, and policies, and have not been displayed” or “This page cannot be found.” Even when a banned term is not searched, users suspected of trying to bypass the censorship system will find their search time significantly lengthened, a subtle warning that their online behavior is being watched.
There is no better example of how effectively the Chinese government censors Baidu than during the twenty-third anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre, which occurred on June 4, 1989. It goes without saying that searching for “Tienanmen Square” will not turn up any sites about the massacre. Instead, Baidu users received hits on tourist sites. But Chinese paranoia went further. Including any digits that could allude to the anniversary date, such as 23, as well as combinations of 4, 6, 8, and 9, were caught in the censor’s net. In a cat-and-mouse game between Internet users and censors, if activists attempted to type in new search words that even remotely hinted at Tienanmen, they, too, were censored. Consequently, the word “candle” suddenly found itself on the forbidden list because every year since the massacre huge candlelit vigils have been staged in Hong Kong to mark the event. To get around this ban, one activist posted a photo of a single candle flame with the message: “You understand.” Other words banned were “anniversary,” “commemorate,” and “go into the street.”
In a study to test the scope of Chinese censorship of browsers, researchers entered “Falun Gong”, a banned religious group, into Google and received over 880,000 hits, many of them critical of government suppression of this religious group. However, Baidu returned just two percent of this number, and most of the hits blasted Falun Gong. It was also alleged that Baidu reduced access to sites during the Arab Spring, presumably because the Chinese government does not like news getting out that authoritarian regimes can be overthrown.
So let’s go back to how Baidu intends to beat Google in the global marketplace. According to Kaiser Kuo, head of international communications at Baidu, “The bulk of our market is still very developing-world.” To succeed in this market, Baidu has to offer something that Google can’t. It intends to do this by turning a weakness in western markets into an attractive feature when they come knocking on the doors of governments in the developing world.
As Baidu has road-tested what the Chinese government calls “The Golden Shield Project” (more commonly known as the “Great Firewall of China”), it therefore possesses an irresistible marketing advantage over Google when it comes knocking on to doors of repressive regimes that want to ensure that their population doesn’t receive news of uprisings around the world against … well, repressive regimes.
Baidu’s marketing strategy to target developing countries is now in full swing. In 2011, Baidu quietly rolled out products tailored to the Vietnamese, Thai, Egyptian, and Brazilian markets. To support its move into these new markets, Baidu launched a natural language-processing laboratory that will adapt its search engine to Thai, Vietnamese, Arabic and Portuguese. And this is only the start. Baidu’s billionaire founder, Robin Li, promises that the Chinese search engine will “become a universally recognized brand in over half the world’s countries.”