Google search might return to China’s internet, and some users can hardly wait

Waving hello again?
Waving hello again?
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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The Intercept reported yesterday (Aug. 1) that Google has, since at least last year, been developing a search engine that would deliver results compliant with China’s strict censorship regime. Such a product could enable a bona fide reentry into China for the tech giant. Google shuttered its China-facing search engine in 2010 due to concerns about censorship and alleged cyberattacks, and authorities went on to block access to most of the company’s consumer-facing services.

If Google does relaunch its search engine in China, it will end up compliant with some of the world’s most restrictive policies on freedom of information. But many Chinese internet users don’t seem to care—in fact, some are pleased that there could once again be a serious competitor to Baidu, which despite shortcomings has dominated search in China for years.

On Toutiao, a popular Chinese news aggregation app, a number of posts reacting to the news shared the same sentiment: Google is great, and Baidu is bad. Some top-ranked comments include:

  • “I hate Baidu—raise you’re hand if you’re like me and are stuck using it.” (285 likes)
  • “Hurry up… Baidu is already hopeless.” (342 likes)
  • “Baidu not having a competitor has been its biggest mistake” (153 likes)

Perhaps tellingly, Baidu’s investors didn’t welcome the news—its stock price closed down nearly 8% on Nasdaq.

Even before Google shut down its Chinese search engine, Baidu had been the sector’s market leader. It earned its position in part by employing tactics Google refused to use itself, like launching TV advertisements and offering easy access to unlicensed MP3 downloads.

Yet as China’s internet has evolved, Baidu, though it’s remained the dominant search engine, has lost much of its appeal among consumers. Users often lament the quality of its rankings.

On a thread entitled “Why do people think Baidu’s search engine is bad,” on Zhihu, one writer criticizes Baidu (link in Chinese) for its repetitive results (two links showing content from the same source), lack of links to specialized or academic content, and its low-quality ads.

“All I’ll say is, if a friend wanted to buy something, I’d tell him to search for it on Google and click on the first ad he’d see to get a discount. But I’d definitely not tell him to search the term on Baidu and click on the first ad… most Baidu ads are scams,” reads the post.

Baidu didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

There are other factors that make Baidu not quite the linchpin in China’s internet that Google is in most other countries. More and more text-based content on China’s internet is published directly to WeChat, the chat app owned by Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent. But this content resides largely within WeChat’s walled garden and can’t easily be retrieved on Baidu.

Meituan, meanwhile, which originated as a Yelp-esque listings site, has a more comprehensive catalog of local businesses than Baidu. When researching a piece on VR cafes in China, for example, this reporter couldn’t find any locations to visit by entering various search terms in Baidu. Searching on Meituan brought up dozens of addresses for VR cafes, many of which were tucked in makeshift spaces inside malls or office buildings.

A Google search engine in China—even if heavily censored—would have a fighting chance at success. The company’s apparent alliance with Tencent, which dominates Chinese social media, could help it reach consumers without much effort, and let them better search WeChat content.

But that’s only if Google gets the green light from China’s authorities. There’s no guarantee it will get one.

In 2015, reports surfaced that Google would try to launch an app store in China as a means to get back into the consumer market, but those efforts have not succeeded. Nor has Facebook been able to launch its social network in China, despite attempts to form government ties and build special software that might help it do so.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media has already issued reports calling the Intercept’s piece false. Google has declined to comment (paywall).