With over 70 percent of the search market share in South Korea, there was a bunch of skepticism in Japan when Naver announced that they would be re-entering the Japanese market with their search engine platform in July of 2009.
The skepticism was not unfounded - Naver's "enjoy Japan" search engine was shut down in 2005 , and going after established Search champions Yahoo Japan and Google after a further four year hiatus appeared to be a rather fruitless endeavor.
But judging from the results in 2012, one would have to say that this time they have done it right.
Naver was always a search engine that didn't rely solely on a robot crawler - much of the appeal of the service was their unique way they "pre-curated" and aggregated content. Naver were the first to market with their "knowledge" platform in 2002, a question and "best answer" voting service that would be replicated by Yahoo and other portal services around the world three years later.
And if you need more examples of how their "curation" model works their image search is a perfect example - preselected categories of male/female talent whose images are likely to be searched is the actual starting point of the service.
Despite this though, the search habits of Japanese haven't changed - they use either Yahoo or Google (#1 and 2, respectively), both interestingly enough powered by Google.
Where Naver has succeeded is in using this strength curation to exploit heretofore undeveloped niches - the Naver Matome service in news aggregation, and the LINE free call and mail service in appealing to younger Japanese.
Naver Matome is both a curated and user-generated news aggregation service. A recent survey from Dentsu showed that almost one in five Japanese use News Aggregation Services to compiles lists of links of topics, especially appealing to 20 something men. Within that group, Naver finds itself with the largest audience share averaging over 13 million unique users per month. And though a lot of services like "Scoop.it" exist that simply allow hobbyists to do the same thing, Naver has also monetized incentives for their curators - if your "Matome" drives traffic, they will pay you a (small) portion of the ad dollars they receive back to you.
Despite that though, the availability of quality deep dives of information in Japan hadn't existed in an easy to read or find format to date, and only used Japan's 2ch as a source.
Matome has done a great job in exploiting and making mainstream what was once a niche confined to conversations focused on largely otaku-themed message threads.
And as a marketer, the service not only now plays a key role in affecting your brand's search ranking, beyond that it is now an essential part of any PR strategy your company may have as it provides an opportunity to curate and compile news that has both a corporate and social feel to it.
This has been far and away Naver's most successful launch in Japan. It boasts over 55 million users, with over 25 million in Japan alone. As it's added the features as it's gone along, by numbers (not necessarily by active use) this would make it Japan's biggest SNS, while also being the most successful "born in Japan" application/service created to date.
It's easy to see how it's gotten such a wide following to start with - With the highest smartphone bills in the world and a younger generation with dwindling purchase power, it provides core services that help out - free calls and text. On top of that it has also successfully created a social graph focused platform and eco-system that layers on tools and services that capture the strapped for cash teen to 20 something Japanese mobile consumer lifestyle so succinctly.
Starting with a free, anonymous if you want it to be timeline inspired mobile social network, this eco-system also now includes a camera app that is sort of a cross between Instagram and the "print club" photo booths found in arcades across Japan, a successful cute sticker selling service that harkens back to the "old" days of emoji and the first Japanese feature phones, and a location based coupon service app powered by Recruit's Hot Pepper.
Brands can get involved in the service as well - in addition to brand pages that can be purchased to allow for you to communicate and promote products and services directly to the Line community and stickers that can be given away to help spread your brand name, the service is also a perfect spot for local retail brands with a national reach who would like to push information/specials/coupons to users when they are in the vicinity of a shop.
Naver has managed to utilize their strengths in curation and search to uncover new opportunities in social spaces that haven't existed yet in Japan.
Matome is redefining the model for curation and news consumption, while LINE is evolving into a true ecosystem style platform application, and will be rolling out a sound service (my guess: think old school ring tones updated for smartphones) to go with the LINE Coin virtual currency app they launched on August 22 for Android.
While the changes to the web/social landscape these services have had is still not monumental overall, any brand with a strong following of young Japanese will have to add these services to their web toolkit in the coming months.
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Jeff is the Digital Strategy Director for Havas Worldwide Digital Tokyo. His professional experience spans integrated communication planning, social media, branding, web strategy/online business development, and e-marketing in Japan and North America. A bicultural Canadian who is fluent in English and Japanese, he is a frequent speaker and blogger on the challenges of cross cultural communications and advertising Japan, where he consults local and global clients alike on the finer nuances of the market.