An Introduction To Baidu – China’s Leading Search Engine
Baidu.com is the leading search engine in China and is currently the 4th most visited website in the world. Baidu means the “search for one’s dream” and is taken from a poem written more than 800 years ago in the Song dynasty.
Baidu was founded in 2000 by Robin Li, a Chinese-American who earned a masters degree in computer science from the State University of New York at Buffalo. After finishing graduate school, he went to work for InfoSeek, one of the earliest search engines on the Internet. During that time, he developed a method for ranking a website’s popularity through the number of other website’s linking to it. He began to view these links as citations, with a website’s popularity increasing with the number of citations found. A similar method of ranking was developed by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google, while conducting graduate research at Stanford.
Currently employing over 40,000 people, Baidu has approximately 57 products, each emphasizing two main functions: search and community. As a result, Baidu directly appeals to the collectivist nature of Chinese consumers, one in which group needs are placed before individual needs. The success of Baidu is a result of fiercely aligning its brand image with nationalistic pride. Baidu is seen as the people’s search engine.
The Chinese Consumer
China is the largest country in the world by population, with just over 1.3 billion people calling it home. Of those 1.3 billion, over 420 million people are connected to the Internet through either personal computers or mobile devices. According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), 71% of those surfing the Web are located in urban areas while 28.9% are located in the rural countryside. Currently, 70% of Internet users are under the age of 30 and 88% use the Internet on a daily basis (iMedia, 2009; ericsson, 2010).
The Internet in China has quickly grown from being a tool exclusive to young, affluent, urban consumers, to being widely utilized in the rural countryside. This shift occurred as a result of a lack of job availability in occupations such as farming and an increase in educational opportunities in large cities. “Farming does not bring in sufficient income anymore and people have started to look for work in cities to earn more” (Ericsson, 2010). As a result, the average income of rural China has increased, and with that “comes more purchasing power” (Ericsson, 2010). Chinese consumers view the purchase of electronics as a status symbol, believing that it will elevate them in society. Therefore, in rural communities, more consumers have sought after and been able to afford luxury items such as mobile phones and personal computers. In 2008, the Ministry of Information Industry launched a program designed to provide Internet connections to rural China. This program, combined with an increase in mobile phone and PC ownership, drove a 27% increase in rural Internet subscribers (Ericsson, 2010). The number of Internet subscribers in rural China will continue to grow as educational and career opportunities provide an increase in discretionary income.
In China, many consumers have a positive attitude towards new technology and believe it will help them “improve life” (Ericsson, 2010). In addition to consumers in the rural countryside, urban Chinese consumers are experiencing and increase in income as well. China was the first country to lead the world out of the recession of 2008 and Chinese consumers are 81% confident about their future finances, compared with a world average of 52% (Ericsson, 2010). As a result, Chinese consumers are ready to buy and look to the Internet for advice and recommendations. In fact, over 70% of consumers under 32 reported using a search engine for research before making a major purchase (Ericcson, 2010). Chinese consumers use search engines to seek out advice and reviews on products, businesses and services. To them, the Internet is a source of honest opinions by real consumers who have used the products and feel compelled to express their opinion online. “Chinese consumers feel far more free to say or do things online than they would offline” (Berger, 2008). This viewpoint is partially an effect of the collectivist nature of the Chinese people. According to research conducted by Geert Hofstede, people in a collectivist society such as China view loyalty as highly important and maintain “strong relationships where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of the group” (Hofstede, 2011). These values can extend online, where consumers feel obligated to voice their opinions regarding a positive or negative interaction with a brand in order to protect their fellow consumers.
