a.k.a SEO for Baidu & Chinese websites
A little while ago I received an email from some colleagues in Shanghai asking for my guidance regarding the best domain structure for successful SEO in a Chinese market.
Now typically I could answer a question like this fairy easily – depending on the website’s future and overall search goals I’d recommend either a sub-folder that geo targets or a CCTLD (.com.au, .co.nz etc).
But there was one word in the question that made me sit-up a little straighter and not jump into my automatic monologue about TLD best practice that I normally word.
That word was ‘Chinese’.
With the inclusion of one single word, all technical SEO knowledge I knew and could confidently rant on about for hours on end came crashing down on me. After all, I’ve only ever optimised for an English speaking audience. Part of me panicked. The other part of me got really excited.
This was just one more example of why you can never get comfortable in your knowledge when it comes to this search engine stuff. Here’s a few reasons why.
- The first, and most obvious reason is that the site is in Chinese! A language I know about as much of as I do quantum physics.
- Google, although the biggest fish almost everywhere in the world, is little more than a minnow (in China) compared to the Chinese juggernaut that is Baidu.
- Social media, which is almost a staple of successful SEO in the western world these days, is extremely different in China. dàodǐ shì Facebook hé Youtube (translated from Pinyin to English – ‘What the hell is Facebook and YouTube’)
- The government censors EVERYTHING. Anything questionable is not permitted and will be banned.
- How the hell do you know keywords to target when they look like this: 我發現在中國的搜索引擎
So I thought I’d share with you some of the key take-outs I got from trying to figure out how to do SEO for a Chinese website.
Think of Baidu as Google of 7 years ago.
Optimising for Google and Bing has taught SEO’s to always think of quality over quantity. The authority and substance of a website is far more important to Google when determining your rankings than the amount of links you can get to point to you – relevant or not. Baidu is a little bit different. It still perceives links to be votes. The more votes you have, the more your site deserves to rank. No matter who the hell it is who is voting for you. The more links, the better.
Meta data is still very influential. It’s been a long believed notion in the western SEO world that meta data such as the meta keywords tag are now obsolete. Add them if you like, but it won’t influence your rankings.
This isn’t the case with Baidu. Keyword stuffing is still a tactic that works to get your pages ranking solidly. Keyword stuffing meta descriptions is also a tactic that works.
Another signal I noticed was the prioirtisation given to those who pay for search (PPC). Unlike Google, Bing & Yahoo who insist that paid search does not directly influence your organic results, Baidu doesn’t seem to have this moral compass. Tests we ran over a week indicated that if you pay, you rank (organic and paid).
Direct submission to the search engine is also a crucial step with Baidu. Just like google.com/submiturl used to be a vital part of getting your site crawled, Baidu has a similar tool which you can find here: http://www.baidu.com/search/url_submit.html
Made in China signifies the best quality
Well, kind of.
What I mean by this is, if you have Chinese content, a Chinese domain name (I’ll touch on this one later) and Chinese hosting then you should be sweet.
If you’re missing one of these elements, then you’re automatically behind the eight ball to start with.
Baidu follows the world-renowned strict censorship laws of the Chinese government. Content must not be anti-establishment or pro-international – this is apparently a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy too. No reviews. No resubmissions.
The actual code should also reside in China on Chinese servers – I’m assuming that this is due to it being under Chinese government control. This wasn’t too much of an issue for me in this case as we have servers in Shanghai. I found some instances of international servers ranking in Baidu, but when I checked with the guys in China, these did not exist in their results that were served from behind the firewall.
Then comes the domain. A .cn CCTLD is best practice. Not a problem, unless you’re not a Chinese national. In that case, prepare to jump through a lot of hoops. Although recent changes to domain registery rules do allow the purchase of a .cn domain by people/businesses outside of China, they must meet certain criteria, including having a China-based branch of their business and at least one Chinese employee.
You can read the full details here : http://www.asiaregistry.com/domains/domains_cn.html
Getting 1.34 billion people to ‘like’ your post
“With a population that huge, the amount of Facebook likes you could get would be massive!”
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are words that a very large majority of the 1,344,130,000 (thank you open-graph) Chinese men, women and children have likely never used before in a conversation. These are some of the many websites that are locked up tight behind the great firewall of China. So if you’re thinking of getting social traffic in China, you’ll need to rethink your tried and tested methods.
Social media is being adopted as fast (if not faster) in China as it is in the western world, in fact a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group found that of the 500 million Chinese internet users, 50% have a social network profile. 30% of those log in at least once a day.
Social media SEO strategies are still viable in China but you’ll need to brush up on your skills with government ‘monitored’ social media networks like Renren (Facebook equivalent), Kaixin001(Facebook equivalent), Weibo (Twitter equivalent) and YouKu (YouTube equivalent) in order to gain any traction.
Baidu is also taking a leaf out of the Google/Facebook play-book. In January launched its own social feature similar to the +1 and Facebook like button. In fact it looks just like the ‘Thumbs Up’ of a Facebook ‘like’ and appears next to URL’s in Baidu search results. Anyone for Chinese link juice?
The language barrier and URL’s
This was the most daunting aspect of Chinese SEO I came across. I had no idea what the word 摩托車 says, let alone how to optimise for it. Luckily for me I had some pretty smart people in Shanghai I can rely on for the content, but what about the ever important URL structure?
Baidu is able to translate from traditional Chinese to Pinyin (simplified Chinese). This is how Baidu targets keywords. Even though the word is typed in by a user like this: 墨西哥食物, the search engine translates and serves up keyword in Pinyin, which looks like this: mòxīgē shíwù
URL’s require an ASCII wordset in order to work – even in Baidu. Luckily there are modules and plugins available for most popular CMS’s that will convert traditional Chinese words into Pinyin. One issue I did run into were Pinyin characters like à, ǐ and é which are not ASCII word-set characters. An apache level rewrite was necessary to convert these into similar ASCII characters like a, i and e.
Ensuring your site’s content can be easily translated into Pinyin is integral for Baidu rankings.
Ready for launch
One thing I am cautious of is that, as mentioned earlier in the article, Baidu seems like Google of 7 years ago. A lot can happen in 7 years. Jeez, in this search space, a lot can happen in 7 days.
A lot of what was required for a site to rank today, I have no doubt will change in the coming weeks, months and years. Just like sites of olden days who ‘set and forget’ their SEO strategies and got eaten by the sites that did pay attention to SEO, China is clearly a growing search industry that’s going to have a hunger for search marketing skills in and out of their own country. And for this reason Baidu is one platform I’m going to try and play in a lot more from now on.
Translate English to Romanised Pinyin : http://tool.nciku.com/pinyin-translator/
Baidu keyword tool : http://is.baidu.com/keyword_tool.html
The greatest photo on the internet: http://www.craigboyce.com/w/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Flying_Camel.jpg