In more recent years, the importance of web hosting server location in assisting your site to rank in search engines has declined a fair bit. As the Internet and search algorithms adapt to websites being location-agnostic, other ranking factors such as your CCTLD, relevant onsite content, audience share location, local citations have begun to play a more crucial role in how a search engine decides which location your site should appear in primarily.
But when it comes to appearing to a Chinese audience within China, there are multiple factors you need to consider, with web hosting server location still being one of the most important considerations.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked with regards to online marketing for China is ‘Does it matter where my site is hosted if I want to show up to a Chinese audience?’
The short answer to that is yes. It matters a lot.
Web Hosting & The Great Firewall of China
For businesses and websites wanting to reach a Chinese audience within Mainland China, the preferable option is to host within Mainland China. The reason for this relates not so much on geo-targeting – as it does in the majority of western countries – but more about control.
As I’m sure you are aware, China is very strict when it comes to government rules, regulations and censorship. Very little information gets in or out with government approval, scrutiny and monitoring – especially when it comes to the Internet.
“The reason that Chinese hosting is preferable is less about geo-targeting for search benefits, and more about appeasing government requirements and regulations”
The Chinese government prefers to keep information very insular; controlling the flow and topics that are being made available to the people. Opening up the online gates to information that the rest of the world is publishing would make it quite difficult to control the information being fed into the country.
But when the servers are within China – through approved Chinese hosting providers, using approved Chinese ISPs (all government run) this makes monitoring the content a lot more manageable.
This is a main reason why Google is more or less a redundant search engine within China. The vast majority of information that we are used to finding via Google search simply doesn’t exist to netizens of China. The same applies for almost every major social networking platform in the western world (with the exception of LinkedIn). The Chinese government likes to have complete transparency of what people are seeing and saying online.
“So what happens if a site within mainland China starts posting things that the Chinese government doesn’t like the look of?”
When this occurs and the government detects it, typically the site is black listed – which means you are essentially removed from the Internet in China. Think of the most sever Google penalty you’ve hurt of – gone nuclear.
Once you’re black listed, it’s almost impossible to be removed. In fact it’s more of a ‘who you know’ situation than ‘what processes you know’ to get reinstated.
This is one more example of why being on approved, Chinese hosted servers is crucial to your online success within China.
“What If I can’t get my site hosted in Mainland China?”
The good news is that it is possible to host externally of Mainland China and still be able to be found, however it is quite risky.
So severe is the government censorship of the web that we have encountered cases where sites have been banned from being on the same server as a site that was considered questionable. These sites had absolutely nothing to do with the original banned content, but were guilty by association simply from being on the same box as a banned site.
“We’ve seen instance of sites being blacklisted purely from being on the same shared server as banned content, even though the sites were otherwise completely unrelated”
The other downside to external hosting is speed. Sites outside of Mainland China tend to be less responsive than sites that are hosted within China. Not only does this affect usability, but similar to Google and Bing it also affects the Baidu ranking algorithm (although this does not appear to be the case for the Qihoo 360 algorithm as of yet).
If you absolutely cannot host your website on dedicated Chinese servers, there are some best practices I recommend you follow to give your site it’s best chance at visibility:
- Avoid publishing content that is frowned upon or banned within China on your site, in particular political commentary, gambling content and pornography.
- Do not utilise western platform functionality – EG: Google Maps, YouTube video, Facebook or Disqus commenting platform etc
- Limit or completely eliminate the use of externally pointing social functionality. EG: Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter
- Limit your external linking to other non-Chinese sites – especially to sites with banned or potentially banned content
- Avoid shared hosting – if someone with the same IP address as your site is blocked, then your website will also be blocked. Use a dedicated server or VPS with a unique IP.
- If you are publishing news, make sure that it is an approved topic. The best way to ensure this is the case is to check on Chinese facing websites whether or not they have discussed the same topic. If they are talking about it, then it’s likely ok.
There are also a few tools out there that will let you see what your site looks like within mainland China from a visibility perspective.
Run your site through greatfirewallofchina.org and viewdns.info to get an idea of how it looks to a Chinese audience. Although this does not give a completely accurate representation of visibility, it is a good starting point.
“Wait a second Daylan. I’ve checked my site in Baidu and I’m ranking fine.”
Here’s the thing with Baidu (and Qihoo 360) – yes it’s a Chinese focused search engine and your result is ranking with other Chinese results, yet as is the case with western search engines, these results are Geo-targeted. You are seeing non-government vetted results because that data doesn’t need to be displayed on the other side of the firewall.
Essentially, what you see and what users in China see are two different things.
Acquiring a .cn Domain
Similar to how location based search works in the western world, a country code top level domain (ccTLD) is a still a very beneficial element in ranking with in China. In China, a country specific domain is most commonly represented as websitename.cn.
Ensuring you have a .cn domain will go a long way to ranking well organically within mainland China.
“Great! So if I get some Chinese hosting and pay $22 for a .cn domain, then I can get started dominating in China?”
Not so quick sparky.
As with most things in China, accessing a Chinese ccTLD also has some restrictions attached to it; some rather tricky ones for a lot of businesses actually.
.cn domains – once again – are regulated by a government agency, and acquiring one requires navigating through a bunch of red tape.
Firstly, in order to apply for a .cn domain you need to be a Chinese national with a registered business within China (or Hong Kong), with at least one employee of the business trying to acquire the domain operating out of mainland China.
Additionally, this entitiy must provide quite a bit of documentation, including a .cn domain application form, a copy of your business licence, a copy of the signatories national ID and also have a valid ICP number.
“What is an ICP number?”
In order to run a website within China to a Chinese audience, you are required to submit an application to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology for an ICP license (Internet Content Provider). This application needs to be approved and the ICP number displayed on your website – most commonly you can find this number in the footer of most Chinese based websites.
“To purchase and host within China you need to be pre-approved by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information technology via an Internet Content Provider licence”
If you apply for a .cn domain and do not have a valid ICP number, your domain will be placed on hold until this number is approved and provided.
It’s more or less China’s way of ensuring foreign business cannot trigger a large-scale Internet land grab and that Chinese specific domain are valid for Chinese business.
It also gives complete transparency to the government in what websites exists and who operates them.
You can apply for an Internet Content Provider license here : www.miibeian.gov.cn
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If you’re looking to take on the online Chinese market there are hundreds of elements you need to consider – at the top of that list ensure you add Hosting in Mainland China.
Sure, you may want a global website. One that can cater for all countries from a single domain or CMS, but when it comes to China – this is likely not an option.
When playing in the online sandpit in China, you have to play by the house rules – and use the approved house toys. If you don’t there’s a good chance you’ll never make friends in that sandpit again.