Navigating the Great Firewall of China

The Great Wall of China, built mainly of stone, wood, and earth, had more purposes than simply keeping out Mongol invaders. It was also used to regulate commerce, as a travel route, and as a means of communication through smoke signals and fires.

Today, that Great Wall is a relic of ancient times, performing the function of tourist attraction and thereby still contributing to China’s economy, but unused in any other way that might be similar to its original intention. But in modern China, we have a Great Wall of a different kind – various technological barriers deployed to the Internet – commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China or the Golden Shield Project.

For those doing business with China today, understanding how the Great Firewall works is imperative, especially for SEO. Digital marketers and their clients and employers outside China have much to gain by being able to penetrate China and market to its population.

Although China’s growth ebbs and flows, the market is large, growing, and has enormous potential. China’s middle class currently numbers around 150 million and is expected to grow to 1 billion by 2030, according to a report by Ernst and Young.

At the same time that the population is growing, the cost of Internet access is falling, and we can expect to see tremendous growth in the number of Internet users. This will drive online commerce, and with it will be more opportunities for Web marketers with experience in the region.

China’s Golden Shield Project 

While understanding the different search engines in China is important, understanding the Golden Shield Project is of even greater importance. Continually attempting to access illegal content and violating the rules can lead to your Internet activity being continually monitored by the Internet police, so you need to at least understand the basics of the most sophisticated firewall in the world.

In order to control what content is available to the general population, China uses four methods to filter out content it objects to:

  • DNS Block – a URL is entered into the browser, the DNS verifies that the IP address is not on the blocked list. If it is, no address is delivered. DNS blocking is a common form of filtering that typically happens when a site continues to violate the Internet content laws. 
  • Connection Phasing – a URL is entered into the browser, if it has been blocked, the servers will interrupt the request and the user receives a “connection has been reset” message. 
  • URL Keyword Blocking – this simple form of content filtering involves resetting the connection if a URL contains any forbidden keywords. 
  • Page Content Scanning – each page of a site is scanned by China’s extensive surveillance system. If any forbidden content is detected, there may be a break in connection for that page or the entire site. The break in connection typically lasts anywhere from a few minutes up to several hours. 

SEO in China: Getting Started

In order to succeed with SEO in China, you will need to treat your Chinese website differently from the way you do your other company sites.

Firstly, you will need to get a physical address for your company in China. You can do this by partnering with an existing Chinese company or subleasing space (or just the address) from one. You will also need to get an Internet Content License from the Chinese government. Get a .com or .cn domain, and host your site in Mainland China.

Sites hosted outside China, which includes Hong Kong, must pass through China’s security filters and this slows them down, leading to sub-optimal results. If your site has user-generated content, you will need to have a filter in place to control what is published so that your site does not violate Chinese government policies. 

China’s Search Engines

While some aspects of Internet marketing in China will be familiar to all SEOs, the search engines in China are different than those found around the rest of the world. Google is all but completely blocked in China and accessible primarily by VPN. The search engines that rule the market in China are homegrown and include Baidu, Qihoo 360, and Sogou, with Baidu playing the effective role of “the Google of China.”

 

seo-china-31aug14-josh-steimle

*Source: Search Engine Market Share in China 

While each search engine in China follows the basics you’ve come to expect from Google, they each have their own particular quirks, including unique ranking factors, demographics, and best practices.

To ensure you meet the content, technical SEO, and link-building requirements, check your chosen search engine’s SEO guidelines. This will help ensure you do not violate any Chinese law requirements, are able to better promote your business online in China, can increase conversions and Web traffic, and can maximize your return on investment. 

Baidu 

Baidu offers a range of marketing solutions, such as performance-based online marketing services and display advertisements through their own site and affiliated websites, as well as various Baidu Webmaster Tools, Baidu Tieba, Baidu Baike, and Baidu Zhidao.

The search engine is also able to quickly interpret Chinese text more effectively than other search engines, which leads to higher-quality results. Typically, SEO on Baidu is more expensive because of the increased competition, but the payoff is greater as well.

One interesting factor with Baidu is that running a paid search campaign on their PPC platform, Baidu Phoenix Nest, will result in significantly better organic rankings. How many times have I explained to clients that having a Google AdWords campaign won’t affect your natural rankings in Google? Too many to count, but Baidu embraces mixing the two. You may also want to add Baidu share icons to your site so that users are able to easily share and find your content.

Baidu spiders may not find your site if it is not indexed yet, so it is important to submit your site and sitemap so that all pages can easily be found online. Anytime major changes are made to your site, you should resubmit the site to Baidu for better results.

Baidu also places higher importance on fresh content with more links, so the more often you post, the better. Look for the right Chinese keywords to create the best fresh Chinese content, but be sure to watch for duplicate content. Pinyin Chinese can be used for fast, easy transcription.

Qihoo 360

Qihoo 360 became Baidu’s largest competitor in less than one year after coming onto the scene. Its sudden jump in popularity is due largely to its unmatched security. The secure browser claims to block Trojan horses and identify a phishing website better than other search engines. They also have fewer paid listings and algorithm updates. Western businesses can use Google AdWords to buy Qihoo ads, which allows them to reach the Chinese market through a familiar interface. 

Sogou 

Sogou has its own unique algorithm, SERP layout, and “SogouRank” index. They offer lower cost-per-click advertising, which many companies have found effective at reaching lower tier cities.

Additional SEO Considerations

Traditional SEO factors should be considered for all Chinese search engines, including URL, meta tag, and title optimization, building a large volume of crawlable links, keyword optimization, and quality SEO copywriting.

It is crucial that your site optimizes for Baidu. While Qihoo 360 and Sogou are both popular, they are still relatively new to the Chinese marketplace and Baidu appears well positioned to retain its place as the leader for the foreseeable future.

It is important to complete keyword research and, if you do not read Chinese, make sure you have a trusted translation partner so that you know you are consistently posting high-quality content and have no questionable content on any of the pages. Publish all content in Simplified Chinese and complete a paid search campaign to help you find which Chinese keywords are best suited to your audience. In order to be successful, you may need to seek the services of an agency that can convert your current PPC or SEO campaign to one that is compatible with the Chinese search engine offerings. 

Build Your Own Market Share 

Despite the restrictions placed on businesses that market online in China, optimizing in China can yield huge payoffs. And while we would all prefer a more open market, these limitations mean if you work through the challenges you’ll have an advantage over your competitors who hold back. The sooner you get involved in China, the more market share you’ll able to build for your own business.

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