The Internet in China is the first place that consumers go to “research, discuss, and evaluate products of all kinds” (Berger, 2008). The overall Internet Word of Mouth (IWOM) of a company can highly impact the sales of a product. According to the Think:Act study conducted by Berger Strategy Consultants, 58% of Chinese consumers feel that customer reviews from online sources impact their purchasing decisions. In addition, “44 percent will have a less positive opinion of a brand after they see a negative IWOM surrounding it” (Berger, 2008). The strength of IWOM in China is a result of the combination of easily accessible information with the simple act of connecting to other people online. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the first level need for a citizen in China is belonging to a social group. As a Communist society for many years, China has restricted citizens from expressing their opinions or engaging in certain beliefs, such as religion. The Internet allows Chinese citizens to hide behind a virtual identity and acts as a medium for expression. In sum, the Internet in China is an important tool for finding information and connecting socially with other citizens. When conducting searches online or connecting with friends, the number one portal used by Chinese consumers is Baidu. 73% of users reported using Baidu as their primary search engine (CNNIC, 2010).
Baidu is the number one website in China because it successfully allows users to do two primary things: access information and connect online with others. Baidu has a number of products that are designed around facilitating those two specific functions.
Firstly, the Baidu Post Bar is a discussion board engine where users can look up topics, post discussions, and participate in a community. Post Bar allows users to connect with other consumers who have purchased a particular item and want to start a discussion thread surrounding it. Post Bar has been very powerful in determining a company’s IWOM, as users consistently use it to write positive or negative reviews and to join others in applauding or berating a product. In addition, Post Bar is place where users can congregate online and exchange views. Users commonly organize around a particular hot topic, such as news concerning a celebrity, or a political scandal. The lifestyle of Chinese consumers has changed from being a “’survive mentality’ to an ‘enjoy life’ one, with 54 percent now pursuing a more fun lifestyle” (ericsson, 2010). Many Chinese consumers turn online to have fun, with Post Bar being a major source.
Secondly, in order to appeal to rural users, Baidu created a question and answer feature called Biadu Zhidao or “Baidu Knows”. Baidu Knows allows users to ask a question about any topic and to receive an answer. Users from the community answer questions and many compete to become “experts” in a particular field. This feature appeals to many rural consumers, who are excited about new technology but need somebody “to show them how to use it” (Ericsson, 2010). Furthermore, the three key factors driving growth in rural markets are “usefulness of services, cost efficiency and ease of use” (Ericsson, 2010). Baidu Knows is successful because it appeals to each of these factors; it is effective at delivering information, completely free, and easy to use. If a consumer is having a problem setting up an account online or figuring out how to search for something, Baidu Knows has the answer, and alleviates much of the frustration commonly found when acclimating to technology.
Lastly, Baidu Baike, is a community oriented encyclopedia similar to Wikipedia. Baidu Baike allows users to post and edit articles on any subject. While the idea of an online encyclopedia is not entirely unique, when applied to the Chinese market it has been incredibly successful, surpassing Wikipedia China in the number of articles written. The product appeals directly to the collectivist nature of China, where users want to collaborate in order to develop something that is beneficial to the group as a whole. Baidu Baike is successful because it allows consumers to participate in building something that is bigger than themselves. With many young Chinese users turning online to have fun and to socialize, it is important for them to know that they are still contributing to their society. Baidu Baike appeals to their sense of “placing group needs before individual needs” (Gambrel & Cianci, 2003).
The perception of Baidu is one of nationalistic pride and Baidu has played to that strength. Baidu centers itself around knowing the Chinese consumer and heavily emphasizes loyalty in its marketing strategy. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in a highly collectivist society “the nation has priority over everything; loyalty to the country is of utmost importance” (Gambrel & Cianci, 2003). The Baidu strategy is to align itself with China as a whole; its history, people, culture and values, and by doing so, when users think of China and the Internet, they think of Baidu. “Baidu has managed to convince a lot of people that, as a Chinese company, they have a grip on the subtleties of the Chinese language” (Mufson, 2010).
The main theme in each Baidu commercial is history. Baidu uses traditional costumes which are reminiscent of China’s past. Men and women are dressed in robes that are made of silk and have intricate patterns. They are adorned with spears, daggers and other ancient weapons. In addition, each commercial is shot in a temple, which further aligns Baidu with China’s history.
