Facing competition on all sides from WeChat, e-tailers, Weibo, and Toutiao, China’s top search engine was dealt another blow this week when an article criticizing its search results quality went viral.
Written by well-known media personality Fang Kecheng, the article titled “Baidu’s search engine is already dead” spread across WeChat and the Chinese internet, expressing frustration with the type of content being surfaced on China’s top search engine. It complained that Baidu featured too many results from the Baidu-owned publishing platform Baijiaho, which it said was riddled with fake news.
This article clearly hit a nerve with readers as it was viewed over a million times, and reflected a trend that Gartner L2 has been observing in its own data. Between 2017 and 2018, Baidu searches declined for brand terms in the Gartner L2 Luxury, Beauty, and CPG Digital IQ Index studies.
Users are increasingly turning to e-tailers like Tmall, JD.com, or Taobao to search for brands and products, while they’re using WeChat, Toutiao, and social media for other types of content. The rise of competing avenues for search was listed as one of Gartner L2’s top digital trends to watch this year in China. WeChat has been quickly monetizing its search platform with advertising and brand zone opportunities.
Baidu has issued a response denying the writer’s criticisms, stating that less than 10% of search results come from its own platform and that it is using AI technology to weed out low-quality content. Its China market share for search is estimated to be around 70%.
But competitors have already smelled blood. In addition to WeChat’s introduction of a new search platform, Google was ready to jump back into the market with its new Project Dragonfly search engine before employee objections over government censorship put a halt to the project.
As a foreign company, Google knows firsthand that it would not have just been able to waltz into the market and expect success. That’s because China’s censorship is motivated not only by suppression of information, but also by government protectionism toward its homegrown platforms. After the Baidu article went viral, the Chinese version of Microsoft’s search engine Bing was briefly blocked in China (it is back online now as of the publication time of this article).
With Project Dragonfly, it wasn’t made public how Google was planning to overcome the Chinese government’s favor shown toward local platforms that was cited as a possible factor in why it pulled out of China in 2010. The company claimed at the time that it was leaving the market because of its opposition to government censorship, but Project Dragonfly was reported to be a censored search engine.
In addition to new avenues for search, Baidu also faces off against other local search engine competitors, including those with links to other members of the BAT (Baidu-Alibaba-Tencent) trifecta. Search engine Sogou has a powerful ally in Tencent’s WeChat, while Alibaba owns a search platform called Shenma. Even if a foreign platform sees a market opportunity in China, it faces a steep uphill battle against domestic giants with built-in advantages.