Chinese Whispers in SEM

Exhausted and crumpled in a heap at the keyboard, I just returned to the UK from SES Chicago. That’s the last conference of the year, for me. And after 28 conferences, seminars, workshops and other presentations around the planet this year, I’m due a break.

This final show of the year was very interesting for me, in that, most of the conversations I had with colleagues and friends centred around my work in Hong Kong/China.

Of course, China is a “must do” for many millions of companies around the world. But as conferences such as, ad:tech and SES edge their way into the Chinese marketplace, it certainly seems to be a “must do” for most of the larger SEM companies.

You only need to check my personal blog to get an idea of how much time I’ve spent in Hong/China this year. I really have learned a great deal about doing business over there. And it’s not as easy as one may think. Believe me, you don’t just turn up in China, open an office and be ready for business. You’re most likely to get a lot of Chinese people saying “Says who?”

Yet a lot of SEOs/SEMs I spoke with seem to have an attitude of “Yeah, we’re doing China next year.” It’s as if they were on the East coast talking about opening an office on the West coast. So I thought I’d ask my friend and colleague in China to help me tackle some of the “Chinese whispers” about SEO in China.

In the main, most of the SEOs I talked with in Chicago discussed creating Web sites which are translated into simplified Chinese, and software which handles double byte characters.

As if that’s all there was to it.

Inway Ni earned his MBA at Xiamen University (prior to that, he ran a university night club!). He and two college friends launched an Internet company in China, called TimeV, in 2003. Since then, they have developed a huge distribution channel, become joint venture partners for SES China and formed a full service SEM company. So there’s not a lot about the industry in China that they don’t know about.

In the West, we tend to optimize around the “big three,” Google, Yahoo, and MSN (and a little bit of Ask). It’s somewhat different in China. I asked Inway to explain.

“We have our three also, but not necessarily all big. We have Baidu, Google, and Yahoo. However, Baidu if by far and away the biggest brand in China. We also have Sogou, which is not at all big. But for optimization purposes, we use Google’s PageRank and Sogou’s equivalent to test and adjust SEO strategies for clients.”

Another thing that came out of my conversations at SES was the number of people talking about Hong Kong and China in the same breath. In fact, they’re two entirely different marketplaces.

“Hong Kong is definitely part of China. But the fact is, every single province and area of China has a unique culture and background. The philosophy regarding business can be very different from each other, in business, even in language. Hong Kong is even more different than province to province in mainland China.” Says Inway.

It’s true that, knowing the real local language, knowing the local society, and knowing the local business philosophy is most important for anyone wishing to do business in China. As Inway says, insofar as optimization goes, “it’s even down to the simple keyword. When you look at the keyword for a anti-virus software, the keywords at Beijing, Hong Kong or Taipei are totally different.”

Hong Kong and China have grasped PPC very quickly and understand what ROI is. But it’s a slow burner for SEO. Educating the Chinese about SEO is somewhat more difficult than paid search. Yet demand is building and, as Inway is always quick to point out, the potential is huge.

Going back to my SES conversations, one other thing that stood out quite a lot were the thoughts people had about creating Chinese Web sites. In fact, the major existing opportunities are for out-bound work.

Chinese factories and other companies are very much into having optimized Web sites in English, as export is a major part of many Chinese businesses. Expo and Internet are very much hand-in-hand in China (and Hong Kong too).

The trouble is, many of the Chinese companies using the Web (and hopefully, search) generally use an advertising agency for their Web development work. This means they end up with very crawler unfriendly Web sites. High on image and graphics, and frequently 100 percent Flash.

Sage advice from Inway is, if you’re thinking about optimizing a Web site for the Chinese market, be sure to engage a professional Chinese SEO consulting company.

Inway is bringing together 150 Chinese SEOs in Beijing later this month for an optimization geek-out. And SES will be held in his home city of Xiamen from May 24 – 25 2007.

In Chicago, I also spoke with SEO in-the-know about China, Dave Temple. He’s already working on a China Search Marketing tour to tie in with SES. If you’d like to get to know more about SEO in China, this is a perfect opportunity for business and pleasure.

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