In one commercial, a man in traditional dress is meditating at a table in the middle of a temple courtyard. He is wearing a silk robe, with intricate patterns and vibrant colors. On the table in front of him is a porcelain teapot with saucer and cup. The camera pans down and stops on a pair of chopsticks resting on the saucer. After a pause, his momentary solace is interrupted by a chaotic swarm of daggers rushing towards him. He immediately picks up the chop sticks, raises them and snaps a dagger out of the air with perfect accuracy. The screen immediately jumps to a black background, with large, bold text that reads: “Always right on”. A blue laser dot underscores the text, moving from left to right. After a beat, the text is replaced with “Baidu, the most used search engine in China”. The man then turns into a warrior and is quickly multiplied into many warriors, each doing a military drill with a large knife. The military drill is set in the middle of the temple courtyard and is strategically positioned to resemble an organized army. At the end of the commercial, the Baidu logo is displayed prominently on the black background with the blue laser moving from left to right, further emphasizing strength, precision, and modernity.
The Baidu commercial described above uses a number of very specific symbols in order to connect Baidu with Chinese nationalism. Firstly, Baidu uses an ancient temple as the setting for the commercial. In doing so, they are aligning Baidu, a relatively new, modern and innovative company, with China’s five thousand year history. Furthermore, they are implying that since Baidu has been around for many years it is therefore trustworthy. Next, Baidu further emphasizes its connection to Chinese culture by dressing the main character in a traditional silk robe and hat. The swarm of daggers symbolize the chaos of the Internet, with the wide array of information available and the potential danger associated with clicking the wrong link. As the main character uses his perfectly accurate chopsticks to pull one of the daggers out of the air, he remains completely unscathed. Using this sequence of events, Baidu is conveying the message that a user can pull the one gem of information he or she wants out of a sea of potential dangers, only by using Baidu.
As the Baidu commercial successfully connects the company to China’s history and culture, it is also simultaneously conveying messages of innovation and modernity. After the warrior precisely pulls the dagger out of the air, the screen jumps to full black with bold, white type that says “Always right on”. The white type is underlined by a blue laser, which symbolizes forward thinking and innovation. The black background is used to portray Baidu as a contemporary company and appeals to its primary user demographic, who are young, urban consumers. In addition, the black background symbolizes power and strength. Interconnecting the black background with a series of short cuts of the warrior performing military maneuvers further emphasizes the power of Baidu and almost goes as far as to dare viewers to use a different search engine. In sum, when examining the commercial for its semiotic meaning, the most prominent object used is the sword, symbolizing precision and power. Going further however, the strategically chosen symbols in the commercial attempt to convey the idea that Baidu is a state sponsored, government run entity. With the Chinese government being as powerful as it is, linking Baidu with China as a whole is a very clever strategy.
The aforementioned Baidu commercial uses a number of symbols and themes to fully maximize the sense of sight. In addition to being set in visually rich temple, the commercial is shot using a fast action format. Baidu carefully plays with the viewer’s sense of balance — the commercial starts in a slow, meditative manner, only to quickly jump into a sequence of short cuts. By doing so, Baidu is capturing the viewer’s attention and holding it for a length of time necessary to convey its message. The juxtaposition of calm and chaotic places the viewer off guard and into a state of captivity.
In addition to appealing to the sense of sight, the Baidu commercial also entices the sense of hearing. As the viewer watches the commercial, the majority of the audio has been removed and there is no dialogue. Only two sounds remain: the knife blade and the blue laser. Baidu uses these sounds strategically in order to emphasize the primary message of precision, power and trustworthiness. It is also indirectly saying that Baidu is the defender of Chinese pride and heritage. In addition, with such a fast moving commercial, it makes sense to reduce the number of sounds. By utilizing only two very sharp, ringing sounds, Baidu is attacking the viewer’s hearing exactly when it needs to. The blue laser sound appears only when underscoring the principle message of the commercial: “Baidu, the most used search engine in China”.
