How can you do the best Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in China? What are the principles of Baidu SEO and SEO on other Chinese search engines? How can you make your brand stand out in the Chinese marketplace as we enter a new period of economic uncertainty? This free basic explainer on SEO in China draws from Sunrise Cross Border’s experience in providing Chinese SEO and Baidu SEO services to hundreds of global brands. We’ll provide some context on the Chinese internet and offer some concrete suggestions for getting started.
The Chinese online marketplace is the largest in the world. More than 800 million Chinese people use the internet, and the average person spends more than six hours per day online on their mobile phone alone. That’s twice the average American, and the number is continuing to grow. The internet has enormous importance for many Chinese people, particularly for Chinese e-commerce consumers and B2B organizations. According to a KPMG report, more than 60% of Chinese consumers report researching a product online before buying, meaning that ranking high on local search platforms is critical.
China’s internet is a unique system, not just because of language barriers and unique consumer preferences, but also because of the The Great Firewall of China, a system of overlapping controls and bottlenecks on internet traffic to filter data that comes in and out of China. The Great Firewall poses problems and unique opportunities for foreign businesses trying to get into China. Localizing a Chinese web presence and working on your Chinese SEO can help you stand out among your less China-savvy international competitors.
The 4 Basics: Platforms, Chinese Content, Local Hosting (with ICP!), and Mobile-First
1. Understand the search landscape. There are a few major search engines in China. Baidu is the biggest, capturing more than 80% of searches in China, although it’s losing market share on mobile search to Shenma, continues to face criticism for search reliability, and faces a worthy competitor in newcomer Bytedance which is baking search functionalities into its explosively popular short video platform, Douyin, and Toutiao, an app similar to Apple News. These, along with Haoso and Sogou are absolutely worth considering for SEM and PPC campaigns, but we suggest focusing your SEO work on Baidu first.
2. Your website must be in Chinese. All search engines use a system of tags and content analysis to determine whether a given website is relevant to what a person is searching. Most Chinese people are searching in Chinese, and those search engine tags are also in Chinese. Baidu English search is notoriously poor, and people naturally prefer to search in their native language. So it’s always better to aim for Chinese language searches and have rich, well-translated, idiomatically sound Chinese content. Generate that content in house
3. Host your Chinese website or landing page locally, with an ICP license. You should have a .cn Chinese domain name. Chinese search platforms prefer locally hosted sites, and load times for locally hosted sites are almost always faster. If you host on an international .Com, .org, .edu domain, Chinese search platforms will rank you lower than a similar site hosted locally.
Get a Chinese Internet Content Provider (ICP) license. ICP is essentially a permit from the Chinese government allowing your website to operate. Technically, it’s legally required in China, so if you don’t have an ICP license, your website might be blocked from operating on the Chinese internet, will almost certainly have higher bounce rates in China, and will face obstacles down the road if you ever want to run PPC advertisements. Only companies registered in China are able to apply for ICP licenses, so working with a local partner is critical for your success. You might consider your trade partner, or an ad agency like Sunrise Cross Border. The Chinese government occasionally blocks foreign content held on servers abroad, and sometimes innocent content can be blocked by algorithmic filtering. Once you’re blocked, there’s no appeal, and there’s very little you can do to get unblocked. And even if you’re not blocked, it’s quite likely that your media and integrations like forms and e-commerce plugins will load very slowly, if at all. You can check if your site is blocked here and check up on load times here, but just remember that your media and plugins might be much slower!
4. Be (extra) sure that your website is mobile optimized. The majority of Chinese peoples’ screentime is on mobile, and Baidu includes mobile optimization in its algorithms. And even if you manage to climb search rankings, the average Chinese user will have a bad experience on your site unless its designed from the perspective of “mobile first”. This is a shift in perspective, since we usually work on computers, but never forget that this probably isn’t true of your users!
Once You're Set Up
Once you have this baseline established, it’s time to begin to grow your profile and move up the search engine rankings.
5. Make sure you use Chinese language content wherever you can. This includes in the alt text for images, tags, titles, and other places you might not expect.
6. You must have original content, not content plagiarized from elsewhere. Plagiarism is widespread on the Chinese internet, and Chinese search engines will deprioritize content they see copied elsewhere.
7. Don’t put important content in iFrames. The search engine scrapers will find it more difficult to find this content, so you will not get the benefits of it in your rankings.
8. Your website should generate backlinks, links from other websites to yours. The higher quality and quantity of these backlinks, the better. This will come organically from effective content and from engagement on other parts of the Chinese internet. It will also come from posting about your product on different platforms to generate conversation and references.
9. Seed discussion about yourself on Chinese platforms. Successful Baidu SEO means you need to generate a conversation online about your product, highlighting the great features of your company, and drawing in organic users to engage with it. This conversation will not happen on its own. A successful enterprise will be proactive and start a conversation on its own (with links to pages you want to boost!). Baidu, for example, is not just a search engine. It also has a small galaxy of affiliated services, ranging from Baike (a local Wikipedia-like service), Zhidao (Q&A like Quora), Tieba (a massive forum, akin to Reddit), Baijiahao (a news aggregator), and many others. Baidu prioritizes these products in its search rankings, somewhat self-servingly so. While this may not yield the highest quality information for users, ranking high on Baidu means playing by its rules, so you should start up discussions about your products and company and work with your ad agency or local partner to bring out the best in these discussions. Doing this work, or having an agency like Sunrise Cross Border do so also allows you to monitor the state of discussion about your brand on the Chinese internet and take control of your brand image in China.
10. Encourage your partners to write high-quality and consistent content about your work and your product, and always think about how some of your work might be interesting to Chinese journalists. PR in China is a unique field with salient differences from your home market, so consider working with a partner or agency to do the heavy lifting. And of course, user generated content about your product’s features, stories, videos, and pictures are great to have as well. And don’t forget about your colleagues and former colleagues! Having ex-colleagues talk about how great it is to work at your company helps as well. The more Chinese content there is out there User generated content is fantastically helpful for Baidu SEO, and
This is by no means an exhaustive list of tactics and tools, but it’s a start. If this seems hard, or just beyond the comfort zone of your in-house team, feel free to reach out to Sunrise Cross Border to jump start your Chinese SEO. Working with a smart, hardworking, and knowledgeable local partner will ensure your success. Look for a company with broad and deep experience in SEO and digital marketing in China, one which can understand your needs and navigate the marketplace, producing effective and engaging content and driving a positive conversation.
By Nick Caputo and David Weeks