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Are SEO or SEM still important in Mainland China?


Through analyzing the issuesexisting in the digital landscape of mainland China, this article questions theimportance of SEM and SEO in the Chinese unique context. Three challengestowards the searching business are identified, including the fact that peoplenowadays go directly to the service instead of searching, people can get theinformation before searching, and people’s searching experience is fragmented.This article also proposed two recommendations to this problem, i.e. playersshould to have a clear understanding towards the Chinese market, and the budgetallocation by channel should be rethought.


As is well-known, SEM and SEO are two of the most effective digital marketing ways to increase the website traffic, which, thus, provide opportunities to improve the brand awareness or conversion rate. There have been tons of articles talking about the strategies of SEM and SEO. A great number of companies still put emphasis and spend money on them. However, as far as I can see, the landscape of search business in mainland China is not only different from that in the rest of the world, but also keeps metamorphosing in recent years. So, I think it’s time to question and scrutinize the importance of SEM and SEO in the context of mainland China.The analysis of the issue is as follows.

Analysis of the issue

People go directly to the internet service instead of searching.

The first challenge to the search business in the case of mainland China is that, with the development of mobile applications, people go directly to the internet service instead of searching for them.

In the PC era, integrated search engines are the first choice for people to access various types of internet services.However, with the advent of the mobile internet era, mobile-end application scan provide people with more professional information in a more convenient way than the integrated search engines, making the search engine’s status in the process of access to services and information significantly declined. The entrance to mobile internet services has been transformed, which resulted in less and less people taking the search engine as the preferred way to reach services and information. According to statistics of CNNIC’s 39th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China (CNNIC, 2017), among the 5 most commonly used APP in 2016, only “mobile phone Baidu” (手機百度) belongs to search engine, accounting for only 15.3%,notably lower than WeChat, QQ, and Taobao. The report also shows that the proportion of major search services, such as integrated services, navigation services, and shopping services used by users on the PC and mobile devices in2016, was lower than that of last year.

People can get the information before searching.

Secondly, the data driven targeting advertising technology push the needed information in front of people before they search, making people needn’t to search.

The development of technology in data collection, data analytics as well as digital advertising, such as the Google Analytics, the data management platform, the real-time bidding technology, the ad exchange, has changed the game. Algorithm is so powerful.Through the collection and excavation of users’ cookie, including internet browsing records, social media post records, search engine query records, and other data, internet content and service providers continue to improve information push mechanisms, ensuring their push results highly match people’s potential needs. The corresponding information is pushed before clear requirements are generated, thereby weakening the importance of the search service in the user information acquisition process.

The continuously optimized information push mechanism satisfies people’s information taking requirements in more and more scenarios. Therefore, the status of the search service in the information acquisition process is declined again.

People’s searching experience is fragmented.

Thirdly, since the big three of the Chinese internet, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent compete fiercely with each other,walls were built around the information on each platforms to protect the business, which fragment people’s search experience.

In September 2008, Taobao, the biggest e-commerce platform in China announced that it would block Baidu’s webcrawlers (Moazed, 2015). Obviously, Alibaba didn’t want Baidu to be the middleman between consumer and itself, instead, it aimed at changing people’s habits and acquiring the first hand searching data, also regaining the initiative of the SERP for the products. From then on, Baidu can’t index the product information in Taobao, and people have to go to Taobao to search for products. Add to that, Sina Weibo, which is the Twitter of China and has a huge amount of information in hand, also isolated itself from Baidu since Alibaba became its 2nd largest shareholder. The war of information initiative between Tencent and Baidu is also cruel. WeChat of Tencent was designed to be a closed system with sprawling ecosystem of built-in content and services. People can’tfind the articles from WeChat official accounts on Baidu. Moreover, WeChat even launched the “search” feature on May 2017(Horwitz, 2017), which enable users to trawl through almost everything on WeChat, threatening Baidu’s search business.

As a result of competition among the three internet giants, the information on Chinese internet is segmented and fragmented. There is no real one-stop integrated search engine as Google in the rest of the world, which means that the effect and efficiency of SEM and SEO are limited to a great extent.


On the basis of issue analysis, we can see that the online searching business is being eroded by the complicated digital environment of mainland China.

As for recommendation, the first thing that matters is that players in the new media analytics area should have a clear understanding of what’s going on in mainland China. Chinese case differentiates itself from the overseas not only in the digital landscape, but also in the way people behave when it comes to internet. If there is any problem with the data of SEM or SEO, like the conversion rate or ROI even go down after optimization, taking the factors of environment as discussed above into consideration may be helpful. After all, users’ end-to-end experience we always emphasis requires the players’ end-to-end understanding and thinking.

Secondly, since I hold the opinion that the online searching business is being eroded, perhaps it’s high time that CEO rethought the budget allocation by channel. To be more specific, the orientation of optimization of the budget allocation should align well with the real situation. For example, apart from the SEM or SEO on Baidu, how about the Taobao and WeChat? How about joining with the trend that leveraging big data and algorithm to realize pushing the information that people need just before they search? How about communicating directly with customer and cutting down the middleman of searching?


Overall speaking, I question the effectiveness of SEO and SEM in the context of mainland China, and maintain the idea that players should adjust their mindset and strategy in time to confront with the issue. However, things still keep changing, and I will also pay attention to the dynamics of new media analytics area continually.


Edited by Lily Xiaoli Wang