For many Chinese citizens, the temple, warriors and weapons used in the Baidu commercial directly connect to symbols of China as a nation. The associative networks of each Chinese consumer relate these symbols to Chinese pride and nationalism. Connecting Baidu to Chinese history is a very clever marketing strategy, because Chinese consumers are consistently confronted with these symbols on a daily basis. Temples, warriors and stories of battles, are taught to each Chinese citizen as they mature and learn. Therefore, Baidu is starting to connect itself personally to each Internet user in China. Baidu becomes the “people’s” search engine, instead of a massive company running a for-profit business. In doing, they will become a member of each individual’s family and a personal connection is formed between Baidu and the user.
Google China is the number one competitor to Baidu in terms of search. However, Google’s involvement in China has been plagued since the beginning. The Chinese government has repeatedly censored certain information in the Google index. For example, searches on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, or the Dalai Lama, are routinely blocked. While Baidu has openly allowed the Chinese government to censor its search results, this censorship directly conflicts with Google’s policy of “Don’t Be Evil.” Google has taken a public stance against any censorship, attempted to be seen as the freer of the Chinese people from the holds of oppression. This tactic, however, has not worked and Google recently moved its operations to Hong Kong, which operates under a different political system as mainland China. However, searches originating from mainland China are still censored.
Throughout Google’s problematic relationship with the Chinese government, Baidu has continuously attacked Google as a “foreign invader” (Greising, 2006). A recent commercial featured a group of villagers accosting a foreign couple. One village elder scolded the outsiders saying, “you don’t understand us, you don’t understand us” (Greising, 2006). By pinning Google as a foreigner who has no understanding of Chinese culture, Baidu is further emphasizing its nationalistic pride. It is also putting any foreign competitor at a distinct advantage, by labeling them as disinterested in understanding Chinese culture.
Another primary competitor to Baidu is Tencent, which operates search rival Soso.com as well as well as QQ.com, a popular instant messaging platform. Tencent differentiates itself from Baidu in appealing more to the familial nature of Chinese consumers, rather than their sense of nationalism. In one advertisement, a mother and child use QQ instant messaging to connect over the course of the child’s life. In the beginning of the commercial, the child is leaving home to attend university, and while saying goodbye to his family, he disregards his mother entirely, ashamed at her lack of technology knowledge. As he grows up, finishes school, and gets his first job, he is immensely proud and happy to see his mother online, and to talk with her over instant message. This commercial is designed to appeal to the collectivist nature of China, where family groups are immensely important. It also speaks directly to the current trend in China, where many young people move away and attend universities in the United States.
Baidu is an incredibly successful company because it has aligned itself with Chinese nationalistic pride while building products that directly appeal to their target audience. Many of the products that Baidu has created are direct carbon copies of common websites in the United States, such as Google and Wikipedia. Baidu has successfully adapted the formula for those websites to fit Chinese culture, values and lifestyle. For instance, when Baidu.com was originally designed, the team at Baidu widened the search box in order to allow for more Chinese characters to be easily read.
To be successful in the future, Baidu must continuously adapt the Internet innovations of the United States to the needs of Chinese consumers. In doing so, Baidu will remain competitive in the field and increasingly useful. In addition, Baidu must continue to develop advertising that directly appeals to the history, values and cultural nuances of China. Baidu has done an important job of leveraging the associative networks of consumers by connecting the node of China as a country to the node of Baidu as an entity. By continuing to do so, Baidu will be able to reinforce its appearance of being sanctioned in part by the Chinese government, and thus, powerful and immovable. In addition, Baidu must continue to emphasize this point by attacking any foreign competitor as an outsider. This strategy proved to be incredibly effective against Google.
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