What Happens if We Stop Doing SEO in China?

Recently, I published an article on Econsultancy for dissecting China’s search marketing. In the article, I used a term “Pseudo Organic” to explain how paid advertising could possibly influence the organic ranking of a website. Since then, I have received a lot of enquiries from readers that want to know more about “Pseudo Organic” and its influence on SEO in China.

First, I believe “Pseudo Organic” happens when advertisers advertise on Baidu’s brand zone. We often find that the related advertisers’ websites are listed twice or more on Baidu’s SERP that seems clearly influenced by the brand zone ads (see screenshot below).

I also realize that when brand zone is absent, Baidu will heavily leverage its proprietary media content in the SERP. In fact, Google also ranks Baidu’s proprietary media content such as Baidu Baike and Baidu Zhidao very high in its Chinese SERP. How does it concern you? If you optimize your website in China, you are likely to compete with the ranking against Baidu’s proprietary content or your own brand zone advertising in the brand terms traffic. Your odds of winning in this situation are not good.

How to Leverage Social Signals on Baidu

Soon after marketers have discovered that search engines also pick up the ranking signal from social media content, the SEO community has been diving into the tactical use of social media.  Google+ has offered this tactical leverage in an explicit way by allowing linking your Google+ page with your official website that will make your Google+ page more discoverable for the relevant search queries.

How about Baidu? Baidu has once provided this answer for social signal:

Social signal in Baidu is picked up based on relevancy, time and the content of the search query. Baidu’s algorithm will determine if any social content should be inserted in the SERP after analyzing the search intent of the query.

My findings are: Baidu’s definition of social content has included its proprietary content. It is mostly user-generated in nature and being linked and processed primarily through search queries. It won’t be difficult for Baidu to start structuring its proprietary content using users’ profiles, which have existed for a while (see screenshot below).

Does it mean we can only rely on Baidu’s proprietary content for tactical leverage? I have discovered a hidden page in Baidu, which I can prove that Baidu also processes Sina Weibo content, but only Sina Weibo.

You can try this yourself: Copy and append the following parameter string (&tn=baiduwb&wb=4&cl=2&rtt=2) in the tail of Baidu’s search result’s URL. It will take you to a special Baidu Weibo search result page.

As mentioned above, it currently only works for Sina Weibo although the page will show you other Weibo options.

Let’s say you have paid Baidu’s brand zone advertising. In theory, your website is likely to be listed at least twice on Baidu’s SERP. What would happen if Baidu also picks up your Sina Weibo content? Your Weibo page could also be listed twice too! (See the below screenshot when searching Tom Cruise in Baidu that repeatedly displays Tom Cruise’s Weibo.) Nevertheless, you should keep in mind that it is about visibility rather than ranking.

What Can You Do With the Search Engine Results Page?

You might ask: If I can’t get into the top organic position under the influence of Baidu’s proprietary content and my social content will only bring me the benefit of visibility but not ranking, should I stop doing SEO?

In my opinion, SEO has evolved from competing in the ranking to website development best practice, and now to content marketing. A portion of SEO practice is still very much attached to the technical aspects such as hosting, web server configuration, CMS tweaking, etc. Most of the problems in technical SEO usually happen because of negligence or even bureaucratic division of work that keeps marketers from communicating with the IT department. In fact, all these problems can be avoided even if we don’t have SEO.

Frankly speaking, I seldom meet marketers who see the SERP as a space for marketing. Instead, it is often seen as a listing with all the entries competing for a higher position. Nonetheless, the SERP is actually a free space for marketing and publicity. Look at the screenshot below and see how many times a keyword is repeatedly mentioned after hitting the search button.

The meta titles and description tags of your website are supposedly used for marketing and publicity rather than search engine result ranking as you might have been told.

The Importance of Search-Based Research 

SEO cannot make people search nor influence how they search.

That’s why it is very important that you must do search-based research because it can identify the search trend for you (see screenshot below). With all the data that a search engine can provide, you can develop a semantic profile to analyze the searcher’s behavior. As a marketer, you should always do this without SEO on your mind.  Researching how people search is like reading the minds of your customers. Once you know what your customers want and need, you can develop the relevant content for them. Again, you don’t need SEO to understand this marketing communication practice.

So what happens if we stop doing SEO in China? You will be fine as long as you have a proper IT technical setup such as the hosting is in the right place with the web server properly configured, etc. If you pay for Baidu brand zone advertising, then focus on the long tail of the business. You should leverage Baidu’s proprietary media content to increase popularity on the SERP. I advise you to think outside your own domain – the high ranking does not necessarily come from your official website. As long as the ranked content is relevant, it will still engage the target audience for you. You should also create customers’ semantic profiles and use them to develop content for your website.

Last but not the least, do you need SEO to develop a link strategy for you? Google’s Webmaster Tools and Analytics will show a pretty good picture of who links to you and contribute referral traffic. You shall be able to dig up some insights and develop a backlink contributor profile. You may also want to incorporate the insights into a publicity plan, which is about how the links of your website should be handled.

You will be just fine in China when you keep practicing the above in your marketing plan even if without SEO.

See these SEO concepts in action during Eddie’s ClickZ Academy workshop: SEO workshop: SEO no-brainer! at SES Singapore 2012.

Related reading

Google home page